Food aid and politics, an unsavoury cocktail

It is sad that 800 million people of a nation of 1.3 billion should need free 5 kg of ration a month or a direct transfer of Rs 6,000 over a year to survive.

Published: 01st January 2023 11:24 AM  |   Last Updated: 01st January 2023 03:12 PM   |  A+A-

food, poverty, hunger

Express Illustration by Sourav Roy

Express News Service

Food and politics are inextricably tied in India because of the extreme levels of hunger and poverty. That link has become even more solidified as the Covid pandemic hurled millions more into the jaws of poverty over the past two years.

In this scenario, the Modi government has played the food card deftly. Countering the backlash of farmers' agitation, Yogi Adityanath won UP convincingly for the BJP. Four economic schemes played a crucial role in the BJP’s victory – a free 5-kg-foodgrain-every-month programme started in April 2020, a separate subsidized 5-kg-per-person-scheme under the National Food Security Act (NFSA); direct transfer of Rs 6,000 in three instalments a year to farmers under PM-Kisan scheme; and once-a-month free gas cylinder.

Many things are about to change. The free food programme – the PM Garib Kalyan Anna Yojna – that funnelled food aid to over 800 million poor has been called off. The government spent USD 47 billion on the programme over 28 months. Its finances are now in tatters and fiscal prudence demanded this be ended. Covid conditions easing off has given the government an escape hatch.

To soften the blow, food and trade minister Piyush Goyal has simultaneously announced the subsidized foodgrain supplied under the NFSA programme – 5 kg per person per month or 35 kg per family – will come free for a year. On the other hand, by stopping the free Covid-era rations the government will be saving $20 billion over the next 12 months. The question then is: with elections due in nine states in 2023, and the Lok Sabha poll in 2024, will the equation work against the BJP?

Smart timing

Smart politics is the art of messaging and the Modi government has been one step ahead in the game. For instance, the news of a change in food support was not that the quantity was halved from 10 kg per person per month to 5 kg; the headline was: Subsidized food grains now to be given free for one year!

The government realized it was now or never. It is still some months to the state elections, and more than a year before the nation votes for a new Lok Sabha. Later, it would be impossible to withdraw or change food subsidy schemes in 2024; and what better time to drop the ‘free’ scheme than when it came up in the regular course for renewal?

On the political front, after a thumping win in UP, and now a landslide in Gujarat, the BJP thinks it is on a sound wicket. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ratings are 60 per cent or more with competitor Rahul Gandhi a distant second.  On balance, the decision seems to have veered around financial prudence. The end of the ‘free food’ scheme will lower the subsidy bill by about 30 per cent to less than Rs 4 lakh crore next fiscal from the current year’s Rs 5.5 lakh crore. Money released from subsidizing food can be ploughed into infra and other key sectors.

Poverty and food

But there is another cynical aspect to the food aid-politics tie-up. It is sad that 800 million people of a nation of 1.3 billion should need free 5 kg of ration a month or a direct transfer of Rs 6,000 over a year to survive. Or, that a 5-kg freebie is what lies between life and death.

The World Bank, using its new poverty line of Rs 178 (USD 2.15) a day, says extreme poverty fell to 10.01 per cent in 2019 from 11.09 per cent in 2018. But Covid reversed the gains and about 56 million Indians slipped back into extreme poverty in 2020.  Many economists say these figures are underestimations.

Former Planning Commission member N C Saxena says 275-300 million people fell into extreme poverty during the pandemic and NITI Aayog’s poverty index identifies 25 per cent as poor. It is true India has come a long way in food security. Over 70 years, we have seen food grain output rise six-fold from 51 million tonne (MT) in 1951 to a projected 315 MT in FY23. Gone are the days of the begging bowl of the 1960s when government officials made their way to various world capitals to strike import deals to meet the food deficit.

Green Revolution and overflowing godowns now doesn’t mean no one is sleeping hungry. Poverty is not equivalent to a lack of food. Other needs not being satisfied – shelter, clothing, education, access to transport, health and wellness – contribute to the condition we call poverty.

That is why empirical evidence shows instead of food aid, the need of the hour is direct money transfer to the poorest 40 per cent. Additional purchasing power will allow them to buy milk, clothing, housing and education, among other vital needs.


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