Fixing responsibility for foodgrain wastage

Fixing responsibility for foodgrain wastage

At a time the UPA government is struggling to fine-tune its ambitious Food Security Act (which guarantees 25 kg of wheat or rice at Rs 3 per kg), the wastage of wheat has put the government in a tight spot.

Even when the Centre has been boasting itself about making record procurement, it has failed to offer a credible answer to why foodgrain damage continues and why it no responsibility is yet to be fixed for the colossal waste.

It was estimated that around 50,000 tonne of wheat stored in various godowns of the Food Corporation of India (FCI) in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh was damaged last month due to poor storage facilities. Though the FCI, a Central government undertaking, has claimed the damage was meagre compared to the quantity of the grain it handles a year, the question is, is this sheer wastage justifiable when more than 40 per cent of the population goes hungry and 46 per cent of the country’s children are malnourished?

The country procured over 610 lakh tonne of rice and wheat till last month and of this around 170 lakh tonne of wheat was stored in the open in the absence of covered storage facilities. Consequently, the wheat got damaged due to rain.

The FCI has been storing wheat in the open where ever it did not have proper godowns called cover and plinth (CAP) system. According to CAP, for foodgrains stored on elevated plinth and wooden crates, the stacks should be properly covered with specifically fabricated low-density black polythene waterproof covers and tied with nylon ropes and nets.

“As per the CAP system foodgrain can be stored without causing any damage for up to a-year-and-a-half,” officials in the Union food ministry. However, they do admit that callousness among officials in the godowns also contributes to foodgrains rotting.

What is shocking is that while the government knew that it would procure more grain from farmers, it clearly failed to address the issue of warehouse shortage facilities. When grain procurement was increased in 1999, the FCI hired a number of godowns from private parties.

It kept most of the godowns under its control it despite reducing procurement over the years and promptly received the wrath of a parliamentary committee and the Comptroller and Auditor General. Both raised objections to the wasteful expenditure of keeping several godowns idle. In 2003, the FCI returned all hired godowns to the private parties. And now, less than two years on, the FCI finds itself complaining of inadequate capacity.

“When it again tried to hire godowns from private parties in 2008-09 to store excess procured grain, it did not get the required number of warehouses which ultimately led the corporation to store large quantities of grain on open ground,” said a food ministry official.

Save Grain campaign

In 1979, the ‘Save Grain’ campaign was proposed in an attempt to prevent damage after the successful Green Revolution. It envisaged 50 grain storage structures across the country, each with a capacity of 10 lakh tonne.

The plan was to decentralise storage — eventually creating storage units at the block level — and remove the problem of long-distance transport. The proposal was not properly implemented. Had the plan been in place, this year’s wastage could have been prevented.

On the policy side, the FCI stopped constructing its own godowns some years ago, except in the north-east. Thus, it had to depend on private storage facilities for whatever extra foodgrain it procured. Though the food ministry announced in 2000 to encourage private parties to build godowns under public-private partnership, it did not receive encouraging response from private firms. Now the government has modified its policy and wants to give a 10-year rent guarantee to private firms if they build godowns.

As Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chattisgarh and Gujarat are major wheat procurement states, the Centre hopes more private firms will collaborate to build grain storage facilities in these states.

Another major problem the FCI is encountering is that it does not have decision-making powers. Though a public sector undertaking, it functions like any other government department. For every decision it has to look to the food ministry. Now, after constitution of the Empowered Group of Ministers (EGOM), headed by Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, the FCI has to take all decisions once the ministerial panel grants approval.

Sensing trouble over the wastage that has come to public notice, the food ministry has suggested that 50 lakh tonne should be released to the poorest districts. However, fearing an increase in the Food Subsidy Bill this suggestion was shot down by the finance ministry.

While the National Advisory Council (NAC), headed by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, has proposed initiating the first phase of a universal PDS under the proposed Food Security Bill by covering the poorest districts in the country, the government is still in the process of implementing it. But the immediate question before the government and Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar is how fast the Centre administration will ensure that food will not rot and hungry mouths are fed?

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