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Changes in food subsidy system for the poor in India

The Indian government is working on a food security bill which would increase the level of subsidies available on food. Despite generally good harvests, food inflation in India is among the highest in Asia and price rises have hit double digits over the past year. Political backers of the bill believe it will help to protect India’s poor, who spend up to 60 per cent of their income on food.

Last year, the Indian government revised the way it measured the number of people living below the poverty line. Previously, statistics had been based on calorie intake, but because of increasing food prices, calculations were changed to look at household income. Based on the earnings ability of a family to afford one meal a day to meet minimum nutritional needs, the government now says that around 40 per cent of its population is eligible for subsidised food supplies. With an estimated population of 1.1 billion, this means that around 450 million Indians could benefit from the extra subsidies.

However, regional experts say that it is not enough to simply increase subsidies. A system already exists in India, where poor families can use ration cards to buy subsidised supplies of basic foods such as rice, sugar and wheat. However, the system is widely abused. This week, the BBC’s reporter Geeta Pandey, looked at the scandal of missing food in Uttar Pradesh. Here, investigations by the newly appointed state Food Commissioner have revealed that much of the food meant for distribution to the poor has been stolen over the years and sold on the open market. The Commissioner, Vishwanath Chaturvedi, has condemned the level of corruption, which siphons off between 40 to 70 per cent of supplies in the state. Mr Chaturvedi told the BBC “there is no bigger crime than stealing from such poor people”.

Workers on the ground confirm that the poor are not benefiting from the food to which they are entitled, perhaps receiving supplies only once in three months. This means that in a state of 190 million people, with around 56 million earning less than 1 dollar a day, many struggle to afford just one proper meal each day. Mr Chaturvedi says that the Indian government is now committed to making changes to the food distribution system, such as using digital records of ration card holders and eliminating fake cards and weeding out holders who are not entitled to subsidised supplies. If India is to be committed to feeding its poor, the Commissioner says it is time to “act”.

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