New from IHDS

Public Distribution System Plays an Increasing Role in Household Food ConsumptionGuest Blogger: P. K. Ghosh, Associate Fellow, NCAER

     Even before the full implementation of the National Food Security Act, the Public Distribution System (PDS) has begun to play an increasingly large role in supplying household cereal needs. PDS emerged in its modern form in 1960s following increased availability of grains via US Government’s foreign assistance program known as PL-480 and was expanded to handle distribution of grains acquired through the price support mechanism set up the Goveernment of India. These grains are distributed through a network of fair price shops. In 1997 this system became a targeted system designed to provide subsidised food poor households.

     TPDS operates through allocation of ration cards to households in which households either classified as being Above Poverty Line (APL) and expected to pay economic costs of food grains or Below Poverty Line (BPL) or the poorest of the poor, Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) card holders are provided subsidized food grains. While this is a centrally sponsored scheme, it is administered by state governments, which are free to add other items to the list and to reduce prices or to increase quantities. Typically, most states provide at least wheat and rice in PDS shops in addition to sugar and kerosene. 

      Here we present statistics on purchase from PDS shops – defined here as off-take – for rice, wheat and other cereals. In 2004-05, 27 per cent of any cardholder households reported purchase of grains from the PDS. In 2011-12, the number has increased to 52 per cent (Figure 1). The increase was remarkable among the BPL/Antodaya cardholders (33 percentage points) and even for the APL cardholders. While the access of PDS is more among schedule caste and schedule tribe population, the increase is more or less same across socio religious groups as surprisingly observed among all income categories (Table 1).  Access to the PDS in mostly rice consuming states has improved considerably-by 30-50 percentage points between 2004-05 and 2011-12. In the states of Tamil Nadu, Himachal Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka and Orissa, about 70 per cent of the households purchased rice from PDS. The other rice consuming states with 50-60 per cent of the households reporting purchase of grains from the PDS were Jammu & Kashmir, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and Assam.

Figure 1: Perecent Households Purchsing any Cereals from PDS by type of Card in 2004-5 and 2011-12


Source: IHDS I & II

Table 1: Percent Households purchasing cereals from PDS by type of card and Background Characteristics

Population Groups



All PDS card holders






















Social Groups

High caste



































Christian, Sikh, Jain







Income Quintile (Per Capita)

Poorest quintile







2nd quintile







Middle quintile







4th quintile







Richest quintile







Source: Calculated from IHDS I and II

     In the southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala and the northern states of Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh, PDS coverage was greater than the targeted population. In Chhattisgarh and Odisha, where the PDS is “reviving”, 61% and 70% of the population was covered by it. The states that really lag behind in PDS coverage are Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Bihar, which has a large number of the country’s poor. The food-surplus states of Punjab (23%) and Haryana (18%) also report low levels of PDS coverage.


[Based on IHDS-I and preliminary IHDS-II data. Views are personal.]

Rising Computer Literacy in a Globalising IndiaGuest Blogger: Tushar Agrawal, Associate Fellow, NCAER

     Annual Status Report of Education (ASER) surveys as well as the IHDS show that illiteracy in India has barely budged with half the Indian children not being able to read.  In this piece, I focus on a glass half full rather than a glass half empty.

     Many surveys suggest that a large proportion of graduates in India is not employable and one of the reasons for this is inadequate analytical skills and English proficiency, and not just technical skills. In today’s globalised and competitive world, the knowledge of computer and English is increasingly viewed as one of the prerequisites by employers. A recent round of the India Human Development Survey (IHDS) provides some heartening pictures on these fronts.

     The IHDS asked a question on basic computer usage “does anybody in your household know how to use computers?” and if yes – “who uses computer and where”.  The recent round of the survey (2011-12) shows that about 14 per cent of males (age group 15-49) and 8 per cent of females have some computer skills. The good news is that this proportion is quite high among teenagers and has increased rapidly in the last seven years. Now many individuals use internet or e-mail. Among the households in which any member knows how to use computers, more than three-fourths of the young individuals (aged 15-29) use internet or e-mails. A lot of people also use internet or e-mail on mobile phones. Among the households in which any member has a mobile phone, about 19 per cent in the same age group use internet or e-mails on mobile phones.

