It is hard to believe that India is the same country that transformed from a “begging bowl” to a “bread basket”. After high-yielding varieties of seeds were first introduced in India in 1968, the wheat production rocketed from 6.4 million tonnes in 1948 to 20 million tonnes. The Green Revolution converted India into a shining new nation brimming with success and sufficient wheat stalks. But 45 years after the hopes of converting a country that was once on the brink of mass famine to a self-contained nation, the situation continues to be shaky.
India continues to remain the second largest producer of wheat. According to a Food and Agriculture Organization report, it is likely to export 7.5 million tonnes by the end of June 2013. India today has about 40 million tonnes of surplus grain, and yet it ranks 65 out of 122 countries on the World Hunger Index of 2012.
The Global Survey report says that 42% of children in India are underweight and it’s the home to the largest number of undernourished people in the world: a blaring 216 million. The cruel irony is that 75% of the Indian population suffers from hunger and malnutrition in varying degrees.
One of the prime reasons of this alarming contradiction is the lack of storage facilities to keep the harvested wheat safe and protected from rodents, insects and harsh weather climate. The government-operated ‘storage facilities’ are inadequate and the major reason of post-production wheat loss.
Hundreds of sacks of wheat lie out in the open, covered by tarpaulin sheets, exposed to the harsh sun and the rain, rotting and infested with fungi and insects. An astonishing 21 million tonnes of wheat is lost!
“It is a crime to let this happen when thousands go without a decent meal in India. We have even failed to export the surplus as much as we can. Wheat exports have been just around five million tonnes this year while there was a potential to export around ten million tonnes. The revenue from export could have been recycled for better agricultural inputs and modernizing Indian agriculture,” says author and journalist Ramesh Menon who reported on food grain being left out in the open way back in 1979.
While crumbling food grains strewn around open storage areas in Punjab and Haryana are common, colossal amounts of wheat is lost in the granaries in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh as well. In regions like Barbanki and Shikohabad in UP, huge quantities of grain are kept out in the open, decaying under the sun and getting soaked in the rain. What makes the dire scenario even more gruesome is that the new warehouses are not being utilized for storing grain, but the spoilt grain is being sold at half the price to liquor distilleries, according to a CNN-IBN report.
Devinder Sharma, Food Policy Analyst has been working with the politics of food and agriculture for decades, says, “I’ve been working on this story for 30 years and the situation is still the same. As a nation, our main concern is godowns and covered warehouses. In 1979, under the ‘Grow more Food’ campaign, 50 grain silos were to be implemented throughout India, but it never happened. It is still not too late. We need a proper public distribution system and utilize our precious food.”
In 2010, the Supreme Court suggested that the food grains be distributed for free to the destitute instead being wasted, but under Food and Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, it was not allowed. Even after the Supreme Court asked the government to construct storage facilities across the different states, it has not been done.
Annually, it is estimated that food grain worth Rs.500-800 crores rots and so has to be discarded. It could have fed many hungry mouths. Ironically, the focus is still on increasing production and not on improving or building additional storage.
“It’s all a matter of priority and since when has food been on the top of the national agenda?” asks Sharma. “The UPA has built 250,000 solar-powered panchayat ghars but has no money to build warehouses. Many of them are not even being utilized. These panchayat ghars should be converted to godowns.”
What is the solution? Sharma has some: “A wide network of mandis should be set up across Bihar, UP, Orissa, Assam to act as temporary purchase centers in order to have an effective public distribution system. At least 1 lakh crore of revenue should be invested in the construction and setting up of warehouses and silos at 50 places in the country. All this is possible provided that food is considered to be of precedence in this country.”
Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh states that widespread poverty which makes our country worse than the sub-Saharan African region in terms of malnourishment is a reason for ‘national shame’. Why is it that our government is so numb when it comes to the millions dying for the lack of food? It is a gnawing concern. Will we see a solution to this impending mammoth problem anytime in the near future?