Hunger can't wait - Don't throw the 600 bucks

If we take into account the starvation deaths in India, then Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit's comments would not be seen as such a joke.

We are ignoring the reality to project what we believe, perhaps rightly, is her fictional notion of how much it takes for a poor family to live.

Here is what she said:

“In Rs. 600, he would get dal, rice and wheat...A family of five can easily complete their needs.”

This Rs 600 is a monthly cash subsidy under the Dilli Anna Shri Yojna, a food security measure, to be transferred directly into Aadhaar-linked bank accounts of the senior-most female members of two lakh poor families. 

Ms. Dikshit is probably not in touch with the ground reality, a term we like to flaunt, but this money is not a replacement for other options. Just think about the statistics and you will see that this scheme should have been introduced long ago.

A cursory look around reveals:

"The International Food Policy Research Institute's 2011 Global Hunger Index, it ranks 67 out of 81 countries and has more than 200 million food-insecure people, the most in the world."

We produce so much food that we can export it. A good deal of it, though, ends up rotting in warehouses. Why is it not used to feed the poor and children who die of malnourishment?

Years ago when Tamil Nadu introduced the mid-day meal scheme during MGR’s tenure as chief minister, it came in for criticism. Partly because his then PR in charge was Ms. Jayalalitha, now the CM, and it was thought to be populist.

We need to slacken our righteousness where populist moves are concerned, if they benefit some people. The two lakh who will gain from this Rs 600 stipend cannot be the end-of-the-road vote bank. Besides, those in charge of providing essential food, shelter, clothes often siphon off those funds.

The newly-minted Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal was among the first to criticise the scheme:

“Jab unhein aata dal ka mol hi nahin maloom toh woh logon ke liye kya karengey? (If she does not know the price of essentials, how will she do anything for the people?) A cash subsidy can never be a substitute for rations. A Rs-600 subsidy cannot solve anything. Inflation is not a static phenomenon. The subsidy is almost like a sop before the assembly polls. It is the job of the government to organize a healthy public distribution system and not somehow fulfil its obligation by giving a cash subsidy.”

I don’t see how a politician keeping track on prices is a prerequisite for solving issues. This may be a sop, but as I already mentioned it does not mean the beneficiaries should sit with this and not seek other opportunities. If we wait to address the issue of unemployment or public distribution, then we miss out on the immediate needs of a few. Mr. Kejriwal probably is not aware that ration shops sell the lowest grade available as mid-grade to those who can afford it. He might like to peek into the grains to see just how bad they are and how often they are sold in the black market.

Harsh Mander, special commissioner to the Supreme Court on the right to food said:

“The government's disconnect with ground realities is self-evident. Even a homeless person ends up spending Rs 100 to Rs 150 for his daily needs. It is not that the poor are just looking for handouts. They are hard working and desire a life of dignity. A labourer works hard to earn a living. It is the duty of the government to ensure that labour laws are implemented. Same is the case with the PDS system.”

Is he serious? A homeless person spends 100 odd bucks a day? On what? There are no overheads, so what is the expenditure breakup? Such flashy statements do more harm than good.
No one is denying that the poor should be granted a life of dignity as much as any other citizen. But let us not romanticise poverty. Take a look at the beggars around. Try offering them stuff you take in your doggy bag and it is likely to be rejected. If begging is not seeking handouts, then what is? Has anyone attempted buying knick-knacks and asking a beggar to go sell these and earn? I have. It does not work. This does not get enough money. Of course, there is a begging racket run by a mafia and many of them have no choice. Look at the crowds of them outside restaurants near places of worship and you will realise how they feed off the guilt of devotees. I am quite certain that they’d gladly take the Rs 600.

Is this money enough to feed a family of five? The obvious answer is, no. But think about those who go hungry and you will accept that this is a small step. I am setting aside all political considerations for now.

The fact that the senior-most female member gets it in her account is another positive step. This will ensure it is not hogged by the men, or at least she has the power to assert her right over it. If some NGOs join in and educate them on innovative use of funds then, say, the wheat can be used to sell ready-made chapattis; that will bring in additional income.