     Most Indian schools have always taught English as an additional language and English as a medium of instruction generates considerable passion. In the IHDS survey, English skills were evaluated by a simple question assessing whether individuals speak no English, speak some English, or converse fluently. Two rounds of the survey reveal a considerable rise in English skills in the last seven years irrespective of place of residence (rural or urban areas), though they remain low in rural areas. Among men (age group 15-49), 61 per cent do not speak English, 39 per cent speak at least some English, and 8 per cent are fluent. Among women, the corresponding proportions are 72 per cent, 28 per cent, and 6 per cent. In fact, the same figures for the young generation are really encouraging.


Figure 1: Computer and English Skills among Young Cohort (age 15-29)


[Based on Preliminary Data from IHDS-II. Views are personal.]

Is Untouchability Still Practiced in India?Guest Blogger: Amit Thorat, Associate Fellow, NCAER

     The most common response to this question is that proportion of Indians who practice untouchability is minuscule and that too, mostly in rural India. The reason for this could be that what you don’t see or hear and possibly don’t practice, doesn’t exist. Yet in most homes, the tea and food is served to the men and women, who clean our clothes and homes, in separate plates, not used by anyone else or guest! Though not all of the domestic workers belong to lower castes, many do.

     When caste based practices of untouchability is written or spoken about, the focus is primarily on those who suffer this practice and how they are denied access to Hindu temples, public water utilities, made to live is segregated areas, disallowed to take out marriage processions, sell milk to cooperatives, get a haircut, walk without wearing footwear, walk on certain roads and sit separately in public function and at the back in school. I could go on but then I would end up doing what most write-ups do, enumerate the well known facts of life for many Dalits in India.

     The India Human Development Survey data for the first time allows us to do something different. It shifts the focus from the sufferers of this dehumanizing practice to the perpetrators. The IHDS is a unique nationally representative panel data of 42,152 households for India, fielded for 2004/05 and 2011-12. This data is a joint undertaking of NCAER and University of Maryland.

The second questionnaire for the 2011-12 wave, asks a direct question to the respondent ‘Do any members of your household practice untouchability’? seeking a yes or no response. This question is followed by a second question for those who respond negatively to the first, ‘would it be ok for someone from the low caste community to enter your kitchen or use your utensils’?

     The mindset prevalent amongst the upper casts is that people belonging to the lower castes (or even those who work in their homes) are unclean and dirty so they should not enter the kitchen or share utensils, which reinforces the notion of ‘purity and pollution’.

      Figure 1 shows the results generated form the responses to these two questions. It clearly shows that in India 27% of the population claims openly to practice untouchability. Assuming many hide their behavior, this could be an underestimate. In rural areas 30% of the respondents agreed to practicing untouchability. It should be kept in mind that that it is not possible to get accurate responses to such sensitive questions. The urban incidence is 20%. It is possible that in urban areas many respondents would like to be politically correct and hide such behavior much more than in rural areas where such practices are seen as part of the tradition and hence normal.  

     Figure 2 shows the breakup of those who confess to this practice by their social group. It clearly indicates that the most common practitioners are the Brahmins (traditionally priests). More than half of them were happy to share this aspect of their social behavior and religious belief with the interviewers. Interestingly the next largest share is from amongst the Other Backward Castes (OBC), who have recently been awarded reservation in educational institutions and in public sector employment. Next are the forward castes.

     Normally one would believe that the scheduled castes or the scheduled tribes would report very low levels of practice themselves, but we find 15% of the SC claiming they engage in this practice. One possible explanation could be that some of them understood the question as themselves being subjected to the practice and not necessarily the practitioners themselves. But recent studies and anecdotal evidence from qualitative surveys indicate that, centuries of being treated as untouchable has leads to an internalization of the idea and acceptance of the practice, which could explain their response. Alternatively SC household which responded as practicing untouchability could also be from slightly higher sub-castes within the SC fold which look down upon other sub-castes,  which are graded below them in caste hierarchies. It would be interesting to investigate this further by looking at the sub-caste of these SC households.


