KOLKATA // Millions of tonnes of food grain have been rotting in India every year and now the government has finally been forced to act by the country's highest court. Last month, the Supreme Court scolded the federal farmer's agency, the Food Corporation of India (FCI), for its failure to provide proper storage facilities for the country's grain stock. It was "a crime to waste even a grain of food" in a country "where people are starving", it said.
The interim order, issued in response to a petition raised by a civil liberties group in 2001, came after media reports exposing massive wastage of government-procured food grain across the country. Sharad Pawar, India's food minister, told the parliament on Tuesday that such wastage in the state-run warehouses was "shameful" and efforts were on to build enough granaries to minimise the losses. Some damage to food stocks was inevitable, the minister said, but it is the scale of the wastage in a country described by Unicef as containing one in three of the world's malnourished children that has angered so many.
In 2008 and last year, the amount of grain wasted in warehouses across the country was 9.4 million tonnes and 16 million tonnes, respectively, according to figures released by the FCI earlier this year. The numbers only came to light after the New Delhi-based food rights activist Dev Ashish Bhattacharya filed a freedom of information request with the corporation. Last month, the Hindustan Times, quoting unidentified government sources, reported that about 10 million tonnes of grain, enough to feed 118 million people for a year, were at risk of rotting. The newspaper said India has 59 million tonnes of grain in storage but of that total, an increasing amount is being kept outside under tarpaulins rather than in proper warehouses.
Last month, regional media reported massive wastage of stocks in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Maharashtra and other states. The CNN-IBN TV channel showed footage of FCI guards in Bihar shoving away an elderly beggar and seizing 1kg of near-rotten wheat that she had collected from the ground outside a storage warehouse. Many believe the Supreme Court had taken notice of the reports before issuing the interim order, which also called on the government to build the infrastructure for enough modern storage facilities across the country as soon as possible, so that a "single grain is not wasted".
The Supreme Court lustices Dalveer Bhandari and Deepak Verma said in the court's order: "When food is rotting, don't waste it. Let the poor come and take it, if you can't distribute it." Following the order, the Indian agriculture ministry ordered inquiries into food wastage in several states and nine FCI officials were suspended in Uttar Pradesh for "dereliction of duty". India's junior agricultural minister, KV Thomas, said India needed an additional storage facility of at least 17.2 million tonnes to prevent further wastage of grain. He said the government planned to use Chinese technical assistance to build scores of modern warehouses.
But activists said the government's response was too little too late. "In the past two decades so many millions of tonnes of food grains have been wasted across the country because of callous attitude of these FCI officials. Some hundreds of [FCI] officials should have been sent to jail long ago," said Amit Srivastava, a food rights activist in Uttar Pradesh. "In a country where millions suffer from hunger and malnutrition, the loss of so many millions of tonnes of food grains is indeed criminal."
Activists have complained for decades that tens of thousands of tonnes of the FCI's grain-stock has been going to waste each year due to being stored outside or in the wrong conditions. The People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) filed the public interest petition to the Supreme Court in 2001 seeking that the "country's gigantic food stocks be used without delay - to protect people from hunger and starvation".
The petition argued that the federal and state governments of India, the second-largest producer of wheat and rice in the world, had violated the people's right to food by amassing massive amount of food grains while huge numbers of poor people starved. Although the Supreme Court is yet to give any final judgment on the 2001 petition and dozens of other food crisis-related applications filed by the PUCL in the past few years, it has passed more than 50 "interim orders" over the period.
MS Swaminathan, an agricultural scientist known as the father of India's green revolution, summed up the national anger over the rotting food at a press conference after the court order: "Providing food should be the priority. Instead, the government has chosen to focus on airports and the Commonwealth Games." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org