In a major step aimed at addressing malnutrition in India, the cabinet has given the nod to the National Food Security Bill to be produced in the current session of the parliament.
The draft bill is set to offer significant government subsidies for staples like rice and wheat for India’s poorest citizens, and effectively gives a legal right to food for roughly two-thirds of the country's 1.2 billion people.
A recent World Bank report said the prevalence of underweight children in India is among the highest in the world, and nearly double that of sub-Saharan Africa, a situation it says has dire consequences for mobility, mortality, productivity and economic growth.Almost half of young children in India are estimated to be malnourished, and the country ranked 67th out of 81 nations in the 2011 Global Hunger Index, below Rwanda.
Under the bill, about three quarters of the rural population and half of the urban population will be offered subsidized grain. But assisting such large numbers comes with a hefty price tag, and will require the government to secure an estimated 15 million tons of additional grain each year.
According to the Wall Street Journal, “this will cause food subsidies to balloon to an estimated 949.73 billion rupees ($18.05 billion) in the first year of implementing the food security program, up from around 673 billion rupees now. The government will also need an investment of 1.1 trillion rupees to boost farm output over next few years.”
Implementing the Food Security Bill was a central electoral promise of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government when it was returned to power in 2009. The legislation is also said to have the personal backing of Congress President Sonia Gandhi, a fact that reportedly helped overcome reservations among junior members of the UPA.
However, some critics question the timing of such massive investment at a time when the economy looks to be slowing. New figures show industrial production fell 5.1 percent in October, whilethe government has revised its growth projection for the economy in 2011-12 down to 7.5 percent, from an earlier forecast of around 9 percent.
“Measures that should have been decided on grounds of economic policies are being worked out on the basis of political calculations,” the Wall Street Journal quoted Chintamani Mahapatra, a professor of political science at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, as saying.
With elections in five crucial states – Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttrakhand, Goa and Manipur – slated for early next year, pro-poor measures are seen as likely to give a government mired in one corruption scandal after another a significant electoral boost. The UPA likely hopes to repeat the success of its job guarantee program, popularly known as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, which was launched in 2007 and is widely credited as having secured the government another term.
The Food Security Bill may also be an attempt to deflect growing pressure over the anti-corruption drive currently led by civil society activist Anna Hazare, whose popular demonstrations have had the government on the back foot.