     Interestingly 23% of rural and 15% of urban Adivasis also responded that they engage in this practice. This is not surprising as some of the adivasi tribes, particularly in the North East,  have traditionally owned vast forest tracks and have functioned as small tribal kingdoms on their forest lands. Thought not strictly part of the Hindu social hierarchy, many consider themselves to be above the untouchables who had no access to land or capital.


     Untouchability is clearly a mindset, which is based on the notion of ‘purity’ and ‘pollution’; IHDS data shows that it still governs a large part of how we socially treat and understand those who are ostensibly born in the lower castes. Having said that, one must remember that over 70% of the Indian households say they do not practice untouchability, giving us hope for the future.


     The same break up across religious groups shows an even more intriguing pattern. The Jain show up as practicing untouchability the most (35%) followed by the Hindus (30%). The results for Jains are not conclusive due to a small sample for the Jains in the survey. Surprisingly the Sikhs (23%) and the Muslims (18%) too confess to this practice. These findings indicate that conversion has not lead to a total mind-set change, that was hoped to be achieved and caste identity is a sticky baggage difficult to dislodge in social settings!


     Our analysis however shows that the practice falls with a rise in education. So while 69% of Brahmin households, where the highest adult education was between 1st and 4th standard said they practiced untouchability, only 45% of households agreed to the practice, where any adult in the household had graduate level education. Education seems to reduce the prevalence of the practice the most amongst the Brahmins and the OBC.


     Interestingly level of household income does not make any difference. The difference between the poorest and the richest household calming to practice untouchability was a merely 2% in rural and 1% in urban regions. Clearly caste discrimination tends to remain neutral to the economic standing of people.


      The states that show up as the top ones with respect to the practice are Madhya Pradesh 53%, Himachal Pradesh 50%, Chhattisgarh 48%, Rajasthan and Bihar 47%, U.P 43% and Uttarakhand 40%. Sates with the lowest incidences are Andhra Pradesh 10%, Entire North-East 7%, Maharashtra 4%, Kerla 2% and west Bengal 1%. Sample sizes for smaller states are small and hence results are  not conclusive and differences between states should be treated with caution.


      The data shows that 70% of household denied practicing untouchability, even assuming many respondents were uncomfortable revealing the truth, this indicates an evolving trend, yet it’s a long road till we manage to erase the practice from our minds and our deeds.

[Based on preliminary data from IHDS-II. Views are personal.]

29 October 2014   

Hurly Burly of Indian Elections

New Delhi went to polls today … I mean literally. Voter turn out is 64% for the 2014 elections compared to about 52% in 2009.  Pundits say high voter turn out is a sign of anti incumbency vote. That may be so, but I also think it reflects growing social engagement on the part of the Indian electorate over the past couple of years. Emergence of anti corruption movement and formation of Aam Admi Party (Party of the Common Man) is just one manifestation.

The past seven years have seen a highly activist government.  The IHDS-II records a growth people’s engagement with government in a variety of arenas. Among the households containing any elderly members, only 17% received any government benefits in 2004-5, in 2012 nearly 31% housheolds received some benefits — mostly social pensions for the elderly. Initiation of Janani Suraksha Yojana (Maternal Safety Scheme) provides cash transfers to mothers who deliver in hospitals and hospital delivery rates reached nearly 70%, up by 20 percentage points between 2004-5 and 2012. Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act has given employment to a quarter of the rural households. 

This increased direct engagement with government via government programs has made government far more salient to people’s lives today than it used be in 2004 and 2009. Could it also account for some of the increase in voter turnout?

Lines in the Sand

            I had never reflected on why I was fascinated by Ismat Chugtai until I sat through a session on Ismat Chugtai at the Jaipur Literary Festival 2013.  There is much to admire about Ismat Chugtai, one of the earliest feminist storytellers of India and Pakistan, born in 1915. She was one of the first Muslim women graduates of undivided India and author of numerous short stories and novels. Her story Lihaaf  (The Quilt), a story about a middle class woman ignored by her husband and in sexual relationship with a female servant led to her prosecution for obscenity in a Lahore court, where she was acquitted due to the fact that her subtle storytelling relied on no word that the prosecution could cite as being obscene. These and many other aspects of her life are enough to elevate her to stardom in Indian literature.

