What can one say about a society where 100’s of millions of people go hungry to bed everyday and where recently a 1000 million kilograms grains, stored in government godowns, was found to be damaged and rotten? This is a massive amount of grains; sufficient to actually feed the starving for months! Despite India being considered as a global power, how can we have any self respect as a country if majority of our people are unable to afford two square meals a day?

The blame game has been going on. The opposition has trained its guns on the agriculture minister and the agriculture minister has promised that the responsible officers of the Food Corporation of India (FCI) will not be spared. One prominent opposition party has given the call to its party workers to raid the FCI godowns and distribute the grains. Even the Supreme Court has jumped into the fray and has directed the government to "Give it to the hungry poor instead of letting the grains go down the drain." However, all these antics are being played to the gallery as if the political, administrate and judicial establishment is concerned about the plight of the poor and hungry people. Everybody knows that this is mere posturing and neither the opposition party’s exhortions nor the Supreme Court’s preaching is going to make any difference.

India has one of the most fertile lands in the world and has the potential to feed not only our own population but also that of a good part of the world. Even with the abysmally low farm incomes and severe distress in agriculture sector, we produce enough food grains to feed our entire population. We also have adequate infrastructure to transport grains to any part of the country where they may be needed. Thus, the only reason we have hunger is because our people cannot afford the high food prices in the market. The rotting food, on the one hand, and hungry people on the other, is indicative of a serious malaise in our society. It is because our economy is wrongly oriented and because our political, administrative and judicial superstructure does not work in the interest of the majority of our population.

Control of grain stockpile in godowns against the interest of the consumers

The grains stored in FCI godowns could have been used to stabilize prices but government has not been using its stockpile for this objective. Government has a total covered storage capacity in its FCI godowns of about four crore tonnes, half of which is considered sufficient to tide over any food emergency in the country. Grain storage serves as a buffer stock that can be released when crop yields are below average and stock can be built up when crop yields are above average. This has the effect of stabilizing prices. On the other hand, if stocks are built up when crop yields are below average, then it has the effect of increasing market prices. Thus, we can see that depending on how the stored stocks are reduced or increased it may be beneficial to the consumers or traders.  

Let us look at the situation in the last one-year. Last year the monsoon was deficient. Yet instead of off-loading the stock to bring it out in the market to reduce the pressure on prices, the government built up the stocks even further so that grains were left in open storage. Thus the government fuelled the food inflation leading to unprecedented price rises last year. This enabled the trading monopolies to release their stocks in the market at high prices. The trading corporations raked in big profits while the people suffered.

The governments policy is clearly being dictated by aim of increasing the space for private profiteering in the whole gamut of activities relating to procurement to wholesale and retail. This is clearly against the interest of the working people. Where as people are interested in price stability and affordability, the handful of big corporations who are operating in this field benefit from high prices to the consumer and low farm harvest prices, which act against the interest of both rural and urban toilers. These corporations use the fluctuations in production for hoarding and speculative activities.

Role of the government

What we need is a procurement and distribution system that has the aim of ensuring that everyone gets all necessary items needed for a dignified living of good quality, in sufficient quantity, at affordable prices and in a timely manner. This can be ensured only if there is a universal public distribution system for all essential commodities. We need a system that harmonizes the interest of producers with the interest of the consumers. A necessary condition for which is that trade in these items should be done efficiently and without the motive of profit maximization. Which means that government cannot wash its hands off in managing it on behalf of the people with the necessary mobilization and organization of people at local level to ensure that the system works in their interest.

Although the government has the power to implement such a system, in actual fact whichever government comes to power, it has been moving in the opposite direction. Procurement of food grains, oil seeds and pulses has been steadily decreasing. The public distribution system was deliberately dismantled with the establishment of the "Targeted Public Distribution System" or TPDS. The government policy has been to systematically discourage functioning of even the TPDS with erratic supply, extremely low margins for ration shops and permanent cuts in the allocations if off-take is reduced in a period. Thus, the off-take of grains has been continuously reducing from the FCI godowns leading to the current crisis of godowns getting overfilled and people not getting grains at an affordable price. 

What should people demand?

Since the government does not act in interest of the toilers, people must press two demands in an urgent manner. First they must demand that the profiteering by big trading monopolies must be stopped. Wholesale and foreign trade has to be taken out of scope of profiteering and the government should run it to benefit both the consumers and the producers of essential commodities. Secondly, the TPDS should be replaced by extended universal public distribution system to cover all the essential items for the entire population. This will equip the government with the necessary tool to control prices of essential consumer items and provide it a mechanism to reach these items to the people.

At the same time, given the hold of vested interests over the government and the state, people cannot be certain that the government will actually fulfill these demands. Therefore, it is necessary for people to get organised and become a political force to ensure that their interests are actually protected. To ensure all essential items of mass consumption are supplied in adequate quantity, good quality, at affordable prices and in timely manner to all, the control of the public distribution system must be in the hands of people’s committees. It is absolutely unacceptable that people should be deprived of the essentials items required for a dignified living in the 21st Century when the productivity of society has reached such heights.

by Prof. Bharath Seth

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