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India’s New Food Security Program

July 7, 2013
A boy walks with a packet in a food grain ration shop in Mumbai, India

A boy walks with a packet in a food grain ration shop in Mumbai, India (Photo AP)

The government of India on Friday announced a new food security program  that could become one of the largest in the world. Critics have dismissed the move as an electoral ploy intended to court the favor of rural voters ahead of national elections scheduled for May 2014. But with approximately one-quarter of the world’s hungry, access to food remains critical issue in India.

The plan, issued by executive order rather than through act of parliament, would expand access to subsided food for some 218 million people. The exact structure of the new plan remains unknown, but a similar measure proposed in parliament by the government earlier this year would have expanded food subsidies to 75 percent of the rural population and 50 percent of the urban population, guaranteed free school lunches for poor children under 14 years of age, and provided a free meal and a $100 subsidy for pregnant women.

Independent estimates suggest the cost of the program could increase India’s food subsidies bill by nearly half, to more than $22 billion in the first year. The amount of grain needed would be about 61 million metric tons per year, about 30 percent of India’s total grain output.

The program itself operates through “fair price shops,” where individuals use ration cards to purchase limited quantities of subsidized basic foodstuffs like grain and cooking oil. But the program has been criticized on the right as being too expensive, inefficient, and corrupt. And it has been criticized on the left for being too market-oriented. Among nutrition experts, the most common critique is that the program focuses too extensively on basic grains (rice and wheat) and not enough on more nutritious foods necessary to ensure a healthy diet.

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