Here is the Punjab Today story we published in our August 7-13, 2010 issue.
Going Against The Grain
Sharad Pawar is
’s Agriculture Minister, as well as Minister of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution. That makes him the man responsible for production of our food grains, their procurement and how we get it, either in the open market or through the public distribution system. India
Clearly, he is a very responsible man.
So far we had heard a lot about ‘food grain only fit for cattle’, or about ‘foodgrain not fit for human consumption’, or about ‘sub-standard wheat or paddy’. But here is what Mr. Sharad Pawar told the Parliament of
last month: India
Out of a sample collected recently, 244 bags of wheat procured by Punjab State Civil Supplies Corporation (PUNSUP) on behalf of the Food Corporation of India (FCI) were found to contain ‘‘mud slabs’’, not even a single grain of wheat!
For strange and inexplicable reasons, cattle have still not developed a taste for “mud slabs”. We are lucky that cattle do not have a right to trade union activity, otherwise there would have been serious doubts on the food grain stocks labelled as “fit only for the cattle”.
While sub-standard food grain and grain that is rotting because of want of proper storage is the bane of about six states, in Punjab, the proud ‘food bowl of
India’, about 48,315 metric tonnes of wheat procured by the Punjab government has been classified as “fit to be fed to cattle”. The stock, say reports, was enough to feed about 7.1 million people a month through the public distribution system (PDS).
In other words, at 35 kg per family per month, it is the annual food grain quota for 1,20,000 families under the public distribution system (PDS). It’s food that could have staved off hunger for more than half million Indians -for a whole year.
That this is happening in a state where the Akali Dal-led government is admittedly giving cheap atta and dal to about 15 lakh families is all the more shocking.
Punjab’s population of about 2.43 crore can be roughly translated into 50 lakh families of, on an average, five members to a family. Clearly, in a state where about one-third of the families cannot even buy atta and dal at market prices, should not some people go to jail for letting food rations for 7.1 million people rot?
Not one has gone to jail. Not one will go.
Sharad Pawar said of the 50,000 bags of wheat procured directly from mandis on behalf of PUNSUP, MARKFED and PSWC (Punjab State Warehousing Corp), 760 bags contained 49 per cent to 55.2 per cent inorganic material. To the uninitiated, it means half of the stuff in the bags was sand, stones and pebbles instead of food grain.
Lest you are shocked by the scale, here is what the FCI officials have to say: the actual misdoings are at a much greater scale.
Apart from the perennial problem of the state government agencies not sticking to prescribed stringent norms for food grains, issues of storage are increasingly becoming serious.
The damage to foodgrains is variously ascribed to rats, rains and flash floods, but the truth is that much of it is custom designed. There is so much more profit in letting the foodgrain rot than in securing it with proper storage.
Of the more than 11 metric tonnes (MT) of wheat stocks in
Punjab, only about 1.86 MT is stored under some roof; rest of the 9.2 MT lies out in the open, sometimes covered with a black tarpaulin sheet and secured with a brick. Clearly, rotting food grain must be making better economic sense, otherwise who will allow millions worth of food to be washed away or eaten by rats? Well, rats. Who else?
The Global Hunger Index ranks
at 66th position in a list of 88 countries. We are behind India Cameroon, and if that does not shock you, we are behind . We really do want to rub it in by telling you that we are behind even Nigeria , though by this time, you would simply hit a stste of suspended disbelief. It is in such a country that we allow food grain to rot in such huge quantities. And in times when not only are we a country with the most number of hungry people in the world, but we also are a nation that is adding “newly hungry millions” to our demography, as P Sainath puts it pithily. Sudan
As we said, there has to be some sound economics in letting the food rot. After all, some 17.8 million MT of foodgrains are lying in the open in
. This quantity roughly corresponds to the covered storage capacity in godowns that FCI has actively dehired between 2006-09. India
Why did the FCI do so?
In the two years that have seen the highest food inflation in three decades in
, ironically, or perhaps unsurprisingly, the procurement of foodgrains for the Central Pool by FCI has crossed 60 million mt. The buffer and strategic reserve norms for the country is around 21 million mt. The corporation is holding on to more than twice the buffer norms prescribed by the Centre. India
Well, de-hiring storage spaces and allowing storage in the open allows for far more corruption, theft, inflated billing, expenditure on gunny bags, wooden crates, tarpaulin sheets and fumigating material. Each single one of them a recurring expenditure, and thus massive opportunity for making millions as the food rots. Who will preserve grains when rotting grains make money?
But is it the FCI that is always at fault? Earlier this year, around the time of the Union Budget, the FCI had argued that 50 lakh mt of foodgrains be released for distribution at Above Poverty Line prices but an Empowered Group of Ministers (EGoM) rejected this because it would have meant an additional Rs 5,000 crore in food subsidy. So it allowed Rs 5,000 crore worth of foodgrain to rot. One hopes that the collective sighs of hundreds of thousands who slept hungry as a result will ensure that the EGoM members rot in hell for much longer than the foodgrains did.
Punjab, you can see open air foodgrain storage at Khonuri, Sangrur, Talwandi, Zira and many other places. When it comes to rice, Punjab topped the list of states where maximum rice was found damaged -- 6,702 MT in
2009-10 was declared unfit for human consumption, of which 2,273 MT was found damaged in
Biraj Patnaik, Principal Adviser to the Supreme Court Commissioners in the Right to Food case, recently argued in a write up that the plenty stock of grains be sent to the poorest households in the 150 districts that the National Advisory Council (NAC) has proposed, to initiate the first phase of a universal PDS under the proposed food security Bill.
The Supreme Court, shocked that 140 million tonnes of grain was rotting in the country for want of proper storage facilities, said hardly a week ago that, “In a country where admittedly people are starving, it is a crime to waste even a single grain.” It too asked the Centre to consider releasing the grain to deserving people rather than allow it to rot.
“If you cannot store the grain, give it to the people to eat,” the apex court told additional solicitor general Mohan Parasaran.
Punjab, there seems to be a deliberate effort at making the grain rot. Media reports have quoted Sandeep Gilhotra, president of the Punjab Godown Owners Association, as saying that the FCI promotes open storage as it gives people an opportunity to earn more money. This is a very serious allegation.
But instead of any action, we are merely condemned to witness some hurling of accusations between the FCI and the
Punjab procurement agencies. The FCI is blamed for slow movement of Central wheat stocks, and the state agencies do not have space or scientific techniques for preservation of foodgrains.
As a result, food grain continues to be stocked on open plinths for years and talk of silos has remained till date only that -- lots of talk.
Punjab’s rulers, irrespective of whether they come from the Congress or the Akali Dal, merely make ritual noises around this time of the year and mouth homilies about the need for long-term, modern and scientific storage capacity but apart from photo-ops of a CM meeting the Agriculture Minister, precious little happens.
* At a time when Punjab officialdom is crying hoarse about poor storage capacity in the state, Punjab State Warehousing Corporation (PSWC) was found to be renting out its several godowns in
to private parties for storing, of all the perishable things, liquor! Ludhiana
* The PSWC rented out its godown having 65,000 tonne storage capacity in Khanna to the private Laxmi Overseas Mills of Khamano, run by an influential rice miller, Balbir Singh, to store the private miller’s grain even though some 99 lakh tonnes of wheat are still stored in the open by state government agencies.
Punjabhas been desperately seeking private investments to build 71-lakh metric tonnes of additional covered storage facilities through public-private partnership (PPP) mode.