Food has become a right, rather than a luxury, in India. Parliament approved the National Food Security Act (NFSA) in September 2013, requiring the government subsidize food for nearly 800 million people. Success of this program will lead to greater food security for nearly 70% of the Indian population and a political advantage to the ruling Congress Party.

Yet critics fear the program asks too much from an economy “burdened by a weakened currency and a large fiscal deficit.” This monumental step toward food security “relies on an unwieldy network of farmers, buyers, storage facilities, and sellers.” NFSA requires this network to supply an estimated 60 million tons of subsidized grains a year. Individuals receive an average of five kilograms per month. Those occupying the lowest income bracket receive more as well as assistance from state-run programs.

Supporters of NFSA highlight the past success in government food subsidies. In the 2011, more than 500 million Indians benefited from government programs. Delivering 51.3 million tons to those in need, the government provided 10 times more than the World Food Programme.

Those in opposition cite the 2005 incidents of “theft, corruption and difficulties identifying the needy.” In this fiscal year, the government estimates a 60% loss in grain, yet researchers returned to analyze recent government efforts, reporting gradual improvement in food delivery.

This program began at the start of the 2013 fiscal year and will cost the government an estimated $20 billion annually.

Supporters contend this modest increase from past years fulfills the “moral obligation of the government” to protect its people. Sonia Gandhi currently serves as the leader of the Congress Party and stands in staunch support of the program.

More than 100 million children attending school currently receive midday meals and a “take-home ration,” according to the New York Times. NFSA strengthens these entitlement programs, expanding access and improving efficiency. A number of studies support these school-based food programs, pointing to increased attendance and healthier development. The program also proposes revitalized efforts to protect maternal health, allocating 1,000 rupees, or $16.43 per month, for six months.

Maternal health during and following pregnancy directly affects the health and development of infants.

The success of NFSA depends on the strict government supervision and reform. Gandhi understands this and regards access to food as a fundamental right.

“The question is not whether we can do it or not,” she asserts. “We have to do it.”

– Ellery Spahr

Sources: TIME, New York Times
Photo: Commodity Online

By 2028, India’s population will rise to about 1.45 billion people, overtaking China as the worlds most populated country. Currently, 69 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people live on less than $2 per day. This means families are struggling to provide basic human needs, often living on the streets or creating entire slum villages out of scrap material.

India’s expansive population and unequal distribution of economic opportunity has led to alarming levels of hunger and malnutrition.

The Global Hunger Index 2013, developed by the International Food Policy Research Institute along with Wealthungerhilfe, Institute of Development Studies and Concern Worldwide, ranks India 105 out of 120 countries.  This ranking is based on indicators of undernourishment, children under five underweight and child mortality of which India reported 17.5 percent, 40.2 percent and 6.1 percent, respectively.

Due to widespread poverty, hunger and perhaps, political gamesmanship, India has enacted the National Food Security Act (NFSA.)  This ambitious and controversial piece of legislation aims to supply nearly 800 million people with monthly food grains.  This includes 75 percent of the rural population and 50 percent of the urban population.

The monthly allotment is 5 kilograms of a combination of wheat, rice and coarse grains at approximately $.05, $.03 and $.02 per kilogram, respectively.  Those deemed extreme cases, about 24 million people, would receive up to 35 kilograms of food grains per month.  To coincide with these additional welfare distributions, the new law also designates that pregnant women will also receive one free meal daily until 6 months after childbirth.

Women will also receive a maternity benefit of Rupees 6,000 ($98.)

Under the law, children up to the age of fourteen will receive a free meal.  It also requires the State Government identify children who suffer from malnutrition and provide them with free meals.

Critics of the new law raise the question of whether the NFSA is the proper response the India’s hunger problem. Spending even more money on welfare during a period where the rupee has depreciated could be detrimental to the nation’s economy.

Another critical issue that the central government must address is the current food delivery system.  Although the new law calls for reforms of the Public Distribution System, the government must ensure that a majority of the food will reach the intended beneficiaries.  Difficulties in identifying the most needy as well as rampant corruption contributed to only 40 percent of distributed food grains reaching their target destination in 2005.

This historic effort to combat hunger within one of the poorest nations in the world should serve as an inspiration to other countries.  Despite the vast amount of obstacles and the sheer number of impoverished people, India has decided access to food is a right not a privilege.

Sunny Bhatt

Sources: Time, International Food Policy Research Institute, USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, India Code