Indian Decade

Growth and Hunger in India

India’s economy keeps growing. But tonnes of wasted food grain means many still go hungry.

In India, for every reason we have to cheer, there are often many more for dismay and disillusionment.

The government recently released figures for India's steadily growing economy, with first quarter GDP numbers announced by Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee suggesting the economy will grow by more than 8 percent this fiscal year after official data showed the economy grew by 8.8 percent during the quarter to June. The manufacturing sector came out on top, growing by a strong 12.4 percent in the April-June quarter, against just 3.8 percent growth in the same period last year.

On the same day the figures were announced though, it took the Supreme Court, India's apex judicial body, to force the government to act over an issue that has shocked many of us. 

Even as India comes 66th (a ranking lower than Sudan's) out of 88 countries on the hunger index, we have thousands of tonnes of food grain (some estimates say 2.7 million tonnes) going to waste—or worse, rotting in inadequate state warehouses. Some experts have claimed the grain could feed up to 40 million people. A specific right to information (RTI) query found that in January this year, there were 10,688 lakh tonnes of damaged food grains in FCI depots. 

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There have been suggestions that the grain be distributed to the poor rather than letting valuable food grain rot in a country with so many hungry people. Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar was cornered in Parliament by opposition parties when he claimed he was unable to do much about the problem. But this isn't something the Supreme Court is willing to buy. It told the Additional Solicitor General: ‘Tell your minister that free food distribution is our order not a suggestion by us.’

Agriculture expert M S Swaminathan said on a TV discussion programme that he has been pleading for a national grain storage conservation strategy. India needs extra storage facilities—in several states including Punjab, one of India's main agricultural states, state-procured food grains are badly stored, often being left out in the open for months to go bad. He said he hoped the national anger and concern the issue has evoked over the last few weeks will lead to action.

Government delivery mechanisms are the bane of our system. Of course, nobody is saying it's easy to organise distribution on this scale, meaning all we can do is join Mr. Swaminathan in hoping.