New Internationalist

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.

Comments on Dear prime minister, how about food security in India?

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  1. #1 Pravin Mahajan 13 Aug 11

    To me your blog raises two major issues 1: The food security and 2: Should grains be supplied or cash be provided.
    Let me begin by saying that the ‘Indian’ attitude towards natives is that the right to food dole be delivered to them but they cant have right to choose (between food and cash).
    This is the Indian theory of delivering rights!! This granting of right will make ¾ th of our society dependant on grain dole.
    Secondly, it is naïve (height of it) to imagine cash can be spend and grains cannot. In fact the traders would love if grains come to market, as it could be purchased at reduced value, unlike cash!
    Thirdly, to me the Indian (middle class) attitude is greater villain of poor natives than alcohol.
    Just because people are poor does not mean they are irrational!
    Let me explain why do I say what I have said above
    Why cant we envisage India where every citizen is able to purchase his/her requirements from the open market. Why not equip individuals with adequate purchasing power and the right to choose rather than ensuring perpetuation of poverty, keeping them on food dole denying any right to choose!
    If reasonable incomes are assured for any kind of work we wont need these elaborate systems ( of corruption) to deliver dole. The great advisory committee is playing Anna’s role of dictating legislations to be passed by the parliament, ensuring delivery of ‘ right to dole’ and encouraging system (of corruption) to deliver it.
    The bill envisages subsidizing 7 kg of grains per head per month, will that ensure ’food security’ or not is a question.
    Secondly, when we talk of grains- there is nothing like uniform quality and hence a wide range of price within the same grain category. Now what type of grains would be supplied under the proposed PDS to ensure food security is also important question to be considered.
    This quality of grains has a bearing on the proposed modus operandi of the scheme. In case of ‘No Choice’, the poor persons will be forced to buy the available(low) quality grains only. Whereas in case if the person has a choice (thru' food stamp or cash for food), one can exercise choice of picking the stock from where one likes.
    Prof. Amartya Sen has praised government of Maharashtra for their efficient handling of drought (that was close to famine conditions) in the state (1971) where wages were paid in Cash and grains were ensured in the market apart from ration shops. This approach has richly paid in maintaining Human dignity of the poor natives and upheld their right to choose. There were no direct deaths due to drought!
    I do not agree with your statement ’Cash often goes into the hands of the men, and then into alcohol.’ The unfortunate reality of Men (still) owning over 90% of world resources and properties (since time immemorial) does not conform to your statement quoted above. I am not trying to defend consumption of alcohol, but I cant accept the argument that cash sh not be given, just because Men drink alcohol.
    By the by, the per capita consumption of alcohol is highest in France followed by several other financially developed countries , India is not seen even in top 50 guzzling nations. France’s per capita consumption of alcohol is several times more than that of India. This is not only because Indian men are saints but also because alcohol is relatively far more expensive(in relation to average income) compared with many other nations. Finally in several cultures in India consumption of alcohol does not have social sanction unlike in the west.
    Your argument on unreliability of Banks is quite overstretched. In absence of any other equal alternative banks are still the best bait. Your stand sounds like Anna & Team, paranoid and suspects everyone as corrupt but fail to convince how system you recommend will work and will not be corrupt.
    On the lighter side, Mari, do you buy your Dal (pulses) from Harrods or what? We, as dal traders, have barely escaped declaring bankruptcy this year!! The going Indian rate is about half of what you are quoting.

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

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