Empty Stomachs, Full Godowns  

- DB

Recent Supreme Court orders asking the government to take urgent steps to stop foodgrains from rotting away in godowns by arranging, if necessary, free distribution of grains among the hungry have once again exposed the callous response of the state to the shame of public hunger.  ‘Food security’ was a key promise of the Congress during the 2009 Lok Sabha election – but the government has been delaying any legislation on this score on the plea of lack of rains and resultant crop failure. Meanwhile food inflation has been raging at a record 12-20% for most of the year, pushing more and more people into the vortex of starvation. And precisely at this juncture we have this shocking spectacle of foodgrains rotting away in makeshift godowns and the poor going hungry in their millions.
On July 27, the Supreme Court took notice of this absurd situation and asked the Office of the Supreme Court Commissioners monitoring the implementation of various food-related government schemes to submit a report on the wastage of food grains. The Commissioners (Dr. NC Saxena and Harsh Mander) submitted their report on 10 August terming the monumental wastage a case of genocidal negligence and appealing to the Supreme Court to fix accountability on the highest levels of central and state governments and direct the Union of India to “immediately issue the foodgrains to all the poor, marginalised and food-deprived families and individuals in the country”. Against this backdrop came the recent Supreme Court orders of August 12 and 31.
The Commissioners’ report noted that the volume of foodgrains held by the state had crossed 60 million metric tonnes (MMT) in June 2010, next only to the all-time record of 64.83 MMT in 2002. Of this, more than 17.68 MMT were lying in the open – an all-time record – thanks to the FCI decision to de-hire covered storage capacity of roughly the same quantum during 2004-06. So more than extraordinary procurement, it was a case of short-sighted foodgrain management and the crisis of the FCI system of storage. And this crisis of storage finds its matching complement in the crisis of distribution, the utter failure of the so-called ‘targeted’ PDS. While the deepening agrarian crisis casts a dark shadow over the production of foodgrains, endangering food security and sovereignty, the “genocidal negligence” of the state on the procurement, storage and distribution front thus continues to push the poor into chronic hunger. 
The UPA government’s first response was to term the Supreme Court ‘suggestion’ unimplementable. When the Court reiterated its position, describing it as an ‘order’ and not a mere observation or suggestion, the government promised to release additional foodgrains to the tune of 2.5 million tonnes for BPL households. When none less than the Prime Minister effectively rebuked the Court for encroaching on the turf of governance, however, the Supreme Court bench too seems to have tamely gone on the back foot, appreciating the Government for releasing additional BPL grains while remaining silent on the Government's refusal to implement what the SC had earlier described as an 'order'!

