Malnutrition, and votes, drove India's tough WTO stand
By Penelope Macrae, AFP
December 9, 2013, 12:02 am TWN
NEW DELHI -- Sixty-year-old Anju Sharma points to the family's meager food supplies in her one-room shanty in a New Delhi slum as she clutches her skinny two-year-old grandchild on her lap.
There's a bag of rice and a half tin of c in the windowless shack where daylight and pungent smells from a nearby garbage dump enter through a rusting open door.
“We have food but it's never enough for these kids,” said Sharma, gesturing to the girl on her lap and her two other grandchildren — wiry boys who appear far too short for their ages of 11 and 12.
Food shortages are rampant in India, despite years of mainly galloping growth and the nation's aspiring superpower status.
To tackle what development experts call “a malnutrition epidemic” and with general elections looming, India stood firm on a massive food subsidy scheme to feed its poor at last week's global trade talks in Bali.
“For India, food security is non-negotiable,” Indian Commerce Minister Anand Sharma told the World Trade Organization summit.
India — home to a quarter of the globe's hungry, according to U.N. figures — passed a food security act in August increasing subsidized grain purchases to feed hundreds of millions of poor.
But it feared a WTO rule capping subsidies at 10 percent of farm output jeopardized the 1.2 trillion rupee (US$19.5 billion) scheme, the world's largest, and demanded exemption from the rules.
In the end, compromise wording allowed New Delhi to accept a deal — reeling the WTO back from failure as it clinched its first-ever trade reform agreement.
An Expanding Welfare Program
India's new food plan extends an existing scheme to 800 million of the country's 1.2 billion people — entitling them to five kilograms of rice, wheat or millet per person per month at below-market prices.
The left-leaning Congress party government's measure also guarantees midday meals for school children and calls for nutritious food for children younger than six.
Critics say supplying grain at a fraction of market cost will weigh on public finances at a time when the economy has slowed sharply. Other critics see the scheme as a sop to the poor — traditional Congress core supporters.
“The Congress's DNA is populist. It believes this food scheme will help it win voters — it could not jeopardize its main electoral plank by backing down at the WTO,” Subhash Agrawal, head of think-tank India Focus, told AFP.