India food law: The hungry republic

 
Indian child in a garbage dump India has the largest number of malnourished children in the world

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Will the proposed law to provide cheap food to more than half of India's people eliminate hunger, the most shameful scourge of an aspiring superpower?

The jury is still out on how the $19bn (£12bn) scheme will work, as is the case with similar big-ticket welfare schemes launched by what many believe is an endemically weak and corrupt state.

But there is little doubt that India needs to fight malnutrition on a war footing, and the food security scheme may well be its last chance to redeem itself.

Many believe that it does not behove a country which never tires of gloating about its red hot economic growth to have millions of malnourished and starving people.

The facts on the ground are startling. India has the largest number of malnourished children in the world, a rate worse than the average in Africa.

Nearly half of India's children under three are malnourished. More than half of the tribes' children are underweight and stunted.

India fares worst in terms of low birth weight and underweight children, and under-five infant mortality compared to Brazil, Russia and all South Asian neighbours.

Start Quote

Economic prosperity alone cannot reduce hunger”

End Quote India Human Development report
'Alarming situation'

India also has the highest number of Vitamin A deficient children in the world: nearly 6% of the children suffer from eye problems related to the deficiency. Of the 37m people in the world who are blind, about 15m are from India. More than 320,000 children suffer from avoidable blindness.

There are shocking disparities between states when it comes to hunger and malnutrition. All states have a "serious to extremely alarming situation of hunger", says the latest India Human Development report.

Among the most well-off states, Gujarat - the Economist magazine called it India's Guangdong - fares the worst in terms of overall hunger and malnutrition.

Other economically prosperous states like Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have serious hunger problems. "Economic prosperity alone cannot reduce hunger," says the report.

Indian farmer The results of the previous programmes designed to combat food insecurity have been mixed

The results of the government's largest nutritional programme, the 36-year-old Integrated Child Development Scheme, have been mixed. It provides nutrition to children below the age of five years - children get snacks and hot cooked meals at lunch.

There is still no consensus as to whether the programme has worked. Coverage of pregnant and lactating mothers, for example, is still low.

There are two more programmes for feeding adolescent girls, but neither provides for universal distribution of supplementary nutrition for them.

Then there are India's notoriously fickle public distribution system shops aimed at providing food security to people. Over 500m people are supposed to benefit through a gigantic distribution network of half a million fair-price shops supplying cheap food grains.

Here too, the results are mixed and contested. In many states, it has failed to make cheap food grains available to the poor. Theft of supplies, fraudulent beneficiaries and hoarding by the shop-owners is not uncommon.

Cart before horse?

So will the latest food security scheme aimed at providing subsidised food grains to 75% of the rural population and half of the urban households work?

There are many economists who wonder how India will cough up the funds to finance the scheme which will see the country's food subsidy bill climb to $19bn from $13bn. The government insists money will not be a problem.

There are also questions about how beneficiaries will be identified and targeted in a transparent manner in a country where there are different official estimates of the poorest of the poor - from 37% to 77% of the people, depending on whom you believe.

India's state-run cold storage system is shambolic, so where is the guarantee that some 65m tonnes of food grains procured from farmers for distribution for the scheme - up from 55m tonnes presently - will not rot before reaching the beneficiary? How can the food grains be distributed through the leaky public distribution system shops without reforming them?

So is India again putting the cart before the horse? Without reforming its laws and public institutions, welfare schemes with the best intentions run the risk of floundering.

For the scheme to work, the government will need to target beneficiaries properly and revamp the distribution system. The public distribution system, for example, could be made accountable by issuing smart cards to beneficiaries to eliminate bogus cards and fraudulent withdrawal.

If the food security scheme does not work, economists believe, India is doomed to remain a hungry republic. It is already one of the fast-growing economies with the hungriest people in the world. And it can get worse.

 
Soutik Biswas, Delhi correspondent Article written by Soutik Biswas Soutik Biswas Delhi correspondent

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  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 1.

    Whenever we discuss any issue of public governance, it ultimately boils down to one issue- corruption. I am not sure if Indian policy makers are not are that they (almost) always put the cart before the horse. (Un) success of any "rights to.... " bill is the proof. One can read this analysis: http://jaychatterjee.blogspot.com/2011/06/our-fight-against-corruption-and-anna.html

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 2.

    Published record shows that our PDS is only 60% efficient. Better to give money in form of food coupons. There is no point to promise something (legally) where you hardly have the ability to deliver! We can not subsidize everything with only Rs 40L crore national earning. We HAVE TO figure out few core sectors (food, education, shelter) to subsidize & guarantee accountability there.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 3.

    Super Power ??? HAHAHAHAHA

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 4.

