Sunday, August 8, 2010

Starve the people and feed the rats

Suman Sahai

The Supreme Court has had to step in once again and tell the government to do its job and feed the poor. In this case, the Court’s injunction was with respect to the food grains rotting in government godowns over which there has been a public hue and cry. The Court has directed the government to make the food that is stored and on the verge of rotting, to be made available to the poor.

The government acknowledges that food worth crores is destroyed every year due to poor and insufficient storage facilities. Yet it has done little about increasing the storage capacity for food. Mountains of grain, collected over years, are rotting in the open, in states like Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. In Punjab alone, this grain could feed three lakh people. When state governments appeal to the centre to release the food stocks so that the poor have food, the government’s economists stop them from doing so on the ground that it would be bad economics. So the central government holds the grain, allowing it to rot; the people get hungrier, the youth in villages after years of deprivation get enraged and take to the gun. The Indian heartland is exploding to the sound of grenades as the economists do their calculations and discuss inflationary pressures.

In government warehouses where construction is shoddy there is seepage from the ground below and leaks from above. The bags get wet, fungus destroys the grain , making it inedible, even as animal feed. In addition rats make holes in the bags and eat up large quantities of grain, leaving behind their excreta to further poison the food. The food lost during storage is keeping millions of Indian hungry.

Even as it watches this destruction of precious food, the government has failed to take any action to fix responsibility and punish those responsible for such criminal actions. Business as usual continues , callous neglect and corruption being par for course, food is

destroyed season after season as malnutrition ravages the countryside and India’s hunger and malnutrition figures slip below Sub Saharan Africa. When this came to light in 2009, the Agriculture Minister told Parliament that he would examine the matter. A year down not a single cubic foot of additional storage space has been built.

Warehouses and godowns are actually bad forms of storage. The bags that are stored first, lie at the bottom, rotting because they cannot be taken out first. It is the bags on top , the most recent ones, that get taken out when food has to be sent out. The cardinal principle of storage, ‘first in - first out’ is violated by the warehouse method of grain storage. The answer is grain silos. These vertical structures of steel allow grain to be poured in from the top and taken out from below. First in- first out, no damp since the structure is off the

ground, easy to keep waterproof since the metal does not allow seepage and damp, so no fungus. No rats or rodents either, nor their excreta. Just clean dry grain, ready to be taken out and trucked wherever it is needed. Is the government taking steps to introduce this straightforward solution to rotting food grains? No it is not. Plans have been made instead to send a delegation to China (one more junket with all hands on board) to study how the Chinese tackle their grain storage issues. Many helpings of chowmein later we will have an analysis of how the Chinese manage their business but we may not get even one grain silo.

The odd thing about the silo is that it is not a new concept for India. In many parts of eastern India, especially places like Jharkhand and Bihar, the traditional grain gola, a small silo like structure is used to store grain at the local level, perhaps for a cluster of villages or even at the block or taluka level. In the British period, grain golas were used to stock food grains during the famines and food shortages created by colonial policies. These structures were made of galvanized iron and had a fairly long life. They are still around. There is no reason why a network of large grain silos and smaller grain golas can not be erected across the country to store food grain cleanly and reach it efficiently and quickly when the need arises. Let this government’s ambitions of nine percent economic growth begin with feeding the hungry in this land with the food that has already been roduced.

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