New Delhi, April 4, 2021: When the coronavirus was first detected in India and the country was shackled to handle the crisis with thousands of migrant workers returning home from their city of work, the first question to crop up was: will the country’s food distribution system come to their rescue?
Soon after the Covid-19 lockdown was announced last year, we started to get reports of tons of foodgrains being wasted. And while all that precious food was locked up unused, there was no system in place for that food to reach countless cash-strapped migrant workers who were made to walk home for days on end.
On July 8, 2020, The Hindu reported, “The trains are full of migrants returning to their workplaces in cities, but the Centre is still considering how to ensure that those without ration cards do not go hungry.”
A survey published on April 15, 2020 by the Stranded Workers Action Network reveals, “96% (migrants on the move) had not received rations from the government and 70% had not received any cooked food.”
While migrants and the poorest sections of our country were slowly slipping into poverty, nearly 26 tons of foodgrains were wasted in the month of May. It was revealed by the Indian government itself.
More shocking data came in from the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, which showed that the month of June recorded wastage of over 1,453 tons of foodgrains in FCI godowns.
As per the data, July and August recorded wastage of 41 and 51 tons respectively, reported The New Indian Express.
The government is responsible for food security of the country. It is the government’s responsibility to procure food, maintain food stocks to handle calamities, provide food to the poor, and distribute it to ensure people don’t hit the bed hungry.
FARMERS TO GHERAO FCI
To fight against this systemic failure and to force the government to ensure food security, Samyukta Kisan Morcha, an umbrella body of protesting farmers, has decided to carry out a gherao of FCI offices across India. Dubbed FCI Bachao Divas, the event will take place on April 5 from 11am to 6pm.
There are 81.35 crore beneficiaries of PDS (Public Distribution System). They are technically alloted to receive 5kg of foodgrains per month. If the PDS winds up due to sheer neglect, these beneficiaries will be left stranded and they will be forced to buy foodgrains from the open market at high prices.
PDS supplies around 50 million tons of food to the poor. If the poor have to buy from the open market, which they obviously can’t afford, they will starve and private food empires will make huge profits.
The government claims that the cost of handling food storage is huge: it’s at Rs 37/kg for rice and Rs 27/kg for wheat. It is a big burden. For the last several years, the government did not clear all its dues to the FCI. That led to the FCI’s total debt ballooning to Rs 3.3 lakh crore, on which it pays more than 8% interest.
The budget allocation for food subsidy has hovered around Rs 1,15,000 crore for the last several years. It hasn’t been increased, yet the government is reluctant to spend it.
Under the Essential Commodities Amendment Act 2020, the government has eased foodgrain stockpiling limits for all private traders and corporate players, which eventually sets the stage for an annual increase in foodgrain prices by 50%.
This, in turn, will widen the devastating practice of foodgrain hoarding and overpriced sale on the black market.
The new act on the deregulation of mandis (government-regulated foodgrain marketplaces) will promote private control of the foodgrain market, slash government procurement of foodgrains, and most damaging of all, will blow away the safety net of MSP (minimum selling price).
Food will be under total control of the private sector. Last year’s three acts on farming sector deregulation will tighten the grip of the private sector in the crucial areas of foodgrain storage, cold storage, food processing and marketing.
The government will eventually look to wind up subsidised food distribution under the PDS and turn it into an uncontrollable payment-oriented system under pressure from the WTO (World Trade Organisation). The government’s plan is to sell off the FCI’s warehouses to the private sector to pay off the debts.
The Indian government incorrectly claims that there is surplus food in India. It says that it has more than double the required food stock, amounting to around 42 million tons. But that stock is actually a pile-up because the food is not adequately supplied to the poor.
The truth is that, India is rated 94 out of 107 countries in the Global Hunger Index. Its score of 27.2 shows a serious hunger situation in the country, and over the last few years, this has worsened. It shows that around 35% of the country’s population is undernourished.