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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A Leaky Faucet
Rotting food is unacceptable in a country where children are dying from malnutrition. Yet far more food is lost to theft and corruption once it starts moving toward the people who need it. On a late afternoon in Patiala, a group of truck drivers stands around a rice miller's yard, watching workers from Bihar state unload sacks of paddy to be milled into rice. One driver explains that the opportunity to grab a bag or two usually comes in the chaos of loading rice bags onto train platforms before they are sent by rail to any state where rice is needed. "Sometimes we'll steal a few bags," admits a driver, chuckling. "If it's good quality, we'll take it home ourselves. Otherwise we'll sell it."

It's not just truck drivers who nab the odd sack of rice. In the past decade, as much as $14.5 billion worth of government food was stolen by corrupt politicians in Uttar Pradesh alone, according to a 2012 Bloomberg investigation. It's not clear how much food continues to be lost each year, but it's enough to feed a lot of hungry people. In 2005 the Planning Commission estimated that about 58% of public food grains from central authorities did not reach the intended beneficiaries. More recent assessments show the system is becoming more efficient. A 2011 survey of nine states, led by economist Reetika Khera, found that households were receiving more than 80% of their entitled food, except in Bihar state, a notorious underperformer.

But Punjab, a relatively rich state, experiences widespread theft too. "Everyone here has food," says Parminder Sandhu, Punjab's joint secretary in the Department of Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs. In India's breadbasket, even people who qualify for ration cards have enough rice and wheat from their own fields. They don't need their allotted, discounted food, so shopkeepers sell it off. "People don't visit the ration shops," says Sandhu, "so it gets diverted to the open market. That's how it goes."

Another factor why food gets pilfered: shopkeepers who don't make enough on government grains are tempted to sell them when market prices are higher. In Bilaspur, a rural district outside Shimla, the window of the village's fair-price shop is crammed with customers who have come to buy sacks of rice and wheat for the month. "I don't sell my rations [on the black market], but others do," says D.P. Varma, the owner, sitting with a ledger on his lap. Varma says the commission he receives for selling government grains — between 13% and 23% — isn't enough to keep his business going. "I used to have staff, but I couldn't afford them. Now I work alone."

A Moving Target
Varma's state, Himachal Pradesh, was among the first in the country to implement the NFSA, on Sept. 20. A little over half of the state's population will be covered by the new food scheme, and the rest by the state itself. In the past, Himachal Pradesh has done better than other states in stopping theft and leakages; in 2009 — 10, only 22% of food grains there were being illegally diverted, compared with 74.5% in Bihar and 66% in Rajasthan.

Yet things still need fine-tuning. In Kanaul, a village 25 km outside Shimla, the roadside ration shop is shuttered, the owner out sick for the day. It's a 20-minute walk downhill to the smattering of homes that buy their food there. One belongs to Narayan Das, a 72-year-old farmer with sunken cheeks covered in a coarse white beard. Das supports two wives, three daughters, two sons and a daughter-in-law on the vegetables growing on his land. It's a big household, and the rice and wheat he is entitled to buy is "nowhere near enough" to feed the family, Das says. He gestures to the withering corn rows beneath his hillside home. "We work in the field," he says. "We need to eat."

The law's supporters are confident the system will get better with time — by, among other measures, computerizing the supply chain and having more co-ops, rather than individuals, run the ration shops. Some say that eventually moving from food aid to direct cash transfers, which the law allows for, will help too. "Establishing the right to food is not an empty gesture," says Peter Kenmore, representative of the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization in India. "What could happen over the next 20 years would be a refocusing, so that people who are most severely at risk receive the lion's share of the attention." Then, says Kenmore, more food could be given to fewer people, the public distribution system could downsize and be cheaper to run, and "the total subsidy goes down."

That would take too long to help Congress win this year's elections. And it might not be enough to settle the debate over growth vs. spending to tackle India's poverty. "It takes a huge amount of time for people to realize that food is actually a right," says Himanshu, an economist at Jawaharlal Nehru University who uses just one name. "That people can demand food, and go and shout at a person and say, 'This is my right. You can't give it to somebody else.'" And, he adds, "Once that starts, it moves exponentially." There's no denying India's landmark law relies on a flawed system that, currently, is inefficient, expensive and bedeviled by corruption. But there's also no denying this: countless Indians are the better for it.

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