Readymade food for the poorest

Antyodaya is one of the key principles that animates India’s constitution. It means uplift of the last. It was M. K. Gandhi who said to leaders of independent India, that when you formulate a policy, think about how it benefits the person worst off in society. All public policy must keep in mind how to uplift the lowermost sections of society. This of course is in contrast to the principle of utilitarianism which advocates greatest good for the greatest number. This latter principle would focus on raising average per capita income, or maximise the growth rate of GDP, but Antyodaya focuses on providing relief to the last person. Antyodaya means ensuring minimum benefit to each and every citizen of India. Of course, we can have a hybrid of the two as well.

After many decades of the PDS, and now five years of FSA, the outcome is still unsatisfactory. India’s rank in the world hunger index is 103 out of 119 countries. The rates of stunting and wasting among children less than 5 years old, is on par or below sub Saharan Africa. India is home to fifty percent of the world’s malnourished children, and the statistics have not improved much in the past fifteen years.

After the fundamental rights of equality and freedom (of speech, religion and movement), comes the Antyodaya principle. Among other things, it is the spirit behind the public distribution system, that ensures food security for the poor. PDS became part of what was enshrined as the Food Security Act in 2013. The FSA covers three fourth of rural, and half of urban India. Its main provision is providing 5 kilo of foodgrain per person per household at highly subsidised price of 3, 2 and 1 for wheat, rice and coarse cereal, respectively. It is funded partly by the Centre and partly by the State.  States like Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Rajasthan had enacted similar laws for food security even prior to FSA. The FSA also includes the Antyodaya scheme introduced in 2000, during Prime Minister Vajpayee’s term. That scheme aims to ensure 35 kgs of foodgrain per household among the poorest of the poor.

After many decades of the PDS, and now five years of FSA, the outcome is still unsatisfactory. India’s rank in the world hunger index is 103 out of 119 countries. The rates of stunting and wasting among children less than 5 years old, is on par or below sub Saharan Africa. India is home to fifty percent of the world’s malnourished children, and the statistics have not improved much in the past fifteen years. This is a complex challenge and deserves to be among the top priorities for the government. For today’s children are tomorrow’s productive citizens and workers.

It is here that we need to think about reforming the PDS in such a way that gets nutrition to the people, not just foodgrain that has to be cooked. For even after receiving highly subsidised grain, it has to be cooked, for which you need a stove and fuel, utensils and labour. Think of the poorest of the poor, the indigent, the acutely malnourished, the homeless, the aged, the disabled. Many of them may lack the wherewithal to collect fuel or firewood, and convert the grain into something edible. Why not then think of delivering, preferably to their doorstep, ready to eat, high quality nutritious food?

The mid-day meal scheme does exactly this for students in schools. The various subsidised schemes like Amma Unavagam in Tamil Nadu also aim to provide ready to eat food at low cost. In developed countries, the equivalent program is like the U.S. Food Stamp program, which provides vouchers which can be used to purchase ready to eat food from super markets. India has also private initiatives like the Akshaya Patra or Naandi, or the langars in Gurudwaras, and free meals in pilgrim towns like Shegaon which are a source of food and nutrition.

Mid-day meals serve the dual purpose of improving nutrition and school attendance. For many kids it may be the only meal they eat in the entire day. But when we look at this case of “the last ones” of society and in the light of India’s ranking on the hunger index, surely ready to eat food has no alternative.  In some Arab countries, perhaps part of their culture, one can find stacks of bread at various corners of marketplaces, where anyone is free to pick up as per their need.

In the spirit of the Antyodaya philosophy, we must aim to give nearly free, ready to eat food to the bottom most ten percent of India’s population. If a part of the budget is carved out of the FSA, this can be done at zero net cost to the government. Modern technology of food processing, makes it possible to have vacuum packed chapatis, fortified by necessary nutrients and tasty ingredients, with a reasonable shelf life which retains freshness and taste. These could then be given away free or nearly free through PDS outlets, or other designated places. In the case of extremely indigent who are even unable to reach an outlet, the government should ensure home delivery. The idea of a ready to eat, pre-packed roti (for north Indians, and something similar for south) was mooted a few years ago by a corporate executive.

Major food companies like Britannia, ITC, , HUL or Godrej can also help tweak the product for cost efficiency, nutrition, shelf life and taste. The debate on ready-to-eat food as part of mid-day meal scheme for school children reached parliament and was inconclusive. The opponents said, we can’t simply give only biscuits, boiled eggs or bananas to school kids, because one of the purposes of mid-day meals is socialisation as well. There was a big debate whether the cooking has to be done on school premises or not, and whether hot meals were essential. Mid-day meals serve the dual purpose of improving nutrition and school attendance.

For many kids it may be the only meal they eat in the entire day. But when we look at this case of “the last ones” of society and in the light of India’s ranking on the hunger index, surely ready to eat food has no alternative.  In some Arab countries, perhaps part of their culture, one can find stacks of bread at various corners of marketplaces, where anyone is free to pick up as per their need. The idea of providing ready to eat chapatis (or equivalent) through PDS, just institutionalises an idea already present in many cultures.

The economics, production technology and logistics can be worked out. More importantly, it can be tried out in pilot phases, to learn and tweak success factors. Over a period of time it will become a revolutionary idea and implementation.  The government is already toying with the idea of a minimum basic income for all. But this may not be fiscally affordable as yet. Besides it addresses income security, not food. The free chapati (coined as “ANN SHAKTI”) has zero cost and can become a reality today.

(The writer is an economist and Senior Fellow, Takshashila Institution)