Punjab's grain drain: No lessons learnt

Punjab's grain drain: No lessons learnt

Punjab's grain drain: No lessons learnt

For a nation bracing a record bumper harvest for the third consecutive year, it should ideally be time to celebrate. But that isn’t the case. Travel across Punjab and Haryana food markets and its not hard to understand why. Warehouses are overflowing with stock of previous seasons’ grain and fresh arrivals cannot be accommodated unless already stored mountains of stock are cleared. Huge quantities of wheat and rice stored in fields in the open under tarpaulins and thin plastic sheets, over plinths, are left to rot.

In a country, where as per the United Nations World Food Program report, over 2.5 million people die of hunger every year and one-third of the world’s hungry live here, wheat stocks left to rot is as sinful as it could get. As India braces for its highest ever record production by the end of the season, it seems the government is unwilling to learn lessons from the past. It’s a vicious circle that comes to perpetually haunt at the end of each season. The problem they all know, but what eludes is a viable solution to the problem of grossly inadequate storage of food crop.
As per estimates, Punjab has no place to stock more than half its produce. Half of its fresh crop cannot be pushed into already overflowing warehouses. It has to be kept ‘unscientifically’ in the open each season.

That’s because the existing warehouses are all full and still to be cleared of stock of previous years to make way for new arrivals. Unless that happens, wheat stock will continue to rot and the hurting figure of 2.5 millions dying of hunger each year will only mount the guilt.

Punjab has already broken its previous record of high produce. Close to 130 lakh MT of wheat has already been procured by central and state agencies till now - a triumph that brings with it a problem of plenty.

The dusty lanes in Chaswal village in Patiala district of Punjab meander in sweltering heat, driving you down to a state-owned warehouse, one of many in Punjab. The problem which our netas and babus, perhaps, know but haven’t acted upon with utmost priority, is not difficult to figure out. At this warehouse, hundreds of metric tons of wheat had been rotting for the past four years.

What could have fed several hungry mouths is today food for worms, rodents and emanates a pungent stink. A thin layer of tarpaulin is all that has been there in the name of protection from heavy rains, dust storms, cold and heat. The simple solution was to relocate the stock to make way for fresh stock. But that didn’t happen. The government focus is on increasing production, not on storage. The warehouse in Chaswal village is just one of the many cases in Punjab that bring to the fore the colossal waste of grain in the world’s largest democracy.

The mandate by the Supreme Court last year looked like a way out. The Apex court had observed that the mountains of wheat stock be distributed to the poor instead of letting it rot and go waste. But that too hasn’t had the desired effect. Here’s what gives one an idea of India’s arguably unsustainable model of procurement and distribution amid mounting farmers’ woes.

Punjab and Haryana together were responsible for causing damage to as much as 76,762 tons of  wheat during 2011-12, rendering it unsuitable for human consumption, Food Minister K V Thomas recently informed the Rajya Sabha. Central procurement agency FCI lost 3,338 tons foodgrain during the fiscal, he added. Going by last year’s figures, over 66,000 tons of the winter crop stored by state agencies in Punjab and 10,456 tons in Haryana was damaged in 2011-12.

The problem in bread baskets Punjab and Haryana - the two northern states that account for nearly 70 per cent of traditional crop production - was both inherent and imminent. Here’s why.

Experts believe that this year, the procurement would go up to 135 lakh metric ton (LMT), crossing last year’s procurement record of 110 LMT. As of now, Punjab only has covered storage capacity of about 94 LMT. Another 106 LMT is not covered space but plinth space where stocks are piled up in the open.

The worrisome part is that the given available space still has enormous paddy stock (taking up more than half the space) of the last season and seasons before that, besides wheat stock of previous years. Unless that’s cleared, the problem will persist, Hamir Singh, a Chandigarh-based farm expert told Deccan Herald. The situation is much the same in neighbouring Haryana. With crops already lying in godowns, Haryana is also finding it hard to store wheat.

Akali Dal MP from Rajya Sabha Naresh Gujral said that since grain storage houses are very expensive to build, a public-private partnership model is the only way forward. Better storage facilities are an absolute must in the long term, he said, adding that foodgrains could also be used as part of MGNREGS workers’ wages. “At least, grains will reach the hungry before they rot,’’ he reasons.

Word of caution

Huge quantities of stock without adequate storage space warrants far greater caution. And none other than Dr M S Swaminathan, acclaimed as the father of the Green Revolution, has expressed concern over crop quality. He observed that the impact of moisture on the quality of paddy was worrisome. Malathion sprays and fumigation with aluminium sulphide tablets are being used to prevent grain spoilage, he said.

Both Punjab and Haryana are paying the price for high production. Ground water table in both states is depleting fast, courtesy the over exploitation of groundwater for irrigation. “Water table in 82 per cent area of Punjab and 63 per cent in Haryana has gone down substantially,” a field survey by the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS) recently pointed out.

 The study has inferred that due to subsidised power supply to agricultural sector in Punjab, the number of tubewells in the state increased from about 17,000 in 1967 to more than 9 lakh in recent years.

PIL against waste of storage space

A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed in the Punjab and Haryana High Court this week alleges red tape and laxity in use of storage space for foodgrains in Punjab. The PIL alleged that at least 27 godowns built through private-public participation in Punjab are ready but not put to use even as wheat is left in the open. Counsel for the petitioner H C Arora said notices to Punjab government and PUNGRAIN, a state government agency, have been issued on the PIL which alleges the state agency of deliberately not cooperating with FCI in storage of foodgrains in the newly constructed godowns.

The petitioner has stated that these godowns with capacity of more than 3 lakh metric tons were constructed by private parties in pursuance of tenders issued by PUNGRAIN, at the instance of FCI.


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