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  Food security for rats  
  Store grain in stomachs  
  KUNJU KURUP is a well-known cartoon character who turned 50 the other day. Political and social leaders, litterateurs, journalists and ordinary readers paid handsome tributes to this lovely character, a permanent fixture on page 1 of the 'Malayala Manorama' daily. For many of them, the day begins with reading his pithy, humour-laced comment on a topic of current interest.

In one of the earliest cartoons I remember, Kunju Kurup is shown eating rice porridge with his nostrils closed. There was no textual comment as it did not need one. It appeared at a time when the whole of Kerala was protesting against the "stinking rice" distributed through the public distribution system (PDS).

My mother would wash the rice several times and throw away the water in which it was cooked. Yet, when rice was served, it still stank. I knew Kunju Kurup was not exaggerating when with one hand he closed his nostrils and with the other he ate the porridge.

Those were the days of food scarcity and the government was promoting a new "wonder" rice seed called IR-8 (Indian Research-8) which could give a bountiful crop. I wondered whether the stinking rice was IR-8. I had no clue why the rice stank so much.

The problem ended once that lot of rice in the PDS was finished. It took several years for me to understand why the rice stank. And that was when I started travelling in Punjab and Haryana for professional work. These states are the grain bowls of India.

Though I had bookish knowledge of "minimum support price (MSP)", "procurement", "buffer stock" etc., it was during those trips that I understood in practical terms how all this worked. Every year, there is a clamour to increase the MSP, which is the price at which the government buys food grains from the farmer.

The farmer sells his produce to the government only if the price is more than the market price. So, MSP is a mechanism to help the farmer. It is the Food Corporation of India which "procures" the grains from states like Punjab, Haryana and Andhra Pradesh for distribution all over the country through the PDS.

The "procurement" has another purpose too. It is an insurance against crop failures and resultant food shortages. The FCI is, therefore, expected to keep a certain quantity of grain as "buffer stock" to meet eventualities like when India had to approach the US with a begging bowl and received grains under what was known as PL-480 (Public Law-480).

It was the shameful experience India had that opened the eyes of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who encouraged agricultural scientists like M.S. Swaminathan to do everything possible to make India self-sufficient in food grains. Of course, they were guided by the pioneering research done by Nobel-laureate Norman Borlaug, universally acclaimed as the "Father of Green Revolution".

It is a different matter that, personally, I never believed that India attained self-sufficiency in food grains. Our "self-sufficiency" is because a large section of the population cannot afford to buy grains in adequate quantity and goes to sleep on empty stomach.

One of the most distressing experiences I had during my travels in Punjab's hinterland was to learn about the ways in which FCI stored the "procured" grains. They are stored in gunny bags stacked up on a raised platform and kept in the open with a polythene sheet on the top to protect them from rains.

Why does the FCI resort to this practice? It is because it does not have enough weather-proof storage facility. Now the question is, why can't a country which talks about having a blue-water navy, thinking about sending a man to the moon and frantically making nuclear bombs so that every Indian can have one in his pocket, build proper warehouses?

Building godowns does not require striking "a deal" with the US. It cost the government upwards of Rs 10,000 crore to build a new terminal for the Delhi airport. Renovation of the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, the main venue for the Commonwealth Games, cost Rs 915 crore, when a brand new stadium in Hyderabad cost less than one-tenth of this amount. But the same government has no money to build godowns for the FCI!

We have an Agriculture Minister, who is so busy managing world cricket and making money that he cannot distinguish between an "order" and a "suggestion" even when it comes from the highest court of the land! Sharad Pawar would be mightily bothered if the pitch in the Mohali stadium is damaged but not if thousands of tonnes of foodgrains are damaged by rains in the same Mohali district in Punjab.

This is because the "elites" of the country do not eat the rice and wheat supplied through the PDS. Instead, they have Kellogs' vitamin-fortified corn flakes for breakfast and basmati rice for lunch and dinner, to be washed down with imported wine. I had an editor who wrote several columns on aviation-related topics because he was a frequent flyer. He never wrote about railways!

Newspapers went ga-ga over the new airport terminal in New Delhi which can accommodate so many "millions" of passengers, forgetting that the New Delhi railway station already handles several times more passengers.

When food grains are stored in the open, they rot. The stinking rice that I ate when I was an adolescent must have been the rotten variety from one of the "open" godowns of the FCI. If the grain rots beyond a point, it turns toxic and is unfit for human consumption.

That is when the grains are sold to poultry owners and liquor manufacturers. Newspapers had reported that 50,000 metric tonnes of grains had turned toxic and the fate of a much more quantity would be the same if immediate action was not taken to dispose it off. When a NGO brought this to the notice of the Supreme Court, it ordered the government to make the grain available to the poor free of cost, instead of allowing it to rot.

