Mridula Chari’s “Famished,” reprinted here, traces the history of hunger in India from a famine in 1876 to escalating food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic. The food rations, droughts, and effects of liberalization are really stories of the Indian state’s apathy. Even after passing a law, almost a decade ago, meant to end its hunger problem, India cannot — chooses not to, Chari argues — feed its people.
From Fifty Two, a website publishing one new work of longform nonfiction from India each week, “Famished” offers a richly researched argument about why millions of people starve every year. In the months since the piece first appeared in Fifty Two, the level of hunger in India has grown worse and, as “Famished” reminds us, a state that continuously chooses denial bears much responsibility.
— Alexandra Valahu, Guernica Global Spotlights editor
On March 19, 2021, Parshottam Rupala, Minister of State for Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare, gave Parliament an impromptu lesson in Indian tradition. “There is a tradition in our villages of feeding sheera to stray female dogs after they give birth,” he said in a charged statement in the Rajya Sabha. “In a country with such a tradition, we should not pay attention to some outsider who comes and tells us that our children are hungry.”
Rupala was responding to a question about India’s falling ranks in the Global Hunger Index over the years. India ranked among the ten largest food producers globally, Sanjay Singh of the Aam Aadmi Party had pointed out: why was it unable to distribute this food to its own people?
Rupala said the government had asked for the source of the Global Hunger Index’s figures but hadn’t received it. Just months earlier, however, its own Ministry of Health and Family Welfare released partial figures from the first phase of the fifth round of the National Family Health Survey. It showed that, in at least 13 states, Indian children are more severely undernourished than they were five years earlier.
The alarming statistics, from diverse sources, have been coming thick and fast. Between 45 and 64 percent of poor rural Indians may be unable to afford a nutritious diet. A UNICEF study has found that 880,000 children in India below the age of five died prematurely in 2018. Of those, 69 percent died of malnutrition. Economists have written about food insecurity shooting up during and after the COVID-19 lockdowns. Earlier this month, the NITI Aayog released a report highlighting the fact that eleven states, including the most populous ones, scored less than 50 out of 100 in reaching zero hunger.
This is a downslide. It is particularly shocking because, not even a decade ago, India enacted a law to ensure that Indians would be less hungry than before. In 2013, the second United Progressive Alliance government passed the National Food Security Act (NFSA), months before the general election that led to Narendra Modi’s victory. The legislation had passed on the back of an extensive Right to Food campaign.
The NFSA converted a bouquet of existing services and schemes into legal entitlements. These included programs familiar even to Indians who don’t use them, such as the Midday Meal scheme, which guarantees free cooked lunches at schools, and the services of the Public Distribution System (PDS), which promises grains at highly subsidized prices.
A large section of the population was already covered by these, but the point of the law was for the benefits to be seen as entitlements rather than sops. It meant that when it came to feeding India, the government would not only be responsible but also legally accountable to its citizens.
Yet, people are dying of hunger. In March 2020, the Centre abruptly decided to shut down the entire country and left millions stranded without employment, and, because of no income, no food. But hunger is older than COVID-19, and in the years leading up to the pandemic, reports of hunger deaths were already increasing.
For example, at least 30 people may have died of starvation in Jharkhand between 2017 and May 2020. In 2017, in a village in the state’s Simdega district, Koili Devi’s eleven-year-old daughter died of hunger because she had nothing to eat for eight days after local authorities had cancelled her family’s ration card for not being linked to Aadhaar. The state later said that she died of malaria.
Jharkhand has a robust network of activists who track hunger. Most states do not. So when governments say people do not die of hunger or are not malnourished, the rest of us have to accept it, unless a stray journalistic or activist report from a village or three proves otherwise.
“The system tries to deny starvation deaths and civil society tries to prove them,” Dr. Sylvia Karpagam, a Bengaluru-based public health doctor and researcher, explained. When the state does not acknowledge a problem, it cedes space to civil society. During the COVID-19 lockdowns, civil society groups in big cities got together to organize quick, temporary relief, delivering food and basic supplies to stranded individuals.
But people only step up to fill the gap because there is no other option, and even well-intentioned people are biased, have limited resources, are not accountable to others, and have no obligation to work without discrimination, unlike the state.
