|September 6, 2001||atimes.com|
Indian surpluses go against the grain
By Ranjit Devraj
NEW DELHI - "Our granaries are brimming only because people do not have the wherewithal to purchase food grain," was how India's blunt-speaking Agriculture Minister Ajit Singh summed up a desperate situation.
Singh is the only ruling party politician, either in the central government or in the states, who is candid about people dying of starvation at a time when the government is groaning under food surpluses expected to reach 80 million tons.
After newspapers and television showed graphic proof of starvation deaths and mass deprivation, India's Supreme Court intervened on Monday to shame the government into ensuring that the poor received their due share of grain.
Acting on a petition by a leading rights group, the People's Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL), the apex court observed that below-poverty-line families were being doled out 25 kilograms of grain per month at four cents a kilogram when they were entitled to 75 kilograms at the same rate.
India's granaries are already bursting with more than 60 million tons of wheat and rice, but yet another bumper crop in the current harvest is expected to take surplus stocks well beyond 80 million tons.
With nowhere to store the grain, the government has begun to pile sacks of it on the tarmac of airfields, covered under nothing more than flimsy black plastic sheeting. Vast amounts are reported to have rotted in rainy weather or been eaten by rats.
But the states apparently have neither the will nor the mechanism to get the grain to the starving poor, facts which did not escape the Supreme Court. In fact, the official apathy prompted the court to ask the PUCL to identify officers in each of the affected districts who have the "spirit, inclination and drive" to prevent further starvation deaths.
"Let us target the areas which need immediate attention, and Orissa appears to be in the greatest need," the bench, consisting of Justice B N Kirpal and Justice Ashok Bhan, told the PUCL.
In addition to eastern Orissa, the court has issued notices to the governments of southern Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, western Maharashtra and Rajasthan and central Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh states to report on starvation.
None of these states could provide figures on the number of people who fell below the poverty line and who were entitled to cheap grain, but the PUCL told the court that, in all, 200 million Indian suffered "chronic hunger".
There are no official figures on the number of people who may have starved to death this year although it is believed that a few hundred have died in the affected states.
Disaster-prone Orissa, which has a special relief commissioner, has identified the problem in the state as one of "rapacious traders and moneylenders cornering grain earmarked for the poor, leaving intended beneficiaries to grub on roots and poisonous mango seeds".
This is not surprising because even India's planning commission has admitted that more than 30 percent of food grain meant for the public distribution system is misappropriated yearly by private traders and contractors.
Two years ago, the government announced a national storage policy that envisaged inviting foreign investors and modern technology to efficiently move grain from the farm gate to consumers. But that plan was shelved because the central government-run Food Corp of India, described as notoriously corrupt, and the contractors and traders it works with did not find it convenient to their schemes.
As the outrage of the Supreme Court became known, the federal ministry of food and civil supplies finally got tough and made it a punishable offense for traders to divert food grain away from the public distribution system.
Last April, a group of academics from the prestigious Delhi School of Economics resorted to an open letter to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in a bid to get the rotting surplus stocks released to poor and starving people.
"This year, with droughts affecting large parts of the country for a second or third year in a row, undernourishment and starvation are likely to intensify. Alarming cases of starvation deaths have already been reported in several states," the April letter said.
The signatories, including well-known economists Jean Dreze, Pulin Nayak and Badal Mukherji, argued that the stocks were a burden on the economy considering that there was no possibility of export while storage and handling costs were high. The economists pointed out that the US$2.5 billion that was being spent on the "so-called food subsidy" actually went into "procuring, handling and storing food that does not reach the poor".
"Bold intervention at the highest level is imperative to avert widespread deprivation and misery," they urged. "It is shocking to see massive public resources being used to store food out of the reach of the poor," the academics also said.
(Inter Press Service)
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