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From famines to food security

india Updated: Mar 01, 2013 02:23 IST
Zia Haq
Zia Haq
Hindustan Times
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In 2009, when India faced its worst drought in three decades, the country managed to produce a million more tonne of foodgrains than it did in 2007, a normal year. That's both an achievement and a failure.

It's not enough to grow more food - as India has been able to do - but to distribute it well, which the country hasn't accomplished. The UPA's flagship food security bill aims to make food aid a legal right and the finance minister has pledged Rs 10,000 crore towards rolling it out.

The food bill, which stems from a Congress poll promise, is the second of two large welfare legislations of the UPA government. The previous one, the popular rural jobs scheme NREGA, helped propel the Congress-led coalition to a second term, analysts say.

"Going by (what is) known and judging the future by (politics of) the past, the food law may help the Congress. But these things do not work every single time and to the same extent," said political analyst Inder Malhotra.

The food bill proposes monthly food handouts of 5kg for every entitled person, or 25kg for a family of five, the average size of an Indian family, potentially costing the government Rs 20,000 crore more than current food aid expenses of Rs 1 lakh crore.

The bill has sparked fiscal anxiety, given the 4.8% target for bridging the expenditure-revenue gap. The food bill has been accused of being capable of doing all that the slowdown hasn't: break the back of an economy still up and running.

However, it has the powerful backing of Congress chief Sonia Gandhi. The party is banking on the bill to boost its ratings ahead of a 2014 general election.

The very idea of cheap food for 67% of the population, or 800 million people, can cheer up voters.

The country has been able to sharply raise its grain output, helping avoid a scary "Malthusian world" of food production failing to keep pace with population. From about 50 million tonne in 1950-51, harvests are estimated to be 250 million tonne this year, a touch lower than last year's record 259 million tonne.

In 1943, the Bengal famine, after a missed monsoon, killed an estimated four million. "In the British period, drought was a word for famines," Planning Commission member Abhijit Sen said.

Though droughts no longer spell disasters, hunger in India is scary. The 2009 India Hunger Index found food-bowl Punjab ranking below Gabon and Honduras. No state showed "low-hunger" levels .

The economic survey has said that India needed to "reconsider traditional instruments" of food management to improve the situation.