On June 1 this year, India had a record foodgrain surplus exceeding 820 lakh tonnes. I don’t think you can actually visualise how much surplus food we have. Let me make an effort to put this in a picture frame so that you know how massive the quantity of food that lies stocked with the government is. If the Food Corporation of India (FCI) was to keep one bag of grain over another, and stack it like this in a row, you can actually walk up to the moon and come back.

And you will still have about 220 lakh tonnes left to spare. In other worlds 600 lakh tonne if kept in a single row can take you to moon. You don’t need a Chandrayan to fly you to moon.With 320 million people going to bed hungry, and with 47 per cent children malnourished, I thought here is an historic opportunity to feed the country.

A massive programme to take the surplus food to the doorsteps of the needy and hungry could have not only wiped out hunger from India, but also reduced the world’s population of hungry down by one third. After all, one third of the world’s hungry live in India, and if India was to remove its hunger, much of the world’s problem would be solved. India is ranked 67th  among 81 countries in the World Hunger report. Even Rwanda is ahead of India when it comes to fighting hunger.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who said sometimes back that acute malnutrition among children, is a national shame, sought support from the rich developed countries at the Rio+20 conference to help fight poverty and hunger. This is a very clever way of deflecting responsibility in the name of global partnership. At a time when India is saddled with a mountain of food stocks, and can afford to pledge Rs 57,000-crore for the economic bailout of Europe, there is no reason why it cannot take on itself the fight against hunger. In my understanding, each Indian can be provided with a minimum of 2,200 calories a day, which in other words means every Indian can be well-fed with the amount of grain that lies stocked.

Instead, the Minister of State for Food and Public Distribution K V Thomas is finding ways and means to get rid of the mounting stocks. After making an allocation for distributing 50 lakh tonnes under the public distribution system, he is busy exploring the possibility of exporting wheat.  At a loss of Rs 778 per quintal, Ministry of Food and Consumer Affairs is getting ready to export 20 lakh tonnes to Iran. The minimum export price is less than the procurement price that is provided to farmers, and is also less than the BPL price. More could have been exported, but unfortunately for the ministry there is no international demand.

As an expression of his inability to store the foodgrains safely, Mr Thomas has already announced that 66 lakh tonnes of wheat lies exposed to the monsoon rains in the absence of any ‘scientific storage’ capacity. This is also an understatement considering that over 270 lakh tonnes of wheat lies stored in the open under what is called as “covered and Plinth (CAP)’ methods  -- the black polythene covers that you normally see wheat piles covered with. I don’t know how Mr Thomas calls it a ‘scientific’ method of storing grains. All the grain wastage reports that you have seen on the TV for the past several years mainly come from CAP storages.

If the storing grain under black polythene covers is ‘scientific’ than the Minister must tell us what is ‘unscientific’ storage. And in that case why can’t the country provide more black polythene covers for the remaining 66 lakh tonnes that Mr Thomas estimates will go waste?

To make matters worse, Mr Thomas has written to the Prime Minister on the need to limit the procurement of grains for the central pool. What he therefore implies is that the government should procure only about 240 lakh tonnes of wheat and rice every year, and leave the rest for the private trade. There can be nothing more dangerous an argument than this. Wheat and rice are the only two staple food crops wherein the government steps in to provide an assured procurement at the minimum support price. The government does announce procurement prices for 25 crops, but buys only these two staple grains as a result of which we see production of wheat and rice steadily on the rise.

Procurement of wheat and rice by government agencies only happens after the private trade has bought whatever quantity it needs to buy. If the government withdraws from procurement even partially, we will see the private trade exploiting the farmers ruthlessly forcing them into distress sale. This will take away the only incentive that is available to farmers to produce more. Farmers will be forced to move away from wheat and rice, and the production will slump. 

What Mr Thomas is suggesting is nothing new. Corporate India has been making such suggestions for long. So far global food giants like America-based Cargill and ADM have been unable to find a foothold in the Indian market. It is only by destroying the foundations of food self-sufficiency that cheaper imports can be encouraged. But what is not being understood is the gravity of the crisis that would be created. By creating conditions that force farmers to move away from wheat and rice, besides hitting the livelihood security of millions of farmers, the country will have to rely on massive food imports.

Whenever India enters the international market to buy agricultural commodities the prices shoot up. After all, India’s demand is always huge. For a country reeling under the deadly impact of skyrocketing fuel prices since two-third of India’s oil requirement is imported, imagine the curse when the country will be dependent upon food imports. More and more people will go to bed hungry unable to afford the staple foods. Hunger and poverty will only multiply. Even the middle class will wilt under the rising food prices. What is not being understood is that food security cannot be compromised at any cost. Feeding the poor is a national responsibility, and we have no excuse now given the mounting food surplus.