The truth is that millions of citizens in the world’s largest democracy go hungry every year, even in the absence of war, famine — or a pandemic. It is such a staggering problem that only the Indian state has the means to understand and target it. Yet, as the lockdown showed, the problem can grow far worse than we ever imagined, and it, too, can be a creation of the state.
The state’s denial is older than COVID-19. It is far more entrenched than it seemed in the bluntness of Rupala’s comments in Parliament. The Indian state has historically approached the problem with a sort of indifference and apathy that dates back to before independence. It was a lesson that India learned from the British: if you do not name something, it does not officially exist.
In 1876, the Madras Presidency was gripped by a famine, followed by a drought. Millions died or were so acutely starved that they became “skeletonised,” according to the historian Mike Davis. The vernacular press reported that the British government in India was attempting to claim that people were dying of cholera or dysentery, as opposed to hunger.
The British, overseen by the dilettante British poet Lord Lytton as Viceroy, did little at first to tackle the crisis. (India’s secretary of state later criticized British officials for their attitude to famine as a “salutary cure for overpopulation.”) Through 1876 and 1877, the administration was preoccupied with preparations for the coronation of Victoria as the Empress of India. Around 100,000 people died before Lytton turned his officers’ attention to the famine and began food-for-work programs.
Sir Richard Temple, the lieutenant governor of Bengal, was sent to manage the situation in the south. Temple had commissioned widespread relief work and a dole while contending with an earlier Bengal famine, in 1873-74, during which only 23 people were reported to have died of hunger. He had been criticized for extravagant spending. The Economist, for instance, accused him of leading Indians to believe that “it is the duty of the Government to keep them alive.”
“Thoroughly chastened,” in Davis’s words, Temple changed tack when confronted with the drought in Madras. Under strict instructions to control government expenditure, he implemented practically inaccessible relief measures. Those who sought paid labor were not allowed to take up work “within a ten-mile radius of their homes.” Rations were provided only if it was certified that a person had become indigent, destitute, and capable of only a modicum of labor. If they did get work, their daily ration was a paltry 450 grams of rice.
This ration became known as the Temple Wage. Davis writes that it provided less sustenance for hard labor than the diet inside Nazi Germany’s Buchenwald concentration camp. It fell short, by more than half, of the modern calorific standard recommended for adult males by the contemporary Indian government. So eager was the administration to protect market prices of food that Temple enacted a law to imprison anyone who offered private donations of grain in Madras.
In the years to come, other bureaucratic sleights of hand were officially disguised as relief measures. To generate a famine fund of £1.5 million, the British raised a salt tax. Between 1877 and 1881, however, the government used that entire fund to offset the loss of tariff on cotton goods imported from Britain and to fund the Second Anglo-Afghan War.
Over time, the response improved partially. The British established Famine Commissions and Famine Codes. The historian Sunil Amrith writes that there were no major famines between 1908 and 1943 after the introduction of transportation and commercialized agriculture. But the damage had already been done. Successive droughts only exacerbated suffering. Nutrition lagged. Diseases such as cholera, plague, scurvy, and beri-beri were endemic. During the First World War, Indian soldiers in Mesopotamia died of these diseases in large numbers.
Some colonial bureaucrats attempted to study the roots of the diseases. In 1918, the Indian Research Fund Association (now the Indian Council of Medical Research) issued funds to establish the Beri-Beri Enquiry Unit in Coonoor. Research from the unit showed, for the first time, the link between diet and nutritional diseases. Wallace Aykroyd, appointed the director of the Coonoor unit in 1935, published influential studies about standard nutritional requirements.
“As he travelled the length and breadth of South India conducting diet surveys in the later 1930s,” Amrith writes, “Aykroyd became aware of the tendency of colonial ‘development’ to mitigate the risk of absolute starvation but to worsen chronic malnutrition.” It was Aykroyd who first showed that the preponderance of highly milled rice in the south Indian diet led to nutritional deficiencies, especially since the diet lacked “proteins and ‘protective foods’ and particularly leafy vegetables.”
