November 9, 2011

Food debate #1: Cash or kind?

What should be the mode of food subsidy delivery? Should the government dole out cash instead of food? Or use coupons instead? The first post in the food debate series focuses on this ongoing debate in the government

Food debate #1: Cash or kind?
-Tushar Vashisht

The people in the right of center say, let’s abolish the food distribution system. After all, the govt shouldn’t be in the logistics/supply chain business. Their solution is to deposit cash in a poor person’s (lets call him Natha) bank account. Clearly, bank account income delivery works in NREGA. Delhi state government has tried this indeed, but counter-intuitively, received resistance from many poor families that prefer food over cash. [2]. The people left of center justify the resistance by saying that Natha might drink it away; at least in the current system, despite its leakages, Natha’s wife or family gets whatever it does get. There are other middle path seekers who are trying their hands on food coupons such as Madhya Pradesh and Bihar [3]. In fact, corporate food services company Sodexo was one of the bidders for Madhya Pradesh. The believers in the coupon system advocate that it makes the system demand led, empowering the end beneficiary, and could lead to choice at the hands of the customers as they could theoretically withdraw food from any fair price shop or perhaps even private retailers. However, perhaps what the government doesn’t realize is that coupons have the same, or at times even worse, problems as cash. If the Sodexo coupon experience in urban areas should teach us anything, it’s that it can be traded easily for cash at any outlet. In fact, given that it has less security features than cash, it can be easily duplicated as well.

Continue reading

October 31, 2011

The Food Debates

by Tushar Vashisht

While India is a starving country (250 million malnourished people according to official records), it is also the world’s second-largest grower of rice and wheat. Today, more than 50 million tonnes of foodgrains lie in government warehouses. Only 27 % of government’s food subsidies reaches the poor, with only 42% of food grains issued from the central pool reaching the end customer [1]. Many solutions have been debated to fix the broken Public Distribution System (PDS). I was lucky to get exposure to many of these proposed solutions and experiments/pilots while working within the Unique Identity Authority of India (UIDAI)  on UID applications. Because much of the focus of our experiment was around food and nutrition, Matt and I also spent a considerable time around fair price shops in Kerala. “The food debates” series is a description of a few of the key ongoing debates and my recommendations for solutions.

While coming up with the recommendations, I have tried to look outside the traditional infrastructure PDS is reliant on to search for new solutions. And, because most new things these days are tech heavy, it invariably meant looking at the emerging technology trends. Three stand out as universal trends:

  1. Mobile (and therefore internet) connectivity is becoming close to being all-pervasive
  2. Every family already has or will have a mobile phone pretty soon
  3. Everyone will also likely have a UID number pretty soon

What does this mean? We are entering a world of new building blocks. Building blocks, that didn’t exist as late as two years ago, but whose relevance cannot be denied in the coming years. I will continuously refer back to these building blocks as we look at the various debates. This is not to discount value on non technology interventions which have their own importance, however, I have tried to focus on the technology aspects only.

It must be noted that these are my personal views only.

October 27, 2011

Stay hungry, stay foolish

India is home to a quarter of the world’s hungry — about 230 million people — according to the World Food Programme. About half of the country’s children are malnourished, a record poorer than the world’s poorest area, sub-Saharan Africa [1].

Hardly a day went by during the past month, in which we didn’t think of food. And no, it wasn’t because we couldn’t get our minds off of planning the first meal we would have at the end of our experiment. Rather, it was because, food was the largest component of our budget at both Rs. 100/day (50%) and Rs. 32/day (68%). Continue reading

October 26, 2011

Happy Diwali from Matt, Tushar (and the other 400 million)

Happy Diwali everyone! We hope you all are having a great time at home this festive season. With all your encouragement, our experiment has ended successfully. But, we wish we could tell you that we are excited that it’s all over. Wish we could tell you that we are happy to have our “normal” lives back. Wish we could say that our sumptuous celebratory feast two nights ago was as satisfying as we had been hoping for throughout our experiment. There was nothing wrong with the food. In fact, it probably was one of the best meals we’ve ever had, packed with massive amounts of love from our hosts. However, each bite was a sad reminder of the harsh reality that there are 400 million people in our country for whom such a meal will remain a dream for quite some time. That we can move on to our comfortable life, but they remain in the battlefield of survival – a life of tough choices and Continue reading

October 23, 2011

“Dear Chief Minister Sir, What do you think of Rs. 32/day?”

