We agree that Rs 5,000 crore is an awful lot of money. But pit it against the fact that it could have ensured two square meals for millions of hungry Indians, and it looks like small change. So isn't it surprising that the Empowered Group of Ministers (EGoM) has turned down a proposal from the Ministry of Food and Civil Supplies and the Food Corporation of India (FCI) to release 50 metric tonnes of foodgrain to the states because the operation would have meant an additional Rs 5,000 crore in food subsidy? To our mind, when it comes to something as basic as food, it cannot be an either/or situation. Food has to reach the people — no matter how much cost and effort is required. Period.
As this newspaper's 'Tracking Hunger' campaign shows, it is not only a supply issue, but also a distribution problem. Foodgrain is rotting in the godowns of the FCI but people are not getting their legitimate share of grain. The Centre was cornered on this issue in Parliament on Wednesday. Fair enough, but can the states — in many cases run by the Opposition parties — absolve themselves of blame? India's public distribution system is the joint responsibility of the central and state governments with the former responsible for procurement, storage and transportation and the bulk allocation of foodgrain. The states have to distribute their foodgrain to the people, identify the target groups, issue identification cards and monitor the functioning of fair price shops. Like foodgrain, this whole gamut of operations is in a shambles and needs to be overhauled. Letting it continue as it is means that we are losing out on two fronts: first, the precious grain and second, the health of the people. A malnourished citizenry will only demand more of the state's already stretched health resources in the coming years.
It is futile at this juncture to discuss all over again the details of how things can be put in place. But these will not be effective unless and until there's a realisation that it is criminal to not ensure food to every Indian citizen and that we have very little time to lose. A debate is on about how much foodgrain to allocate to each person/family under the proposed food security law; the right to food activists are not happy with the government's proposal of 25 kg of grain at
Rs 3 per kg to only BPL families. The government's calculation has probably been done on the 'subsidy' principle. But why are we again forgetting that food is a basic requirement of human life and no matter how much subsidy is needed, there's no way we can cut corners on this account.