When the Second World War disrupted food supply chains around the world, the beleaguered United Kingdom instituted a rationing system that lasted until 1954. It also introduced a version in India that became the earliest iteration of the modern public distribution system. In India, food prices had soared after the recession of the 1930s. There were inflationary pressures — the British government was borrowing from the Government of India to pay for its war — but rationing was necessary to maintain the overall health of India’s industrial workers, who were essential to Britain’s war effort.
“The system began first in the cities, where there was a focus on the working classes of Calcutta, Bombay, and other cities,” explained Madhura Swaminathan, a professor and head of the Economics Analysis Unit of the Indian Statistical Institute in Bengaluru.
The allocation was straightforward: half a kilo of grains per person per day. But India did not produce enough food for its population, and had to depend on imports from Burma. When the Japanese annexed Burma in 1942, food entitlements, particularly in Bengal, took a hit. In 1946, the allocation was further reduced to a third of a kilogram after bad harvests.
These relief efforts are part of the story of the devastating Bengal famine of 1943 and 1944, which they could not help avert. The Dutch sociologist Jos Mooij has argued that the distribution of food was exclusively focused on urban centers and urban residents. Strikingly, the British did not even declare the Bengal famine as a famine, because, Mooij writes, that “would have brought in an obligation to organize work programs or relief operations specified by the Famine Code.”
The war effort ate up supplies across the world, which inflated market prices in India. A poor millet harvest in 1946 was followed by a poor wheat harvest in 1947. By November 1946, British India was importing one third of its ration allocations. Faced with inflationary pressures, poor yield, and low government procurement prices, Indian farmers responded by hoarding food or selling it on the black market.
Just after independence, Mohandas Gandhi argued against controls on food prices, saying that they “give rise to fraud, suppression of truth, intensification of the black market, and to artificial scarcity. Above all,” he continued, “it unmans the people and deprives them of initiative; it undoes the teachings of self help they have been learning for generations, makes them spoonfed.”
Independent India’s first government started to re-examine the procurement system. The Second Foodgrains Policy Committee, led by Bombay cotton baron Sir Purshottamdas Thakurdas, decided that removing restrictions on food grain supply, prices and distribution “would encourage dishoarding without increasing prices significantly.” The government accepted these recommendations and dismantled the ration system in December 1947.
But by September 1948, controls over prices and procurement of food grains were reintroduced. “Is there a single word in the Constitution that imposes on the future Governments the obligation to see that nobody in India dies of starvation?” M. Ananthasayanam asked the Constituent Assembly the following month. There were more flip-flops over the next few years, but in 1957, after a fresh decline in food production, the government reinstated controls for good.
Until 1964, the government set up committees from time to time to suggest fair retail and wholesale prices for food grains. In 1965, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri formalized these committees with the establishment of the Agricultural Prices Commission, later the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP). (The CACP recommends the minimum support price or MSP, which is the price at which the government promises to purchase produce from farmers, based on the cost of production and other overheads. Today, farmers fear that the Modi government’s newly introduced laws will undermine the MSP regime by favoring private and unregulated markets.)
At the same time, the government also established the Food Corporation of India, whose mandate was to purchase and then distribute these items in the ration system. Shastri’s interventions form the spine of today’s ration system, and some of its early challenges grew into the chronic issues that plague the food distribution complex now.
Inefficiencies in distribution came to be weaponized by administrations. On the back of India’s dependence on its rice exports, the US could exert pressure on the government to cut back fertilizer subsidies, snap trade relations with North Vietnam, and devalue the rupee by 36.5 percent. Within the country, the Congress government at the Centre delayed extending ration to states. In the most famous instance, it delayed rations to Kerala, which produced more cash crops than food crops, after the state voted a Communist coalition into power in 1965.
1965 and 1966 were drought years, and people starved to death in parts of the Gangetic Plain, despite parts of Punjab and Uttar Pradesh having adequate to surplus production in those years. The success of India’s Green Revolution boosted the government’s efforts to circulate food grains in the system somewhat. Then, a devastating drought struck again in 1972.
