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Toads for breakfast

While millions in India go to bed hungry, foodgrains are rotting in godowns. When will the Centre learn to manage our food economy, asks Biraj Patnaik.

india Updated: Mar 06, 2011 18:57 IST

My friend, the American public intellectual, David Rieff, never tires of quoting the 18th century French wit Chamforts’ prescription: “One would have to swallow a live toad at breakfast to be certain of not encountering something more disgusting during the course of the day”. Watching images of rotting food grains carelessly piled outside government godowns on prime-time television every night makes me crave for that toad for breakfast.

The mess in the management of the food economy of India is so deep-rooted that the media reports so far have managed to merely touch the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The three main sites where the rotting foodgrains were reported from in the media — Harduaganj, Orai and Hapur — account for just 340 mt (metric tonnes) of foodgrains damaged. What is not yet in the public domain is that 17.8 million mt of foodgrains are lying in the open, exposed to the elements with only — what Food Corporation of India (FCI) euphemistically calls — ‘CAP’ covers (tarpaulin sheets covering food grains kept on an elevated plinth) as protection, weathering the Indian monsoon.

This quantity roughly corresponds to the covered storage capacity in godowns that FCI has actively dehired between 2006-09. If this wasn’t bad enough, the real shocker is that state agencies in Punjab are storing close to 1.5 lakh mt of wheat, in the open, that was procured in 2008-09 and has weathered three monsoons. It is doubtful if more than half of this is now fit for human consumption and even by the most conservative estimates, at least 50,000 mt of wheat that is more than two years old will have to be destroyed soon. Fifty-thousand metric tonnes of wheat! At 35 kg per family per month, it is the annual food grain quota for 1,20,000 families under the public distribution system (PDS). It’s food that could have staved off hunger for more than half million Indians — for a whole year.

In any other country, allowing so much grain to go waste would be seen, justifiably, as criminal negligence. In a country with the dubious distinction of the highest number of starvation deaths, a nation that is ranked 66th out of 88 countries (behind Cameroon, Nigeria and, believe-it-or-not, even Sudan) in the Global Hunger Index, and where the hardest lesson that almost half the mothers have to teach their children is the lesson of how to live with hunger — genocidal negligence describes it better.

How does a country with the most number of hungry people in the world manage such a feat, year after year?

In the two years that have seen the highest food inflation in three decades in India, ironically, or perhaps unsurprisingly, the procurement of foodgrains for the Central Pool by FCI has crossed 60 million mt. The buffer and strategic reserve norms for the country is around 21 million mt. The corporation is holding on to more than twice the buffer norms prescribed by the Centre.

To explain the quantities involved, economist and fellow-Right to Food campaigner Jean Dreze had once pointed out that if the foodgrains hoarded by FCI were lined up, the line would “stretch for a million kilometres — more than twice the distance from the earth to the moon”. The corporation, which I have endearingly referred to in past as the Food Corruption of India, is no Santa Claus. Its failings over the years are far too many for it to deserve any public sympathy. Surprisingly, this time around it is not the principal villain.

The food ministry and FCI had sounded the alarm and proposed in March the release of 50 lakh mt of foodgrains to the states at Above Poverty Line prices, which are higher than the rate at which foodgrain is supplied to Below Poverty Line households. Even this minimalist proposal was rejected by the Empowered Group of Ministers (EGoM) on the ground that it would entail an additional Rs 5,000 crore in food subsidy. This single decision will ensure that an equivalent value of foodgrains will rot, while millions of Indians sleep hungry.

Ancient Rome had a Nero. Contemporary India does not need one. Just as well. We have the EGoM, don’t we?

The obvious way of dealing with this crisis of plenty that commonsense, that most un-common entity in the corridors of power in Delhi, would suggest is to simply transfer these grains to the poorest households in the 150 districts that the National Advisory Council (NAC) is proposing (minimalist though it is), to initiate the first phase of a universal PDS under the proposed food security Bill. This would be an opportunity not only to mitigate hunger in the poorest regions of the country and have a direct impact on food inflation, but also allow the storage and distribution bottlenecks to be smoothened before the Bill is enacted.

There is no better exemplar in India of what Lant Pritchett calls a “flailing” state (as distinct from a ‘failing’ state) — “a state in which the head, that is the elite institutions at the national (and in some states) level remain sound and functional but that this head is no longer reliably connected via nerves and sinews to its own limbs” — than the way the food economy of India is managed. Sonia Gandhi may have put together the finest constellation of minds for her NAC, but the motor neuron disease that afflicts the different arms of the Indian State will strive with each other to ensure that the best-laid plans falter.

The FCI and the food ministry, though, are likely to find themselves between the EGoM and a hard place. All that the starving millions in India can expect from the State: business as usual.

Bring them on, the Bufo alvarius — for breakfast!

Biraj Patnaik is the Principal Adviser to the Supreme Court Commissioners in the Right to Food case.

The views expressed by the author are personal.