For once, in a role reversal, it was the government rapping the Supreme Court on its knuckles. The apex court, said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, “should not get into the realm of policy formulations”. The otherwise mild-mannered PM’s rebuke was provoked by the SC’s fiat to the government to distribute foodgrains among the poor instead of letting them rot.
The joust has triggered yet another round of animated debate on why the country’s poor continue to starve when there are abundant stocks in the government’s granaries. As the SC itself, while asking the government to revamp the public distribution system (PDS), pointedly observed: “Give it (grains) to the hungry poor instead of it going down the drain.”
The PM’s remarks though, find ready support from the bureaucracy. They contend that what the SC actually meant was that the government should consider issuing foodgrains to the deserving population at low or no cost, as also increase the storage capacity.
“How can you give free foodgrains? If you do, then you have to give it to everybody or nobody. Else, there will be food riots,” say officials.
The Right to Food Campaign (RFC), an umbrella organisation spearheading a movement for universalising PDS, was swift to attack the PM. Expressing “shock” over the statement, it said: “The PM ought to understand the spirit in which the Supreme Court’s remarks on distributing the foodgrains was made. Letting grains rot when there are so many people in the country who are hungry is immoral and cannot be justified.”
The PM needs to “realise that boasting about being the second fastest growing economy in a context where two-thirds of our women are anaemic, half the children are malnourished, almost one-third of adult men and women have a low body mass index, malnutrition rates are higher than in some strife-torn countries of Africa and where India ranks 66 out of 88 countries in the Global Hunger Index is like the emperor without clothes,” said the RFC.
But alongside the debate on universal versus targeted PDS is the issue of the government’s huge food subsidy bill. Currently at a staggering ` 45,000 crore, it will touch ` 1.3 lakh crore if the PDS were to be universalised.
The overarching RFC, incidentally, also has as its member the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) whose Rajasthan wing had filed a writ petition in the SC in 2001, seeking accountability from the state for persisting hunger and starvation in the country. The outcome has been a slew of SC orders aimed at reducing hunger and starvation in the country over the last nine years.
The problems persist. While most agree there are no easy solutions to the conundrum of widespread hunger and overflowing granaries, various suggestions are offered from time to time to grapple with this paradoxical situation.
So much so, the powerful National Advisory Council (NAC), headed by UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, is now redrafting a food security bill, which promises to address the persisting problems of hunger, malnourishment and an ailing PDS.
Take what the Union government’s chief economic adviser Prof Kaushik Basu said in a working paper earlier this month. He said what is needed is a look at “the entire system of food production, food procurement and the release and distribution of food” when an improved foodgrain policy is being worked out.
On the issue of grains being made available at low prices to whoever wants to purchase them, Prof Basu said it would mean that these could be picked up by traders and resold to the government when its procures foodgrains; leading to a situation wherein the “government will end up subsidising repeatedly for the same foodgrains”.
NAC member and Supreme Court appointed food commissioner N.C. Saxena remarks, “It’s a sad situation that foodgrains are rotting in the open while the Women and Child development ministry has to buy foodgrains from the open market for its anganwadis. Is it good logic? It shows the indifference, lack of imagination and coordination in the government. No one is saying that foodgrains should be given free to all but they should at least be provided to 10 lakh anganwadi centres in the country.”
Mr Saxena, while observing “all indicators point to the fact that endemic hunger continues to afflict a large proportion of Indian population”, said the PDS needed effective reforms to ensure the grains reached the poor. Holding that successive governments have done nothing to reform the PDS, he said it was the government’s “moral, legal and political responsibility to monitor and oversee the PDS”.
He also asked why the Centre spends so much by way of subsidy and yet, not want to monitor the PDS leading to foodgrain leakages of as much as 60 per cent.
* As per the government’s own figures, the average annual production of rice and wheat in the country is around 170 million tonnes. Of this, around 95 million tonnes is rice and 75 million tonnes is wheat.
* Even though an estimated 20 per cent of this quantity is either wasted, consumed by farmers, kept as seeds, etc. there is still a marketable surplus of around 120 million tonnes annually.
* The government had a stock of nearly 58 million tonnes of wheat and rice on July 1, 2010. Even if the buffer stock and strategic reserve requirements of 32 million tonnes are subtracted from this stock, it still left the government with a surplus of nearly 26 million tonnes.
* Sadly, the total covered storage space with the Centre, states and private parties can accommodate only 45 million tonnes of grains. Over the last year, between three to five million tonnes of storage space has been added.
* To prevent wasting grains stored in the open, another 15 million tonnes of covered space is required. In Punjab, officials admit that several thousand tonnes of grains was lost as it rotted in the open.