Food for free, a pipe dream

Food for free, a pipe dream

Morally, there is a compelling case to distribute foodgrains for free instead of letting them rot in rain or let rodents consume them when Indians have little to eat.

There is one small problem: How does one go about distributing the grains? Distributing foodgrains for free may sound an easy thing to do, but is hardly so even if one ignores the problems associated with buying expensive wheat and rice and selling them cheap.

Most states where foodgrains are high in demand are located far from the surplus agricultural areas in north-west India. Consumers in far-off states such as Orissa, Bihar and Assam have no way to access food except through fair price shops that depend on the government for supply. That is where the problem lies. In Punjab, for example, today the government has around 17.5 million tonnes of wheat and rice stored in godowns. The Union government is barely able to move 600,000-700,000 tonnes a month. At that rate, it will take close to 2.5 years for the stocks to be moved out. That is in theory. In practice, that will never happen. For in October, the Food Corporation of India (FCI) will begin purchasing new stocks of rice. The poor food transportation infrastructure means that in good years there will always be an oversupply of food compared with its distribution. Physically, it is close to impossible to distribute the “rotting grains" for free.

Then there are other issues as well. For example, many states have begun producing foodgrains to a greater extent than, say, 10 years ago. This makes them less willing customers for the stuff sold by the Union government in most years.

This is just the distribution side of the problem. The production and purchase side of the equation present bigger problems. For one, the government continues with the policy of purchasing the last single grain on offer in the northwest markets. Because of the relative volatility in supply year-on-year, the fear of shortages prompts the government to persist with the expensive option of big purchases. While the buffer stock norms are meant to ensure the means to intervene in case of sudden shortfalls, the procurement machinery is geared for continuous purchases way beyond what is required.

Politically and administratively, it is next to impossible to dismantle or reform this set-up. The costs of doing that are very high. The way the food purchase and distribution system has evolved since the Green Revolution years makes simple solutions like “give food for free" alluring but quixotic ideas.

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