And not a grain to eat

What stops the government from using good harvests to reduce, if not eliminate, hunger?

For ordinary folk, a 3 per cent increase in food grain production over that of last year, combined with strong procurement operations and good buffer stocks of rice and wheat would be a cause for some celebration. It would be seen as an opportunity to tackle the widespread food insecurity that exists in India today. Instead, we have the spectacle of plenty amidst hunger and malnutrition while ministers discuss how to avoid foodgrain rotting in the open, because of lack of storage space. It is reported that the prime minister will be meeting with the ministers of agriculture, finance and food, along with Planning Commission officials, to decide what to do.

It does not require such high-level meetings to know that the only "solution" in a country with the largest malnourished population in the world would be to ensure increased allocation of cheap foodgrain through the public distribution system. The food ministry is on record that it had suggested that the allocation for BPL and APL card holders should be doubled, and the price for APL reduced, which would "eliminate old stocks" and "empty the godowns" for the rabi season procurement. According to statements made by ministry officials to the parliamentary standing committee on food, they had asked for an allocation of Rs 1.06 lakh crore, around Rs 30,000 crore more than the 2012-13 budgetary allocation to implement this. But this was not accepted.

What is the alternative suggested? The agriculture minister has asked for a lifting of restrictions on exports, arguing that this will help farmers. A policy corollary would be lowered procurement targets. The large majority of farmers in India belong to the middle and small peasant category. They have no holding capacity and usually sell their produce at distress rates if government agencies delay procurement operations. This has, for example, happened in Bengal this year where 32 farmers have committed suicide because of the collapse of official procurement and the consequent burden of debt.

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