Pawar did precious little, except asserting that the Supreme Court's "suggestion" of giving the grains "free" was not feasible. For the record, the court did not say it should be given free. It only said it is a better option than wasting the grains. Now, why does food accumulate in the FCI warehouses?

The "procurement" is much more than is needed for maintaining a safe buffer stock. Today, it is more than three times the quantity required to ensure food security. As Nobel-laureate Amartya Sen once pointed out, if the grain bags in the FCI godowns are stacked one upon one, it will touch the moon several times.

If anything, the overflowing godowns show the utter failure of the government's food policy. Why can't the grains be distributed through the PDS? How useful is the PDS? Let me narrate my own experiences. One of my relatives was a wholesale ration dealer. I had on a couple of occasions gone to the district headquarters to lift grains from the FCI godown there on behalf of my relative.

The godown in-charge needed to be paid "extra" to get better quality rice and wheat. Otherwise, we would be forced to lift the more rotten variety. The godown was swarmed by rats and bandicoots, not to mention the large number of pigeons who hovered above. It is estimated that over 20 per cent of the grains are consumed by rodents and birds. As CPM leader Prakash Karat put it rightly, "the government ensures the food security of rats".

My encounter with corruption in the PDS began when a ration shop was opened right in front of my house. The licence-holder was the richest man in the village, who was also a wholesale PDS dealer. Since both wholesale and retail licences were not given to one person, his ownership of the retail shop was through 'benami'. And when one of my friends was employed there, I used to spend my spare time at the shop.

Then I learnt how the shop owner made a huge profit. To be fair, there is not much profit if the business is transacted as per government specifications. So, the PDS distributors indulge in corrupt practices.

The village, where this particular shop was located, had a large number of Muslim and Scheduled Caste families. Many of them were too poor to buy the ration. So the surplus grain was sold in the black market. Similarly, they would not buy sugar which would, again, be sold in the black market where it fetched a good margin.

Many of the ration card owners were so poor and uneducated that when the shopkeeper got access to their ration cards, bogus entries would be made in them in a huff. In fact, my friend's main job was to make fictitious bills and destroy them and keep the carbon copy for records. Once in a while, "inspectors" from the "Supply Office" would visit the shop to check the records. The shopkeeper knew how to please them.

Thus, on record, all ration card holders bought the prescribed quantities of rice, wheat, sugar, kerosene etc from the shop when, actually, many of them would not have even seen any of them. Another "technique" employed was to keep the goods only for a couple of days a week. If anybody wanted to buy, they should buy on those very days.

If this was the kind of corruption in a state like Kerala where the people are relatively more educated, one can imagine the situation in other parts of the country. There are millions of fake ration cards on which "subsidised" rice and wheat are lifted and sold in the black market.

Today, there are different kinds of ration cards. For those below poverty line (BPL) and those above poverty line (APL)! The prices at which grains are sold to them also differ substantially. The Supreme Court was told that there were over 250,000 bogus cards in Orissa. It has asked the government to take deterrent action against those who own such cards.

The apex court has also asked the government to stop supply of "subsidised" grains through the PDS to APL families. This will throw out from the PDS as many as 50 lakh families in Kerala alone. It will further aggravate the problem of accumulation of grains in the godowns.

The off-take of wheat and rice from the PDS rose from 41.4 million tonnes in 2004-05 to 42.1 million tonnes and then fell to 39.5 million tonnes in 2008-09. During the same period, the procurement rose from 41.6 million tonnes to 55.5 million tonnes. And when APL families are exempted from the PDS, the off-take will further decrease and the quantity in godowns will increase.

The UPA government has for long been talking about a food security bill. It is yet to see the light of the day. Under this yet-to-be-enacted enabling law, all those who are below the poverty line would get 25 kg of grains per family at a heavily subsidised price of Rs 3 per kg. Incidentally, those who belong to the "Antayodaya scheme" already get 35 kg of grains at this price. For them, it is a "food insecurity Bill".

If even a fraction of the enthusiasm the government has shown to stage the Commonwealth Games was shown in enacting the food security law, the foodgrains rotting in the godowns would already have been in the stomachs of the poor. In fact, there is no better place to store foodgrains than the human stomach.

It is a pity that this truth does not occur to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who thinks his life's mission was over when the nuclear deal he signed with President George Bush was approved by Parliament, and Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, who would like to be known as the Cricket minister of India. The sufferers are the poor people who starve while wheat and rice rot in the godowns. (Courtesy: Indian Currents)
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  By  A.J. Philip  
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