Many idealists and TV anchors favour highly subsidized rice and wheat for all consumers, not just the poor. They draw no lessons from Indira Gandhi’s failed attempt to do exactly this in her Garibi Hatao phase.
India’s nutritional indicators are terrible. Child malnutrition, anaemia and vitamin deficiency are among the worst in the world. However, in NSSO surveys only 2% of Indians say they don’t get enough to eat. Malnutrition is a bigger problem than hunger.
The populist notion that everybody is entitled to subsidized food is wrong. Why on earth should Mukesh Ambani and Ratan Tata have such entitlements? Or even our burgeoning middle class, which has done so well in the last two decades?
“Cheap food for all” is a regrettable populist slogan. It sounds idealistic, but in practice means continuing with a failed public distribution system that engenders monumental waste and corruption.
Cash transfers to the poor could combat malnutrition better. However, activists are right in saying that targeting the poor is problematic—unworthy folk get included and many of the poor get excluded. The answer, surely, is self-targeting–providing benefits that only the needy will apply for. Historically, this has been the logic of rural employment schemes too.
In the case of food, self-targeting should aim for universal provision of highly nutritious but unfamiliar foods. One example would be a 70:30 mix of wheat and soya flour, fortified with iron and vitamins. Better-off people will not opt for such an unfamiliar food, but the needy will do so and benefit greatly. Diversion to the open market will fetch little profit, and so decrease.
Many people are dead against this. They say the poor should not be asked to eat things like soya and husk. Alas, this simply reflects ignorance and prejudice against soya.
It may be an unfamiliar food, but to equate it with husk and agricultural waste is ridiculous. The Chinese make bean curd from soya, and bean curd is served in 5-star hotels. Again, 5-star hotels have dishes like tofu salad, also made from soya. Chinese and American millionaires eat soya. Only in India do people view it, wrongly, as fit only for animals.
After extracting oil, soya meal has 48% protein, twice as much as dal and four times as much as wheat. This extremely nutritious food can combat widespread protein deficiency. Best will be a soya-wheat mix, fortified with iodine, iron and vitamin A (to combat goitre, anaemia and vitamin deficiency). Unlike rice or wheat, this fortified mix will attack nutritional deficiencies, which are far bigger problems than hunger.
Soya-wheat rotis will resemble missi roti, made of wheat and dal flour, and widely eaten in Uttar Pradesh. Missi roti is a superior food, costing much more than plain roti. So, a soya-wheat mix can be popularized as missi soya roti.
India started growing soyabeans only in the 1980s, mainly for its oil. After extracting oil, the solid residue was mainly exported, or used as animal food precisely because its high protein content increased meat and milk production. But in a poor country with massive malnutrition this represents a terrible waste of a highly nutritious food, which is also viewed as a high-class food in China and the US. It should be the duty of activists to popularize this valuable food to combat malnutrition. Instead many of them incorrectly view soya as fit for animals.
Middle class idealists favoring rice and wheat say on TV that we should all eat the same food. This is deeply hypocritical. Most of these idealists are rich enough to eat chicken, mutton and fish. If they really believe in everybody eating equally, they should offer tandoori chicken and fried fish to the poor. Rather like Marie Antoinette.
It’s wrong to provide subsidized rice to all. Rice is the most expensive cereal, so a basic right to rice is halfway to a basic right to cake (favoured by Marie Antoinette). Rice guzzles water and lowers the water table terribly in states using tubewell irrigation. So, drinking water wells used by the poor go dry, and shallow tubewells of small farmers also run dry. Thus, rice has impoverishing side-effects. Subsidizing its cultivation and consumption is ethically wrong, not just bad economics.
Populist politicians, TV anchors and activists nevertheless back rice over soya to satisfy consumers unaware or dismissive of the nutritional and environmental consequences. This may mean more malnutrition, but it will also fetch far more votes and media attention. Thus does good sense get trumped by populism. When so many influential people implicitly favour malnutrition, why be surprised at its high prevalence?