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Dear prime minister, how about food security in India?

The Op-ed page of my favourite Indian daily, The Hindu, carried a food security appeal this morning, a letter to the Indian Prime Minister. It came from a group of academics who’ve worked on food security research for the poorest people in the country, to improve and refine the National Food Security Act.

Bureaucratic boxes put these people under the category of ‘Below the Poverty Line’. They are called BPL card holders. Which now entitles them, in some states, to subsidized or free food grains – rice or wheat, the staple cereal consumed by most Indians, equivalent to potatoes or pasta in the West, and dals or pulses, the protein provider for the poor in India since time immemorial. At around Rs.100 ($2.25) per kilo, these days, dals have become a luxury for the poor.

Pulses and grains. Photo by Meena Kadri under a CC licence.

Some economists recently suggested it might be simpler to give cash directly to the poor instead of the food grains now distributed through a public distribution system throughout the country. The idea apparently came from Brazil.

Our policy-making economists insist the direct cash payment is more effective. The academics, students and professors from social studies departments of reputable institutions carried out an intensive survey which revealed that most poor people have vetoed the idea. Food makes more sense, they say.

There are several reasons for this. Cash often goes into the hands of the men, and then into alcohol. It can be frittered away or misused in other ways, but generally, might be diverted from the primary purpose of food for the family. If people live in remote rural areas, buying food from shops far away is difficult. Traders raise the prices when there are shortages of any kind.

If cash transfers become the norm instead of subsidized food, banks are considered unreliable, unhelpful and untrustworthy (does that sound familiar in every corner of the world?). The study team who’ve toured the remotest corners of India have a host of suggestions for improving the food distribution system and their report highlighted many positive developments.

What really struck a chord though, was the fact that the situation of the poor in India resonated strongly with a report my husband Stan and I wrote in 1994. It was called ‘Across the Geographical Divide,’ at the invitation of the Directory of Social Change and the Charities Advisory Trust, UK.

People from Easterhouse near Glasgow had identical problems in 1994. Food in the poorest areas was far more expensive than in big cities. The quality of food available in small local shops was poor, but dearer. There was far less choice and people had to go long distances, paying more for transport.

Families ate lots of white bread and chips with hardly any fruit and veg. The children were shorter and less nourished than their grandparents. The weekly cheque received by men went mostly to the pub and for cigarettes. Women spent more on food and family shopping than men.

Economy of scale is the excuse everywhere in the world. Wealthier people pay less because they can afford to buy more, in bulk, whereas the poor buy little packets for a few days or a week and pay more.

A woman on benefit told us she considered African women far worse off because they had to carry water on their heads instead of turning on a tap. Then she marched in for advice. Her water supply had been shut off because she couldn’t pay her water bill. Privatization had come into its own. The BBC director (on a fairly fancy salary), interviewing the woman on benefit, paid less for her water in London than the woman on the council estate! C’est la vie.

And it’s the same all over the world.

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