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Food Security in India

Dheera Sujan reporting from India

The scandal about the thousands of tonnes of rotting grain stored in sub-standard warehouses around India only emphasizes the “through the looking glass” feel one gets on coming here from Europe.  Just a couple of days ago, India was indulging in a fair amount of pomp and glory to celebrate 63 years of Independence, but there’s been little soul searching about where that Independence has brought us.

Every day the news is full of stories and pictures of debt ridden farmers, their malnourished children and blank eyed wives who spend their days roaming the countryside in search of grass that has replaced rice as a staple in some of the poorest villages of the hinterland.

This is not a new situation in India despite the much publicized Green Revolution of the 70’s.  In 2001-2003 the Indian government sent out a storm of press releases praising record surpluses.  But the grain was exported to Europe for cheaper prices than it was sold to the Indian poor.  While Indian rural populations starved, the surplus grain was used for European cattle “the most food secure creatures on earth” as they are called by respected Indian journalist P.Sainath.

The government distributes BPL (Below the Poverty Line) cards. They allow the bearer to get food staples at hugely subsidized rates.  They are supposed to be issued out to families whose incomes have been carefully assessed.  Instead they are being mortgaged by bankrupt farmers to moneylenders who in turn use them to buy up stocks of cheap subsidized grain and then re-sold at hugely inflated market prices.

A recent news report showed middle class apartments in New Delhi where the owners possessed BPL cards.  A middle class friend of mine who lives in rural Bengal, one of the poorest regions in the country, was offered one as a gift.  She refused it but knows personally of many landless peasants in the same region who don’t have one.  In village after village in the hinterland in Orissa, Maharashtra, UP, Bihar, people will trudge to the official stations to apply for these cards only to be told to return when they can offer “some tea money” to the people who are supposed to be issuing them out.

A report from the Food Corporation of India states that in Punjab alone, 49,000 tonnes of grain have become non-issuable (ie the grain is too rotten to consume), and the Minister for Agriculture, Sharad Pawar, seems confused about whether he should bat away the media reports as exaggeration, or make a public call for more and improved warehousing space – he’s been doing both.  He says that India must add a warehousing capacity for 15 million tonnes immediately and is asking for private investors to come into partnership with the government to do it.

So far, no bite, possibly because private companies know that anything that is going to have government involvement means inefficiency, corruption, and the diversion of profits.

Meanwhile Indian viewers are becoming used to witnessing the effects of starvation on their tv screens.  The sight of chronic malnutrition may have disappeared from the booming cities, the government’s “Emerging India’”, but on the other side of the looking glass, for millions of Indians in the rural areas, hunger is a beast that must be fought on a daily basis.

1 Comment on “Food Security in India”

  1. #1 David Berridge
    on Aug 19th, 2010 at 4:45 am

    India now must focus on two immediate courses of action. The first is to declare as Russia has, an export ban on grain. Selling to Europe which already the means and capacity to produce more grain than it needs, is at best ridiculous. Secondly, is a severe crackdown on blackmarketing BPL cards. That some people still have enough moral fibre in them to refuse gifts of these cards speaks well for some future for humanity, but the practice has a double-edged sword of manslaughter through contrived starvation and market manipulation of a necessary food staple. If the government can do something despite itself to move relatively quickly in these directions, something at least might be accomplished. Large numbers of starving people located in and defined by geographic regions is incredibly dangerous. Even in China this is a growing concern as a rapidly developing economic power. India would be more than wise to learn from this precedent.

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