On July 26, I reported how 50,000 metric tonnes of wheat and rice had rotted away, unfit even for animals; how 17.8 million tonnes, enough to feed France for a month, was at risk of rotting, stored as it was under tarpaulin. For the last 40 days, the Ministry of Food and Agriculture and its minister Sharad Pawar steadfastly refused to accept that so much food had rotted away. Pawar even told Parliament that the figure was ‘quite exaggerated’, that no more than 11,700 tonnes had rotted.
On Monday, in an affidavit to the Supreme Court, the food ministry admitted the figure for decayed grain was not 50,000 tonnes, but 67,000 tonnes, or nearly six times higher than Pawar had admitted. That’s enough to feed 1.9 lakh families for a month.
The court’s commissioners, who advise it on food and hunger issues — part of a nine-year-long case that has led to seminal policy decisions that should have been taken by the government — had earlier confirmed to the court the figures quoted by this paper.
“Yes, the HT figure was correct,” a senior official told me. “But we had calculated the figures differently.” They did indeed, omitting to mention that they juggled numbers. When Pawar and his officials mentioned 11,700 tonnes, they were only counting the grain rotting in state warehouses. They left out the grain stored by the Food Corporation of India, the nation’s main repository of wheat and rice, purchased from the farmer.
I don’t mean to quibble about tonnage but to spotlight an attitude of carelessness and apathy, which forces the judiciary to intervene in matters clearly outside its prerogative — something that the prime minister spoke so forcefully about on the same day his officials had to inadvertently acknowledge their number game.
Referring to the Supreme Court order to distribute rotting grain to the poor, Manmohan Singh said that the courts should not get into the “realm of policy formulation”. He said this to editors on Monday: “How can foodgrain be distributed free to an estimated 37 per cent of the population that lives below the poverty line?” The PM’s point is that giving away food would “destroy incentives” to the farmer to produce; so if there’s no food available, there will be nothing to distribute. Fair point.
Here’s my problem with this line of thinking: the PM is telling us what his government cannot do.
Now, here’s what his food ministry told the Supreme Court: if the government buys from the farmer only what it can store, many farmers would not be able to sell their produce and in lean years the poor would be at the mercy of traders. What is the ministry saying? It’s telling us what the government cannot do.
What is it that the government says it can do? What are the solutions it’s offering to what it was even reluctant to acknowledge as a crisis and a national shame?
So, in this failure of governance, it’s a bit rich when the PM suggests the courts stay away from governance.
It’s not like he and his government had no options. His highest aides, the Empowered Group of Ministers (EGoM), of which Pawar is one, knew of the grain crisis since April, at least. If the PM and Pawar say that giving away the grain free is not realistic, many, including I, would be willing to go along with them on this. As the Minister of State for Agriculture K.V. Thomas explained to me, every kg of foodgrain stored has already cost the government R8-10 as subsidy. To distribute it would mean further costs.
But the EGoM had been offered a solution nearly four months ago: distribute the grain to India’s poorest 150 districts. It would be a good way to use excess foodgrain — now nearly double the buffer stock that India needs to hold in reserve for emergencies — without letting it rot. This would also be a test-run for the expansion of food distribution envisaged under the forthcoming Right to Food Act.
Whether you agree or not, it’s one idea. It is the government’s job to put its collective thinking cap on and evolve more, instead of mechanically shooting down suggestions and letting foodgrain rot in a nation with more hungry people than Africa. The government’s affidavit to the Supreme Court further reveals a proclivity to backpedal by using outdated poverty figures from 2000. It even ignores the government’s own latest poverty count of around 400 million, drawn up by economist Suresh Tendulkar and used by the PM himself on Monday. The government’s obvious logic: fewer the poor, lesser the pain of distribution.
Now, thanks to the Supreme Court, the government has to get the excess grain out from under the tarpaulin. About 15 million tonnes — enough to feed about 75 million people for a year — has to be sold or distributed. The government still hasn’t worked out how it will do this. The government has no up-to-date poverty survey, and millions of poor people don’t have ration cards (conversely, many people above the poverty line do). Perhaps we should ask the Supreme Court.