The problem of plenty is once again troubling the Indian government. Strange as this may seem, in a country where prices on a range of foods items are rising everyday, the government is trying to figure out where to store the bumper crop of grains that has been harvested across the country for the third year in a row.
In the case of wheat, for instance, India is staring at a record crop over 90 million tonnes (MT) from the April-June season. But, the government’s plans to create additional storage space have so far moved at a snail’s pace.
There’s growing concern that much of the surplus could rot and waste away, or be eaten by rodents even as millions go hungry. According to some studies, up to 7 percent of the country’s annual grain production goes to waste because of insufficient storage space and inefficient transport and distribution networks. Worse, most of the storage capacity that exists is not effectively utilised.
It also seems the states that produce the highest amount of wheat suffer the most on this account. Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh together account for over 80 percent of India’s total wheat production. And despite a bumper harvest in all these states, tonnes of wheat are rotting in the open, according to television reports.
In Punjab, facilities exist to store about seven lakh tonnes of wheat; space for stocking an additional five tonnes is being created in the next three months.
Yet, a CNN-IBN investigative report reveals that the Punjab government is not using the new warehouses, instead leaving grains to rot out in the open. Spoilt grain is also being sold at half the procurement price to liquor distilleries.
Last year, another CNN-IBN report showed grains rotting, decaying and decomposing in Deoli village in Palwal district, Haryana. The report, filmed during the monsoon, showed the grain procured by Hafed and Confed was infested with worms and exposed to rain.
Nothing changes in India
In May 2012, CNN-IBN revisited the same storage yard. Predictably, and this can only happen in India, the condition had worsened. Grain procured as the country’s buffer to feed its 1.2 billion people was now feeding worms.
Even the sacks containing the grain were rotting: polythene sheets laid in disarray on the grounds, and the wooden plinths on which the country’s food reserves were placed were dangerously close to giving way. At last count, 3,500 metric tonnes of food grain had been wasted that way.
Shamefully, Deoli’s warehouses are not the only culprits. In Baghola, a few kilometers away from Deoli, there are at least six lakh sacks of wheat, of which 8,000 sacks are already rotting.
Can anything be done?
Over the past decade, the government has focused on increasing production, not on storage. While they has helped the country achieve record-breaking grain output, the issue of storing that has been grossly neglected.
In a discussion with Rajdeep Sardesai over the issue, some experts provided the following solutions.
In the short run, a possible solution could be to liquidate grain stock through additional allocations to the public distribution system (PDS) to both APL(above the poverty line) and BPL (below the poverty line) families. Biraj Patnaik, principal adviser to the Commissioners of the Supreme Court (Right to Food Panel), emphasised that the problem is not of storage, but of distribution. So, distributing the grain before it decays could be one possible solution.
Naresh Gujral, MP, SAD, said that since grain storage houses are very expensive to build, a PPP (public-private partnership) model is the only way forward. Better storage facilities are an absolute must in the long term. He also thought the government could resort to ‘distress exports’ of foodgrains.
Foodgrains could also be used as part of MNREGS workers’ wages. At least, grains will reach the hungry before they rot.
Manish Tewari, Congress MP, said that government will implement new laws to improve the PDS system in the country and redevelop the distribution system of food grains. He claimed the Food Security Bill would resolve many of these issues.
For now, the debate over who takes the blame for the appalling state of grain storage of grains continues. Politicians need to realise, though, that we don’t have time for petty blame games. We need a solution. Now.