            But India is blessed with a large number of wonderful writers from 20th and 21st centuries, writing in Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi, Bengali and yes, English. I can admire Premchand, Meghani and Tagore but none have the same hold on my imagination as Ismat Chugtai. Chugtai's middle class women are a far cry from Premchand's peasntry that have always represented "real" India to me. Meghani's prose has a power that Chugtai's subtle narrative can not match. So it has always been a bit inexplicable to me as why I Chugtai has such a hold on my imagination. It was not until I heard Javed Akhtar speak about Chugtai that I realized that it’s the idea of India that Chugtai represents rather than Chugtai herself that I am fascinated with. Akhtar talked about Gandhiji’s Hindustani that drew from classical Hindi rooted in Sanskrit traditions and poetic Urdu rooted in Persian traditions. It is the freedom to blend and choose from the best of both traditions that Chugtai represents, a freedom that many of us yearn for.

            Chugtai represents an idea of the rich tapestry of South Asia where religious and linguistic diversity is woven together in a way that all of us can absorb and embrace. Ismat Chugtai’s middle class Muslim women feel like sisters of the Hindu women I see every day, her Urdu is beautiful older sister of the rather pedestrian Mumbai Hindi of my childhood. Perhaps the reason Chugtai holds all our imagination even 30 years after her death is because somehow she has come to represent the ephemeral nature of the lines dividing Hindu and Muslim, Urdu and Hindi, India and Pakistan. 

January 25, 2013

Brave New World of Instant Communication

            A few days ago my helper Anup came to me and said he was really worried about his safety.  He is from Darjeeling but to most people in Delhi, he looks like he comes from North East. With the trouble between tribals and Muslims in Assam and the purported backlash against North Eastern people in other parts of the country, he has been receiving a lot messages to take care and to return home, if feasible.

            We live in one of the safest colonies in Delhi, I have not seen any signs of trouble nor have Delhi papers reported any conflict. In fact, it is well recognized that rumors of retaliation against people from North East are vastly exaggerated. Why was he worried and what could I do to assuage his fears? When I started talking to him I realized that nothing helped. Saying that newspapers or TV has not reported any trouble in Delhi (or for that matter in much of India) did not seem plausible to him. He simply said, “Papers don’t like to report trouble of this type, so one has to go by word of mouth.” Case closed as far as he is concerned; he will shop away from Muslim localities and stay as close to home as he can.

            It was through this futile conversation that it struck me as to how media has managed to damage its credibility – and all with the best intention. As the country has lived through a variety of communal riots, responsible journalism and journalistic code of ethics requires that communal flames not be fanned through intense reporting of various troubles spots. Reports of riot generally do not identify specific communities involved in the riots or give numbers of causalities of various sides. This is a sensible thing to do in order to avoid fanning the flames.  But in an era of mobile technology that includes texting/videos/photos, it is difficult to keep a lid on communal passions by simply blocking the news. The news will get out in some form or the other and may well be far more exaggerated than real state of affairs. It also diminishes the credibility of news media, making it ineffective when it comes to baseless rumors such as the ones Anup was referring to.  Credible news media is our only defense against malicious rumors, spread either by mischievous organizations/individuals within the country or external agents.

            I honestly do not know what is the right thing to do when it comes to reporting communal tensions since one is damned either way.  Truthful reporting may fan the fires of hatred; sanitized reporting may be damaging to the credibility of the media. However it is clear that the code of ethics developed for an era where people could only receive, not transmit news is long gone, and along with it the era where newspapers or TV could tightly control the kind of information that is disseminated. Can we learn from the current rumors to reevaluate our policies regarding responsible reporting in this new brave world of instant communication?

August 22, 2012



Celebrating Sisters

            Today is rakshabandan. It is odd that I am writing about a holiday I have ignored all my life. Rakshabandhan is widely considered to be one of the sweetest Indian festivals celebrating the love between brothers and sisters where a sister ties rakhi thread on brother’s arm and showers her love and prayers on him and he promises her protection throughout life. 

