Could two million tonnes of wheat produced in the country end up as cattle fodder overseas even as millions go hungry at home?
A day after the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) approved the export of 2 million tonnes of wheat, Right to Food activists have written to the Prime Minister slamming the move. They want a reversal of the decision.
The letter, signed by a number of leading activists including Aruna Roy, economist Jean Dreze, Anjali Bharadwaj, Binayak Sen, Nikhil Dey among others, says, "We are appalled that the Government of India is choosing to subsidise exports of wheat in order to liquidate stocks rather than distribute it to the starving multitudes in India. Subsidised exports essentially mean that the Indian Government is taking an conscious policy decision to provide subsidy to cattle in the industrialised countries (which will be the use that foodgrain from India will be put to) rather than the provide it to the poorest of the poor citizens in the country."
The letter goes on to say that civil society is taken aback with the decision given that India had a huge population of hungry people and ranked a poor 67th in a list of 81 countries as per the 2011 Global Hunger Index by the International Food Policy Research Institute.
Kavita Srivastav of the People's Union for Civil Liberties told NDTV, "There is so much hunger; so much of malnutrition. So our demand is very clear. Why don't you distribute this grain to all the people in this country? Remove this APL/BPL. The PM knows very well and the cabinet knows very well that more than 50% of the people who ought to be in BPL are not in BPL. So we are saying - remove this APL and BPL; universalise and just give everybody grain. You can give it through the public distribution system."
In fact strengthening the public distribution system and ensuring that states immediately give access to the most poor districts through the PDS is a key demand made in the letter.
The letter highlights that "Distribution can only improve if there is a simple mechanism which focuses on inclusion of the most vulnerable food insecure populations rather than the one which is currently followed of allocations based on BPL estimates of populations using an unreasonably minimalistic poverty line cut-off of per capita per day Rs.32 in urban areas and Rs. 26 in rural areas, respectively, per capita per day. This is considered "normatively adequate" by the Planning Commission."
The government has a stock of more than 82 million metric tonnes of food grain, but a limited storage capacity of only 64 million metric tonnes, which means the fear that the excess may simply rot is a serious concern.
In a scathing comment...the Supreme Court called it "a crime to waste even a grain of food in a country where people are starving"
Though government officials declined to comment on camera...they accept that there are problems with the distribution system...they have practical problems that tie them down. Already the subsidy cost is Rs. 88,000 crore and even though 50 lakh tonnes are allotted for the poorest districts, states only pick up about 30 lakh tonnes.
The government says it is following the recommendations of the Rangarajan committee appointed by the PM. But activists cite the experience of 2002 when foodgrain from India was exported as cattle fodder overseas though thousands here didn't get a decent meal on their plate.