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INDIA: Save food from rotting and people from starving

INDIA: Save food from rotting and people from starving

Thanks to promising monsoons, India is all set for a bumper harvest. This seemingly good news, however, has a caveat to it. To begin with, an open procurement policy based on government announced minimum support price the government is duty bound to buy all foodgrain that reaches its Krishak Mandis (farmers’ markets). The Food Corporation of India (FCI), the central agency for procurement and storage, is already bursting at the seams holding 65 lakh tones, almost double of its storage capacity of 35 million tonnes through 1820 godowns scattered across India. FCI’s storage capacity is roughly the same as the buffer stock and strategic reserve norms of Indian government that pegs it at around 32 million tonnes.

Therein lays the first sham that India lives with: the sham of being a country holding almost double the buffer stock and yet having 42% of its children, and equally sizeable section of its adult population severely malnourished. Add to this the fact that lakhs of tonnes of food grain rots in godown because of poor maintenance, and the criminal culpability of the Indian state in keeping its citizens hungry becomes evident. Even the most conservative estimates put the damaged food grain between 2005 and 2013 at 194,502 metric tonnes. The tragic irony in this data was not lost on the Supreme Court of India which ordered the government to distribute food grain to poor at ‘no’ or very low cost on 12 August, 2013. The then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, however, refused to execute the order citing the logistical issues involved as well as arguing that it will take the incentive of production away from the farmers.

Coming back to the predicament this year, most of the procured grains will be put in the temporary storage facility like Covered and Plinth (CAP) and will eventually rot. It is time that the government gets its act together to not merely increase its storage capacity, but also decentralize it. As of now, transporting the procured grains to godowns and then back to public distribution shops costs a lot to the exchequer; a loss that can be easily saved by decentralizing the storage down to the district level.

The new government of India should take immediate notice of the situation and release the FCI stocks for the poor and hungry instead of feeding it to rats. It goes without saying that allowing the waste to continue will cause food inflation that hurts the poor and vulnerable the most.

The government should also come up with a comprehensive agricultural policy with emphasis on non-grain food produce, like potatoes, to counteract current market risks that scare many of the farmers off producing them. Poor storage facilities coupled with smaller shelf value of such produce forces the farmers to sell them at very low costs to the hoarders only to buy them back at much higher prices. Just to cite an example, farmers had to dump tonnes and tonnes of potatoes on the roads as their market value was less than the storage cost. Indian agriculture is in a dire need of diversification, getting rid of lobbies with vested interests and hoarders and support from the state. The process must begin now.


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