            Being one of three sisters, it was always an irritating holiday for me. Having grown up with a chorus of, “So sorry you don’t have a brother. I guess you have no one to tie rakhi to.” “You can always tie rakhi to a cousin,” “What a pity, you don’t get any presents on rakshabandhan,” etc. etc. I was determined to ignore its existence while growing up.  The last straw was the day my beautiful baby sister was born (who instantly won my 9 year-old heart by grabbing my finger) and a neighbor said, “What a pity, your parents have a third daughter!  Wouldn’t you have liked having a brother? It would have been great for you to have a brother to whom you can tie a rakhi.”  My mutinous mind murmured, “No, I don’t need a brother and my parents don’t need a son. Rakhis are overrated; I am quite capable of looking after myself, I don’t need a brother for that.”  And so it was that I learnt to ignore the holiday. My middle sister had a lovely idea; she decided that she would tie rakhi to her sisters and our female cousins.

            It was not until I was speaking to a friend that I realized I was not alone in finding this festival annoying. My friend Mitali, one of three sisters, has similarly mixed feelings.  It is amazing how many subtle ways Indian society has to glorify brother-sister bonds and to make sisters without brothers feel inadequate. For example, several festivals are devoted to brother-sister relationship;  Guajarati weddings involve specific items like bangles coming from the maternal uncle; when a new bride visits her parental home for the first time after marriage, it is her brother who is supposed to bring her back.  In contrast, there are very few rituals that celebrate the bonds between sisters, possibly because they are seen as being “lost” after marriage. I still remember the time when my father's distant cousin,  asked if she could come to our home to deliver her first child. It is customary to return to the parental home for a first delivery and she would be taunted by her in-laws if she could not do that.  Her parents and brother had passed away and she did not feel that she could go to her married sister's home. Going to a distant cousin was fine since he was a male relative.

            So here is to my sister Parul and her rebellious celebration of sisterhood! 

2nd August, 2012

The Non Story


           World’s largest blackout story is on front pages of Times of India and Washington Post.   Two days ago the North Indian power grid collapsed affecting seven north-central states including Delhi. Yesterday again, Northern grid collapsed along with Eastern and North-Eastern. This time it affected 21 states and Union territories, an estimated 600 million people.

            For me, a larger story has to do with the fact that I was almost entirely unaffected by it. What did I experience? At night when the electricity went off, my air conditioner gave out but shortly the generator in my apartment building was switched on by the guard and I continued to sleep with the help of the fan. When I came to the NCAER office in the morning, backup generator was operating all lights, computers and servers with only the air conditioners being off.  Delhi metro had stopped but I was driving any way. Traffic was snarled due to missing traffic lights but had I lived farther than 2 km from office, I would probably have been driven by a driver.  By noon, the electricity was back in Delhi while many other states were still dark.

            This minor inconvenience is in stark contrast to the frustration imposed by traffic, darkness and heat on 90% of my fellow sufferers in north India.  In some ways this reflects the reality of modern India.  Lack of infrastructure and poor management afflicts everyone equally, the rich have a way of dealing with these public problems privately.  The so called VIP areas of Delhi have abundant water and electricity, in other parts, residents must wake up at 6 am to fill their water buckets during the hour or two of water supply.

            When elites are able to isolate themselves from the infrastructure problems facing the society at large, their incentives to improve shared services decline.  Perhaps it would be a good idea to ban power generators from ministerial bunglows!

This Strange Land of Ours

NCAER's Handloom Census found that nearly half the handlooms in India are located in North-East.


          As the daylight started streaming past my curtains in a Guwahati hotel, I groggily lifted my head to notice with shock that it was barely 4:30 am. In Delhi I have never been subjected to daybreak so early.  This should have been my first warning about how different the North East is from the rest of the India.  Most of us never realize that even time zones in India are tailored to the center and living with a single time zone poses interesting challenges to distant parts of the nation.

            My friend Alaka Sarma casually mentioned that the North-East shares only 22 km connection with “India” while the border with the neighbouring nations is several thousand kilometers long. She might have a point there. One feels a palpable difference in the culture and the rhythm of life between Assam and the Hindi speaking heartland. But I am not sure if this difference is any more than the difference between Haryana and Tamil Nadu.  In Haryana a couple can be killed for marrying with the same Gotra, mythical patrilineal descent through one of the vedic rishis. In Tamil Nadu marrying one’s maternal uncle barely raises an eyebrow.  

