Calling Professor Sen

India\’s battle against hunger beset by problems of delivery and corruption

Malnutrition in India is on the rise, despite nutrition rehabilitation centres and ration shops

But, but, how can this be? India has a vast public food distribution system!

The answer, of course, is that India has a vast public food distribution system.

Those who do have a ration card may not be able to use it. \”They can only buy their monthly allowance of food at one time. Day workers often cannot save enough to buy 20kg of wheat or 3kg of rice in one go,\” says Seema Deshmukh, of the Muskaan NGO, who works with Bhopal slum dwellers. According to a 2004 study by the Planning Commission, only 40% of the food allocated to the poorest people by the public distribution system reaches them. The rest ends up on the black market or rots in warehouses.

But wait! A solution is being suggested!

In this context, the Institute of Development Studies in collaboration with the Planning Commission of the Government of India and the Centre for Jawaharlal Nehru Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia University held a two day workshop on “The Right to Food and Reforming the Public Distribution System in India.”  Since the 1950’s, the Public Distribution System (PDS), has been a universal entitlement, is among India’s largest social assistance programmes.  It aims to achieve two key objectives – maintaining stability of grain prices through establishing minimum procurement prices and providing subsidized basic food grains, sugar and cooking fuel to those in need.

No, moving exactly the wrong way. A vast and expensive system run by bureaucrats and dealing in the commodities themselves is not going to be made better by adding more rules, more bureaucrats and more interference in commodity markets.

What needs to be done is to use the power of markets. The hunger, the malnutrition, is not because of an absence of food in country. It\’s because of a lack of purchasing power on the part of a subset of the population. The solution therefore is to do what the Nobel Laureate, Amartya Sen, suggests: give those without the purchasing power money and let them purchase what they need, when they need it, on the market.

As we do of course: we don\’t have ration shops for the poor. We give them money through the dole, social security, a pension, whatever, and point them in the direction of Tescos along with everyone else.

Me, I blame the Webbs, the Fabians, for this horrible system in India. For much of Indian political economy is indeed based upon their principles, including their disastrous (and in common with much of the modern British left) distrust/hatred of markets.

Absolutely no one is saying that markets pure and unadorned will get food to the starving. But slipping a fix into the market for food, by providing purchasing power, is a better solution than trying the non-market approach of direct government distribution of food.

2 thoughts on “Calling Professor Sen”

  1. What happens to the unused rations I wonder? Corruption, Waste ?

    Only in a bureaucracy can a system so patently bad, not evolve into something a little less bad.

  2. So Much For Subtlety

    Obviously, as this blog has pointed out many times, the aim of politicians is to get re-elected. Feeding the poor does not help them do that. Feeding their clients does.

    It must follow that the system will become more bureaucratic and more complex. And that the poor will only be better fed when they have better jobs.

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