India Fails to Tackle Hunger

As world leaders gather in New York to assess the UN’s Millennium Development Goals for halving extreme poverty and hunger by 2015, an NGO has released a report titled "Who's Really Fighting Hunger." This report has issued a 'HungerFREE scorecard' – in which India ranks 21 out of 28 countries in its efforts to tackle hunger.
Of course, most countries ranks very badly in this matter. The report says, "The bitter truth is that the world is going backwards on hunger. If massive gains in China are excluded from the picture, then global hunger has risen back to exactly the same level in 2009 as it was in 1990."
About India, the report notes, "Around one quarter of the world’s population who are deprived of food live in India.  With the number of hungry people having increased between 1990 and 2005 by about 53 million, it is predicted that India will not have halved hunger until 2083 - nearly 70 years after the MDG target date. The government estimates that 43 percent of children under the age of five are malnourished. It is not surprising, therefore, that India remains in 21st place on the HungerFREE Scorecard....
Food prices have remained high in India and continue to rise... The agricultural sector's growth is expected to continue to be negative in 2009-10. The budget allocation of 2.3 percent to agriculture is simply too low to revitalize the agricultural sector. Massive long-term public investment is needed, particularly in agricultural research, extension services and irrigation. Land reform would likewise help to reduce hunger, since small and marginal farmers operating on less than 2 hectares each constitute 84 percent of all farmers in the country. The government must also stop promoting corporate ‘land grabs’, which are dispossessing traditional resource-dependent communities from their livelihoods." It also remarks, "In India, one the world’s emerging recent global economic ‘successes’, 1 in 5 of the population are hungry, and close to 50 percent of all children are malnourished."
Commenting on China's success in tackling hunger, the report says, "Recent research has pointed to the vital role that agriculture played in China’s initial take-off. Agriculture was estimated to have contributed to poverty reduction four times more than growth in manufacturing or service sectors. As China’s story demonstrates, the biggest impact on reducing hunger and poverty is achieved when governments focus on supporting the small-scale farmers who grow the majority of staple foods consumed locally. There are particularly massive gains to be reaped from investing in women farmers, who currently receive hardly any credit or extension advice and seldom enjoy secure rights over land. The HungerFREE scorecard also shows that well-designed social assistance programmes, such as public works employment, cash transfers, food rations, and free school meals, are an important hunger-fighting weapon....Brazil, our overall chart topper for the second time in a row, has expanded welfare coverage dramatically in recent years." 
The report cites India as a typical example of the withdrawal of the state from agriculture as having caused hunger. "A final ironic twist to the tail is that, while Indian farmers are committing suicide because they can no longer make their lands productive, the Indian government, concerned about future food insecurity, is seeking to purchase land for to grow food in countries such as Ethiopia and Sudan..." On measures to alleviate gender inequality, too, India is one of the worst scorers.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court also recommended that the government should preferably stop distributing subsidised foodgrains to the APL population. The Court would like to limit the PDS exclusively to the BPL population, but it has not shown the same degree of sensitivity and seriousness to the BPL muddle – gross underestimation of BPL population as well as serious irregularities in identification of BPL households resulting in large-scale exclusion of the poor from various BPL benefits – as it has shown in the case of rotting foodgrains.
Even a belated adoption of Tendulkar committee figures will not really resolve the BPL fiasco. The Tendulkar committee figures are only marginally higher than the ridiculously low Planning Commission estimates – in sharp contrast, the latest UNDP report has estimated 55% of Indians as BPL while three years ago the Arjun Sengupta committee found 77% Indians surviving on a daily budget of less than Rs. 20. And since then the purchasing power of Rs. 20 has been drastically eroded by the relentless onslaught of escalating prices. It is time the Supreme Court directed the government to clear the BPL muddle by automatically including all rural labourers, small peasants, artisans, unorganised and casual workers and urban toilers.
Indeed, the Supreme Court has been dealing with this ‘right to food’ case since April 2001 and scores of interim orders have been issued till date. Over these years, successive governments have launched a plethora of ‘targeted’ food-related schemes, yet the problem of chronic hunger remains as severe as ever. Out of 88 countries studied by the International Food Policy Research Institute, India is ranked 66th in the Global Hunger Index, behind countries like Sudan, Cameroon and Nigeria! The more the Supreme Court and the governments talk of ‘targeting’ the poor, the more the poor find themselves excluded, and the shadow of mass hunger gets ever longer and darker. If the Supreme Court really wants to promote the right to food, it must look beyond the narrow framework of ‘targeting’, into the deeper dimensions of mass poverty, hunger and malnutrition.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court order has evoked a whole array of elitist neo-liberal responses. Former Speaker and expelled CPI(M) leader Somnath Chatterjee has described the Court order as a case of impractical activism, a clear instance of the Court exceeding its jurisdiction. Economist Kaushik Basu, who is the government’s chief economic advisor, sees the solution in export. If the foodgrains cannot be stored in India, they should be exported now and imported later, if necessary. Indeed, the government has been following this course of action, even to the point of exporting foodgrains at rates cheaper than the PDS only to import later at inflated prices.
Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar, consulting editor of The Economic Times, has come up with the most spectacularly elitist of all solutions – he says the poor should be supplied such food as will be refused by the rich. He calls it ‘self-targeting’, and as an example he suggests replacing rice with fortified flour of some coarse grain like jowar or bajra for the poor. “A right to rice is conceptually like Marie Antoinette’s right to cake,” says Aiyar, adding “If necessary, India can export rice to finance imports of twice as much coarse grain.” recommends Aiyar. The Supreme Court order has clearly inspired these ‘economic reformers’ to come up with their modern-day neo-liberal ‘Manu Samhita’ for the poor in the name of revamping the PDS.

These opinions are no aberration; they reflect the policy orientation of the ruling establishment. By all accounts, the Supreme Court order will be sought to be used as a handle to further truncate and dismantle the Public Distribution System, limit official procurement and promote speculative private trade in foodgrains, all in the name of saving foodgrains from rotting in FCI godowns. While welcoming the Supreme Court’s sensitivity against the government’s ‘genocidal negligence’, we must therefore insist on food security in a comprehensive sense – pressing for both greater production and greater procurement of foodgrains on the one hand, and subsidised supply among all food-deficient and low-income sections on the other.