By Shreyasi Ghosh:
A country like India where around 41.6% of the total population falls below the international poverty line cannot afford to let its food grain go to waste, especially when the grain procurement figures have reached dizzying heights. But it is indeed ironical and extremely unfortunate that government officials have admitted to the fact that there is a lack of enough grain storage and distribution infrastructure in the major grain-producing areas of the country when an overwhelming majority of the population is wallowing in extreme poverty, famine and hunger has resulted in untimely deaths and widespread devastation. To top it, food prices are skyrocketing, owing to shortage of food supplies.
Television reports have shown sacks of rotting wheat and other grains lying unattended in railways yards, in the open in various grain storage sites with no precaution against rats, disease droplets and damp air. This has sparked a nationwide outrage with the grave situation receiving international media coverage and top economists around the world discussing the conflicting issue of prevalent conflicting issue of hunger and surplus grain storage problems.
Economists have blamed the government for concentrating the benefits of the Green Revolution in a few selected states only thereby depriving other poorer states of the country. Favorable weather conditions, proper supply of irrigation water, fertilizers etc have resulted in excellent growth of various crops. In 2008, the grain output was a record 231 million tonnes. But owing to an acute shortage of proper storage facilities in these intensive agricultural belts, the crops have rotted while people in most other parts of the country had been suffering from hunger and high food prices. When the Supreme Court of India had directed the India Government to release about 2.5 million tons of grains to feed the country’s poor population during the next six months to come, the government had been unable to do so citing high transportation costs and presence of generous food subsidies to the poor as reasons. The Supreme Court had not taken kindly to these excuses, especially when it was ‘politely’ asked to stay out of the complicated realms of governmental policy making.
Earlier also, the court had asked the government to tackle the slowly aggravating problem of grain shortage but the government had not taken any significant action. As a result, about 50,000 tons of wheat have already been found to have rotted (though there are conflicting reports stating different figures). The Food Corporation of India had been asked time and again to modernize its storage and distribution facilities but it too has been making excuses in order to exempt itself from the humongous task of distributing the grain to feed the lakhs of hungry poor across the country.
The reason for this noticeable government apathy is that the government may not be willing to bear the extra expenses that will be incurred during transporting this surplus food to various parts of the country, especially the remote areas. The state of Punjab which had benefitted the most from the Green Revolution alone needs storage capacity for about 7.56 lakh ton grains. It has admitted that it lacks in the necessary infrastructure to store the excess grain. Also, the cost of construction and uniform distribution is also too high for the court directive to be implemented.
The government had earlier sanctioned the construction of about a capacity of 150 lakh ton storage sites but only a meager 0.1% of the project has come into existence. Government figures state that the country has a grain stock of about 60.4 million tons which is about 26 millions in excess of the quantity required to maintain a suitable buffer stock. The government officials have also complained that it would take about Rs.27 crore per day to distribute this surplus crop – a cost which is difficult for the country’s economy to sustain.
As a result, tonnes of grains have already deteriorated; despite the FCI’s claim that it had taken adequate steps to ensure that even if the food grains were kept in the open, there were proper precautions against insects, rats and the rain, these measures were found lacking in the storage sites.
So ultimately whatever grain is reaching the poorer sections of the society is also of extremely poor quality, thereby inviting the wrath of the common people as well as the local opposition politicians who want to cash in on the situation and make the government appear in poor light. Then there are private traders who try to increase the prices of food in the absence of good quality food grains.
History bears testimony to the government mismanagement in food grains storage which had resulted in devastation as terrible as the 1943 Bengal famine with a record death figure of 3 million. It was found out that despite having sufficient food grain, a lack of distribution measure, hoarding and the overall panic that ensued from are some of the reasons that made the situation spiral out of control thereby resulting in the famine.
According to media reports, the government has always grappled with food security issues. Even way back in the mid 1950’s, it was faced with the issue of nationwide starvation and had imported food grains from the USA. Food shortage leads to high food prices. Hence the government seems to prefer stocking excess food grains at the risk of rotting and quality deterioration rather than risk running out of food. But even if it is stocking food grains, these are not coming into use when the country actually stands the risk of food crises.
Economists have suggested a somewhat decentralized model of food production for the country to reduce the cost of transporting food grains and the need for storing them for long; by spreading food cultivation uniformly over the country, the government will not only save a substantial amount of money that goes into warehousing and reduce the time required for distribution, it can also ensure that the crops are actually reaching the beneficiaries.
The government also needs to keep track of the country’s gross consumption figures and then store only what is in excess, instead of storing majority of the grains and depriving the poor people.
Most importantly, India needs new and sufficient storage facilities. The government has already approved of the construction of 13 lakh tonnes of storage capacity to tackle this problem. But it needs to be seen that the plan is effected. India has more than enough food grains to sustain its billion strong population. So citing poor production as the reason behind the hunger problem is laughable indeed. What the government needs to do is come up with a creative solution to this problem and make sure that corruption and bureaucracy are not bottlenecking the path to progress. Otherwise the deep-seated anger and frustration of the deprived people are bound to erupt one day and we run the risk of facing nothing short of a civil war leading to extreme anarchy and ouster of the government. Such a situation is undesirable; hence the government must act before it’s too late.
ImgÂ ByÂ World Bank Photo Collection