RANWAN, India — In this north Indian village, workers recently dismantled stacks of burned and mildewed rice while flies swarmed nearby over spoiled wheat. Local residents said the rice crop had been sitting along the side of a highway for several years and was now being sent to a distillery to be turned into liquor.
Such is the paradox of plenty in India’s food system. Spurred by agricultural innovation and generous farm subsidies, India now grows so much food that it has a bigger grain stockpile than any country except China, and it exports some of it to countries like Saudi Arabia and Australia. Yet one-fifth of its people are malnourished — double the rate of other developing countries like Vietnam and China — because of pervasive corruption, mismanagement and waste in the programs that are supposed to distribute food to the poor.
“The reason we are facing this problem is our refusal to distribute the grain that we buy from farmers to the people who need it,” said Biraj Patniak, a lawyer who advises India’s Supreme Court on food issues. “The only place that this grain deserves to be is in the stomachs of the people who are hungry.”
After years of neglect, the nation’s failed food policies have now become a subject of intense debate in New Delhi, with lawmakers, advocates for the poor, economists and the news media increasingly calling for an overhaul. The populist national government is considering legislation that would pour billions of additional dollars into the system and double the number of people served to two-thirds of the population. The proposed law would also allow the poor to buy more rice and wheat at lower prices.
The millions of tons of wheat rotting because India ran out of warehouse space to hold another bumper crop illustrate a core problem of the nation’s food crisis: India can grow plenty of food but cannot store or transport it well enough to nourish its 1.2 billion people.
Warehouses are overflowing and huge quantities of wheat and rice are stored in fields under tarpaulins and thin plastic sheets, risking decay.
Food Minister K.V. Thomas said Thursday that the government was taking “all necessary steps” to increase its storage capacities.
The government has partnered with the private sector to attract investment in building warehouses, and new storage spaces will be available by the end of the year, Thomas said.
The wheat has been lying in the open for nearly a year, during which the plastic sheeting that covered it developed holes, exposing the grain to rain, frost and sun.
Around the workers were hundreds of thousands of sacks of grain stacked nearly 3 meters (15 feet) high in an open area the size of a football field. Some sacks had split open and the grain had formed dense black clumps.
The edible grain will be repacked in fresh sacks and sold, said a caretaker, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Four bumper harvests over the past five years have swelled food grain production across the northern states of Punjab and Haryana, collectively known as the “granary of India.”