Uzmi Athar


Category: written unpublished

Uzmi is a journalist currently working at Press Trust of India (PTI), India's premier news agency. She has 4+ years of experience in editing and reporting stories.

She has covered various social issues ranging from displacement of tribals from wildlife reserves in central India, female foeticide and the prevailing custom of child marriage in Rajasthan. 

As a member of foreign desk, she has worked on stories covering a wide range of subjects, including US presidential election, Brexit referendum, finalisation of the Paris agreement on climate change and India's claim to UN Security Council membership.


India battles hunger amid wastage of USD 13 billion worth of food

New Delhi: Bhaskar struggles to finish his homework where he has to list the names of green leafy vegetables found in India. It is a tough task for an eight-year-old whose staple diet is rice and salt, with vegetables served only on festive occasions.

He glances at his mother for help, but keeps quiet after realizing that it is the fourth time this week that she skipped her dinner.

Bhaskar’s mother, Shakuni Bai, is not alone. She along with 194 million Indians go to bed hungry every night in a country that produces 15.65 million tonnes of surplus foodgrains.

Shakuni attributes the reason behind her situation to three continuous years of drought followed by demonetisation, a move by the Indian government under which two of the highest denomination notes forming around 85 per cent of the currency in circulation were scrapped overnight, leaving people like her in lurch.

“I had my own land where I used to grow rice and wheat alternately but with three years of consecutive drought I mortgaged my land to pay the mounting debt,” Shakuni, a resident of Pilakhana village in India's northern state of Uttar Pradesh, said.

“I decided to give myself a last chance and was planning to pay the mortgage by farming as the forecast suggested good rain in the coming months but then demonetisation happened, the little money I had saved to buy seeds became worthless. Seed hoarding also spiked the price to such an extent that it was beyond my capacity to pay my debts,” she said.

Shakuni now works as a daily labourer and earns INR 120 (little less than USD 2) per day, an amount insufficient to support her eight family members, including five children.

Ironically, Shakuni is unable to feed her family in a country where food worth USD 13 billion is wasted every year.

Lack of storage facilities

India’smain grain procurement agency, the Food Corporation of India (FCI), attributes the reason behind these astonishing losses to natural calamities and lack of infrastructure and says it is trying to overcome the problem by building new cold storage facilities.

The Indian government is planning to invest USD 15 billion in cold chain projects over the next five years to stop the widespread damage of foodgrains.

However, since 350 million people in India are located off-grid in rural locations where supply of electricity is unreliable and extremely erratic, the utility of these planned cold storage facilities becomes limited.

Raghav Rajan, a farmer from Chakbaas village in India’s northern Rajasthan state, shared some of the homemade remedies that he uses to store foodgrains at his house.

“We store fruits and vegetables with neem leaves (a medicinal herb) which act as a pest resistant agent. We also use dry chilies to kill any insects infecting the grains,” Rajan said.

When asked why he prefers to use these remedies and not the facilities that the government has built specially for the storage purpose, he said that these facilities that are mostly city-based, they need to bear the transportation cost which comes out to be much more than the amount they can afford.

“Moreover, there is no surety that our crops won’t rot in these facilities,” he added.

Rajan is not wrong. An official with the FCI, who wished to remain anonymous, admitted that around 62,000 tonnes of foodgrains, mainly rice and wheat, have been damaged in the storage facilities of the corporation in the last six years with a damage of 8,600 tonnes of foodgrains reported alone in 2016-17 (figure of 2017 till March 1).

The Indian government says it is trying to overcome the problem by changing its strategy and taking the help of technology to prevent further losses.

Corruption-plagued public distribution system

Agriculture Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare Shoban Pattanaik said that to bridge the gap between supply and demand, the government is distributing the excess grains at a subsidy through a public distribution system under which the government buys one-third of the foodgrains from the farmers and distributes it at a very subsidised price to the poor.

Under the distribution system, the government is selling wheat and rice at a subsidized rate of INR 2 and INR 3 per kg with the market price being INR 12 and INR 13, respectively.

The ground reality, however, is quite different. The locals say that the foodgrains that come from the distribution system are being siphoned off by middlemen who are selling them at a much higher price than the market rate.

“The superior quality foodgrains are sold in the black market by the middlemen and the bad quality wheat and rice is given to us at a subsidised rate,” said Ali Sher, head of Pilakhana village in Aligarh district of Uttar Pradesh state.

“A small quantity of good quality rice is mixed with rotten portion to increase the volume and sold to us at subsidy. It is better to starve than to eat rodent-infested food,” he added.

Widespread malnutrition

A government-funded survey found that the annual value of harvest and post-harvest losses of major agricultural produces at national level in 2014 stood at INR 926.51 billion (USD 14.36 billion). Out of this, INR 408.11 billion (USD 6.33 billion) worth of fruits and vegetables were damaged while foodgrains worth INR 245.75 billion (USD 3.81 billion) were destroyed.

These staggering figures came around the time when the Global Hunger Index ranked India at 97 among 118 developing countries.

India’s neighbours Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and China who are facing similar difficulties in terms of frequency of occurrence of natural calamities and lack of infrastructure fared better.

India’s poor ranking was attributable to malnutrition. 15 per cent of its population is undernourished, lacking in adequate food intake both in terms of quantity and quality. About 15 per cent of children below the age of five are undernourished and a staggering 39 per cent children are stunted. A total of 42 per cent of the world's undernourished children live in India, the report by the GHI revealed.

“This reflects the chronic lack of balanced food. The under-5 mortality rate is 4.8 per cent in India, partially because of inadequate nutrition and unhealthy environment,” said Ashish Agarwal, a food rights activist with aid organization ‘Udaan Society’, in India.

However, the cause of this widespread malnutrition is not only because of lack of staples like rice and wheat. Many families like that of Shakuni’s are unable to get the much-needed protein in their diet that comes from more expensive food.

The Supreme Court last year slammed the Indian government for doing nothing to comply with its previous directions to supply food to the drought-affected areas. The apex court had directed the government in 2010 to distribute foodgrains at very low or no cost to the hungry, but that hasn't happened.

“Even after the rebuke by India’s apex court, the government has failed to distribute grains as it is unable to shrug off the red tapes and break the nexus that exists right from the top to bottom of the system,” said Agarwal.

"It is indeed a crime to waste foodgrains in a country plagued by starvation and malnutrition," he said, reiterating the Supreme Court’s comments which called it a crime to waste even a grain of food in a country where people are starving.

‘Evergreen revolution’

Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently pitched for an "evergreen revolution" and underlined the need for moving from the concept of 'food security' to 'nutrition security', for which he called for scientific and technological interventions.

But analysts believe that before increasing its dependence upon technology, the government needs to think about developing basic infrastructure like roads and railways to remote parts of the country. There is also an urgent need to bring continuous supply of electricity to the rural India which still experiences 12-16 hours of power cuts every day.

The Indian government is dreaming big at a time when it needs to understand that basic infrastructure like road, rails can solve half of the problems surrounding food distribution. Increasing productivity is not the only area that needs attention. There is a dire need for motorable roads, refrigerated vans and smooth movement across state borders to ensure that the evergreen revolution planned by the government feeds people like Bhaskar and Shakuni who are still struggling to get three meals per day.

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