While 3000 Indian children die of malnutrition related illnesses each day, surplus wheat and rice rots in fields in the north of the country, highlighting major deficiencies in the nation’s distribution system.
Rigid subsidies for grain farmers, complex regulations, lack of storage facilities and an inefficient distribution system mean a record stockpile of wheat is wasted rather than distributed to the 40% of India’s 1.2 billion population living in poverty.
Under India’s food policy the government buys food grains from farmers at a high guaranteed price, and sells them to the poor at lower prices than private stores.
The grain price has been raised by over 70 percent since 2007, encouraging production which has resulted in stocks reaching an all-time high of about 50 million tonnes, a larger grain stockpile than any country except China and 12 times the official target.
One of the biggest problems is a lack of storage facilities which have not been upgraded in 25 years. Although official reports indicate that 82.4 million tonnes of grain are stored in government warehouses, this exceeds actual capacity by over 19 million tonnes. According to officials, about 6 million tonnes of grain worth at least $1.5 billion may be wasted, but with the huge excess now in the open, analysts say losses could be far higher.
In the Punjab village of Saddomajra, thousands of sacks of decomposing wheat lie exposed to the elements. Watchman Hakkam Singh said: “The wheat has been lying there for the past five years. It smells very bad. Nobody steals it, but people use it to feed fish and poultry farms.”
Biraj Patnaik, principal adviser on food issues to India’s Supreme Court stated: “The problem of rotting grains and the poor going hungry lies in the system itself.”
He said the problem was due to Government’s refusal to distribute the grain it buys to the people who need it.
In 2010 the Supreme Court urged the government to distribute grain free to the hungry rather than waste it, but it has not done so, and is reluctant to sell wheat for less than the purchase price.
According to journalist P. Sainath: “The government of India could distribute that excess grain, or release it at low prices through the public distribution system. But it would hate either option. That would go against the grain of its ideology and economics. Letting the hungry eat it would, for the government, increase the ‘subsidy burden’.”
Exporting is also not an alternative as freight, storage and transport costs would mean it would be sold at a loss.
Corruption at all levels of the distribution chain is a huge problem. 18 months ago a scam involving hundreds of government officials saw millions of dollars worth of grain meant for the poor siphoned and sold. A recent World Bank study revealed just 41.4% of the grain picked up by the states from federal warehouses reaches its intended recipients.
Critics are also doubtful the government’s planned food security scheme to guarantee cheap grain to 63.5 percent of the population will reduce corruption or increase efficiency. The plan may cost as much as $12 billion in additional subsidies a year, which critics suspect the government will not be able to afford.
Meanwhile in the Punjab the grain seems destined to rot. Gurdeep Singh, a farmer from near Ranwan simply said: “It’s painful to watch.”