India's Misguided Push for Food Security

Will India's right to food bill actually put food in the mouths of the poor?


Earlier this month a country that's home to millions of poor and hungry people tested a missile capable of striking deep into distant continents. North Korea may come to mind, but the country whose missile proved it's actually capable of targeting (rather than merely intended to target) foreign lands is India.

While spending dearly (something on the order of $500 million) to test launch the Agni-V missile and flex its military muscle, India is also poised to introduce a law that the country hopes will guarantee an end to hunger. A "right to food" movement has built momentum in India over the last decade thanks to a Supreme Court case there. The Food Security Bill now under consideration would "offer nearly two-thirds of India's population a legal entitlement to foodgrain."

In a recent piece in The Wall Street Journal, New Delhi-based researcher Ashwin Parulkar endorsed the measure. "Discounted food," he wrote, "should be a universal entitlement."

But the staggering cost of ensuring a right to food for all Indians—estimated at $22 billion, or the cost of more than 40 Agni-V rockets per year—is just one problem with a government guarantee of food for all.

The larger question is whether any government can make good on a guaranteed right to food. If the Indian government's recent food-policy failures are any indication, establishing a right to food will be a grand subcontinental experiment in wasting food, money, and lives.

After all, malnutrition in India (a leading cause of death) is often the result of inept government micromanagement of the food economy and other counterproductive policies. And even before it's enacted, the pressure of ensuring a right to food has already played a role in wasting food and hurting farmers. In 2007, for example, India banned wheat exports entirely after the country's leaders claimed they needed time "to judge its wheat availability in the light of the proposed Food Security Bill."

These policies led to a domestic wheat glut, which happened to coincide with a global surplus.

When the Indian government finally did open exports again more than four years later, many farmers found it was months too late for them to sell on the world market.

India's government itself was unready for the excess of grain its own policies created, since government capacity to store grain was far less than its ability to bolster domestic grain production by decree. Hence, today the government "does not know where to store the bumper grains to be harvested for the third year in a row," leading to the likelihood "that the grains would be out in the open, rot and be eaten by rodents even as millions go hungry in the country which is planning to enact a right to food law."

Is there a way to feed the poor without top-down government food policies? Yes, and economic growth is the key. From the big business tech boom to small entrepreneurs benefiting from microfinance to some government recognition of economist Hernando de Soto's arguments about reducing barriers to starting businesses, India has been a success story. According to the World Bank and other sources, for example, poverty in India is receding greatly as the country's economy expands. "India's poverty declined by 19% between 1990 and 2005," according to World Bank estimates.

There's also no shortage of charitable, non-governmental organizations working to feed India's most impoverished people. Reforming the country's charitable-giving laws is one necessary fix that could boost this output even further. For example, India currently taxes charitable organizations on what in the United States would be tax-free earnings.

And there's also this: The poor are very often capable of providing for themselves if left to their own devices.

The startling thing about a recent attack by some radical Hindus on a group of Dalits (members of India's lower caste) who were eating beef (which is verboten to many Hindus) at an outdoor festival is not the vile attack itself. No, the surprising fact is that Dalits—two-thirds of whom are among India's poorest—gathered in numbers greater than a thousand to share a meal of beef (a food of the wealthy in most any country).

"Everyone should have the freedom to eat the food of their choice," said event organizer B Sudarshan.

Of course he's right. And when such a choice is available to even the poor, then the need to codify a right to food seems inapt. Add to this India's recent failures at centrally planning its food supply and the country's ability to ensure a right to food seems downright implausible.

Instead of India's government trying (and failing) to provide its hungriest with food, India should create a legal and policy climate that lets those Indians who can provide for themselves do so, and encourages domestic and foreign charitable giving to fill the gaps as needed.

Baylen J. Linnekin, a lawyer, is executive director of Keep Food Legal, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit that advocates in favor of culinary freedom.