February 14, 2020
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Something Is Rotten

The poor stare vacantly as a food-surplus nation lets its stock spoil in the open

Something Is Rotten
Prabhjot Singh Gill
Something Is Rotten

Systemic Failure

  • Despite record procurement, poor storage has led to a criminal waste of grain
  • 61,000 tonnes of grain rotted as it was left in the open during the monsoon
  • The FCI had shut down storage facilities after low procurement in 2006-07
  • The plan for decentralised storage facilities is 40 years old. It’s still hanging fire.
  • EGoM did not clear the surplus grains for the PDS since it would have added   Rs 5,000 crore to the food subsidy bill


Despite the record procurement of 608.79 lakh tonnes of rice and wheat last month, more than 40 per cent of the population goes hungry and 46 per cent of the country’s children are malnourished. As if that wasn’t burden enough of guilt, reports have come over the last fortnight of government agencies leaving thousands of tonnes of foodgrain to rot in the open. India, meanwhile, has also been emerging as a leading exporter of foodgrain—sending huge consignments to poor African nations through cartels (See ‘The Rice Scam’, Outlook, July 27, 2009) that batten up in the name of charity.

The mountains of mouldy grain, in Punjab, Haryana and elsewhere, amount to some 61,000 tonnes, and could have fed at least 120 lakh people for a month. Sources say the figure could be several thousand tonnes higher. But the government did nothing about storing the grain properly to save it. Neither the Centre nor any of the states considered the option of distributing the grain to the needy through the PDS.

In March this year—months before the monsoon arrived and rendered the grain inedible by the official yardstick of no more than two monsoons, or one year, in the open under tarps—the Union food ministry and the Food Corporation of India (FCI) had suggested that 50 lakh tonnes be released to the poorest districts. The empowered group of ministers (EGoM) headed by finance minister Pranab Mukherjee rejected the suggestion. Sources say this was because it would have added as much as Rs 5,000 crore to the food subsidy bill.

This March, the food ministry had suggested releasing 50 lakh MT to the poorest districts. The EGoM vetoed it.

“The country should get its priorities right,” says Dr M.S. Swaminathan, a renowned agriculture scientist. “It’s a shame. If it cannot save its foodgrain for the needy, the state should not be talking of a food security law. Providing food should be the priority. Instead, the government has chosen to focus on airports and the Commonwealth Games.” He wants a parliamentary committee to investigate the wastage.

To judge the degree of carelessness and callousness this inaction exemplifies, consider all that the government did do, once the wastage was revealed: it merely acknowledged the fact. No investigation, as a system, of what preventive measures could have been taken. Or of possible schedules for transporting grain from bounteous states to those facing a shortage. This isn’t a one-off failure; it is of a piece with a decades-long narrative of ignoring priorities.

In 1979, to prevent the negation of the hugely successful Green Revolution through improper storage of grain, the Save Grain Campaign was proposed. It envisaged 50 grain storage structures across the country, each with a capacity of 1 million tonnes. The idea was to decentralise storage—eventually creating storage units right down to the block level of the districts—and obviate the problems of long-distance transport. Had it been in place, this year’s colossal wastage of grain may not have happened.

But over the years, governments have remained myopic. A note from the department of food & public distribution to the EGoM, which met on March 18, reveals the extent of the present government’s mismanagement and lack of planning. It states that low procurement of grain in 2006-08 resulted in the dehiring of storage facilities—FCI has been hiring from private players since 2000—after a parliamentary committee and the Comptroller & Auditor General raised objections to the wasteful expenditure of keeping several  godowns idle. And now, less than two years on, the FCI finds itself complaining of inadequate capacity.

For a government that never loses an opportunity to raise a toast to the aam aadmi, there are difficult questions to answer. Why did it take more than two years to distribute the foodgrains from surplus states like Haryana and Punjab to states that required them? If the figures are anything to go by, there was record procurement of wheat and rice in the last three years as a result of which the central pool stocks reached 608.79 lakh tonnes last month.

But can the nation really talk about surplus stocks if all the hungry are fed? Swaminathan says that there  would be very little stock left if that really happens. Preposterous as it may seem, much of the debate on food security has centred on how to arrive at poverty estimates. Who are the poor? Three panels have come with figures varying from 36 per cent (Planning Commission) and 44 per cent (the Tendulkar committee) to a high of 77 per cent (the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector). The EGoM also decided to go by the Planning Commission figures and has asked for a ceiling on the number of poor. Clearly the government, keen on a targeted PDS to escape its social obligations and keep its food bill low, is trying to keep the number of  people deemed “poor” at a minimum. Agriculture experts say this is a crying shame.

The National Advisory Council (NAC) had proposed to initiate the first phase of a universal PDS under the proposed food security bill by covering the poorest of districts. Unfortunately, the EGoM has so far chosen not to take it forward.

The Supreme Court has once again intervened and asked the central government to explain how foodgrain was allowed to rot in the open. It all sounds like a familiar debate that started in 2001, when the court decreed that the right to life has to be read as the “right to a life with dignity”, and with the responsibility of securing minimal nutritional requirements for citizens resting with the state. Nine years down the line, the state seems to have a different priority list. The poor, it seems, can wait. The hungry can rot.

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