Developing strategies to end hunger

India Moves to Guarantee Affordable Grain for 800 Million People

Women Process Grain

Indian women and children bundle stalks of grain, which would become more affordable and accessible under the National Food Security Bill. (Photo Credit: Margaret W. Nea)

Last week, President Pranab Mukherjee of India issued an executive order to keep a longstanding promise: the poorest two-thirds of India’s population, 800 million people, will be guaranteed access to low-price grains. India’s new National Food Security Ordinance, if ratified by Parliament, will be the world’s largest social protection system -- much needed since nearly half of India’s children are undernourished.   

Every month, each eligible person -- primarily residents of rural area -- will be entitled to purchase a package with 15 kilograms (about 33 pounds) of rice, wheat, and millet for the equivalent of 12 cents.

India is the world’s second-largest food producer and already grows more than enough to feed its population. However, the country lacks sufficient storage and adequate distribution infrastructure to move its crops to where they’re needed, when they’re needed. An estimated 30 percent to 40 percent of all crops grown spoils before it can reach consumers. Both of these factors drive up prices, making adequate food unaffordable for much of the population. And as in other parts of the world, the single greatest cause of continued hunger is widespread poverty and inequality.  

Critics of the new food security ordinance argue that the national government is not capable of implementing such an extensive program; they speculate that the only reason Mukherjee signed the ordinance is to win last-minute political points ahead of the national elections scheduled for 2014. There is reason for skepticism; the Indian government has a corruption-tainted history of failed poverty reduction programs that stretches back over several presidential administrations.

But supporters say that solutions, even if imperfect, cannot be put off:  the country’s malnutrition problem is simply too widespread and urgent. Even if we set aside for the moment the immediate costs in human lives and health malnutrition is a problem India cannot afford. A recent report by Save the Children found that by 2030, malnutrition will have cost the world $125 billion in lost productivity—including nearly $46 billion for India alone.
While child stunting rates have steadily fallen in other BRICS since 2000,  they remain stubbornly high in India.

The 2013 Hunger Report  assesses India’s lagging progress in combatting hunger, compared to countries whose economies are developing in similar ways. India is the only country among the middle-income BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) that has not significantly reduced its rate of hunger since 2000. India’s lack of progress poses a serious threat to the world’s chances of achieving the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target of cutting extreme global hunger in half by the end of 2015. Hunger and poverty in India already weigh heavily in global statistics, and India’s impact on global statistics will only increase as it overtakes China to become the most populous country in the world.

MDGs aside, social protection programs such as the National Food Security Ordinance make key investments in future generations that can pay off later in higher national productivity and a more capable workforce. Research shows that every dollar invested in proper nutrition -- particularly in proven and cost-effective interventions designed to prevent malnutrition among pregnant women and children in the 1,000-day window between pregnancy and age 2 -- can generate as much as $138 in better health and increased productivity for a national economy.  

India is financing its own poverty reduction programs, and it can afford to. The new food security ordinance, though worthy of skepticism, is an opportunity for the country to make food security possible for a huge number of people at risk of hunger. It’s on a globally game-changing scale. If this initiative succeeds, the payoffs would be enormous. That’s why it must be accompanied by an unwavering commitment to transparency and the increased investment in the infrastructure that will make it possible.

To learn more about reducing hunger and malnutrition in India, see chapter 3 of the 2013 Hunger Report, Within Reach: Global Development Goals

Derek Schwabe


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