How to Feed 800 Million People

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Chiara Goia for TIME

Farm laborers in Patiala harvest rice by hand. Punjab state produces 14% of India's rice crop; almost all of it goes to the food program.

Anamika Devi balances on the edge of the family bed, straining to reach over her mother's head to a newspaper-lined shelf above the small stove. Steam from a boiling pot of rice wafts up toward her, warming a corner of the single room that is bedroom, kitchen and bathroom to the 9-year-old and her parents. A few minutes later, her mother Lajja serves up a heap of dal and rice on a tin plate, and Anamika, cross-legged on the bed, tucks in.

Anamika probably doesn't overthink where her dinner comes from, or know that it's part of the world's biggest subsidized-food program. Outside, the approaching evening is pungent with dinner-fire smoke in Lalpani, a low-income neighborhood that trickles down a hillside in Shimla in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. Most of the tourists who visit the erstwhile summer capital of the British Raj will never amble down the steep dirt pathways of Lalpani, where day laborers like Anamika's father Udho Ram live. Ram earns about $63 a month — more than many in India but too little to afford food in the open market. Because Ram's wages are low enough for him to qualify for cheaper rice and wheat subsidized by the central government in New Delhi, at about 5 cents and 3 cents a kilogram, respectively, his family only misses a meal a few times a month, and not every day, like so many other Indians.

India's government has for decades been distributing, in some form or other, subsidized food to millions of poor. But last September, New Delhi went a significant step further: Parliament passed the National Food Security Act (NFSA), guaranteeing access to subsidized food to nearly 70% of the 1.2 billion population. In an unprecedented experiment, the central government is now legally bound to provide over 800 million people — just shy of the combined populations of the U.S. and the European Union — 5 kg of subsidized food grains every month. (The poorest receive more, and states also run their own food-subsidy programs.) For these people, food is now a right, not a luxury, and it's up to officials to make sure they get it. "You can't achieve zero [global] hunger if you can't address the issues of hunger and chronic malnutrition in India," says Ertharin Cousin, executive director of the World Food Programme (WFP), which advises New Delhi. "We could say the problem is too big, and so we don't do anything, or we say the problem is big, but let's try. [This law] is an attempt to make change."

The landmark legislation relies on an existing national network of farmers, buyers, storage facilities and sellers to provide some 60 million tons of grains each year to recipients like Anamika and her family. In many ways, the system works: according to a recent study, in fiscal 2011 — 12, over 500 million Indians received 51.3 million tons of subsidized food — more than 10 times the amount of direct food aid delivered by WFP in 2011. Partly that's because, for most of the past 25 years or so, India has been producing more than enough grain to feed its population. So much, in fact, that there's a surplus: in 2012 — 13 India exported 22 million tons of cereals and this fiscal year will give $26.2 million in food aid to Yemen and Afghanistan. Yet over 17% of Indians are still undernourished, according to the 2013 Global Hunger Index. That so many go hungry even as India produces so much food is due to a complex set of factors including weak governance, urban migration and drought, says Subir Gokarn, director of research at Brookings India. "I would compare it to the homeless problem in the U.S.," he says. "People fall through the cracks."

Few would argue against getting food to more Indians. But not all agree the NFSA is the way to do it. The law, which also covers funding for an existing school-lunch system and a new maternal-nutrition program, among others, is expected to cost the government about $20 billion in fiscal 2013 — 14 as it is rolled out across India. That's a moderate increase over what the government has already been spending on food programs. But many are concerned the figure could rise much higher, and NFSA critics say that more spending on welfare is reckless in an economy burdened by a weakened currency and a large fiscal deficit. Moreover, because the law relies on states to manage the food's distribution, New Delhi's money is only as good as each state's efficacy. In 2005 the government estimated that nearly 60% of its grain did not reach beneficiaries because of theft, corruption and difficulties identifying the needy. "The economic inefficiencies and the losses incurred [in the system] will outweigh the welfare gains you are trying to achieve," says Ashok Gulati, chairman of India's Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP).

The differences over this landmark legislation reflect a wider question facing India and, indeed, many other nations. Should the state invest vast sums of public money to help the poor get a leg up? Or should India recommit to the economic reforms it began in 1991, and bankroll measures to spur economic growth?

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