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11 Aug, 2010 02:53

Indian poor starve while grain rots in depots

India is home to one quarter of the world's starving population and one third of its malnourished children while, at the same time, maintaining a surplus of food grain in government storage areas.

In the village of Danapur in Eastern India, villager Rita says she has had nothing to feed her son for four days.

“My hungry child cries all the time, there is no food to feed him. How can we survive like this? To keep the child quiet I make him drink water,” Rita says.

Yet the government has record amounts of surplus stocks: 59 million tons of wheat and rice. It does have a huge public distribution system that provides free food to families below the poverty line. But corruption and complex bureaucracy means the poorest of the poor often don't make it onto the list.

“We are poor people and are desperate for food to eat. Our children go to sleep hungry. Our names are not on the government’s poverty list and we don’t get any food grain from the government. We can we do?” questions labourer Jugari Paswan. “Ultimately we will have no choice but to commit suicide.”

With people starving, the recent images of piles of wheat rotting at a storage facility erupted into a major political issue. In the state of Punjab, it was discovered that 49,000 tons of food grain had perished.

Subhash Zadoo , the General Manager of Food Corporation of India based in Delhi, explains that “Despite FCI taking precautions, there is every likelihood, as we have in a household, that whenever you are pouring a cup of tea from a kettle, that two spoons can spill over on the table. And if you see a thumb rule in FCI, vis-à-vis the total food grain which we handle, our losses – they are not in that huge abundance.”

In the largest food storage depot in the capital New Delhi, grain is safe in permanent warehouses with fixed roofs. But when it is stored temporarily with just a plastic cover to keep out the rain, it can last only one year. And with the government keeping 17 million tons of wheat and rice stored like this because it doesn’t have enough permanent warehouses, the scale of the problem becomes apparent.

Experts say about 10 million tons – enough to feed 140 million people for a month – has been stored during at least one monsoon and is at risk of rotting. If this grain were released instead, it could help those most in need. But distributing it would cost US$1 billion, and the government cannot afford to add it to its food subsidy.

That does not come as good news for Rakesh Kumar and his family, who depend on the handouts.

“We cannot afford to buy rice for our family. Whatever food grain the government has, it is allowing it to rot in its warehouses,” Rakesh Kumar grieves. “The ration cards they issue don’t reach the actual poor. Whatever rice is distributed to the local dealer for us, is instead sold by him in the open market.”

With global wheat prices rising due to the drought in Russia, if India loses its wheat stocks to poor storage this could fuel the price surge and that would hit the poor in India the hardest.