The shadow of “ba’atar,” the drought that is referred to by the year it struck, looms large in Maharashtra. When I reported on the drought in central Maharashtra in 2015, people across districts told me of friends and relatives they had lost in 1972. There had been little to no rain for almost three years at the time, and groundwater supplies began to run out. The Public Distribution System ensured that this tragedy was not compounded by a widespread food shortage.
Ba’atar was a jolt to India’s food security apparatus. After 1972, the PDS began to maintain large buffer stocks, finally transitioning to an agency whose purpose was not just price control. Now, the government began to think of it as a poverty alleviation measure, specifically to provide food to people who lacked access, Professor Swaminathan writes. By the 1980s, around 75 percent of fair price shops — colloquially known as “ration shops” — were in rural areas. At the same time, the government increased procurement and encouraged farmers to grow food grains.
Until 1991, this was how many Indians avoided starvation. Then, along came liberalization.
In 1991, when India was forced to open up its economy, it had to make “structural adjustments” to reduce expenditure. One of its targets was the PDS, which by the mid-1990s annually cost ₹50 billion [$665 million] to maintain. The government and the World Bank argued that this was too much. “Popular phrases in the 1990s,” Mooij notes, “are ‘streamlining of PDS,’ ‘pruning of PDS,’ ‘revamping the system,’ ‘making PDS viable,’ and ‘subsidy burden.’”
The Centre began to tweak the system in an attempt both to promote coverage in remote areas (Revamped PDS, 1992) and to limit the distribution of subsidized grains to people below the poverty line (Targeted PDS, 1997). Yet in spite of numerous policy changes, the cost of the food subsidy actually increased from ₹50 billion [$665 million] to ₹75 billion [$998 million] in 1998.
States continued to control the distribution system. Since they could historically “top-up” with their own benefits, not all states had similar experiences with the revised PDS. In Tamil Nadu, for example, the government had promised to provide rice at ₹1 [$0.01] per kilo as far back as 1967. By 1992, when the Centre introduced the Revamped PDS, which was supposed to introduce the system to rural areas previously not covered, Tamil Nadu’s PDS was already near-universal.
In states like this, where PDS was already seen as a citizen’s right rather than a state’s charity, the backlash to change was swift. In 1997, TN actually had to withdraw the Targeted PDS within just four days of implementation after widespread protests.
Overall, however, from 1997 to 2013, only below poverty line (BPL) individuals and their families received subsidized food grains, unless states funded a broader system. Surveys that tried to identify households below the poverty line were often riddled with errors. The poverty line itself was often laughably low. Migrants, the bulk of India’s labor force, could not access subsidized grains away from their homes, if they even managed to get registered.
Most ration shops were run by individuals, and not panchayats, co-operative societies, or self-help groups. States called for applications depending on how many shops they thought people in different areas needed. Local residents applied to run these shops.
Shop owners, typically people with social capital, often misused the system by making fake ration cards or by giving BPL customers less than their due amount. It wasn’t uncommon for grain to be funneled into the open market or to be sold back to the government for a higher price. By the 2000s, the National Sample Survey estimated that a staggering 40 to 50 percent of food grains had leaked from the system.
When the system worked, it was because of political will. The economist Jean Drèze tells a story about how Harsh Mander, who was a District Collector in Chhattisgarh in the early 2000s, struggled to coax ration shops to deal honestly with customers, until the government changed.
The new Bharatiya Janata Party government, led by Raman Singh, transformed the entire system. It expanded PDS coverage from the central mandate of 42 percent of households to 74 percent. Community-led cooperatives and self-help groups were given control of ration shops, as opposed to businessmen. Shopkeepers grew less inclined to game the system after the commission for each quintal of food distributed was increased from ₹8 [$0.1] to ₹44 [$0.6].
Within two years, people began receiving close to their full entitlement, a change Mander could not previously have imagined. Because of Singh’s three-term government, Drèze told me, the people of Chhattisgarh now see the PDS not as a favor but as a right.
The National Food Security Act of 2013 was the culmination of a dogged policy campaign meant to bestow that right on a large section of the country.
Hearing a petition seeking legal enforcement of the Right To Food — filed by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Rajasthan in April 2001 — the Supreme Court had, over the years, issued several orders directing the government to implement food-related schemes, including the PDS, the associated Integrated Child Development Services, and the Midday Meal program.