I can give an example of how community cooking too can help. This was in a village off Mahad in Maharashtra. It had no electricity. Late evening, two huge vessels were simmering with dal while some women were rolling rotis. It was winter and quite nippy, so the firewood kept them warm. They ate on plantain leaves, so they saved on washing dishes.

If a group of people collect their respective Rs 600 and replicate this, it might work at least to assuage to some extent the problem of their hunger. The Planning Commission's India Human Development Report states, “If India is not in a state of famine, it is quite clearly in a state of chronic hunger.”

But, everybody wants to be Mother Teresa. If we can contribute as little as Rs 6 a month each for such schemes, instead of signing petitions and one-off donation drives, we might eventually make huge strides.

Getting Paris Hilton to visit an orphanage is worse than doing a taking digs at an Indian politician. I fail to understand why opposition groups, or even activists, cry foul only when certain pro-active schemes are introduced. Why do they not raise these issues all the time, if they are so grounded and would be cognisant that this is a huge ongoing problem? Why is corruption a bigger plank than dignity of the poor, then? This too is politics.

Poverty has fed many politicians, right from the time of Mahatma Gandhi. If it also manages to feed the poor, it is worthwhile to make it popular instead of ranting about populism. 

(c) Farzana Versey


  1. For just one month, reduce her salary to this sum and let her live on it. Freeze access to all other illgotten money. She has plenty of it!

  2. FV,

    I agree with your points re: Harsh Mander and others. But I am not sure populism is worth defending at all.

    The problem with populism is that it does not solve hunger long term. "Solving hunger" is a choice between feeding some people now and having many more hungry without the ability to feed them down the line, or executing proper policy based on sound economic reasoning (and not populism) to improve environment so that individuals can earn enough to feed them.

    If populism is a great idea, what's the plan under populist schemes to keep the supply side of the equation on sound footing? If there is no food to be supplied, what good are populist schemes? Populist schemes only look like they help the poor superficially, because you can see someone being fed, but it does nothing to solve the hunger problem for the long term, short of bankrupt the exchequer if there is no other economic activity to continue filling the state exchequer.


  3. Well said! Something is always better than nothing. Improvements in technology should help in making sure that the money reaches those it should and not be stolen by middle men. There's really no reason why we should have starvation happening when food is rotting. Sometimes I suspect that the people with a certain level of wealth actually want the poor to starve, may be they are resentful that they exist at all? Statements are then made as to why these schemes are useless, would ruin the exchequer while no one bats an eyelid when massive amounts of money are spent on prestige projects. First focus on the basics, I think we have enough material and engineering/management knowledge to make sure that no one starves at least.

  4. Al:

    Here I am defending what we choose to term populism; it is a word that's applied whenever the establishment intervenes with proactive schemes. I do not for a moment discount the possibility as a sop.

    This is not about "solving hunger", but feeding two lakh people. I don't quite see your point that it is

    "a choice between feeding some people now and having many more hungry without the ability to feed them down the line, or executing proper policy based on sound economic reasoning" (and not populism) to improve environment so that individuals can earn enough to feed them.

    How would feeding some result in many more hungry? I said that this scheme is not to stop people from looking for employment opportunities.

    We do not have a social security scheme and many NGOs do the same - feed a few. The government obviously has to do more, and if we choose to see it as only a few people being fed and an eyewash, then think about those who would not have anything.

    This is a micro level effort, and needs to be slowly built upon. Besides, it is cash, not rotting grains they are getting.

    I find this populism infinitely better than economists holding forth on Indian hunger from their 'chaired' positions in Cambridge!

  5. Sai:

    I do hope middlemen don't land up here, too.

    Sometimes I suspect that the people with a certain level of wealth actually want the poor to starve, may be they are resentful that they exist at all?...no one bats an eyelid when massive amounts of money are spent on prestige projects.

    There is, indeed, a resentment against the poor. Part of the charity ethos thrives on this. That's the reason I mentioned just each person contributing as little as Rs 6 a month to work towards a more equitable distribution of food, at the least.

    You are right about turning a blind eye where prestige projects are concerned. They are the real fakes.



