by Anna Diofasi, Humanitas Global
Earlier this month, India’s Cabinet approved the implementation of the country’s hotly debated Food Security Bill that will provide 5kgs of rice, wheat, and coarse cereals per month per person at a highly subsidized price for the majority of its population. The $22 billion dollar welfare scheme - an executive order passed by the cabinet - will make India’s food security program the largest in the world. The 24 million families currently identified as most in need, will receive 35kgs of food grains per month.
Some welcome the bill as a relief for the hundreds of millions of Indians living below the poverty line. One third of India’s children under five suffer from malnutrition, and thousands die each year as a result of the condition. There is no question that the government needs to take decisive action, but many fear the Food Security Bill is not the right one.
Jean Drèze argues that India’s Public Distribution System, tasked with distributing the additional grains provided by the Food Security Bill, is inefficient and will fail to reach the most vulnerable segments of the population. Dhanraj Bagat points to the huge financial burden of the program that will exacerbate India’s already sizeable debt problem. The sudden increase in government procurement of staple crops will likely drive up prices in the open market, making non-subsidized grains more expensive. Bagat also highlights that nearly 40% to 50% of the total food stock currently used for government programs is lost due to corruption and inefficiencies, which should be addressed before the Bill’s implementation begins.
The Food Security Bill’s focus on rice and wheat rather than more nutritious food has also raised concerns whether it can adequately address the country’s malnutrition problems. A report prepared for the Commission of Agricultural Foods and Prices argues that the Bill’s focus on cereals goes against the trend for many Indians who are gradually diversifying their diet to protein-rich foods such as dairy, eggs and poultry, as well as fruit and vegetables. The same report points out that food vouchers or cash transfer programs may have been a more efficient alternative to the current food distribution plan.
Despite the criticism, several prominent figures stand by the Bill. India’s Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, and Sonia Gandhi, President of the Congress party, are both in favor of the new food security initiative. Economics Nobel Prize laureate Amartya Sen is also a vocal advocate, arguing that while nutritional planning for the Food Security Bill could have been better, it will save lives and improve nutrition.
The Bill will need to be passed in the Lok Sabha and Rayja Sabha, India’s two houses of Parliament, before it becomes law. Until then, more constructive debate is needed to ensure that it will effectively tackle the country’s worrying malnutrition crisis.