By Ranjit Devraj
NEW DELHI, Sep 13, 2010 (IPS) – When India’s Supreme Court reacted to the news that thousands of tonnes of grain were rotting in the rain due to lack of granary space and ordered the government to distribute the surplus free of cost to the hungry, it seemed like the logical thing to do.
But in response to this simple directive, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh surprised many by accusing the apex court of interfering with policy matters and remarked that distributing free grain would hurt the interests of farmers.
According to a United Nations report released last week, India accounts for 50 percent of the world’s hungry. The Global Hunger Index for 2008, calculated by the International Food Policy Research Institute, estimated that some 350 million Indians were ‘food insecure’, that is uncertain of where their next meal was coming from.
Food security expert Vandana Shiva told IPS that the court was merely upholding the fundamental right to life as enshrined in the Indian Constitution.
“The right to food is at the heart of the right to life, because without food people cannot survive. Article 21 of the Constitution obliges the Government to protect the right to life of all Indian citizens and it is the Supreme Court’s duty to ensure that the Government is performing its constitutional duty,” Shiva said. “No government policy can undermine the fundamental rights of the people.”
On Sep. 6 the central government admitted in court, through an affidavit, that more than 67,000 tonnes of grain had rotted outside overflowing granaries.
But the government refused accept the court’s suggestion that the programme of procuring grain from farmers, under a policy to support farm prices, be limited to the extent of granary capacities.
According to the affidavit if the government made procurements only according to storage capacities then at times “when markets are not very favourable, many farmers may not be able to sell their produce and would be left at the mercy of traders who may not pay adequate prices.”
The affidavit added, “Absence of adequate returns or an assured guarantee from the government procurement agencies for purchase of foodgrains will be a disincentive to farmers to sow these crops in the future.”
According to Shiva, the central issue is that the government finds itself caught in a “contradiction created by its own neo-liberal fundamentalist market ideology, where every aspect of life is being commoditised, privatised and transformed into economic policy.”
Shiva challenged the idea that moving out rotting grain for free distribution to starving people was anti-farmer. “If the granaries have no space, how will make government make further procurements (in) the next harvest season, which begins in late September?” she asked.
One answer to the problem would be to increase the government’s storage capacities. The courts have ruled out private organisations, after identifying private facilities as the key to the massive diversion of subsidised grain into the open market.
Currently the government has a storage capacity of 15 million tonnes and has rented space to handle another 10 million tonnes. Against this capacity, 55 million tonnes were procured in 2008-2009 and ended up being stacked in the open, unprotected from the weather and vermin.
“The government is ensuring food security for rats,” said Prakash Karat, leader of the opposition Communist Party of India (Marxist).
Devinder Sharma, a New Delhi-based food and trade policy analyst argues against any centralised system – private or state-owned. “What we need is a system of local production and local storage starting at the village level and moving up to the state level. Only such a system can guarantee food security and fair prices for farmers.”
Sharma told IPS that centralised food systems in a country the size of India can only provide opportunities for massive leakages, market manipulation and sheer wastage that have become endemic, with no easy solution in sight.
Sharma also argued against free distribution of rotting grain to the poor except as a one-time solution to resolve the present crisis and said it should be confined to the 150 districts identified as desperately poor. “Free distribution will lead to political problems with every politician trying to corner stocks for distribution in his state, if not constituency,” he said.
There is also no guarantee that free distribution will not result in large-scale diversion of the grain back into the open market, said Sharma, who chairs the independent Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security. India’s food procurement, storage and public distribution policy is ridden with inconsistencies that leave it open to such large-scale manipulation.
In 2006 the government came under fire for importing 5.5 million tonnes of wheat from Australia at prices higher than the locally prevailing rates. Just a few weeks later, the Australian Wheat Board was allowed to buy the cereal directly from Indian farmers at prices far lower than it was charging India.
Sharma said such inconsistencies, driven by the central government’s neo- liberal approach continue. “For example, nothing prevented the government from offloading stocks earlier this year when food prices were rising steeply and clearing the bulging granaries for the next harvest. No one seems accountable for such colossal mismanagement,” he said. (END)