The Food Bill is still in the works but has provoked a furious debate on the lack of grain storage facilities, rotting of grains and whether they should be distributed free to the hungry masses. Waking up to the fact that no food security programme can be effective without proper storage, the government is now planning to upgrade existing warehousing facilities and also adding new ones. However, between food security and large-scale storage, there’s a missing link that needs to be taken note of: storage at the farm level. No one can deny the importance of decentralised storage; at least 25-30 per cent grains in the country are stored at the farm level.
However, it’s not as if there hasn’t been enough thrust on this issue: there are State institutes to look into the storage problems, like the Ghaziabad-based Indian Grain Storage Management and Research Institute (IGMRI) that was set up in 1968 to promote “research and development” of post-harvest technologies. Hoping to elicit some information about new farm-level storage structures, I called IGMRI director, Subhash Gupta. Gupta patiently heard my queries and then went about explaining the existing storage systems like silos, gunny bags, high-density polypropylene bags and the Food Corporation of India’s “innovative” CAP storage. “What about new products for farm-level storage?” No, we haven’t done much, he admitted.
Yet, policy-wise we did have a sound start: the Save Grain Campaign, which was initiated 43 years ago, was supposed to do what we are floundering on now. Through this campaign, the Centre was to initiate and train states in warehousing and storage of grains. The Centre wanted the states to take it up on a large scale but the latter did not want any “added responsibility”. Finding no takers, the the campaign was withdrawn in 2008.
“Around 15-20 per cent foodgrain losses occur in large storage godowns. Along with investment in large storage capacities, we must encourage farm-level storage. This can be in the form of refining and improving the local/indigenous storage technologies and providing technical and financial support at that level,” says M.B. Chetti, Dean, College of Agriculture, University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad, Karnataka.
He and many experts like him suggest that if we want to leapfrog in storage capacity at the farm-level (since setting up large storages is time-consuming and expensive), new technologies like vacuum packaging could be the answer. They assure quality as well as a chance to store grains almost anywhere and that it can be done in villages by trained persons.
“Alternatively, we have to go for cold storage facilities for food grains, which is very costly since it involves electricity supply,” says Chetti. Instead, vacuum packing, say experts, helps preserve grains and seeds for long periods without any deterioration in quality. In fact, an experiment was carried out in the university on the usefulness of the packaging system (using chilli) and the results were satisfactory. The available technology offers a seven-layer packing to preserve quality for long periods of time and once sealed, climatic changes have no effect on it. Elimination of oxygen from the pack helps in extending shelf life.
“At present only three-layer plastic films are manufactured in India. The seven-layered film needs to be imported. But the import duty is high,” says Mohan Bajikar, a former student of Dharwad university and a promoter of new agricultural technologies. Of course, such technologies are expensive, but then delivering to the hungry isn’t enough — quality must be ensured.
Food policy analyst Devinder Sharma, however, says expensive solutions like silos and warehousing are not the answer to procurement and storage problems. Instead, he says, “local production, local procurement and local distribution” is the answer, something like what Chhattisgarh has been doing. It procures paddy directly from farmers, buying it through cooperative societies and procurement centres at the village level. To store, he adds, the government can add a small godown next to each panchayat ghar.
Whichever way we look at it, decentralised storage cannot be left out of the loop if we want to ensure food security.