Failed Food System: India’s poor have to go hungry even after ‘bumper harvest’ due to poor management

In this Wednesday, May 9, 2012 photo, a laborer works at  an open wheat storage area in Khamanon village, some 215 kilometers (133 miles) from Amritsar, India. Millions of tons of wheat were rotting in the open after India ran out of warehouse space to store its growing grain stockpiles. Food Minister K.V. Thomas said Thursday the government was taking "all necessary steps" to increase its storage capacities and that the government was looking at private partnerships to attract investment in building warehouses and new storage spaces would be available by the end of the year. Photo: Altaf Qadri / AP

A failed food system in India prompts intense review

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.

Just 180 miles to the south, in a slum on the outskirts of New Delhi, Leela Devi struggled to feed her family of four on meager portions of flatbread and potatoes, which she said were all she could afford on her disability pension and the irregular wages of her day-laborer husband. Her family is among the estimated 250 million Indians who do not get enough to eat.

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.

Indian wheat rots in the open after bumper harvest

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.”