Can India feed its poor?

Wheat harvest in Rajasthan during Diwali last year

Wheat harvest in Rajasthan during Diwali last year

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the monsoon issue of Chalo! magazine. The Food Security bill was signed into law in September.

Malnutrition. Hunger. Starvation.

These words are a sad fact of life in India and often the first words that newly arriving expats confront as they motor from the airport to their new homes. These words are everywhere and conjure horrific images of women begging on the streets and children chewing on moldy Parle biscuits.

As I write this column in early August, the Food Security bill has come up for debate (and been tabled for the moment) in the Lok Sabna. The bill was signed by President Mukherjee in July and is the most ambitious food distribution program in history. It proposes to reach approximately 750 million people in India, more than twice the population of the U.S., a staggering figure.

Why was the bill proposed?

One-third of the world’s poor live in India. By most estimates, about half of all children under 5 in India suffer from some form of malnutrition. Malnutrition is also the leading cause of death among children under 6. While India leads in food exports, the poorest people here starve. The bill is meant to help get affordable food to those who need it.

What is the program’s purpose?

The Food Security bill proposes to provide rice, wheat, and millet at government subsidized rates of between 1 to 3 rupees/kg to the poorest of India’s people. The maximum personal allowance would be 5 kg/month. The typical market cost for these foodstuffs averages from 25 to 30 rupees/kg. The food bill prices represent less than 10 percent of market value, and the hope is that lower prices will make the food affordable.

Who does the program help?

The program is designed to help the poorest of India’s poor receive basic staples at an affordable price. Most estimates are that 75 percent of the population will be eligible under the program. The majority will come from rural areas, while about half will be drawn from urban areas like Mumbai. In an effort to improve the status of women, the bill also proposes that women be considered heads of household and be responsible for receiving the family’s grain allocations.

How is eligibility determined?

The eligibility criteria are left to the states and union territories. This aspect of the bill has been heavily criticized. News reports indicate that the topic will arise during the debate.

How does the program work?

The government will use its existing fair-price shops to distribute the grain. Many critics claim that these shop owners are corrupt and will horde the grain rather than distribute to the intended beneficiaries. Current conservative estimates are that about 40% of the grains produced in India rots in silos unused. Corruption accounts for much of this shrinkage.

When will the program start?

The start date for the program is unclear. Even if the bill passes during the current monsoon session, it is doubtful the program would begin immediately.

What do people think about the bill?

People agree that hunger must be eliminated to ensure that India continues to thrive as the world’s fourth largest economy, but not everyone agrees this particular approach will work. While some expats, like Liz Wilder, hail the bill saying, “It’s about time!”  Others like Kim Murch think “the logistics are staggering even if everything is working perfectly.”

Many Indians, like Shiladitya Guha, express skepticism about the bill’s timing for a government facing elections in the coming year, and ask, “Why are such initiatives taken only before elections?” Nevertheless, with so much of the population below the poverty line (or BPL as it is called here), most people feel that something must be done.

Some, like Times columnist Chetan Bhagat, argue that the bill does nothing to eliminate poverty. He argues that real poverty elimination begins through economic empowerment of poor people, not through handouts that do nothing to improve the poor’s overall livelihood. But, he also concedes that the bill is unopposable because to oppose it means you are anti-poor.

I may need to agree with him. Let’s take a look at an NGO like the Foundation for Mother and Child Health, which Mumbai Connexions supports. When I had a meeting several months ago with Rosie and Pia, I asked about the impact of the Nutribars that we expat women make in Powai. Pia said the Nutribars are wonderful, but they are only an emergency measure. The real gains in eliminating hunger begin in the kitchen. The foundation sees a greater improvement in beneficiaries who attend their cooking classes than those who receive only Nutribars. Why? Because, to paraphrase a popular proverb, “Give a woman a Nutribar, and feed her child for a day. Teach a woman to cook and feed her entire family for a lifetime.”

The real gains are made when women are given the skills they need to succeed. Education. Empowerment. These are the solutions to India’s poverty problem, not cheap food that will threaten to have a negative impact on real market prices and drive people further into poverty. The aim of the bill is to feed more people, which is a noble aim, but that bill must be coupled with other programs that encourage long-term economic growth and stability. India could take some salient lessons from the U.S. approach to solving the Great Depression. During that time, the U.S. government put people to work improving the country’s infrastructure, thus raising them out of poverty through economic empowerment combined with social programs.

As expats, what can we do? About the political hot potato that is the Food Security bill, very little. It is not our fight. It is one that Indians must fight for themselves. We can advise; we can encourage. But, right or wrong, India must choose its own path toward prosperity. The concern is whether that path will look like the pothole-riddled roads we motor on during monsoon or the sleek Sea Link bridge that I love to travel so much.

2 thoughts on “Can India feed its poor?

  1. This statement here says it all: “…that bill must be coupled with other programs that encourage long-term economic growth and stability.” I admit I don’t know any more about the issue than what is written here, but I don’t think it has to be a “one or the other” kind of thing. Do what can be done to feed those who are hungry WHILE finding ways to empower them economically. Eventually, (we hope) they will be better able to take care of themselves and not be so reliant on the handouts. It seems wrong to just provide handouts without giving anything else to help raise a person up out of poverty. But it seems equally wrong 9to me, at least) to let them starve while giving them training or education. The two work best hand in hand.


  2. Pingback: In the shadow of the Shiv Sena Bhavan: A Finely Chopped food walk | Magnolia2Mumbai!

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