Sunday, August 29, 2010

Diet of mud and despair in villages even as food grains rot in FCI godowns

Hindustan Times reported that heaps of food grains are rotting in Food Corporation of India (FCI) godowns across the country due to apathetic attitude of the authorities concerned, according to a Right To Information (RTI) query. According to the RTI information, as on Jan 1 this year, 10,688 lakh tonnes of food grains were found damaged in FCI depots, enough to feed over six lakh people for over 10 years. Between 1997 and 2007, 1.83 lakh tonnes of wheat, 6.33 lakh tonnes of rice, 2.20 lakh tonnes of paddy and 111 lakh tonnes of maize were damaged in different FCI godowns.

This pathetic situation is prevailing even as news came that many children in Ganne are eating bits of dried mud and silica due to sheer poverty.  New York Times says that India’s eight poorest states have more people in poverty — an estimated 421 million — than Africa’s 26 poorest nations. The Indian Public Distribution System (PDS) is riddled with enormous corruption and inefficiency resulting in only a portion of the grains actually reaching the poorest of the poor. With studies showing nearly 70% of the approx $12 billion budget being wasted, stolen or absorbed by bureaucratic and transportation costs, the poor deserve a better treatment.

This is not the way we want India to shine.  Simply saying that the existing PDS is rotten won't solve the problem.  While action against corrupt officials have to be initiated, a quick introduction of the "food stamps" might also reduce the problem. 

One initial thought is to have Annadan instituted in villages.  In Tamil Nadu, this practise started by Jayalalitha through temples, though initially critisised as a gimmick, brought food atleast once a day for the poorest of the poor. Tamil Nadu also has the Mid-day meals programme for school children, started by Kamaraj initially in a small fashion, but made into a mass programme by MGR in the 1970s.  I am not sure if similar government programmes exists in other states. 

On the non-government side, Akshaya Patra programme comes to mind for its large scale distribution of high quality and hygienic food to poor school children.  Everyday, 12,28,580 children are fed by Akshaya Patra. 

The poverty and starvation deaths are generally not seen in South India, mostly due to better development schemes for the poor.  Foodgrains are rotting in FCI godowns.  It would be better to distribute the grains to the poorest of the poor free or the government either on its own or through public-private partnerships or through NGOs initiate public works programme where instead of wages, food grains can be distributed.  A single course of action wouldn't yield desired result.  It should be a decentralised multi pronged effort - with local resources being applied to solve local problems.  

From a long term perspective, there is a clear need for dramatic improvement in governance.  Without that happening, the poverty situation can become a disaster. The progress on the economic front would be lost, if millions of poor and under nourished people suffer from starvation.  For India to really shine, better action is required.