In 2006, the apex court, displeased by the pace of implementation of its orders in the matter, appointed the Justice D.P. Wadhwa Committee to report on how things were going. At the time, BPL individuals were entitled to subsidized rations, but customers who were above the poverty line, or APL, could still buy from ration shops at higher prices.
The system was color-coded: a white ration card marked you as APL. In Delhi, for instance, this made you eligible to buy rice at ₹9 [$0.1] per kg. BPL households got yellow cards, and rice at ₹6.15 [$0.08] a kilo. The poorest of the poor, covered under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana, were sold rice at ₹3 [$0.04] per kg on the basis of red ration cards. The ration shop owner received a commission of ₹0.35 [$0.005] from the government for every kilo of rice sold.
The Wadhwa committee observed that there was a clear profit incentive for the ration shop owner to divert more grain to white-card-holders. The system, as it stood, “diluted the euphemism ‘Targeted’ and made the system virtually universal.” This detracted “from its main focus of catering to the poor and destitute.”
Activists had a different view. Members of the Right to Food campaign agreed that the leakages were excessive but felt that the system excluded too many potential beneficiaries. If PDS was truly made universal, then there would be no APL category to which ration shops could divert grain.
Those who didn’t need subsidized rations — say, upper-class families in metropolises — would simply self-select out of the system. They wouldn’t want to go to ration stores because shop timings were erratic, and the food grains might be of poorer quality. With such a system, there would no longer be a need to identify a poverty line. (Self-selection is a powerful idea and we know it works. It is, in fact, cumbersome to buy food through PDS — just as it’s more inconvenient and uncomfortable to go to government schools and hospitals.) People with more resources, generally from dominant castes and in a position to choose how to use their social capital, universally choose private education and medical services.
In the second term of the Congress-led UPA government, universal coverage was the big debate in the run-up to the food security legislation. “Nobody wanted such a high coverage or for so many people to be covered,” recalled Siraj Hussain, a former Union secretary of agriculture who was then a joint secretary in the Department of Food and Public Distribution.
One section of the Congress, reportedly led by then Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, was against the idea of universal coverage, several activists alleged. In August 2013, however, Chidambaram told the press that the government could foot the subsidy without disturbing the budget deficit: the Act would increase expenditure by only 25 percent of the existing figure, which came to 1 percent of the GDP. Economists such as Surjit Bhalla and Ashok Gulati argued that it would be closer to 2 percent to 3 percent of the GDP. (Chidambaram may well have been correct: the food subsidy as a percentage of GDP has declined since the NFSA was passed, though the Comptroller and Auditor General has questioned these numbers.)
One alternative was for the law to cover a specific percentage of the population that needed subsidized rations. Sonia Gandhi, Congress president and chairperson of the National Advisory Council (NAC), supported this idea. Meanwhile, activists such as Jean Drèze, who was a member of the working group for the food law and the Right to Food Campaign coalition, urged the government to make ration system coverage universal.
In the end, Gandhi’s position won out. The draft prepared by the NAC suggested the law cover 90 percent of the rural and 50 percent of the urban population. Recipients were to be identified according to a set of exclusions — so, for example, if their household did not have a refrigerator, air conditioner, or four-wheeler, among other things, they could be eligible. When the bill was presented in Parliament, coverage was fixed to 67 percent of the country’s population. Each state was allotted a different proportion based on its socio-economic conditions.
In its final form, the National Food Security Act promised 5kg of food grains per head per month, under what is still called the Targeted Public Distribution System. It also promised 35kg of grains per household per month to people under severe economic distress under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana. Apart from this, it guaranteed extra rations for children, one cooked meal at school, and also laid down the nutritional inputs of take-home rations specifically for pregnant women and new mothers.
Both the government and activist groups viewed the NFSA as a compromise. Activists were unhappy about the lack of universal coverage. The Centre had to grapple with costs. The NAC estimated that it would cost ₹700 billion [$9.3 billion] annually. The National Food Security Ordinance, which preceded the law, expected an outlay of ₹1.24 trillion [$16.5 billion].
