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India lets grain rot instead of feeding poor

A day after the Prime Minister urged a quick start to a national food-security network, it has emerged that his government may let foodgrain — enough to feed 140 million poor people for a month — rot, instead of spending money and effort distributing it to the poor, report Samar Halarnkar and Manpreet Randhawa. See special | Criminal wastage

india Updated: Jul 26, 2010 01:44 IST

A day after the Prime Minister urged a quick start to a national food-security network, it has emerged that his government may let foodgrain — enough to feed 140 million poor people for a month — rot, instead of spending money and effort distributing it to the poor.

Warning of an “emergency situation”, a highly placed source told Hindustan Times that 17.8 million tonnes of wheat and rice are being similarly stored under tarpaulin across India.

Of this about 10 million tonnes, having seen at least one monsoon, is at risk of rotting, which will cost the country around Rs 17,000 crore.

In Punjab, 49,000 tonnes of this foodgrain is ready to be destroyed after spending three monsoons — to be fit for human consumption, it cannot endure more than one — covered in tarpaulin.

“The wheat stocks have rotted,” said Punjab Food and Civil Supplies Principal Secretary S.P. Singh, referring to 49,000 tonnes bought from farmers nearly three years ago.

The fate of the remaining wheat and rice stored under tarpaulin will be discussed on Monday by an Empowered Group of Ministers (eGOM), which in March had rejected a suggestion to release grain to states at subsidised prices fixed for families above the poverty line.

The meeting lists on its agenda the “offloading of 2-3 million tonnes of grain in the open market”, which implies the larger issue of rotting grain may not be addressed, or its release to India's poor.

At a time when the government is trying to rein in its growing food subsidy bill (Rs 55,000 crore and likely to balloon
by three times if the right to food becomes law), the finance and food ministries are reluctant to spend an estimated Rs 5,000 crore on distribution.

The counter argument:

By allowing the grain to rot, they are wasting more than three times the amount. Moreover, with India being home to a quarter of the world’s hungry people and a third of its malnourished children, foodgrain cannot be allowed to rot; the state must find a way.

Since May, the Food Corporation of India, the agency holding the largest percent age of grain, made a series of suggestions to the Centre. One of these was to distribute the grain to 150 of India’s poorest districts, presently being considered by the National Advisory Council as a proving ground for universal distribution of subsidised foodgrain as one solution to widespread poverty and hunger.

Of the 59 million tonnes of grain stored by the FCI and state agencies across India, 42 million tonnes is in covered buildings. Grain stored under tarpaulin has been rising. It was 9.4 million tonnes in 2008; 16 million tonnes in 2009 and 17.8 million tonnes in 2010 (as on June 1).

(Tracking Hunger is an HT and Mint initiative to investigate and report the struggle to rid India of hunger. You can read previous stories at www.hindustantimes.com/trackinghunger)

Tomorrow: Punjab grain rots despite warnings