Something is rotten in the state of India


The government’s indifference towards food being allowed to go waste is a cunning ploy to open up agriculture to corporates

By Devinder Sharma

Illustration: Anand Naorem

IT’S A paradox of plenty. At a time when India ranks 67th among 81 countries in the 2011 Global Hunger Index prepared by the International Food Policy Research Institute, mountains of grain continue to rot in godowns while more recently, irate farmers spilled tonnes of potatoes on the streets in Punjab. A few months ago, it was tomato farmers in Jharkhand, and then it was the turn of onion growers in Rajasthan. And if you think this is a recent phenomenon, you are mistaken. I have seen this happening for nearly 25 years now across the country at regular intervals.

Disgusting, isn’t it? Well, the visuals of food rotting speak volumes of the criminal apathy, neglect and callousness with which we, as a nation, have failed to address the shameful scourge of hunger. For a country that has the dubious distinction of having the largest population of hungry in the world — close to 320 million — and with 42 percent of children officially clubbed as malnourished, the spectacle of massive quantities of food being allowed to go waste is an unpardonable crime. What is still worse is that hunger proliferates in a country that claims to be the world’s largest democracy.

For nearly five years, procurement has hovered at 50-60 million tonnes. Someone had worked it out that if we keep a bag of grain over another, and stack 60 million tonnes in a vertical row, we could actually walk to the moon and back. With so much of surplus grain, and with unmanageable quantities of fruits and vegetables rotting by the roadside, there is no justification for growing hunger. At the same time, it is baffling to find staple food being exported while the population of the hungry and malnourished continues to multiply. No wonder, hunger continues to keep pace with economic growth.

Over the years, farming has become a big gamble. It is not only the worrisome vagaries of weather that more often than not plays havoc, farmers are also faced with a strange phenomenon — produce and perish. Take the case of Suryabhagwan, a farmer in the East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh. This year, he voluntarily announced that he would rather work as a ‘coolie’ than undertake paddy cultivation. Already under heavy debt and knowing that another season of paddy cultivation will only add to his indebtedness, his call for a ‘crop holiday’ soon reverberated. Within weeks, the idea spread like wildfire, with the result that now more than 1 lakh hectares in the two irrigated districts of East and West Godavari lie barren.

India doesn’t have the capacity to absorb an excess crop production of even 5 percent

AP is a paddy growing area. While production has been steadily on an upswing over the years, adequate market infrastructure for procurement has not been created. The result is that despite a very high production capacity, there is little space for storage. This is not only true of AP or for that matter Punjab and Haryana, the country’s food bowl, but extends to the whole country. The tragedy manifested after the initial years of the Green Revolution, when food became abundantly available. The focus then shifted away from agriculture. With public sector investment drastically falling over the past few decades, agriculture was left at the mercy of the rain gods. Protecting every single grain of food produced to feed the growing population of deprived sections never became a national priority.

While production increased, the accompanying market and storage infrastructure were not created. India does not even have the capacity to handle and absorb an excess production of 5 percent, whether it is of wheat, potato or cotton. Whatever the policymakers may say, the neglect of agriculture was deliberate. It is essentially designed to open up agriculture to private investment. Farmers have been the victims of a bigger and hidden design to push them out of agriculture. The more they produce, the more they suffer. Produce and perish, and thereby make way for corporate agriculture.

Devinder Sharma is a food policy analyst.


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