Schoolgirls collect a free midday meal at their government-run primary school in New Delhi. (Mansi Thapliyal/Reuters)

— It was Grain Festival Day, when the poor in this central Indian district are supposed to be able to buy subsidized wheat, rice and other goods through one of the country’s most important social programs. But there was little cheer in the rain-soaked villages of tiny stone homes near the city of Shivpuri.

Villagers who gathered by the shared water pump in one hamlet were complaining that their local ration store was always short on supplies.

“I don’t remember the last time I saw rice,” said a villager named Narayan, who, like many in rural India, uses only one name. “How can my family survive?”

India’s subsidized-grain program has been a pillar of the world’s largest democracy for decades, and in its current form it helps sustain more than 400 million rural villagers and urban slum dwellers with low-cost grains and other staples such as sugar and kerosene.

Now, India is preparing to launch a massive transformation of the program that would double its size and add a guarantee that two-thirds of India’s population would be granted a legal right to food.

If, as expected, the measure is approved by Parliament in the coming days, India will have committed to one of the largest and costliest entitlement programs in the world — at a time when its economic growth is slowing and its food supply faces pressure from a growing population and diminishing land and water resources.

Biraj Patnaik, the principal adviser to the Supreme Court’s food commissioner, said the pending Food Security Bill represents a moment of “transformative potential” for India, which until recently had experienced dramatic economic growth but which still is home to millions who are undernourished.

“No emerging power can make a claim to be a power if 46 percent of its children are malnourished,” Patnaik said.

But even if the sweeping bill is approved, a critical question remains: Can India make such an ambitious program work?

The current system, in which government-subsidized goods are sold in privately run “fair price shops,” is already strained — as indicated by the empty shelves and paltry supplies in the stores around Shivpuri, in the state of Madhya Pradesh.

Indians got a chilling glimpse into the mismanagement of their government assistance programs when 23 children died in another region last month after eating a free school lunch that was tainted with insecticide.

Critics in Parliament and in academia question the wisdom of expanding the grain program, which they say is riddled with fraud and waste.

More than 40 percent of the food never makes it to the people it is intended to help, according to Bharat Ramaswami, a professor in the planning unit of the Indian Statistical Institute’s office in New Delhi.

“It’s a system that’s full of holes,” he said. “It’s corrupt and just more costly than a privately run operation.”

Large amounts of the country’s grain rot in improper storage, are eaten by rats or disappear onto the black market.

“It’s like sending a toothless lion out into the field,” said Raghvendra Singh, the founder of a small nonprofit group called Parhit Samaj Sevi Sanstha (Hindi for “for the good of others”), which works with impoverished tribes in Madhya Pradesh. “The problems are not going to go away.”

Last year, rations in this region disappeared for weeks into the hands of black marketeers, resulting in widespread hunger, Singh said. Eighteen children died of malnutrition, he said.

Nonetheless, local officials from the Shivpuri area were attending a training session to prepare for the national program, which the government hopes to launch this month.

New promises

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.”

Unfulfilled commitments

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.