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Flawed but ambitious food-for-poor scheme

A $22 billion food-security measure is not enough to eradicate hunger and malnutrition in India.

India's lower house of parliament passed an ambitious $22 billion (Dh80bn) plan on Monday to provide cheap food for the poor, aimed at eradicating hunger and malnutrition.

Touting it as a "national scheme", Sonia Gandhi, the Congress president, said that the food security scheme is a "big message" to the world that India "is taking the responsibility of providing food security of all its citizens".

The plan, a continuation of an existing food distribution system, the largest in the world, needs to be seen in the context of India being home to about a third of the world's poor, where more than 70 per cent of children suffer from malnutrition and about 10 million people die of hunger or related ailments each year. Under the new programme, the government will sell subsidised wheat and rice to 67 per cent of its 1.2 billion people.

Unfortunately, the plan merely scratches at the symptoms of a larger malaise - in the most inefficient and expensive way. There are several reasons why such a scheme will be a burden rather than a solution.

First, providing food grain at a fraction of its true cost to such a large population will significantly strain the country's already faltering economy, with the trade deficit and inflation running at all-time highs.

Experts say the bill, if implemented, will widen the deficit as grain will have to be imported, because the country's own output is not enough to meet the need for such a vast programme.

Second, the rationing system through which the government sells food is rife with corruption. It is estimated that more than 40 per cent of food meant for the poor is siphoned off.

In addition, food wastage remains a serious issue. According to the FAO, one-third of the food produced in India for human consumption is thrown away. That represents 1.3bn tonnes a year.

Finally, alleviating hunger calls for more than subsidised grain: it would need firm intervention in - and commitment to - areas such as education, health care and infrastructure development.

Critics pointed out that by launching the bill the government clearly hopes to derive political mileage before the scheduled election next year. That may be possible. Beyond that, the plan can do little other than to deepen the country's social and economic woes. And that cannot be good for the poor.

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