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The Paradox of Plenty

Food grains rot as inflation continues to hit the lower strata of society

It is truly shocking that when food inflation has been at double-digit levels for most of the year - barring a fortnight in mid-July when it was at a single-digit figure - sharply eroding the real incomes of underprivileged, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar should choose to obliquely find fault with the Supreme Court's order to the effect that instead of allowing foodgrains to rot, the government should distribute wheat and rice free to the poor.

After the apex court stated on August 12 that the authorities should consider giving grains free to poor families instead of allowing these to waste, Pawar glibly said: "It is not possible to distribute grains for free, the Supreme Court hasn't said this…"

The court then retorted and told the counsel for the Union of India: "It was not a suggestion. It is there in our order. You tell the minister."

Pawar then ate his words and told the Lok Sabha: "This government will honour the decision of the Supreme Court."

Unfortunately, the topmost functionaries of the government did not stop at that juncture. On September 6, responding to questions raised by newspaper editors on why foodgrains that would rot was not being distributed free to the poor, the PM remarked that the Supreme Court should not get into "the realm of policy formulation".

A television channel, NDTV 24x7, has broadcast visuals of dogs eating grain in Uttar Pradesh and sacks of wheat in Punjab rotting outside warehouses. Another story on the channel caught officials trying to burn grains because they had not been able to distribute these to families entitled to free food. On July 26, after Samar Halarnkar wrote in the Hindustan Times that 50,000 tonnes of wheat and rice had rotted away, unfit even for animals to consume, Pawar dismissed the report as "quite exaggerated" and claimed that no more than 11,700 tonnes of foodgrains had rotted.

A little more than a month later, the Ministry of Food acknowledged in its affidavit to the Supreme Court that the figure of decayed grain was actually 67,000 tonnes - nearly six times higher than what the Minister had claimed. This is an amount that is enough to feed nearly 200,000 families for a month. It has been argued that it is not feasible to distribute at an extra cost, grain that has been stored by incurring an expenditure of between `8 and `10 per kilogramme. Yet the government also concedes that the excess foodgrains that are currently available with various state governments as well as the Food Corporation of India (FCI) are almost twice the desirable "buffer stock". With a good monsoon, this stock level will rise in the months ahead.

For our leaders who are rather concerned about the Commonwealth Games, it is worth recounting in full what the Supreme Court had stated in August 2001 in response to a public interest litigation petition filed by the People's Union for Civil Liberties, Rajasthan.

"The anxiety of the Court is to see that the poor and the destitute and the weaker sections do not suffer from hunger and starvation. The prevention of the same is one of the prime responsibilities of the government - whether central or the state. How this is to be ensured would be a matter of policy which is best left to the government. All that the Court has to be satisfied and which it may have to ensure is that the foodgrains which are overflowing in the storage receptacles, especially (in) FCI godowns, and which are in abundance, should not be wasted by dumping into the sea or eaten by rats. Mere schemes without any implementation are of no use. What is important is that the food must reach the hungry."

It is nine years since this directive was made. But even today, the powers-that-be refuse to admit the colossal failure of governance in the storage and distribution of food in a country where one out of three hungry persons on the planet live.