NEW DELHI: Sixty-year-old Anju Sharma points to the family’s meager food supplies in her one-room shanty in a New Delhi slum as she clutches her skinny two-year-old grandchild on her lap.
There’s a bag of rice and a half tin of pulses in the windowless shack where daylight and pungent smells from a nearby garbage dump enter through a rusting open door.
“We have food but it’s never enough for these kids,” said Sharma, gesturing to the girl on her lap and her two other grandchildren—wiry boys who appear far too short for their ages of 11 and 12.
Food shortages are rampant in India, despite years of mainly galloping growth and the nation’s aspiring superpower status.
To tackle what development experts call “a malnutrition epidemic” and with general elections looming, India stood firm on a massive food subsidy scheme to feed its poor at last week’s global trade talks in Bali.
“For India, food security is non-negotiable,” Indian Commerce Minister Anand Sharma told the World Trade Organization (WTO) summit.
India—home to a quarter of the globe’s hungry, according to UN figures—passed a food security act in August increasing subsidized grain purchases to feed hundreds of millions of poor.
But it feared a WTO rule capping subsidies at 10 percent of farm output jeopardized the 1.2-trillion rupee ($19.5-billion) scheme, the world’s largest, and demanded exemption from the rules.
In the end, compromise wording allowed New Delhi to accept a deal—reeling the WTO back from failure as it clinched its first-ever trade reform agreement.
An expanding welfare program
India’s new food plan extends an existing scheme to 800 million of the country’s 1.2-billion population—entitling them to five kilograms (11 pounds) of rice, wheat or millet per person per month at below-market prices.
The left-leaning Congress party government’s measure also guarantees midday meals for school children and calls for nutritious food for children younger than six.
Critics say supplying grain at a fraction of market cost will weigh on public finances at a time when the economy has slowed sharply. Other critics see the scheme as a sop to the poor—traditional Congress core supporters.
“The Congress’s DNA is populist. It believes this food scheme will help it win voters—it could not jeopardize its main electoral plank by backing down at the WTO,” Subhash Agrawal, head of think-tank India Focus, told Agence France-Presse.
Italian-born Congress matriarch Sonia Gandhi, who has made food security the party’s campaign centerpiece for the polls due by May, says India must implement the plan to tackle a malnutrition rate worse than in many sub-Saharan African states.
“We have to figure out the means,” Gandhi, Congress party’s president and widow of slain former premier Rajiv Gandhi, told parliament in August.
“The question is not whether we can do it or not. We have to do it,” said Gandhi, 66, who is believed to regard the food security scheme as her political legacy.
One-fifth of Indians are undernourished, exposing them to disease and early death, says the US-based International Food Policy Research Institute.
Stunted malnourished children
Some 42 percent of children below five are chronically malnourished, stunting them physically and intellectually, according to an NGO study last year cited by the prime minister.
“This measure is to address the failures of economic growth—we need some sort of safety net guaranteeing basic nutritional requirements,” Mumbai development author Sudhya Narayanan told Agence France-Presse.
Economists Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze in a recent book argued India’s inability to adequately feed its population represents “catastrophic failures with wide-ranging implications not only for the people of India today but also for the generations to be born in the near future.”
But economist Rajiv Kumar argues Indians need more nourishing food, not just grains.
“They lack nourishment and that nourishment is not going to be achieved with food grains but with a bigger supply of proteins, dairy, fruits and vegetables,” he told Agence France-Presse.
Other critics say the money would be better spent on such areas as sanitation so children are no longer afflicted by chronic diarrhea which stops them absorbing nutrients and kills thousands yearly.
And even Congress concedes India’s famously corrupt public distribution system, which already covers 100 million “below poverty line” families and another 140 million “above poverty line” families, must be reformed to ensure the grains reach intended recipients.
The food is to be allocated through state-owned “fair-price” shops, which one 2005 study showed divert 58 percent of subsidized grains on to the open market.
While Gandhi hopes the new scheme will win votes, many of the Delhi slum residents backed Hindu nationalist rival Narendra Modi, chief minister of prosperous Gujarat state and candidate to be India’s next prime minister.
“You see what Modi’s done in his state? That’s what we want here—we don’t want Congress, they’ve done nothing,” said Rajesh Kumar, 45, waving dismissively at the decrepit shacks and dirt paths.