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.

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Mohandas Gandhi, leader of India's freedom movement, was a tireless advocate for the poor, a commitment that has been embraced by the nation's foremost political dynasty, the Gandhi family. (Though they share a last name, Mohandas Gandhi and the family are not related.) Sonia Gandhi, head of the Congress Party, which leads the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, has made alleviating poverty through welfare a cornerstone of her party. A national employment program was widely seen as being key to the re-election of the UPA in the 2009 general elections, and Congress chiefs hope the NFSA will also give the now struggling coalition a similar boost in this spring's polls. Says Gokarn: "If the UPA does well, this will be given a lot of credit."

Perhaps so, but for critics like Gulati, winning political points doesn't necessarily mean the scheme is sound. If the economy does not continue to expand, he says, the government "will distribute ... poverty, not prosperity. Let the cake grow." Gandhi, who led her party's long fight for the law to be passed, is convinced of its need: "The question is not whether we can do it or not," she said in a rare public speech to lawmakers before the bill's passage. "We have to do it."

Too Much of a Good Thing
To understand just how ambitious the NFSA is, you have to go down to the farm. The rice that Anamika's mother cooked for dinner in Lalpani came from a government-licensed ration shop, known as a fair-price shop, up the hill from their home. But it was grown in neighboring Punjab state, India's breadbasket. By early November, the autumn rice harvest is almost over in Punjab's Patiala district. Only a few diesel-run harvesters still lumber up and down the saffron-hued fields, chased by white birds eating the rice seeds that fly in their wake. Though the state comprises less than 2% of India's land, its farmers grow nearly a fifth of the nation's wheat and about 14% of its rice. Almost all the rice is sold into the food program.

That's no accident. Fifty years ago, Punjab's fields became the beating heart of India's Green Revolution. In 1943, when India was still under British rule, a famine swept Bengal and killed 2 million to 3 million people. Newly independent India's leaders never forgot that tragedy. They adapted rationing systems, like the one set up by the British during World War II, to distribute food. But by the 1960s, India was facing food shortages, living "ship to mouth" and relying on millions of tons of food aid to feed its growing population. The government started improving high-yielding seed varieties and fertilizers that dramatically boosted the production of wheat and, later, rice. In a few short years, classrooms were being cleared out to make space to store grains. To get the bumper crop to consumers — and motivate farmers to grow more — in 1965, New Delhi formed the Agricultural Prices Commission, now the CACP, to set the price at which the government would buy food from farmers, and the Food Corporation of India (FCI) to purchase, transport and store the grains.

If farmers grew it, the government would buy it: the pact remains intact today, though it works better for farmers in places where they are politically powerful, like Punjab. In poorer states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, many farmers don't even know there is a minimum support price (MSP) and are often conned out of it by unscrupulous brokers or buyers. At a grain market outside the village of Bolar Kalan in Patiala, 62-year-old farmer Inderjit Singh says the MSP should be higher, but acknowledges that selling to the government is still more secure than relying on the open market. "There's no guarantee from private dealers," says Singh. "They could lower the prices anytime."

The pact has also helped create a new problem: oversupply. The government cannot say no to farmers selling certain grains — thus it buys more food than it can dole out. Last July the FCI had 74 million tons of wheat and rice in storage across the country, more than the distribution system can handle. To try to clear the inventory, India has been exporting some of it. Other nations now worry that India's food program will end up flooding global markets with subsidized grains, artificially lowering prices.

In Patiala, signs of the glut are everywhere. Bags of rice and wheat are stacked up in old gas stations and in rented patches of land between fields. Along one lonely road, the smell of fermenting grain is thick where thousands of bags of government-bagged wheat rot behind a wall of brick and barbed wire. Ruined food is a common sight in Punjab — and it infuriates farmers. "We have grown all this and it's sitting here rotting when it could be feeding a child," laments Gurmail Singh, a 54-year-old farmer in Patiala who says there are five or six storage areas, or godowns, near his village where food is openly rotting. "It's the biggest problem in Punjab."

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