Covered by plastic sheets in a football-field-sized area, the black mountain is a formidable presence amid the rolling fields of wheat ripening under a warm March sun.
Under its tarpaulin sheets, Fatehgarh Sahib’s mountain, 40 km west of state capital Chandigarh, stores wheat harvested three years ago.
The wheat bags have holes and rats run riot. This is part of India’s federal reserve of grain, to be stocked in a warehouse to feed the poor.
Out in the open, it quietly turns to garbage in a granary state that has more hungry people than 33 developing countries.
As India prepares for a record 2010 wheat harvest, many times more than the nation’s needs, the field of grain here in the eastern district of Fatehgarh Sahib is one of hundreds across Punjab. The black mountain — if it doesn’t completely rot away — holds enough grain to feed 300,000 people.
It hides the nation’s inability to store its plentiful food, one of the challenges ahead for Congress President Sonia Gandhi as she prepares to pilot a national effort to get food to the poor where and when they need it.
The annual test begins on April 1 as procurement, the process of buying foodgrain from farmers for national food stocks, begins at Ludhiana’s Khanna Mandi, Asia’s biggest grain market.
The portents for this year are as grim as ever. Officials expect 11 million tonnes of wheat from a bumper harvest from Punjab alone. With the state's storage capacity being 18 million tonnes (of which space for 13 million tonnes is already occupied), Punjab needs to create room for 6 million tonnes.
Across India, unless the government finds a solution, rot and rodents will claim 20 million tonnes, or a tenth of the total harvest.
These lost grains are keeping millions hungry: India ranks 66 out of 88 countries on the 2008 Global Hunger Index.
“We are doing our best to prevent further damage,” said Rattan Mittal, general manager, procurement, Punjab Agro Ltd, one of seven agencies that buy wheat and rice for the Food Corporation of India (FCI), which never moved the mountain at Fatehgarh Sahib for distribution.
Mittal said Punjab Agro hopes to hire panchayat (village council) land to store the grain that will spill out of warehouses this year.
Nearly 20 km north of Fatehgarh Sahib, a whole stadium-sized depot of openly stored grains risks contamination from a junkyard of food debris. Punjab stores 80 per cent of its grain in the open, said Mittal.
Getting the math right
How much foodgrain does India waste every year?
The FCI, the government company that manages foodstocks, isn’t particularly willing to answer that.
It took a right-to-information query in 2008 to force an answer: between 1997 and 2007, more than 1.3 million tonnes of grain (130,000 truckloads) decayed in storage. The government spent Rs. 2.59 crore just to get rid of the rotten food.
The problem is more formidable today. India’s federal reserve of foodgrain is about 45 million tonnes, double the stocks held last year and 17 million tonnes more than FCI’s storage capacity.
“Obviously, this is much more than what is needed,” said Ashok Gulati, Asia director of the International Food Policy Research Institute. “Stocks kept in the open without proper care lead to unacceptably large wastages.”
If the stocks were to be distributed, every Indian, all 1.1 billion of us, would get 45 kg.
State-run companies and cooperatives have a capacity to hold about 109.2 million tonnes and need an additional 35 million tonnes of space to fill the gap with an investment of Rs. 7,687 crore, according to the Planning Commission.
It costs the FCI Rs. 15,000 to buy and store a tonne of wheat; Rs. 19,000 for rice.
“So, 1 million tonnes wasted means a loss of at least Rs. 1,500 crore for wheat and Rs. 1,900 crore for rice,” said Gulati.
In July 2002, government agencies ended up with 63 million tonnes of foodgrain. It had to provide subsidies so the grain could be exported. Grain export is at present banned because last year’s drought and soaring prices led to an 11-year high in food inflation, 19.95 per cent on December 5, 2009. It’s 16 per cent today.
Experts say the government urgently needs to invest in modern storage, or failing that, throw open the doors to the private sector, or both.
Until then? Here’s Gulati’s prescription: Distribute the surplus grains to more people at subsidised prices, not just to those below the poverty line. That’s a better solution than letting grain rot in a country hungry for food.
(The Hunger Project is a Hindustan Times effort to track, investigate and report every aspect of the struggle to rid India of hunger)