'It was not a suggestion, it was an order,' is not a rebuke most self-respecting people would like to hear. Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar is clearly made of sterner stuff for this is exactly what he heard from the Supreme Court in its order that he make the huge pile-up of foodgrain available either free or at very low prices to people before it rots. Mr Pawar, instead of coming up with a workable answer as to why foodgrain should go to waste in a country where at least 300 million live below the poverty line, has sought to waffle about saying he needs to study the court's order more closely. The issue of food and its availability to the poor is a highly emotive issue in India given its past famines and food blackmail by richer countries. But to blame Mr Pawar for all our foodgrain wastage woes may not be quite fair. Several ministries are involved in reaching foodgrain to those who need it. It would seem that they work at cross-purposes rather than in tandem with each other.
In any developing economy, it would not make economic sense to give food away for free. The apex court has clearly been prompted to suggest even this as a last resort given the fact that foodgrain is rotting in poorly-maintained godowns. Rotting grain becomes toxic and is rendered useless for consumption even by animals. At least 14.5 lakh tonnes of storage space is needed to ensure that our stocks do not get left to the elements as is happening now. The government may choose to heed the apex court's order or come up with a feasible solution on how best to dispose of the foodgrain and still make ends meet. But it can no longer put off crucial steps in the food chain like streamlining its inventory mechanism and the downstream distribution system.
In ideal conditions, if the distribution system had kicked in after the harvest, this amount of stock would not have been sitting around with nowhere to go. There has to be greater coordination among the states and the Centre on the foodgrain distribution system, which, at present, is a major sticking point. With so many people below the poverty line, it makes for very easy politics to say that they should be given grain free. This would, however, be detrimental to the economy in the long run. This makes it imperative for the government to ensure that it is not pushed into a corner by the courts on the disbursal of grain. But for the moment, it has the unenviable task of making the issue of food distribution more palatable to both the public and the courts.