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Food Security bill extends food subsidies in India

Food inflation in India is among the highest in Asia and price rises are hitting the poorest.

Now the Indian government has approved a draft law to extend the system of subsidised food. The new Food Security bill will increase the number of people who are entitled to lower-cost staples such as rice and wheat. Currently around 30 per cent of India’s 1.1 billion people can receive subsidised food. This is set to rise to 75 per cent.

The draft law will extend the subsidised food system to cover three-quarters of rural households. 46 per cent of these are categorised as ‘priority’ or those families living below the poverty line. Each family will be granted a monthly quota of 7kg of rice, wheat or millet. These grains will cost 3 rupees (0.06 dollars), 2 or 1 rupee respectively. According to details published by Alertnet, half of India’s urban households will also be covered by the new law, of which 28 per cent are categorised as ‘below the poverty line’. The Food Security bill was one of the election promises of the ruling Congress party and needs only to be ratified by parliament in August to become law. Once this happens, India will require over 60 million tonnes of grain each year for distributing to poor families.

However, concerns remain about how India will afford the cost of the scheme and also over the efficiency of the distribution system. In the past, much of the grain meant for the poorest families has been siphoned off. Regional officials have been tasked with ensuring improvements are made and corruption is reduced. The government hopes that the introduction of digital records with details of ration card holders will help to eliminate fake cards and stop anyone not entitled claiming subsidised supplies.

World food prices hit a record high earlier this year. Last month, the new chief of the United Nations food agency warned that the high prices were not a “temporary imbalance” and could last for several years. India’s poorest families already spend up to two-thirds of their income on food and the rising cost of staples is a constant worry.

IRIN has made some short films on the issue, talking to poor people around the world. In India, the news agency went to Delhi’s Okhla market. Called ‘Wheat in India’, IRIN’s short film shows Udhal, a street-seller of bread, lentils and rice. With the rising price of wheat, Udhal can only give his customers 4 pieces of bread for 5 rupees, instead of the 5 he used to. Making his living this way for 20-25 years, he worries about the future if people have empty stomachs. One of Udhal’s customers says simply “life stops without bread”.

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