The worst fate that can befall a person is being locked down, alone or with his family, with no money and no food.
Fact: “As on April 20, 2020, we have a stock of 524.5 lakh metric tons (LMT) of food grain — 289.5 LMT of rice and 235 LMT of wheat”: Mr Ram Vilas Paswan. (Besides, there are 287 LMT of unmilled paddy.)
The story of India moving from dependence on food grain imported from the United States (the PL 480 programme) to self-sufficiency to export capability is a story that has been told many times. We were so short of food grain that as soon as a ship arrived, the stocks were rushed to different parts of the country for distribution. India lived from ‘ship to mouth’.
The Green Revolution changed everything.
The Public Distribution System (PDS) was introduced in India in 1942. It was a system of rationing the food grain available. In the Seventh Five Year Plan Period, PDS was made a permanent feature and the whole population was brought under PDS.
PDS served two purposes. As production of food grain soared, farmers were left with huge marketable surpluses. We needed a system that would procure the food grain at fair and remunerative prices — and set a floor for the producer price. Food Corporation of India (FCI) procures the surplus food grain at a Minimum Support Price (MSP). The other purpose was to stock food grain after the Kharif and Rabi harvests and release the required quantities to the states every month in order to ensure year-round availability and price stability.
The distribution of food grain is based on a complex system of classification of and distribution to different sections of the people: Above Poverty Line (APL), Below Poverty Line (BPL), Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) and Open Market Sales.
Who owns the food grain?
In all this, one basic question is never asked or answered. Who ‘owns’ the stocks of food grain with the FCI? The central government/FCI believes it is the owner, since it is accountable for procurement, warehousing and distribution, and it is answerable for losses. The state governments think they are the owners of the quantities they have purchased with the states’ money. They are wrong.
The food grain belongs to the people of India. The grain was produced by the toil of the farmers and agricultural labour. It was procured, and is stored, using taxpayers’ money. Any profit or loss due to the operations of the FCI or the State Civil Supplies Corporations is a profit or loss to the exchequer. If the food grain belongs to the people of India, it is the people of India who have a first claim on the food grain.
If we keep this fundamental truth in mind, it is easy to answer the question: what should the government do in an emergency situation like the outbreak of a pandemic, the nationwide lockdown, and the inevitable poverty and hunger among, at least, the bottom half of the population (13 crore families)?
No cash, no food
Today, it is a stark fact that millions of families have run out of cash. They cannot buy food. The worst fate that can befall a person is being locked down, alone or with his family, with no money and no food. The poor are forced to compromise their dignity by standing in long queues for free cooked food provided by the government or private bodies. The distribution of free cooked food can never be perfect. The food will not reach all parts of a state. The quality will be poor. The quantity will be inadequate. If there are old people or small children in a family, they cannot stand in line to get food; the other members of the family have to beg for additional portions.
In a country where malnutrition is entrenched, especially among children, there is the danger of hunger becoming widespread too. Hunger and malnutrition will lead to starvation. TV, print and social media are full of anecdotal evidence that many families are going hungry and some are starving. We will never know how many people died of starvation, because no state government will admit to starvation or count the number of starvation deaths.
The irony is that India has mountains of food grain and a system of public and private shops that can reach the food grain to the people, yet millions of poor are going hungry. The central and state governments have to ensure only two things, as long as the lockdown lasts:
1. That families have the cash to buy grain, pulses, oil, salt, sugar, etc. from the public and private shops that are supplied with adequate stocks; and/or
2. That adequate grain, pulses, oil, salt, sugar, etc. is given free to the 13 crore families.
Within our means
At the risk of repetition, let me say that the first option will cost, based on Rs 5,000 per family, a maximum of Rs 65,000 crore to tide over the period until the end of May. The second option will cost, at the rate of 10 kg per person in a family per month, 65 LMT of grain per month plus a small cost for the pulses, oil, salt, sugar, etc. In fact, both options should be exercised. India owes that much to the poor. The Rabi procurement will fill the godowns again.
Saving money and hoarding food grain, while millions of families are starving, is extreme callousness.