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India's food crisis: Rotting food-grains, hungry people

April 01, 2013 14:55 IST

India has the largest population of hungry in the world at a time when there is no shortage of food within the country. It is time the government affords priority to food storage and distribution, says Devinder Sharma.

Nothing can explain this strange and criminal paradox of plenty. More than 45 years after the Green Revolution; India provides a unique spectre of overflowing godowns and rotting grains on the one hand while millions go to bed hungry. Having the largest population of hungry in the world, India ranks 66 among 105 countries in the 2012 Global Hunger Index. That too at a time when there is no shortage of food within the country.

To get rid of the huge stocks, India has aggressively resorted to food exports. While rice exports have touched 10 million tonnes, making India the world’s biggest rice exporter, close to 9.5 million tonnes of wheat has also been exported this fiscal. And yet, grain stocks remain unmanageable.  

With over 44 million tonnes of wheat expected to be procured once the procurement season begins officially from April, India will be saddled with a massive and unprecedented food-grain (rice and wheat) stock of over 100 million tonnes. Already, as on March 1, the Food Corporation of India was holding 62.8 million tonnes of grains -- 27.1 million tonnes of wheat and 35.7 million tonnes of rice -- good enough to meet the country’s food requirement for another year. Storing an additional 44 million tonnes is simply going to be a nightmare. While the all-time high production and procurement is a historic milestone, it provides an equally daunting task for the government agencies to store it, and store it safely.

Punjab Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal has already blamed the Centre for not providing enough incentives and investment to procure and store food-grains. “We are looking for space in sugar mills, yards and even in rice mills. It’s going to be very tough,” a visibly worried D S Grewal, principal secretary in Punjab’s food and civil supplies department, told a newspaper. Against an expectation of 14 million tonnes of wheat to be purchased, Punjab has space to keep only 6 million tonnes.

Although Punjab has a total food storage space for 23 million tonnes, including 12 million tonnes under what is popularly called CAP storage -- on open plinths -- the grain silos are bursting at the seams with food stocks from the purchases made in the previous year’s lying in the open.  

In Madhya Pradesh, fast emerging as the next wheat bowl of the country, there is space only for about 50 per cent of the expected 13 million tonnes that is likely to be procured by official agencies. Madhya Pradesh has beaten Haryana, which is expecting a procurement of 8.6 million tonnes, to the third spot in producing wheat surplus. “We are looking at even school premises and some government buildings for stocking wheat. We have no other option,” said a senior state official. Since wheat harvests begin early in central India, procurement is already in full swing in over 2,770 purchase centres that have been set up in the state. Not only Punjab and Madhya Pradesh, heavy arrivals are expected from Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Bihar.

Nothing can explain this gross food mismanagement. For almost 30 years now, successive governments have failed to accord any priority to food storage and distribution. As early as in 1979, under a ‘grow more food’ campaign launched by the ministry of agriculture, the need for setting up 50 grain silos across the country was envisaged. The underlying objective was to reduce the burden for stockholding of wheat by the producing states by building a network of grain storage capacity across the country, which would also be used for effective distribution among the poor.

It’s all a question of priority. Food has never been on the top of the national agenda. In the past few years, the United Progressive Alliance has made massive investment in building 2.5 lakh panchayat ghars. These panchayat structures have been provided with a computer link-up and are also being dotted with solar power. Isn’t it strange that while the government has the resources to build panchayat ghars, it has no money to construct warehouses across the country?

Still worse, since 2004-05, UPA has doled out Rs 32 lakh-crore by way of tax exemptions to corporates, trade and business. These exemptions are clubbed under the category ‘revenue foregone’ in the budget documents. For 2013-14, the ‘revenue foregone’ is Rs 5.73 lakh crore.

The entire food production and distribution system therefore needs an urgent overhaul. If only the government was to focus on agricultural production, procurement and distribution in a decentralised manner, much of the agrarian crisis would disappear. Also, no country can claim to be a superpower with millions living in hunger. Therefore the need is to follow a four-pronged approach:

Set up a wide network of mandis (markets) and temporary purchase centres across Bihar, eastern Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Odisha, Assam and the other northeasern states. Extending the Green Revolution to the northeast has already increased rice production, but farmers are resorting to distress sale getting about 20 to 30 per cent less because of the absence of procurement centres.  

Madhya Pradesh has shown that providing a bonus of Rs 150 per quintal over the procurement price of Rs 1,350 a quintal has provided an incentive to farmers to produce more. A higher minimum support price for wheat and rice, and also extending it to pulses, millets and fodder would shift focus to other crops essential for maintaining nutritional security.

At least Rs 1 lakh crore be immediately taken out of the ‘revenue foregone’ category, and invested in setting up a network of grain silos, warehouses and godowns across 50 centres in the country. All this is doable provided food is accorded priority in national thinking and planning.

Stop food exports. It does not make any economic sense for a hungry nation to export food while millions go empty stomach.

Devinder Sharma