Empty stomachs, rotting food stocks

The destruction of food stocks in Food Corporation of India (FCI) warehouses made headlines in newspapers. The supreme court had to intervene to issue a stern warning to the government to put an end to the wastage of the foodgrains. It also asked the government to distribute the stocks to the poor and malnourished.

This is not the first time the apex court has given such strong warnings. In the past it has asked the Centre to initiate actions, which had been deliberately ignored. It is a national shame that even for routine government functioning, especially in case of grain storage, the judiciary has to intervene.

Good and normal monsoons over the years have helped produce foodgrains output to 231 million tonnes in 2008. As we claim ourselves as super power in waiting, the rampant malnutrition and prevalence of anaemic children and women to the extent of 48 per cent of population is a definitive indicator that we have failed to feed the empty stomachs. Under such critical circumstance, it is a criminal act to waste foodgrains.

Antiquated methods

Ironically our food storage methods are not only inadequate but also antiquated. In tropical climate, there is acute need to invent methods of food storage that can deal with the high moisture content leading to fungus and damage by rodents.

Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI) made the Central and state government aware of the problems of food storage way back in 1956. “If the problem persists after warning was issued more than five decades ago, it only means that government is not serious in shoring up the storage facilities to keep up with the
expanding production” said Dr Parpia, former director of CFTRI.

Obviously, the government was warned in advance of the impending storage crisis, but the intentional neglect on the part of the food and civil supplies ministry and the causal approach of the Planning Commission is a clear indicator of non-performance. They have miserably failed to provide policy support towards strengthening the food security.

The food ministry is hiring space from private operators to store food by paying higher rent. At the same time there are reports of state warehousing corporations renting out the storage facilities to multinational corporations. These contradictory facts reveal the failure of the ad hoc policies of the food ministry in augmenting the crisis of food storage.
These facts prove the insensitivity of the rulers and the bureaucrats in dealing with the essential commodities like food crops. They neither care for the farmers who produce the food nor are they interested in helping the poor to ease their hunger. The farmers produce food with their hard-earned labour and scarce financial resources, but instead of feeding the hungry stomachs it gets destroyed thanks to the policies of the government.

Though the wastage of foodgrains is estimated to be Rs 60,000 crore annually, in real terms the cost will be much higher. We need to add the costs of growing these crops, input costs for fertilisers, power, cost of water, and the labour costs of farmers. After adding these costs, the estimate of the loss incurred due to foodgrains wasted in the country would be much more. This is twice the amount of the food subsidy costs incurred in a year.
Being an agricultural country, each region in India has evolved storage methods to preserve foodgrains. In villages we have grain gola, made from wood or local material like bamboo that protects the grain from moisture and rodents. In most cases they use neem leaves or plant based pest resistant methods to repel pests and fungus. However, these silo like structures are small and they are suitable for storing village produce for a year or two. We need to build on these traditional solutions of grain storage.

Production of mountains of grain through intensive methods of high input agriculture calls for a different approach towards food storage. The creation of grain silos as in the western countries is one of the answers to storing foodgrains for longer time. Though capital intensive, this method helps to prevent the moisture and control rodents. In contrast to this, in majority of the cases, grain is stored in open in jute gunny bags, which cannot prevent the moisture and can easily be destroyed by rodents and pests.
The best solution is convergence of traditional and modern methods of storage.

Decentralised production, procurement and storage of foodgrains at village level with community support and large-scale grain silos in regions like Punjab and Haryana is an ideal solution. Adopting these policies will help reduce the losses and store food stocks for a longer time.

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