Under the new bill, the government would provide about 11 pounds of low-cost wheat, rice or coarse grain each month to millions of people, and a bit more to the poorest families. The measure also requires that pregnant and nursing mothers receive a free daily meal and a stipend of about $100, and it codifies the right of schoolchildren to have their midday meal.
Some 120 million schoolchildren already receive a free lunch in India’s public schools, but they now will have the legal right to one prepared in accordance with health and safety standards, according to Sakshi Balani, an analyst with PRS Legislative Research, a nonprofit group that tracks legislative and policy issues in the Indian Parliament.
The bill does not address other factors that experts say contribute to the crisis of malnutrition in the country, such as a lack of proper sanitation, access to clean drinking water and sufficient health care.
The expansion is being driven by the governing Congress party, which is run by the family of Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first prime minister, and has traditionally relied on the support of the rural poor. The party is approaching national elections with an electorate increasingly disillusioned by corruption scandals and the faltering economy.
The party has been criticized by the opposition for launching the expensive measure — expected to cost an additional $5 billion to $6 billion — at a time when the rupee has fallen to a historic low and foreign investment has slowed.
The food distribution system is now administered by each state’s government, and its efficiency varies widely, experts say. A direct cash-transfer system that could put benefits directly into the accounts of the needy — and eliminate some fraud — is still in its infancy.
Jean Drèze, a development economist who supports the bill, analyzed the food distribution system in the central state of Chhattisgarh. He found it mostly working well, because it was overseen by local community groups that instituted measures such as a text-message alert that tracks grain along the supply chain.
“We’ve seen it work in many states,” he said. “Now, we can see how it’s made to work elsewhere.”
But in Madhya Pradesh, the shortcomings of the program are evident. The monsoon rains have turned the soybean and barley fields green. In the villages amid the region’s leafy kardhai trees, there was little sense of shared bounty.
Narayan said he struggled to feed his large family on the monthly wheat allotment. Even that disappeared for one month this spring, he said, sending him into the forest to search for roots and edible gum.
His village’s ration shop — which had closed early for the day because of rain — hadn’t had kerosene for months, and he said he feared the fuel had disappeared into the black market.
“It’s the middlemen, eating up all that’s meant for us,” he said.
In another village of small, low-slung stone buildings, residents showed off ration cards on which the shopkeeper had scribbled amounts of wheat far in excess of what they said they had actually received. Janki, 26, a mother of four, said she did not have a card at all, even though she makes only $8 a month tending a small barley patch. The village elder had repeatedly promised to get her one, she said, but it has not yet materialized.
“They keep telling me they’ll make it, but it never gets made,” she said. “So many times I have to go to bed without food.”
She said she dreams of getting a ration of wheat or rice so she can make a proper meal for her children, who range in age from 3 to 8. Right now they are surviving on roti — Indian flatbread — made from barley grown on her plot of land. The two cows tied up nearby are too skinny to produce much milk, she said.
Her neighbor Ram Jilal Jatav, a 38-year-old construction worker and father of five, said his family also was surviving on bread, as well as the occasional vegetables they grew. They had not been able to buy subsidized rice in more than a year, he said.
“It was fun to eat rice, when it was there,” he said wistfully.
Suhasini Raj contributed to this report.