India's cheap food plan falls short on scope, quality

Reuters News
Posted: Aug 01, 2013 10:19 AM
India's cheap food plan falls short on scope, quality

By Jo Winterbottom and Mayank Bhardwaj

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India's multi-billion dollar plan to give cheap grain to 67 percent of its population bypasses some of the needy and does not tackle malnutrition, said the chief minister of Chhattisgarh state, which gives 90 percent of its people low-cost food.

With an eye to elections which are due by May 2014, the Congress-led government last month sidestepped parliament by launching its $22 billion food subsidy plan with an ordinance, which brings it into law immediately.

Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh, a member of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), told Reuters the ordinance should have broadened the range of beneficiaries and distribute protein-based foods as well as rice and wheat.

"If you have to end malnutrition, infant and maternal mortality, you have to give proper, balanced and nutritious food as we have been doing (in Chhattisgarh)," said Singh, who was in New Delhi to address a seminar on food security.

The National Food Security Ordinance aims to give five kg (11 lb) of cheap rice and wheat every month to 800 million people, more than doubling the reach of the existing subsidized food system.

Despite being the world's second-biggest producer of rice and wheat and sitting on huge mountains of grains, India is home to a quarter of the world's hungry poor and every day some 3,000 children die of illness related to malnutrition.

"We give iodized salt, pulses and chick pea. We demand the same for the National Food Security Ordinance. We also ask them to broaden the list of beneficiaries," Singh said.

A government source involved in food decision making said that rice and wheat were staples for the poor and the government was taking care of those needs.

"The ordinance makes subsidized food a legal entitlement for beneficiaries and that shows our commitment. Since India imports pulses, we cannot distribute them," the source said.

Singh said his state government's investment in irrigation, free electricity to farmers, interest-free farm loans and better seeds have helped Chhattisgarh raise rice production to 7.1 million tons from 1.7 million tons in 2005/06.

"If we can do it, the government of India has a bigger budget," he said, adding that a debate in parliament would have allowed these issues to be raised.

Chhattisgarh's farm sector is growing at about 6 percent per year, more than double the national average, while the state's total GDP has grown at 8-9 percent against India's economic growth of about 5 percent.

"You don't get growth by fixing a target. You need to invest in micro irrigation, seed replacement, power to farmers, interest-free loans for agriculture to cut input costs. Slogans do not help," Singh said.

(Editing by Keiron Henderson)