Wheat lying in the open in Sirhind, Punjab. NDTV photo
As you drive through Punjab, stored wheat lying in the open is a usual sight. For at least three decades now, you have been seeing wheat stacked in the open facing the vagaries of the inclement weather. You have got used to it.
I was therefore pretty surprised when CNN-IBN and NDTV decided to take on the issue prominently in their prime time bulletins. I remember, two decades back, when I was the Agriculture Correspondent of the Indian Express, and based in Chandigarh, stored grain in the open was quite a frequent picture on the front page. My photographer colleague Swadesh Talwar and I had travelled quite extensively, and we did highlight the sad plight of rotting foodgrains time and again.
I must acknowledge that our efforts did not succed in making the official machinery, deep in slumber, wake up and do something meaningful. Ninety per cent of the procured grains still lies in the open.
In other words, the criminal neglect of foodgrain continues. What makes it a heinous crime is that those who are at the helm of affairs do not realise that these rotting stocks could have fed several million hungry. Even in Punjab, the frontline agricultural State in India, millions are faced with hidden hunger if not starvation.
Punjab, the food bowl of India, fares much below Sudan in the IFPRI Hunger Index.
For three decades now, the government has failed to act. I don't know what it means when Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar says that he will hold an enquiry. Ever since I had been on the foodgrain chase, I have heard this promise time and again. For a sound-byte hungry journalism, these statements come in handy while reporting, but after the next story takes over, the bytes are all but forgotten. I hope CNN-IBN and NDTV do not let the issue die down once again.
Look at the startling figures reported by NDTV the other day:
Punjab's rotting food mountain 2007-2010
-- 72 lakh metric tonne wheat grain stored
-- 65 lakh metric tonnes wheat grain lying in the open
-- Rs. 500 crore to Rs. 800 crore worth wheat grain rotting
While the Ministry for Food and Agricultural is trying to pass on the blame to the Punjab government, the fact remains that the food bowl provides roughly 50 per cent of the country's surplus wheat. Punjab has all these years kept the country in a comfortable position when it comes to food security. In fact, Punjab is the single most important factor in turning the country 'self-sufficient' in foodgrains. The nation therefore has to pay back, and it becomes the duty of the country to ensure that not even a single grain of what is produced in Punjab goes waste.
The problem compounds when the stocked foodgrains are not lifted in time. While Punjab is saddled with wheat stacked for over two years, the new harvest is around the corner. The bigger problem for Punjab therefore is where to find additional space for the bountiful harvest that is expected to flow in. Much of the stocks have already become unfit for human consumption.
This reminds me of a story that the noted economist and a former vice-chancellor Dr S S Johl had once shared with me. It was in this connection, that he narrated a story of a farmer who grew papaya in his backyard. Every day, he would pluck one ripened fruit and eat it. One day, he had to go out to his in-laws and he knew that he would not be able to return before the next two days. So he plucked 3 unripened papayas from the plants and kept them in the kitchen.
When he came back, the three fruits had ripened. But the one that was meant to be eaten the first day, had almost rotted. To ensure that he does not waste the fruit, he ate the over-ripened fruit (almost nearing rotting) the first day. The next day, the other fruit also became over-ripened, and he consumed it. The third day too he was left with an almost rotten fruit, which he ate.
The moral of the story is that unless the Punjab government (or the Food Corporation of India) disposes-off as cattle feed the sub-standard wheat that is stocked, it will end up feeding the population with rotten wheat year after year.
It is all a question of setting your priorities right. If successive Prime Ministers had realised the importance of saving every grain I am sure by now India would have put in place a modern network of grain silos throughout the country. If the country can invest in Special Economic Zones (SEZs) at a pace that defies the bureaucratic obstacles that are normally thrown in, and also look at the amazing speed at which the national highways are being constructed, I see no reason why foodgrain storage cannot receive the same priority, if not the topmost.
While I think it is the nation's responsibility to safely store what Punjab produces, but still I don't think Punjab government should be allowed to go scott free. If Punjab government can lay out and approve blueprints for setting up (or modernisting) 40-odd new townships, there is no reason why Punjab government couldn't have focused on storing its own harvested crops. Both the Centre and the Punjab government therefore are at fault. It takes two to Tango.