We are in the process of legislating ourselves a free lunch. The law being drafted traces its roots to court rulings that the right to live is a right to live with human dignity. Access to food forms the core of this dignity and it would be unconscionable to argue against such an entitlement. However, differences are bound to emerge over how much food should be guaranteed and to whom. Much before the need for legislation made itself manifest, the Indian State has been providing cheap rations to the poor on a stupendous scale: last year the Centre spent Rs. 56,000 crore as food subsidy. The issue is not that the State is miserly, it is how much of this dole actually reaches the needy. A law that allows any entitled person to seek accountability if denied, unfortunately, does not address the delivery failure.
India has a long way to go before it can get food into every mouth that needs it. First, we need a fix on how many people face hunger. Varying estimates of poverty muddy the picture as do the perverse fiscal incentive of claiming inflated incidence. The World Bank reckons 300 million Indians live on less than $1 a day. Indian estimates of poverty range from 270 million to 450 million people. If our policymakers zero in on one number — and manage to issue all of them identity numbers within a reasonable time-frame — they still have to figure out how to get the food to them before it rots in granaries or is stolen. It costs nearly Rs. 7 to transfer one rupee worth of benefits to the poor through the public distribution system and just over half the total food subsidy reaches the consumer. At this rate, 0.5 per cent of India’s GDP falls off the free lunch table every year.
Then there is the larger question of whether subsidised food is the most convenient option to keep hunger at bay. Much the same result can be achieved by widening the circle of prosperity but the process is slower. Enhanced farm productivity is vital for keeping food prices in check on the one hand and raising rural incomes on the other. The next Green Revolution is waiting to happen if India can stop 1 per cent of its GDP from spoiling between the farm and the market. Food entitlements are an essential means but must become irrelevant eventually for the Indian State to claim any measure of success in fighting malnourishment.