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Can the Indian government end hunger?

That's the new plan, anyway.

Children eat food in Gandhi village, about 28 miles west of the northeastern Indian city of Agartala, April 9, 2009. (Jayanta Dey/Reuters)

NEW DELHI — In a move some are hailing as the boldest — and most needed — action taken
by any administration since the country gained independence in 1947, India's new government has promised to eliminate hunger and malnutrition nationwide with a powerful National Food Security Act.

In her June 4 speech to parliament outlining for the first time the agenda for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's new United Progressive Alliance government, President Pratibha Patil said, “My government proposes to enact a new law — the National Food Security Act — that will provide a statutory basis for a framework which assures food security for all. Every family below the poverty line in rural as well as urban areas will be entitled, by law, to 25 kilograms of rice or wheat per month at three rupees (about 6 cents) per kilogram. This legislation will also be used to bring about broader systemic reform in the public distribution system.”

Even usually trenchant critics of the nation's policies toward its farmers and its poor were cheered by the pledge. “After independence, this will be the most important program any government has ever thought of launching,” said agriculture policy expert Devinder Sharma.
“It should at least allow us to put our heads up for the first time of being a democracy. How could democracy coexist with such appalling hunger?”

India's starvation and malnutrition problems have always been as perplexing as they are horrifying. With more than 200 million people classified as hungry by the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute, India has the world's largest population of the
starving and malnourished — despite being the world's second-largest grower of rice and wheat and boasting a surplus of 56.5 million tons of food grains in government warehouses.

“If you put one bag of grain over another bag of grain, you can walk to the moon,” Sharma said. “That's the quantity of food lying in India, and we have the largest population of hungry also in India.”

Sharma gives credit for this program, last year's massive farm loan waiver, and a jobs scheme that guarantees rural laborers at least 100 days of work each year to Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi. And he points out that the scale of these programs is unprecedented. “She has launched the world's largest social security program with the NREGA, and this is the world's largest food security program,” he said. “I can tell you she deserves the Nobel Prize.”