For all his misgivings, Drèze felt that the legislation was a step forward for the country. “At least now it will not be easy to reduce coverage,” he said.
Nomenclature is a crutch for governments in difficult circumstances. In 2016, the Meteorological Department substituted the word “drought” with “deficient rainfall” and “large deficient rainfall” to describe less than average rainfall. The move was of a piece with the tendency of successive central and state governments to shy away from the language of hunger and famine.
In 1966, for instance, the Congress government in Bihar, under Chief Minister Krishna Ballabh Sahay, dawdled over declaring famine because of elections the following year. The official declaration came only a month after the Jan Kranti Dal was sworn into power.
The NFSA is now eight years old. It has not been a cure-all for India’s vulnerable population. Vast numbers of potential beneficiaries remain excluded. Migrants, who formed 37 percent of India’s population in 2011, can only access the ration system at their permanent address — as Indians who don’t have to worry about their next square meal discovered to their horror in 2020 and 2021. Another year of nutritional vulnerability threatens an entire generation of children.
So how many people should the government’s schemes cover? If guaranteeing nutrition to 67 percent of India’s population hasn’t stopped millions from going hungry, should the target be revised? If the government has to work within existing boundaries, then how can that work more effectively?
There’s little national data available about the extent to which people are able to access the PDS. Based on 2011 census data, the NFSA should have covered 810 million people. This number should have increased to 922 million by 2020, the development economist Reetika Khera and independent researcher Anmol Somanchi argued in a study published last year.
That study aimed to calculate how many people truly had access to the PDS during the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown. According to Khera and Somanchi’s calculations, “with 900 million people getting PDS coverage as per NFSA norms, and 51 million getting less support than NFSA norms from the PDS, over 400 million are left to manage without any food support from the government.”
“We don’t know whether the National Food Security Act or biometrics (linked to Aadhaar cards) are working on the ground,” Siraj Hussain told me. One of the reasons for this information gap is that the latest National Sample Survey Organization’s consumption survey has been withdrawn. C. Rangarajan, chairman of the Economic Advisory Council in the second UPA tenure, explained that economists relied on this NSSO data to determine the proper reach of the PDS. The last time this data was released was in 2011-12. Then, it showed leakages as high as 40 percent.
Another glaring gap in knowledge is on how caste affects access to the PDS, and whether the NFSA has or can even make a dent in that. The entire academic framework of the coverage debate is built firmly around class and the poverty divide. When caste is mentioned, it is often as only one of many factors affecting access to the PDS, such as gender or class. The economist Sukhadeo Thorat told me that this was inevitable given the caste structure of academia.
Even so, heated debates unfold in the pages of the Economic and Political Weekly about how the government and its committees measure leakages in the PDS, and whether this means that the state should resort to technology such as cash transfers or Aadhaar linkages to stem these leakages. Yet, most news channels and newspapers cover hunger, vulture-like, only after people have died of it, when public outrage demands it.
Elite urban media, owned and operated mostly by privileged upper castes and aimed at audiences like themselves, rarely cover food policies or shortages. When food does appear in English newspaper supplements, it is as recipes, diets, fitness regimens. Activists may care about the hungry, but popular media doesn’t. Like so many other social brutalities, hunger is always someone else’s problem now.
The Indian state emphasizes calorific, and not nutritional, value: one more inheritance from the British. Even when the Temple Wage of the 1800s consisted of just rice or wheat, people knew of a more diverse diet recommendation for pulses, meat and eggs. Yet, the Temple Wage principle endured.
In the Second World War, it made sense that the scarcity-driven ration system provided only rice and wheat. An individual may derive their recommended number of calories eating just these things. But health goes beyond calorific numbers. For a person to be healthy, access to nutritious foods is essential. For the most part, the Centre has not engaged with the purpose of food, and nutritional needs.
“The PDS provides security against hunger — it helps people to cope,” Drèze explained. “Hunger is people not having enough to eat, but they need other inputs to thrive.” Essentials such as pulses, millets, and oil — part and parcel of a standard COVID-19 emergency kit an NGO might hand out in a city like Mumbai, or that local administrations in a state like Kerala would give a family in quarantine — are left out of the system.
