Poverty and rotting food

Problem of distribution

Amidst all the raging controversy and debates over wasted grains and hungry people, the supreme court certainly created quite a flutter by asking the government to provide foodgrains free to the poor. “Give it to the hungry poor instead of it going down the drain,” a bench of justices Dalveer Bhandari and Deepak Verma had said in an order on Aug 31 following reports of food wastage.

The court was reacting to the government’s refusal to distribute the grain among the poor while it rotted. Later, however, the court accepted the government’s stand that it was making efforts to arrange better distribution of food to BPL families, though not free of cost.

 Ironically, while India is riding a wave of complacency on the food front with the grain silos bursting, Mozambique faced deadly food riots in the first few days of September over the bread prices jumping up by 30 per cent. There is anger building up in Pakistan, Egypt and Siberia over rising prices following the ban on wheat export extended by Russia. FAO has called for an emergency meeting to discuss the far-reaching consequences of yet another emerging food crisis.

In India, after dragging his feat for long, finally agriculture minister Sharad Pawar fell in line. An empowered group of ministers (EGoM), headed by finance minister Pranab Mukherjee that met on Sept 2 has come out with the promise of revamping the rotten Public Distribution System (PDS) and has also promised to make an additional allocation of 25 lakh tonnes of grains at below the poverty line price. This will be done in the next six months.

This can happen only in a democracy. For at least three decades now I have been writing about the wastage of foodgrains in godowns. Lakhs of tonnes of foodgrain have been rotting in the open year after year, and none of the successive governments had made any serious effort to minimise the damage. I only hope the supreme court’s directive forces the government to take necessary steps to stop wastage of stored food.

For the past two years there has been an intense debate over the issue of rotting foodgrains and millions going to bed hungry. And yet, the nation is still not sure as to what to do to ensure household food security. At present 6.52 crore families are categorised as below the poverty line, and the government has finally accepted economist Suresh Tendulkar’s committee report which has pegged the BPL population at 37.2 per cent, in other words, 8.14 crore families.

Poor affected

I find the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council (NAC) still grappling with a way out to ensure food security while the ministry of food and agriculture is insisting that providing a monthly ration of 35 kg to the population computed to be below the poverty line is the answer. The issue has got so polarised that I have a strong feeling that between the wrangling of the NAC and the ministry, the poor will eventually remain hungry.

The NAC is insisting on universalisation of the public distribution system, which means every family should be entitled to receive subsidies grains. This I think is rather unfair. There is no need for a universal PDS as it would provide a licence for the grain traders to make a killing. The supreme court would do well to consider the more plausible approach by raising the upper limit of the beneficiaries in the sense that instead of 37.2 per cent, it needs to include 55 per cent of the population (which means following the UNDP estimate of poverty in India) as those who should get the food ration.

Such an approach will automatically include all those cases which are on the border line, and at the same time help plug the foodgrain leakage into the open market. At the same time, it will also ensure that the proposed National Food Security Act is not a half-hearted attempt.

Unfortunately, the proposed National Food Security Act is a stand alone programme. It fails to go beyond the quota of ration each family needs to receive. It fails to integrate agriculture with food security. Unless we make a sincere attempt to make a historical correction about our perception of food security in the long-term, I fear sooner than later the supreme court may have to step in again.

Perhaps one way of looking at food security is to follow what Chhatisgarh has done in the past four years. It has been giving 35 kg of wheat and rice to the ultra-poor at Re 1 per kg; and to the poor at Rs 2 a kg against the market price of Rs 12-17 per kg. This way, Chhatisgarh reaches 36 lakh households out of the 44 lakh existing households. This can be replicated, in varying degrees, as and when the Centre rolls out a national food security programme on similar lines.

Chhatisgarh relies on what is called local production-local procurement and local distribution model. It procures paddy directly from farmers, buying through cooperative societies and procurement centres at the village level. This is a sure method of ensuring that food is not wasted in procurement and storage, and reaching food to the needy.

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