How many decades does it take to build a godown?
CNN-IBN had an article a few weeks ago about how 10 million tons of wheat and rice are at risk of rotting in India, as they are stored in the open under tarpaulins.
This isn’t new, as we know. Every few years, some newspaper publishes a picture or a news article about rotting foodgrains, and the story dies down a few days later. There is rarely much outrage over the wasted foodgrains.
Suman Sahia writes in Tehelka that “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.”
On this note, I love what the Minister of State for Agriculture K V Thomas said in his interview to Tehelka : “There were 11,708 tonnes of damaged and non-issuable food grain in Food Corporation of India (FCI) depots. However, the whole lot hasn’t become spoilt. This quantity has become non-issuable to beneficiaries of the public distribution system because of various reasons.”
Ah, so they weren’t spoilt, they were just wasted. I’m sure that is an important distinction.
FCI, for its part, has been in the business of storing foodgrains in the open for years. The IBN article says “The amount of food grain wasted was 9.4 million tonnes in 2008, 16 million tonnes in 2009 and 17.8 million tonnes in 2010.”
But how many tons of foodgrains were spoiled due to improper storage in 2000 or 1990? What about the years when we imported wheat when we could have used stored foodgrains if only they hadn’t rotted?
– Here is a report from the Hindu, dated March 19,2002, about FCI floating tenders for building 70 godowns across 13 states to store foodgrains. What happened to those godowns – were they ever built, or were they inadequate?
– There was also the case of 17,000 tons of rice that were taken from FCI godowns in Karnataka over a 15 day period in 2004 and were found at Mangalore port awaiting export to Kenya by a private company. This was happening at the same time that Karnataka was reeling under a drought.
My question is – why has so little attention been paid to this issue by our esteemed Members of Parliament/ ministers/ politicians all these years?
Why have our NGOs not protested? Why do newspapers not make a bigger issue of this?
Is it that people believe that this issue doesn’t affect them, since FCI foodgrains are only going to be distributed through the PDS? Do the rich and the middle class not care because they don’t buy PDS rice, and the poor don’t have a voice anyway?
I’m not going to preach about how we need to be more sensitive to issues of the poor. (We do). But this issue is not a poor man’s issue. FCI’s incompetence does not just affect those dependent on PDS food grains. It affects all of us, and here are two examples how:
1. What happens when the PDS cannot supply enough rice or wheat and those dependent on the PDS are forced to buy foodgrains in the open market? Does it not impact the middle class when food grain prices increase as a result?
2. What happens in years of drought when the Government, without a surplus of stored foodgrains, is forced to import foodgrains? Again the market price goes up and yes, the middle class is impacted.
The Supreme Court order asking the Government to distribute free food grains to the poor is a great idea, but is only a stopgap measure. We will have the same problem of spoiled food grains next year, and (going by history) the year after that.
Unless the middle class, the media and the NGOs realize that this is not a poor man’s issue alone, and unless they start protesting more.