Dr. Karpagam, the Bengaluru-based doctor and public health researcher, highlighted on-the-ground reality. In some districts in Karnataka, shops provide whole wheat instead of milled wheat. This means that people have to travel to mills to grind the flour. In the same districts, she said, shop owners arbitrarily supply less-than-stipulated quantities to people. “They reduce the quantity of rice. They don’t give dal and oil and give only sugar in some places. There is no guarantee that these shops will reopen after the pandemic,” she said.
Here again, the role of caste grows clear. “The problem is that research is mixed with ideology,” Karpagam said. “This is why you have bizarre research saying that 60 percent of Indians are vegetarians, when in fact people want to eat meat but are not able to.” Climate change-related concerns about the sustainability of factory-farmed meat has led to international pressure in favor of plant-based food. According to Karpagam, “this suits India’s casteist political climate.”
Professor Madhura Swaminathan makes the link between coverage and nutrition, too. In her view, there are two ways in which the wrongly excluded lose out in Targeted PDS. It’s not just that they can’t access subsidized wheat and rice; it’s that they can no longer save money and spend it on other nutritional essentials like pulses and vegetables.
In any event, even before the benefits of the NFSA begin to trickle down to the public, the current dispensation at the Centre seeks to dismantle it. Its fiscally conservative consultants think the food subsidy is just too costly. It’s proved almost impossible to guarantee that a customer is actually taking home as much grain as a ration shop owner claims to have provided.
The consultants think that there will be no leakages if the system that enables it doesn’t exist. That is how you get the idea of cash transfers, a UPA-era idea that Modi has embraced with phrases such as ‘JAM’: Jan Dhan Yojana, Aadhaar, and Mobile. In this worldview, the open market works to ensure that there will be as much food availability as there is cash to purchase it. It’s an approach that either doesn’t know, or outright ignores, the service of ration shops in underserved areas with few customers — exactly the sort of thing, in fact, that only the state has the capacity to think about.
Already, there is evidence to show that direct cash transfers haven’t quite worked out the way they were supposed to. In 2015, the Union government launched a pilot scheme to transfer cash instead of food in the Union territories of Dadra and Nagar Haveli, Chandigarh, and Puducherry. After a poor response, the Union government quietly decided to make the scheme optional for both states and Union territories.
Respondents of the scheme found it increased their travel time. They had to make one trip to the bank to get the money and another to the market to buy grain. Often, they didn’t know when the money had come to their bank accounts. Sometimes, it was unclear which of their bank accounts the government had transferred money to.
The economist Himanshu, who was among those who contributed suggestions for the food security bill, felt that a universal scheme of cash transfers is unlikely to work out in practice. In the current system, the central government guarantees the states’ MSP-based procurement from farmers. Even if a cash transfer system does away with the need for food distribution, states are likely to be politically compelled to continue procuring so as not to lose the support of the influential agricultural community. And states simply cannot afford to stockpile and warehouse that much produce.
Others argue for more fundamental changes. One major change, linking ration cards with Aadhaar cards, is more or less a complete exercise now. This is meant to help target beneficiaries, but it has also resulted in the large-scale deletions of legally eligible individuals from government databases.
Sometimes, the price of these bureaucratic exercises is death. In the April 2020 lockdown, a story emerged from Bihar about rural PDS customers who were pushed to starvation because machines at ration shops did not recognize their Aadhaar-registered fingerprints. A month earlier, the Centre had announced the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana, which distributed free grain to ration card holders. But it was pointless if card holders weren’t at their permanent addresses, or unable to register or verify their identity for some reason.
It was another of those endless contradictions of the Indian state, always at odds with itself and always a step removed from on-the-ground reality. Those are also the conditions under which hunger persists. The trick of the state is to persuade you that the problem is too big to solve.
Written by Mridula Chari. Published by Fifty Two, 2021, which “publishes one essential story from the Indian subcontinent every week. Painstakingly researched and beautifully produced, every 52 story is meant to open a door in readers’ minds. 52 stories don’t react to the news cycle, but seek to deliver new information, and new perspectives.”