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 a 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 provide it to the poor citizens in the country."
On Tuesday, the CCEA approved export of two million tonnes of wheat from central pool stock in order to clear storage space for new crops. However, the activists feel there is no need to export if the Public Distribution System (PDS) is improved to help the surplus stock reach the needy. Strengthening the PDS and ensuring that states immediately give access to the poorest districts through the system are the key demands made in the letter.
Kavita Srivastav of the People's Union for Civil Liberties told NDTV, "There is so much hunger; so much of malnutrition. Our demand is very clear - why don't you distribute this grain to all the people in this country? The Prime Minister and the cabinet know very well that more than 50 per cent of the people who should be under the BPL are not included in the list."
The letter highlights that the '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, based on BPL estimates of populations using an unreasonably minimalistic poverty line cut-off of Rs 32 in urban areas and Rs 26 in rural areas 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. 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 Prime Minister. The recent move comes after it was recommended by the Prime Minister's Economic Advisory Committee Chairman C Rangarajan. But activists reminded of the experience in 2002, when foodgrain from India was exported as cattle fodder overseas despite thousands back home didn't get a decent meal on their plate.
India, the world's second largest producer of wheat, had harvested a record 90.23 million tonnes in the 2011-12 crop year (July-June), leading to a record procurement of nearly 38 million tonnes so far this year.
In September last year, the government allowed wheat exports through private trade. Since then about 1.3 million tonnes have been exported.