Whether it is Arab Spring, the Tea Party in the U.S., or the Jan Lokpal bill in India, there is no dearth of discontent with government and politicians around the world. Many citizens feel that inaction by our leaders are sending nations down the path of decline, leading some to question the viability of our political system. Against this back drop, it was refreshing to see democracy in action in Puthupally, near Kottayam, today. We saw a hexagenarian Chief Minister standing in his front yard, interacting with his constituents and hearing their grievances, on a muggy Sunday morning for more than two hours. We got to see the CM and ask his opinion on Rs. 32/day (yes!!); and, we got it on video! Let’s just say he doesn’t think 32 is quite the right number. While you salivate on that thought of watching it (link below), let’s recap all the fun we had in the 24 hours prior to our eventful interview with the CM… Continue reading

October 22, 2011

The Great Indian Thirst

We invited our friend and neighbor Sunita, who is the CEO of the NGO Arghyam, to write on water issues faced by the common man. Below is her post. You can also see a related video interview we took of a washerman in Bangalore who didn’t have enough water to wash clothes here.

Living on Rs. 100 a day – How does it impact how much water you consume?
Sunita Nadhamuni, CEO Arghyam (

The Indian standard for daily water requirements varies based on where you live. For a Bangalorean, it is a 150 lpcd (litres per capita per day), for her rural cousin it is 40 lpcd. This difference is primarily because metros & large cities have piped water supply, which has a certain amount of unavoidable leakages and sewerage systems that require a certain volume of water to ensure Continue reading

October 21, 2011

“Rs. 32/day?, you must be joking”

At least, that’s been the unanimous opinion of people we talked to in Karukachal so far (sample size 5). And, it isn’t the case that we are talking to people shelling out loads of money on living expenses. A majority of them are consumers of PDS (Public Distribution System) goods at Below Poverty Line (BPL) prices. Primarily, our conversations involved the issue of food, which is supposed to take up Rs. 17/day. Our sources implied that it would take the willful suspension of disbelief to even imagine spending such a paltry amount on food. They cringed at the possibility of eating a limited menu, which wasn’t very appetizing, and dismissed outright the possibility that a manual laborer would get the adequate nutrition at that price point. An insightful audio interview with one of them – a local day laborer who also taught Matt to play soccer – can be heard here (translation included)

We couldn’t agree more, sitting in comfy chairs Continue reading

October 20, 2011

Missed call, Planning Commission?

To those unfamiliar with the concept of missed calls in India, it’s a fundamental form of communication. It involves calling someone on his/her mobile phone from your mobile phone and hanging up after a couple of rings before the other person picks up. It is like a facebook poke. It isn’t very descriptive, yet can mean a lot. “Call me back”, or, “Your letter has arrived”, or, “Your package is ready to be picked” etc. Why is it done? Because it is free – well almost, if you have lifetime validity on your sim card.

Non food expense in INR. Total Rs. 8

Why is this relevant? Continue reading

October 18, 2011

Rs. 32/day: Day 1

Today began with 2 sleepy heads getting up early in the morning to get blood tests done in Kottayam in Kerala. After that, we indulged ourselves with a banana and 5 Parle Gs (total Rs. 4) each before taking a rickety bus ride to Karukachal, a sub-urban town 17 km from Kottayam. To those unfamiliar with Kerala bus rides, they are one of India’s must experience great adventures: High speed competitions between private bus companies on single and double lane roads that would put most hollywood thrillers to shame. We were contemplating getting bicycles in Karukachel to travel to Kottayam or Kumarakom; but after witnessing the roads, are having second thoughts already! Burning through the last piece of our reserves from the days we were rich (aka lived at Rs. 100 a day), we finally made it to Karukachal in one piece.

As excited as we were about entering the new phase in our experiment, the reality of it finally hit us pretty strongly as tiredness set in. Don’t know if it was the low blood sugar levels from the light breakfast or the hangover of the 14 hour third class train travel in which we had barely split a railways meal, so that we could scrape through without overdrawing on our reserves. As we walked to Matt’s ancestral home to pick up our sheets, the heat, hunger and exhaustion got to us and we slept off at the house – Matt in the verandah itself!

Next to our room in Karukachal

We were woken up Continue reading

October 17, 2011

Living on Rs. 32 a day

Just got off the unreserved category train from Bangalore to Kottayam and burnt almost all of our reserves doing that! And its time to get ready for the tough week ahead – living at the poverty line as suggested by the Planning Commission. So, how have we prepared for it? Well, we spent our journey reading and analyzing the Planning Commission’s affidavit to Supreme Court and the Tendulkar report on Estimation of Poverty to try and understand what the Rs. 32 really includes. Our findings: everything! Continue reading