Here is a mind-boggling Sunday statistic for you: India is estimated to have more undernourished people than all of Sub-Saharan Africa combined. I had to re-read that sentence three times before really grasping its consequences. I think especially in academia, we are now so used to think of India as an “emerging economy”, a “model of growth”, so used to talk about its burgeoning IT sector and to see really smart Indian students join our universities that we forget about the fact that 43.5% of its children under the age of 5 are underweight, and that 19% of the total population is undernourished.
This may however be one of the reasons that my Google alerts to articles mentioning the “right to food” have recently been dominated by articles talking about India, since the country stands closely before a landmark legislation that translates the human right to food into concrete policy.
The Indian National Food Security Bill has already been approved by the Cabinet and now stands for consideration of the Parliament. It stands to make food a concrete legal right and to subsidize access to food for 2/3 of its population, providing 5kg of grain per person at lower-than-market costs to around 800 million poor Indians every month.
The scheme is estimated to cost 1.3 trillion rupees ($23.9 billion) every year.
The bill’s origins lie in a campaign promise of the ruling Congress party and a commitment to the issue after the 2009 elections, and it is expected that its implementation will be favorable for the party’s position in general elections next year. This is also why it is fiercely debated whether the plan is more than an electoral gimmick to “buy votes“, and whether it is not economically misguided in an economy that is already struggling to control its deficit.
Furthermore, critics stress that the country cannot afford to dole out such unconditional handouts, and that the current food distribution system is marred in inefficiency and corruption, and would require in-depth reforms to avoid leakages and the sale of governmentally subsidized food on the black market. According to them, the implementation of the bill in its current form, which calls for an extremely centralized distribution mechanism, could be a logistical nightmare. Instead, they suggest piggy-backing on existing infrastructure and technology, to use the state-level institutions, and to consider cash transfers as a more efficient mechanism to help the poor.
They also worry about both fiscal and trade deficits, as the country would be forced to distribute more grain than it produces and would thus have to import more. This would also lead to worries about food inflation and a rise in the price of food for people outside of the program.
On the other hand, proponents of the bill stress that at a cost of 1-2 percent of GDP, the food subsidies would burden the budget less than other areas of public spending with dubious welfare benefits, such as tax holidays and other concessions on imports and lending terms given to corporations in the vague hope of trickle-down wealth.
They also herald the significance of being among the first countries to forcefully tackle malnutrition through a state-centered approach, and put forward that “far from being old-fashioned, the state’s pricing policies, legal entitlement system, public distribution and natural-resource management programmes are key to reaching the poorest of the poor.” However, Biraj Swain from Oxfam India (who was quoted before) also notes that “the food, nutrition and agriculture programmes are failing to tackle deep-seated discriminatory practices. Stronger, transparent monitoring by accountable state agencies is a must.”
Finally, this article quotes BH Swaminathan, the father of the Green Revolution, as saying that the Bill is the “brightest chapter in India’s agricultural history“, but must be pursued keeping in mind the ecological sustainability and economic viability of farming in the long run. He concluded with a statement that both critics and proponents could probably get behind:
The future belongs to nations with grains, not with guns.
Having lived in Switzerland, a country with around 8 million people, and currently residing in Germany, with a population of around 80 million, the scope of Indian governance (a subsidy that targets 800 million people?) is just baffling to me. I am on the fence between recognizing the urgent need for action and, putting on my economist hat, the real challenges the implementation of such a bill faces – but at least the debate about hunger is really yielding results in India.
How do you feel about the proposed legislation? Is it an untenable sign of governmental overreach or a necessary scheme to lift the poor out of malnutrition?