Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar recently said that in case of famine, India has enough food reserves. What he did not clarify is that how much of that reserve is palatable.
Though India officially maintains a food security reserve of three million tons of wheat and two million tons of rice, media has pointed out that more than one third of these reserves are always in rotten state – unfit for human consumption. The same goes for “buffer stocks” that in 2010 had stockpiled to 27.7 million tons of wheat and 7.2 million tons of rice.
One estimate says the total food-grains in India stockpiled since mid 2009 have been built up to over 50 million tons – much more than what the government can distribute through their programs. Today they reportedly stand at 55 million tons. Of course what actually is on ground and in what condition is an altogether different issue? India admitted in 2010 over 16.8 million tons of food grain reserves were lying in the open subject to vagaries of weather. The Food Corporation of India is responsible for storing the grain as well as procuring and distributing it. Their total covered capacity is only 25 million tons and no additional capacity has been added in last 25 years. Why then are we stockpiling food grains at such levels? The answer is clear – thousands of crores are involved and unlimited scope of manipulation.
A conservative estimate puts the cost of food grains currently lying unprotected in approximate region of 30,000 to 40,000 crores. Though officials admit about 6 million tons of grain may perish, others estimate beyond 20 million tons as the monsoon hits the stocks. The shocking part is that the government is not bothered and whenever the agriculture minister is confronted, he shrugs off the issue saying next year things will be better. Home Minister Chidambaram (now shifted to Finance Ministry) had recently said, “When the urban middle class can buy a bottle of water for Rupees 15 and ice cream for Rupees 20, why do they make so much noise about price rise?” Marie Antoinette seems to be in good company with Chidambaram who clearly thinks people can live on water and ice-cream. He has obviously never needed to buy vegetables and other eatables.
Periodically, the media has shown rotting food grain reserves including recently in Rajasthan, Bihar, UP and Punjab but the government is unmoved. Barbs are hurled conveniently at concerned states but isn’t FCI a Central Government responsibility? Why is Sharad Pawar silent on this issue? Someone needs to examine this great food reserve scam. It is not without reason that media reports talk of rotting grains being diverted to breweries and grain meant to be sold through Public Distribution System and welfare schemes being sold on the sly in black market through organized media with political connivance.
How much of food grains are procured under welfare and poverty alleviation schemes is unclear but it would surely get a whopping jump with the Food Security Bill. Now as per Planning Commission’s own admission of every one rupee spent only paise 17 reach the ground. Rupees 1,85,000 crores were reportedly spent by the government on poverty alleviation schemes during 2011-2012; applying the Planning Commission matrix of 17 percent, only Rupees 34,450 has reached the ground and balance 83 percent (a whopping Rupees 1,50,550 crores) has been consumed by what the Planning Commission terms as ‘administration’. Similarly, one may assume that only 17 percent of food grains meant for the beneficiaries reach them, if one believes the government figures. Balance 83 percent is available in black market? Same will be the fate of the Food Security Bill. Ask the common man on the street and he tells you this is one of the government’s ways to stock up money for future elections and fattening individual accounts abroad.
To top this is the policy of buying all wheat and rice at the same price irrespective of quality that not only discourages farmers to improve quality but results in large stockpiles of poor quality, rotting and inedible grain because of lack of adequate storage space. We can assume that some of the rotting food is taking up precious storage space while fresh crops are being dumped in the open.
India remains unconcerned about being constantly rated 134th in the world for last several years in terms of HDI and similarly 95th ranking with a 3.1 rating amongst 178 countries in Corruption Perception Index, latter by Transparency International. It is said that the health of any economy and society lies in the health of its generation. According to the 2011 Hunger and Malnutrition survey conducted by the Nandi Foundation, 42 percent of Indian children are underweight – almost double the rate of sub-Saharan Africa. The survey, which examined the nutritional status of almost 1,10,000 children across the country, said the consequences of this "nutrition crisis" were enormous. India's "unacceptably high" levels of child malnutrition are a "national shame", Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently said that almost half the children in the country were still under-weight despite two decades of rapid economic growth.
Today, we not only hold millions of tons of rotting food grains but also lose 30 percent of fruit and vegetables without adequate storage. Manmohan Singh may have been rated an “underachiever” by Time magazine and little action has been taken to come out with any realistic BPL figures, hopefully he has not lost his humane touch to feed India’s starving millions. Perhaps the media will need to unearth the food grain reserve scam to certain levels before the Prime Minister directs the Agriculture Ministry to wake up from their slumber. Ironically, a mere food security bill will only amount to more hunger, more money making and sinking further in the corruption perception index.