    There is no point to subsidize cooking gas, car fuels, fertilizer, water, electric, public transport etc. These all are for upper/middle class & they must earn that. Probably tomorrow there will be subsidy for cable TV, phone, toilet, air travel etc in the name of "rights". We need to bring the vast majority of our rich people (including big farmers) to pay due tax. We must live within our means.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 5.

    "Success" (in ANY profession) in India depends more on one's ability to use the existing corrupt practices & loopholes (of our system) than on taking responsibility, improve productivity, reform the system & laws, adhere to professional ethics & more importantly, desire to change the system that can enable us to do better, enable us to dream to become the best, even mediocre, in the world.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 6.

    India actually needs free and quality based education which eradicates poverty from base.India doesn't need any food subsidy which keeps public silent

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 7.

    There is a Chinese proverb that says, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." This appears to be the cart before the horse. You can try to feed the Indian population, or you can teach them about the land, what grows best, foster bartering, and help them become a nation of farmers.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 8.

    INDIA NEEDS PERMANENT SOLUTION TO ITS PROBLEM OF POVERTY NOT A TEMPORARY ONE LIKE FOOD SUBSIDY.GOVT SHOULD CONCENTRATE ON FREE AND QUALITY EDUCATION

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 9.

    bheembhagat (#6). India is now having among the worst education (both higher & basic) systems in the world. Check this discussion- http://network.nature.com/groups/natureindia/forum/topics/3340?page=8 . Our inability to see the bigger picture, to understand the value of less corrupt society, importance of "education" boils down to our lack of education (not degree), social & professional ethics.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 10.

    Although necessary but the implementation is a cause of worry as with all the public welfare schemes in India.The rich and powerful families are known to be benefited by PWS more than those in need.The bill is carefully documented but there is an important clause which is'nt highlighted that this scheme can be withdrawn immediately in case of droughts-shortage which is when it'll be most needed.

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 11.

    National Food Security Bill (NFSB) strikes a reasonable balance between providing subsidised foodgrain entitlements for a large section of India's population that needs it & feasibility of extending this right by law. From a grain availability standpoint, there is nothing insurmountable about meeting the goal set under the Bill, slated for tabling in the current session of Parliament.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 12.

    Check the fate of "right to Education" bill. Budgetary allocation of Rs 21,000 crores is considered very low, even in view of the Govt appointed Anil Bordia Committee recommendation of Rs 35,659 crores for 2011-12. "Not much progress has been seen on this front". Although the country targeted 6% of GDP for education, peak of 4.26% in 2000-01 & declining (both performance & budget) since then.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 13.

    Govt agencies have been procuring an average 53 mt of grain (31 mt rice & 22 mt wheat) in last 5 years. Any fears of open market prices rising on account of ‘priority' household entitlements are likely misplaced. Apprehensions should be diminished, given state of the public distribution system (PDS) in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar that house much of India's poor.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 14.

    Implications here are not just fiscal; selling at these rates increases probability to disincentivize farmers from cultivation. A better idea would be to make available grain through PDS outlets at open market prices & separately issue food stamps or vouchers to the targeted population against the purchases they make.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 15.

    This false sense of democracy has become a fixation of India - when basic rights of its people are grossly compromised.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 16.

    One system that the Romans used was to give everyone the right to a ration of food at cheap rates. The wealthy just don't bother to collect their ration.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 17.

    The problem of Hunger,low birth weight,underweight children ,under five mortality , vitamin A shortage and Malnutritition in Indian Children of the Poor is a fact.The rice&wheat stored in FCI and distributed by PDS is of poor quality and will not address the above problems and this is only a Election freebie for votes to Congress party.fraudulent beneficiaries rob the food of real poor children.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 18.

    India policy makers give 3 times more subsidy/tax exemption for its rich (4.6 L crore) than its poor (1.54 L crore). http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Tax-exemptions-for-rich-costs-govt-Rs-4-6L-cr/articleshow/11149543.cms
    Moreover, most of the benefits for poor ends up in the pockets of rich & powerful people. Our ministers admit that people don't go to Govt/police even to report crime.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 19.

    Big corporate houses & many rich people use tax payers' money, nationalized banks as easy &/or preferred source of non-refundable loans. That is cheating/corruption but not black money per se; while India has a parallel economy of blackmoney, worth ~43-58% of its GDP, which end up in foreign tax heavens, conspicuous consumption that include foreign tour, property, buying degrees abroad etc.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 20.

    Many believe that food coupon (rather than food) in Bihar is a success (NDTV). BUT "Bihar to videotape PDS coupon distribution to fight corruption"-http://www.indianexpress.com/news/bihar-to-videotape-pds-coupon-distribution-t/797056/
    The ministry accepted rampant corruption allegations of PDS coupon sale, right from block development officers to marketing officers to dealers & panchayat sevaks.

 

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