Skip to main content

India launches ambitious food aid program to feed millions

By Peter Shadbolt, for CNN
July 4, 2013 -- Updated 1130 GMT (1930 HKT)
India has had bumper harvests in recent years, leading to grain rotting in silos even though millions are malnourished.
India has had bumper harvests in recent years, leading to grain rotting in silos even though millions are malnourished.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • India launches ambitious $22 billion a year food aid program
  • Subsidies will provide hundreds of millions people with subsidized grain
  • India's record on malnutrition still on par with Sub-Saharan Africa
  • Nearly half of India's children suffer from malnutrition of some sort

(CNN) -- Most people might know modern India for its rising billionaire class, its Bangalore-based information technology hub and its Bollywood celebrity culture.

But beneath the outward signs of prosperity, India is still one of the most malnourished nations on the planet.

According to the 2012 Global Hunger Index from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), India -- despite being one of the world's largest producers of food -- ranks as low 65 on a list of 79 countries on the index.

The Indian government this week launched an ambitious fight back against food distribution problems that -- alongside countries like Bangladesh and Timor-Leste -- have put it near the top of the list for underweight children under the age of five.

Even by the Indian government's own measure, nearly half of India's children suffer from malnutrition of some sort.

The $22 billion-a-year welfare scheme aims to sell subsidized wheat and rice to 67% of its 1.2 billion people. The scheme will massively expand an existing program that provides food to 218 million people.

Thousands still missing in India
Massive rescue effort continues in India
Survivors of India floods recount horror

Under the National Food Security Bill, 75% of rural dwellers and 50% of the urban population would get five kilograms of grain per month at the subsidized prices of 3 rupees (US5 cents) for rice and 2 rupees per kilo for wheat and 1 rupee per kilo for coarse grains to be fixed for a period of three years.

The existing Antyodaya Ann Yojana (AAY), which targets the poorest of the poor, would continue to distribute 35 kilograms of grain per month to those households.

Pregnant women and lactating mothers would get a maternity benefit payment of 6,000 rupees (US$99), while children aged six months to 14 years would get take-home rations or be provided with hot cooked food.

Subsidies would also extend to Indian states and territories that run low on grain and there would be central government assistance towards the cost of intra-state transportation and handling of grains.

Critics, however, say that targeting the subsidized grain is likely to be one of the ambitious bill's biggest headaches. Distribution through the India's infamously corrupt state-owned ration shops could see much of the subsidized grain siphoned off to be sold for market prices elsewhere.

Others say the sheer scale of the subsidy will strain government finances. The Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices, part of the Ministry of Agriculture, said in a report that the cost of India's food program is likely to balloon to 6.82 trillion rupees ($126 billion) in its first three years, meaning the government would have to budget almost double its projected food subsidy each year.

Much of this cost would be associated with scaling up infrastructure to improve the existing distribution system as well as warehousing and transportation.

India has had bumper harvests in recent years, according to the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, leading to the paradox of grain rotting in silos while large swathes of the population are still malnourished.

If by spending this money you improve the system then that has to be a good thing
Paranjoy Guha Thakurta

Indian political and economic analyst Paranjoy Guha Thakurta said he believed the positive impact of the Food Bill would likely to outweigh its problems in the long term, saying that India would be forced to address problems with its distribution system.

"You are talking about a system which is bad and that's the public distribution system. You are looking at strengthening the system and that, in itself, should not be such a bad thing," he told CNN. "Nobody is saying there's no corruption, and nobody is saying that there is no inefficiency, but if by spending this money you improve the system, then that has to be a good thing."

He added that even free distribution of grain had support among some sectors of Indian society, with double-digit food inflation over the past eight years imposing a greater burden on the poor than it did on India's growing middle classes.

"Indian society has always been an unequal society historically. The food inflation that this country has witnessed in the recent past has made an already unequal society even more unequal," he said. "Simply put, the poor spend a larger proportion of their income on food."

Critics have also charged that the subsidy is the centerpiece of the ruling Congress party's bid to win a third term in elections due in May, 2014, and represents a populist policy cynically aimed at winning votes.

"Of course there are politics behind it, but everything has politics behind it," Thakurta said. "Whether the poor will vote for Congress is a separate story -- only time will tell.

The fact is that in a country like ours with 1.2 billion people, of which anywhere between 200-400 million people are incredibly poor, to have a scheme of cheap food distribution is something that I as an Indian favor."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1443 GMT (2243 HKT)
A captured fighter tells CNN's Ivan Watson: "They gave us drugs... that made you go to battle."
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 1331 GMT (2131 HKT)
A terminally ill woman who plans to take her own life checks off the last item.
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 2340 GMT (0740 HKT)
In a plot straight out of Hollywood, federal agents gain access to a suspected Triad boss' Vegas hotel room by pretending to fix the Internet connection.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 0434 GMT (1234 HKT)
Was it only black and Latino men who harassed a woman in NYC? The filmmaker has found himself in a race controversy.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 0317 GMT (1117 HKT)
The history of human rights often overlooks the struggles of gay people. This must change.
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 0115 GMT (0915 HKT)
Armed with Kalashnikovs and chanting for the dead comrades, women are among ISIS' most feared enemies. They are fighting for their families -- and now they are getting U.S. help.
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1246 GMT (2046 HKT)
Lere Mgayiya put his best foot forward and set up a shoe-shine firm after his career plans fell flat.
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 0528 GMT (1328 HKT)
One Chinese drone manufacturer wants to take away the warmongering stigma of "drones."
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 0312 GMT (1112 HKT)
Sketcher Luis Simoes is traveling the world -- slowly. And he's packed his sketchbook.
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
European states help North Korea's brutal treatment of its people by allowing luxury goods like cars and cognacs to evade sanctions, two experts say.
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 0345 GMT (1145 HKT)
Chinese leaders want less odd architecture built in the country.
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 1106 GMT (1906 HKT)
Each day, CNN brings you an image capturing a moment to remember, defining the present in our changing world.
Browse through images from CNN teams around the world that you don't always see on news reports.
ADVERTISEMENT