It is a riddle, really.
Why did the Maharashtra government refuse close to a million metric tonnes of food grains allocated to it in January this year? And, then ask the Centre for two lakh metric tonnes of it to meet, what it says, acute scarcity conditions? Scarcity essentially of water than anything else, that is.
The key, however, is with the government itself, which operates a public distribution system (PDS) shrouded in opacity and official silence despite criticism that the PDS does not really reach its target.
Thanks to a PIL by an NGO, Shramik Mukti Sanghatana, in the Bombay high court, some revealing facts came tumbling out.
The DNA reports that while 11.90 lakh tonnes had been allocated between April 2011 and January 2012, only 6.23 tonnes had been lifted by the state. An additional ad hoc stock of 9.62 lakh tonnes was allocated “for the poor in Maharashtra, but the government lifted only 2.41 lakh tonnes” in the same period.
If the state was surplus, because of which it let go of inventory, how come the sudden demand for two lakh tonnes now?
Food shortage, like water shortage, does not emerge suddenly but develops over time. Demand and supply ratios as well as stockpiles are easy to delineate, and on the past record of consumption, arrangement can be worked out in advance.
The government did not contest the numbers but laid out its somewhat ordinary, routine explanation: nearly two-thirds of ration card holders do not buy from the PDS outlets, that transportation had bottlenecks, all of which is old hat. Transportation and sale through PDS, even if inefficient, cannot be so grossly inadequate as to not lift most of the allocations. It cannot be that over decades, a proper transport system to carry the food grains from warehouses to PDS outlets has not been refined.
The malfunctioning PDS is notorious for being one of the most badly run government schemes, replete with over five million fake ration cards floating around, black marketing, collusion between the official machinery, certainly at the lowest rungs and at the cutting edge.
Relevant to this refusal then, and the clamour now, are serious issues: had the state misjudged its stockpile and not foresee the sudden spike in demand because of scarcity conditions that led to the petition for Rs2,200 cr to Rs2,900 cr — depending on which media you access — as aid from the funds set aside for meeting calamities?
The logic behind the demand for food grains, and cash as reimbursement of expenses on mitigation efforts – what drought relief is all about – is that during such periods of climatic stress points, the purchasing power drastically drops due to job losses on the farms, and people need affordable food.
Right now, even as the monsoon across the country is forecast to be normal, the fear of huge quantities of food grains being stored in the open is causing alarm among everybody except the policy makers. With these stockpiles in mind, the Supreme Court had in May last, asked that they be distributed to the poor.
That apparently was not fancied by Maharashtra, for had it though the off-takes from offered inventories would have been higher, and speedily sent to the PDS. Probably the preoccupation with the civic, zilla parishad and panchayat samiti elections pushed the scarcity to the backburner. The period from December-end 2011 was when the assessment of the looming scarcity would have had to be made.
That was the cusp in time when the allocations had come and declined. If such a crisis ahead – droughts in 15 districts don’t happen overnight – then there is something seriously wrong with the establishment. The build-up to scarcity builds up over time, and is certainly not an overnight phenomenon.
The signs are visible. The politicians are savvy enough to glean the first signs and scream for expensive support – read P Sainath’s Everybody Loves A Good Drought to understand why. Had their ears been to the ground instead of their eyes on the vote, perhaps the allocations would have been accepted.
Or did it demur because during monsoon the state had already applied for assistance from the calamity fund because of destruction of crops due to heavy rains? Remember, the Indian Met had recorded, at the end of the rainy season, that Maharashtra had ‘normal’ rains and Konkan strip had ‘surplus’. It is possible that parts within the areas with ‘normal’ precipitation can have rain-shadow areas; they are endemically starved. Wasn’t that a reason to have been alert for the signs, electoral preoccupations or not?