            What sets North-East apart is not the difference but our incomprehension of this difference.  I remember Mr. Sharma telling us about the Handloom Census conducted by NCAER where sample size exploded because every home boasted of a handloom for personal use. With the exception of Assam, North-East is one of the most educated regions of the country with very low infant mortality rate and yet, few industries exist and lack of employment sometimes drives young people to “India”, who often return home after feeling isolated and marginalized in a society which has no comprehension of North-Eastern culture or geography.


            Few Indians visit North-East, possibly because it is off the pilgrimage route. It boasts of incredible national parks but they are hard to get to and many areas require inner line permits to visit. Ten percent of the Five Year Plan expenditure is supposed to be set-aside for North-East but if it is really being used, we have no idea where it is going. Moreover, distance as well as regulations have constrained industrial development in these areas.  A desire to protect the rights of the indigenous people has limited the ability of people from outside to settle in many parts of the North-East. A reasonable regulation that is meant to protect the tiny North-Eastern population from being overrun by migrants but one that further isolates the region.

            I don’t know how we can bridge this chasm but perhaps learning about North-Eastern history and culture would be a good starting point. Sadly, I doubt that 90% of the Indians can identify where Arunachal Pradesh lies or which language is spoken in Tripura!

Doing Gender

The IHDS documents little correlation between gender segregation within the household (particularly common in Hindu families) or between practicing ghunghat/purdah/hijab and women’s empowerment within the household.

      I finally gave in and used my dupatta to cover my head. For a whole year of fieldwork I have been resisting explicit and implicit pressure to put sindoor in my hair (UP), wear toe-rings (Mathura), don saree as my daily wear or fish out my gold earrings and necklace (Tamil Nadu). But as we headed out for fieldwork in Srinagar and every single one of our female interviewers turned up wearing hijab, burqua or at least dupatta as a head covering, I caved and followed suit.  

      This brought to mind the research on gender performance that I have been doing with a couple of young colleagues Lester Andrist and Gheda Temsah. Our research based on IHDS-I has shown virtually no correlation between “doing gender” through activities such as covering one’s head or face and women’s empowerment within the household. Kashmir was an interesting example.  Our household interviews revealed young women with great educational ambitions casually donning hijab and matriarchs with dominant personality dressed in traditional Kashmiri clothing and headgear. 

      However, the impact of gender norms on public behaviors and access to public spaces is a different story.  When I travelled through Egypt with my eleven year son, we were both struck by the way in which waiters would inevitably hand him the bill. He was thrilled to be treated as an adult and I was exasperated. But traveling with even a miniature male affords more respectability than traveling alone. Staying in business hotels in India is quite disconcerting. As long as I travel with my research team, we stay in relatively cheap hotels costing Rs. 1200-1500 (USD25-30) and are perfectly comfortable. But when I am alone, this is very difficult.  I am often uncomfortable eating in hotel restaurant and end up ordering room service but even this is not easy as waiters start scanning out my room to get a handle on my respectability. So I often end up staying in higher end hotels with wait staff who are more used to single women travelers. Younger women colleagues have told me that while on business travel, a single glass of wine is enough to brand them in the eyes of male colleagues as modern women who may be open to dalliance. 

      Doing gender is not limited to women. Male colleagues are also constantly trying to navigate difficult terrain. I remember a time some years ago when a senior colleague in and international organization in Thailand was worried about cultural suitability of an expat young female researcher’s attire. He waited until a senior woman colleague (in this case, yours truly) came to Thailand to find an intermediary to communicate this information.  While I totally understand his restraint, sadly it deprived this young woman of much needed mentoring. 

     A few weeks ago Hema Ravichandar wrote a very interesting column on gender in business setting in India.  While noting the safety concerns of women employees and their families she notes some of the familiar solutions such as cut-off times beyond which female employees are not supposed to work and requirement of taxi arrangements for women employees when they work overtime, she notes, `…a well-meaning solution, when institutionalized, can actually end up discriminating against the very group it is intended to protect. A time cut-off for women team members and the harried manager battling tight budgets and tighter deadlines wails, “Oh please don’t assign a lady to this assignment. It is a tough one and I don’t want to get blasted by my bosses on why I have a woman working late.”’

3-June 2012

© Sonalde Desai 2012