Starvation Amidst Plenty

Food bowl overflowing, but 25% of population still hungry

Subodh Varma TIMES INSIGHT GROUP

     T he Indian government is sitting on one of world’s biggest hoards of food grains, about 667 lakh tons as of January 1, 2013. This is not some bizarre seasonal twist – monthly stocks of food grains averaged over 671 lakh tons for the whole of last year, including an all time high of 802 lakh tons in June. Just five years ago, in 2008, the food grains stock was 192 lakh tons in January. Since then, it has zoomed up by almost 250% to the present level.

       Government rules say that a buffer stock of 200 lakh tons and a strategic reserve of 50 lakh tons need to be maintained. But current stocks are more than two and a half times this benchmark.

      This would be a matter of celebration except that even as food grain stocks keep piling up, hunger and malnutrition continue to haunt a quarter of the population, over 200 million people, according to various estimates. Last year, India was ranked 65th in a list of 79 countries where serious hunger and malnutrition persists, made by the International Food Policy Research Institute. With over 43% babies suffering malnutrition, on this count alone India is ranked below Ethiopia and Bangladesh. So how come a mountain of life-giving grain is surrounded by a sea of hungry humanity? The reasons can be found in a mix of subsidy cutting government policy, bureaucratic bumbling, corruption and even profiteering, say experts .

      Successive bumper harvests since 2006, and better prices offered by the government procurement agencies have created these stocks. In April-March 2012, a record 380 lakh tons wheat was procured, while rice procurement during October 2011-September 2012, was also 350 lakh tons.

      So that explains the huge stocks. But why can’t it be distributed to the millions who need it? The government insists that it can only distribute food grain through its targeted public distribution system, fixed amounts, at low prices to those BPL, and at higher prices to those above poverty line.

        There are many problems with this approach, points out Biraj Patnaik, principal adviser to the Commissioners of the Supreme Court who are assisting the SC in tracking government policy.

        “The number of BPL families is based on projection for the year 2000 based on the 1991 Census. So their figures are off by 8-10 crore. We are trying to persuade them to adopt the 2011 population data,” he says.

        The committee headed by justice Wadhwa to suggest reforms in the public distribution system confirms this pointing out that the population of India was projected at 99cr in 2000 whereas in 2012 it is 122cr.

     The poverty line itself is a matter of serious dispute because it is pegged at Rs. 18 in urban areas and Rs. 12 in rural areas per person per day. Many families that are technically above the poverty line are so poor that they can’t afford the wheat and rice offered by the government.

         The most obvious solution is distribution to everybody. Economist Jean Dreze, a member of the NAC, sees the excess stock as a “great opportunity” to consolidate the Public Distribution System under the National Food Security Act. He said, “ It could be used to facilitate the transition to a more inclusive if not universal PDS within a few years.”

        The government, however, is not comfortable with this idea. And so, the warehouses will remain full in the months to come.

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