Beneath outward signs of prosperity, India is still one of the most malnourished nations on the planet. According to the 2012 Global Hunger Index from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), India — despite being one of the world’s largest producers of food — ranks as low 65 on a list of 79 countries on the index. It is near the top of the list of countries for underweight children under the age of five.
A $22 billion-a-year welfare scheme passing its way through Indian Parliament aims to sell subsidized wheat and rice to 67% of its 1.2 billion people. The scheme will massively expand an existing program that provides food to 218 million people.
Under the National Food Security Bill, 75% of rural dwellers and 50% of the urban population would get five kilograms of grain per month at the subsidized prices of 3 rupees (US5 cents) for rice and 2 rupees per kilo for wheat and 1 rupee per kilo for coarse grains to be fixed for a period of three years.
Pregnant women and lactating mothers would get a maternity benefit payment of 6,000 rupees (US$99), while children aged six months to 14 years would get take-home rations or be provided with hot cooked food.
The Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices, part of the Ministry of Agriculture, said in a report that the cost of India’s food program is likely to balloon to 6.82 trillion rupees ($126 billion) in its first three years, meaning the government would have to budget almost double its projected food subsidy each year.
Indian political and economic analyst Paranjoy Guha Thakurta said he believed the positive impact of the Food Bill would likely to outweigh its problems in the long term, saying that India would be forced to address problems with its distribution system.
“Indian society has always been an unequal society historically. The food inflation that this country has witnessed in the recent past has made an already unequal society even more unequal,” he said. “Simply put, the poor spend a larger proportion of their income on food.”
“The fact is that in a country like ours with 1.2 billion people, of which anywhere between 200-400 million people are incredibly poor, to have a scheme of cheap food distribution is something that I as an Indian favor.”