…The big problem is malnutrition, not hunger. A recent survey revealed anaemia rates of 51-74% in women and small children. Of children under three, 47% were underweight and 45% stunted by global standards. Protein deficiency is a culprit.
How do we focus on nutrition rather than presumed hunger? Not through ever-rising subsidies on food. Sonia Gandhi wants subsidized grain even for better-off folk. This aims to provide electoral security for Sonia. Don’t confuse it with food security..
..Ajai Shankar, former industry secretary, has an excellent suggestion for self-targeting in food — mix wheat flour (atta) with soya flour, raising its protein content but making it less palatable. Richer folk will not eat this, but poor people will. Such protein fortification of atta could help reduce protein deficiency in pregnant women and children. Ajai Shankar also suggests offering brown, unpolished rice, which has more nutrition but is less palatable than white rice, and so will be self-targeted at the poor.
I would fortify atta with not only soya but iron (to combat anaemia), iodine (to combat goitre) and Vitamin A (to combat night blindness). This will cost very little extra, yet combat serious nutritional deficiencies. It’s not a silver bullet: other nutritional programmes need overhaul and strengthening too.
Brown rice has two drawbacks. First, it can be resold by shopkeepers to mills at a huge profit, so the PDS incentive for massive diversion will remain. Atta mixed with soya cannot be unmixed, and so eliminates diversion.
A bigger objection should be to rice in any form. Rice is the most expensive cereal, and guzzles the most water. It requires 22 irrigations per crop against eight for wheat. Rice cultivation is sustainable in high rainfall areas, but is environmentally disastrous in moderate-rainfall areas (Punjab, Haryana). It lowers the water table precipitously, so drinking-water wells and shallow tubewells of small farmers run dry, and some of them commit suicide.
Any food entitlements should be for basic food, not for the most expensive cereal. A right to rice is conceptually like Marie Antoinette’s right to cake. For centuries, poor Indians have eaten coarse grain (bajra, jowar) costing half as much as rice. If necessary, India can export rice to finance imports of twice as much coarse grain, which can then be fortified with nutritional supplements for the PDS. It will be self-targeting: richer folk will not buy it..
Sound suggestions . Will a govt that allows millions of tonnes of food grains to rot have the will to do something meaningful for the poor ?