The pundits have always agreed that economic growth is a proven way to lift millions of people out of income poverty. But, sustaining the same high growth rate has been the root cause of social inequality, giving birth to widespread disparity in incomes and opportunity within the middle-income countries in Asia and the Pacific.
Add to the mix a startling lack of adequate social protection systems in most of these fast growing countries and the issue of inclusive growth has become a moot point. But Indias Food Security Bill proves that those at the helm of the country are finally willing to address that particular grey area of development economics.
Among the SAARC country, India already has the richest history of implementing a large number of safety net programmes aimed at household and individual level food security by addressing the issue of access.
Programmes such as the Annapurna scheme, Food for Work and the Mid-day meal scheme for school-going children-despite receiving their fair share of criticism-have been up and running long before other regional players caught on.
And now, for all the controversy surrounding it, the awe-inspiring scope of Indias food security scheme meant to look after the dietary requirements of nearly two-thirds of the nations population sends a powerful message across developing Asia-especially at a time when the region is growing less robustly than ever.
Critics of the UPA-IIs endeavour to provide food grain to about 800 million people at heavily subsidized prices deem it a mere PR stunt-something to rope in poor and middle-class voters ahead of federal polls of 2014.
There are also questions about how the government plans to identify potential beneficiaries of the programme. Another red-flag remains the fact that the scheme will be carried out through state-run channels which are riddled with cronyism and corruption.
Some estimates suggest that under Indias existing food programme, as much as half of the grains procured by the government are already siphoned off by middlemen before reaching their intended beneficiaries. Much like Pakistan, most of the publicly-subsidized food ends up being sold illegally in markets rather than being offered in fair price shops.
So, while the idea is right by the books, the running and implementation of the programme at the scope suggested will prove to be a challenge. But one thing the Food Security Bill should be given due credit, for, it is taking up the cause for making access to certain basic foods a legal entitlement.
Going forward, the impact on this legislation on malnutrition and hunger will be closely watched by the development community, eager to see improvements in Indias nutrition problems. It will also be a good lesson for other regional players, who will be looking to see the extent to which programmes for social protection address inequality in the country.
Highlights of the Indian food security bill
67 % of the population will be targeted
75 % of the rural population and 50% of the urban will get the subsidy
Priority households will get 5kg of grain per person/month
Rice @ INR 3/kg
Wheat @ INR 2/KG
Other coarse grain @ Re 1/kg
Indian Food subsidy bill will rise from INR 90,000 crore to 130,000 crore.
Source: National Food Security Bill of 2013