UPA-2’s big ticket idea is food security. It should get basic warehousing in order first
By Suman Sahai
EVERY OTHER day there is either a newspaper report or an editorial comment lamenting the loss of food grain stored in buffer stocks. Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, while prophesying a bumper kharif crop, admits he is worried about not having adequate storage for the produce. At a national conference in 2003, the Central Warehousing Corporation said it had covered storage capacity for 48 million tonnes of food grain. In 2002, the country had 63 million tonnes of food grain in buffer stocks, 15 million tonnes more than it could store. This grain was sold in the international market at prices below the cost at which it was procured by the government, because there was no storage space. That it was not distributed to the poor is another story.
Pawar, who also looks after food and public distribution and consumer affairs, needs to explain why even seven years after holding all three important portfolios, he has failed to increase the country’s capacity for stocking grain. Known for his administrative skills, why has Pawar restricted himself to moaning about poor and inadequate storage facilities, instead of getting up and doing something about it.
To add insult to injury, the State spends Rs 2.6 crore of tax payers’ money to get rid of food grain that has rotted during storage
The government acknowledges that food worth nearly Rs 60,000 crore is destroyed every year due to poor and insufficient storage facilities. This lost food is keeping millions of Indians hungry. To add insult to injury, the government spends about Rs 2.6 crore of the tax payers’ money to get rid of food grain that has rotted during storage.
Even as it watches this destruction of precious food, the government has failed to take any action to fix responsibility and punish those responsible for such criminal actions. It is business as usual: callous neglect and corruption being par for the course, food is destroyed season after season as malnutrition ravages the countryside and India’s hunger and malnutrition figures slip below Sub-Saharan Africa.
When the shocking figures of grain loss came to light last year, Pawar told the Parliament that he would set up a committee to examine the matter. A year later, he has been crowned the Prince of the ICC, but not a single cubic foot of additional storage space has been built. Nor have those who routinely oversee the destruction of the country’s food harvests, been questioned, let alone punished.
Mountains of grain, collected over years, are stored in the open in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, covered by plastic sheets. They get wet in the rain and rot. In Punjab, the rotting grain is enough to feed three lakh people. When states appeal to the Centre to release the food stocks so that the poor have food, the government’s economists stop this, saying it would be bad economics. So the grain is allowed to rot, the people get hungrier, the youth in the hungry heartland get enraged and their anger gets seduced by the gun. India’s innards are exploding to the sound of grenades as the economists discuss inflationary pressures and the agriculture minister complains about poor storage facilities, as though it was someone else’s problem to fix.
Even in warehouses where grain is stored indoors in gunny bags, the damp gets to them because the construction is below par. When the moisture creeps in during the rainy season and the bags get wet, fungus destroys the grain, making it inedible. In addition, there are rodents that not only eat up large quantities of stored grain, but also leave behind their excreta to further poison the food. Together, fungus and rodents account for nearly 20 million tonnes of food grain lost every year, which is about a tenth of the country’s annual production.
STORING GRAINS in warehouses is a bad idea. The bags stored in the first phase lie at the bottom, rotting because they cannot be taken out first. So the bags on top, the most recent ones, get taken out when food has to be sent out. The cardinal principle of storage, ‘firstin- first-out’, is violated by the warehouse method.
AGAINST THE GRAIN: 2010
4.5 LAKH SACKS OF WHEAT in Uttar Pradesh, estimated to be worth Rs 25 crore, were damaged due to rains at the Food Corporation of India (FCI) godown in Ghaziabad, while more than 1 lakh sacks were left in the open despite enough space available in the Allahabad godown
3 LAKH SACKS OF WHEAT in Haryana were destroyed in Sirsa warehouse due to floods. Despite flood warnings from the weatherman, no precautions were taken and the food grain continued to lie in the open and low-lying area
56,000 SACKS OF GRAIN in Gondia district of Maharashtra are left to rot in the open despite plenty of space available inside the FCI godown. According to officials, the grain was stored outside the warehouse because there was a space crunch when the shipment arrived in May
There is a blindingly simple answer to this problem — grain silos. These vertical structures of steel allow grain to be poured in from the top and taken out from below. It is waterproof because the structure is lifted off the ground and the metal does not allow seepage and damp. There’s no room for rodents either, nor their excreta. Just clean dry grain, ready to be taken out and transported wherever it is needed.
Is the government taking steps to introduce this solution? No it isn’t. When MS Swaminathan and the National Commission on Farmers made this recommendation, the government response was to set up a committee, after a long delay, to examine its cost and effectiveness. Nothing has come of that so far, but plans are afoot to send a delegation to China to study how they tackle their storage problems. Many plates of Peking duck and lots of plum wine later we will have a report on how the Chinese manage their business, but we may not have a grain silo.
When states plead with the Centre to release food stocks, economists say it will trigger inflation. And the hungry heartland gets hungrier
The grain silo isn’t a new concept for India. In Jharkhand and Bihar, the traditional grain gola, a silolike structure is used to store food produce in villages. In the Raj era, such silos were used to stock food grain during famine. These structures were made of galvanised iron and had a fairly long life. They are still around. There is no reason why a network of large silos and smaller grain golas cannot be built across the country. Let this government’s ambitions of nine percent economic growth begin with feeding the hungry in this land with the food that is already produced.
Suman Sahai is convener of Gene Campaign