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India sets in motion the world’s biggest food subsidy program

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DELHI — With less than a year left for national elections, the government of India is out to appease the country’s poor.

Earlier this month, the government used its emergency powers to force through the Food Security Ordinance, which it says will help legally codify the right to food. This is seen as the first step to implementing a law that will allow 800 million Indians to buy food grain at incredibly low prices — the world’s biggest food subsidy program.

This effort of the government may look egalitarian, but there are remaining questions, concerns and divisions within India on the form of this proposed law, who it covers and whether the country can afford it.

The proposed law promises five kilograms of food grains –- rice, wheat and millet –- at the price of one to three rupees (two cents to five cents) per kilogram to close to 75 percent of rural and 50 percent of its urban population. In case it fails to provide subsidized food grains, the government will give cash instead. Poor children between the ages of six months to 14 years will be provided with free lunch. Pregnant and lactating mothers will be given an allowance of 1,000 rupees or $16 for six months.

In early July, the cabinet (the top executive body of the government) and the president passed this ordinance, but for this bill to become a law, it will have to be approved by the Indian Parliament when it convenes in August.

The Indian government, instead of doing a manual headcount of the target population, calculated the number of beneficiaries based on its food grain production. An expert committee convened for this purpose recommended that less than 30 per cent of India’s food grain production should be publicly procured, so as not to distort food grain prices. Based on this 30 percent (equivalent to 57 million tons of food grain), 800 million number of beneficiaries would be eligible.

Biraj Patnaik, an adviser to a commission appointed by the Supreme Court of India to oversee existing public food distribution schemes, thinks that the legislation should be extended to cover every citizen in the country.

Patnaik acknowledges that theoretically even the wealthy may be able to benefit by this scheme, but he says that it’s the only way to ensure that none of the poor are left out. The expert pointed out that in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, which provides subsidized food grains to its population of 72 million, only about 80 percent of its people access it.

“We want universalization because India has had problems of getting an accurate head count of impoverished people. There is a good chance that the most vulnerable groups could be left out,” he said.

Patnaik also told SmartPlanet that the proposed food grain entitlement should be increased from 25kg to 35 kg.

Read the full story on Smartplanet.com here