    I said Rs.600 is not enough. But instead of asking Sheila Dikshit (and why not ourselves?), perhaps you'd want to check with one of the starving people. Also, how come you thought about it now when a scheme has started? I am sure the CM had a lot of wealth before this... 

  6. Al:"How would feeding some result in many more hungry? I said that this scheme is not to stop people from looking for employment opportunities. "

    FV, the other side of consumption equation is being able produce what is required for consumption, so focussing only on the consumption (because it is obvious there are a lot of hungry people) without ensuring that the production side of the problem is handled (Which requires proper planning to ensure that production is stable and dependable), the consumption can only be for a short time. But improving the production side (Which is unglamourous and may require working with "anti-poor capitalists" just to use a phrase) usually faces stiff resistance from a populace weaned on populism.

    Summarily, feeding hungry people is not sustainable long term if we only focus on feeding people and not on producing food. On the other hand, if there is sufficient production of food, then feeding the hungry just becomes a matter of fixing distribution, which is where the real problem is. India produces enough food, but because of the rotten public distribution system, all the produced food is wasted rather than passed to the people that need it.

    Populism does not help in fixing the supply side of the system, is all I mean.


  7. Al:

    The govt is already working with "anti-poor capitalists", which I do not like!

    Yes, you are talking about production-consumption. That does not negate temporary reprieve.

    Populism is embedded in any political agenda. Take Five Year Plans, for example. So, we take populism with a pinch of salt (hoping supply meets demand, of course!)and work backwards.

  8. FV"So, we take populism with a pinch of salt (hoping supply meets demand, of course!)and work backwards."

    Hi FV, The quote "hope is not a policy" comes to mind. If these things are not planned carefully, failure is guaranteed. The problem with India is that, except for a short period in the 90s, cronies of the government get to be investors and "capitalists"....the rest of us yokels can die trying to invest capital in our nation like these cronies who hit the jackpot.


  9. Hi Al:

    The quote "hope is not a policy" comes to mind.

    Policies are not made in or from a vacuum. An idea can be termed 'hope'. There will be collateral damage in terms of cronies, but I'm rooting for the benefit of now.

    You may call me Hope's crony...

  10. Hi FV, from what I understand, policy making in India is mostly by happenstance/accident -- nothing is ever planned, and if it is planned, it is never implemented until problems reach crisis levels, so maybe depending on "hope and a prayer" is the best one can do under these circumstances.


  11. Here is one possible solution to world hunger. One of the most important nutrients for human beings is calories derived from some form of sugar. This is why doctors give you glucose in the hospital. Chemically producing sugar is extremely complicated but fortunately plants through photosynthesis produce it naturally. Algae are one of the easiest plants to grow. It will grow in a fish tank even when you try to do everything possible to kill it. This could be used to make much needed food. Why not use computer regulated hydroponic tanks to provide the perfect environment to grow algae. It would use automatic feeders and grow lights to maximize production. There would be no seasons, so as soon as one batch is produced you can start a new batch. It would be set up like a production line so when it is mature it would be harvested for its sugar and other nutrients. For the daily recommended diet of 2,000 calories, you would need the calories from about 2.875 gallons of dried algae. Sun dehydration is completed to 10% water within one day. Which means, to get 2.875 gallons of dried algae/10%=28.75 gallons of wet algae. The water could be collected and reused. It is really a matter of scale of production. To make it more palatable, foods like jelly can be made from seaweed, so why not algae. It may even be possible to feed algae to helpful bacteria, much as beer and yogurt are produced. Algae is already high in many nutrients but it could then be fortified with other nutrients. In time algae could be specifically breed or genetically engineered to produce more nutrients. It could also be produced through labor intensive, low tech, but less efficient means if cost becomes a problem. In third world countries, race track ponds or even recycled milk jugs left out on a sunny day may even be a possibility. Urine, when purified is often used as fertilizer when it is scares. The algae could also be fed to krill and both could be fed to fish or other livestock as another source of food.

  12. Anon:

    This sounds impressive and do-able. I do hope you have shared this elsewhere too.


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