PUCL, January 2003

India's Poor Starve as Wheat Rots

December 2, 2002
By Amy, Waldman
New York Times

KHANNA, India - Surplus from this year's wheat harvest,
bought by the government from farmers, sits moldering in
muddy fields here in Punjab State. Some of the previous
year's wheat surplus sits untouched, too, and the year's
before that, and the year's before that.

To the south, in the neighboring state of Rajasthan,
villagers ate boiled leaves or discs of bread made from
grass seeds in late summer and autumn because they could
not afford to buy wheat. One by one, children and adults -
as many as 47 in all - wilted away from hunger-related
causes, often clutching pained stomachs.

"Sometimes, we ate half a bread," said Phoolchand, a
laborer whose 2-year-old daughter died during that period.
"Sometimes, a whole bread."

More than two decades after a "green" revolution made
India, the world's second-most-populous country,
self-sufficient in grain production, half of India's
children are malnourished. About 350 million Indians go to
bed hungry every night. Pockets of starvation deaths, like
those in the Baran district of Rajasthan, have surfaced
regularly in recent years.

Yet the government is sitting on wheat surpluses - now at
about 53 million metric tons - that would stretch to the
moon and back at least twice if all the bags were lined up.
Persistent scarcity surrounded by such bounty has become a
source of shame for a nation that has taken pride in
feeding itself.

Advocates for the poor and those pushing for economic
reforms ask how a country can justify hoarding so much
excess when so many of its people regularly go hungry.

"It's scandalous," said Jean Drèze, an economist who has
been helping to document starvation deaths for a Supreme
Court case brought by the People's Union for Civil
, an advocacy group, to compel the government to
use the surplus to relieve hunger.

The reason, experts and officials agree, is the economics -
and particularly the politics - of food in India, a country
that has modernized on many fronts but that remains
desperately poor.

Critics say the central government, led for the last four
years by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, has
catered to political allies and powerful farm lobbies in a
few key states by buying more and more grain from farmers
at higher and higher prices. At the same time, it has been
responding to pressure from international lenders by
curbing food subsidies to consumers.

One result has been huge stockpiles going to waste, while
higher prices for food and inefficient distribution leave
basic items like bread, a staple of the rural poor diet,
out of reach for many. Even though the surplus is supposed
to be distributed to the poor, politics and corruption
often limit their access.

"It's not an economic issue anymore - it's a
straightforward political issue," said Jairam Ramesh, the
senior economic adviser to the Congress Party, the
country's main opposition party.

Answering such criticism, Asok Kumar Mohapatra, who was
until recently a joint secretary with the Department of
Food and Public Distribution, said any system trying to
feed a billion people was apt to have inefficiencies. "It's
easy to find fault with this kind of organization," he
said. But he, too, acknowledged the politics involved. "The
simple thing is they have lobbies," he said of the farmers,
"and lobbies work everywhere."

Both the glut in Punjab and the deprivation in Rajasthan
reflect a government in transition between a
quasi-socialist past and a free-market future, and one that
at the local level especially seems deeply ambivalent about
its obligations to its poorest citizens.

After a devastating famine in 1943 that killed three
million people and humbling food scarcities in the 1960's,
Indian central governments have been determined to ensure
that the country could feed itself.

A nationwide system was set up to distribute subsidized
food via a network of "ration shops" that today number
454,000. At the same time, India made great advances in
increasing its productivity, by developing high-yield seeds
and investing in infrastructure, like irrigation.

The green agricultural revolution quadrupled staple food
production, from 50 million metric tons in 1950 to 209
million metric tons by 2000.

The fruits of those efforts can be witnessed nowhere more
vividly than in Punjab. Today it is India's only state
(along, perhaps, with neighboring Haryana, which was carved
from Punjab), that derives more than 40 percent of its
income from agriculture; until recently it had the highest
per capita income in India. It has some of the country's
best roads and, with only 2 percent of the country's land,
grows 55 percent of its food.

While farmers in poorer states have either no grain surplus
or no mechanism by which to sell it to the government,
Punjab has 1,600 wholesale grain markets, including the one
here in Khanna, the largest in Asia.

But the same system that has built up Punjab has also run
into trouble on almost every front, and even the farmers
here know it cannot last.

Over the past four years, even as advisory committees
recommended stabilizing or lowering the support prices paid
to farmers, prices instead went up, and up - to about $129
a metric ton, 2,200 pounds, for wheat this year from about
$99 in 1997.

Punjab farmers, eager to cash in, are farming so much rice
and wheat that they are depleting the state's water and
soil, creating a long-term threat to the country's
agricultural self-sufficiency.

"We know every year we take the water level down," said
Bachittar Singh, 67, a farmer with 125 acres near here.
"But what alternative do we have?"

Then there is the effect of such policies on the price of
grain itself. The high prices paid to farmers by the
government have inflated consumer prices, making it harder
for the poor to buy grain. In some cases, the government,
wanting to keep market prices in India high, has exported
grain at lower prices than it was selling it to its

By the mid-1990's, India was spending close to 1 percent of
its gross domestic product on food subsidies, with much of
that lost to waste and theft. Under strong pressure from
the World Bank and other international lenders to curb
spending, the government decided in 1997 that only those
below the poverty line would be able to buy heavily
subsidized food. Everyone else would have to buy it only
slightly below market price.

But with politics, indifference and corruption conspiring
to limit the number of those identified as poor, the amount
of food being bought from ration shops dropped
significantly and stockpiles soared. The problem is
compounded by the fact that even many of those classified
as poor are unable to buy the subsidized grain because of
inaccessible ration shops or dealers who steal the grain
for sale on the black market.

Today the government has run out of warehouse space and has
taken to storing the grain in fields rented from farmers. A
recent report found that it was spending more on storage
than on agriculture, rural development, irrigation and
flood control combined.

Some of the wheat, often protected only by porous jute bags
and black plastic tarpaulins, is rotten; even official
estimates concede that 200,000 tons are "damaged," with the
real total probably far higher. Inspectors have found
worm-infested wheat at schools where the state is supposed
to provide free lunch.

It is about 400 miles from the abundance here to the
barren, scrubby landscape of Baran, in the southeast corner
of Rajasthan. This year was the third year of drought, and
the most brutal, with rainfall down by 70 percent.

In the village of Swaans, isolated by jolting dirt roads
and dry riverbeds, one man, Gobrilal, lost an 8-year-old
son to hunger this fall. He sat recently beneath the shade
of a thatched shelter, surrounded by children who were all
rib cages and swollen bellies, and recounted two months of

On good days they ate once a day, but many days they ate
nothing. Gobrilal's son began vomiting, even while asking
for food, and died two days later. "If we had money," his
father said listlessly, "we would have bought him wheat so
he wouldn't have died."


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