Damage of crops is manageable, but India needs to change focus to scientific storage.

Damage of crops is manageable, but India needs to change focus to scientific storage.

Managing crops

Punjab is one of the most fertile regions and major part of the economy depends upon agriculture. In Punjab, five procurement agencies, Pungrain, Punsup, Markfed, Warehouse, Punjab Agro and FCI are operating. Food Corporation of India is the ultimate buyer from all other agencies for Central pool stocks for arranging movement to the deficit states. 

But in 2012 itself, around 70 lakh children died because of required nutrient died made available to them and the major reason behind it is poverty, corruption in the government system and rotting of food in the open. While the wheat production increased from 208 million tons in 2005-2006 to 263 million tons in 2013-14 against the need of the country of 225-230 million tonne every year.

Study says that 21 million tones of wheat – say equivalent to the entire production of Australia – goes waste in India due to glaring lack of infrastructure and food storage facilities. In our neighbor country Pakistan, losses to about 16 per cent of production or 3.2 million tonne annually where inadequate storage infrastructure leads to widespread rodent infestation problems.

Every year thousands of tonnes of wheat stored in open is damaged and despite directions of the Supreme Court, the foodgrains have not been distributed to the poor families. Rain, hailstorm with hailstones are not uncommon around harvest time and with the inclement weather conditions over ripened wheat crop cut short the joys of the farmers for whole of the year. 

Normally, we see that vegetables purchased from the wholesale dealers by the vegetable vendors try to sell the same within two days and they manage to get in return the cost and profit as well within thee two days and on the third day, instead of selling the vegetable at the cheaper rates, give the same as feed to the animals or throw at the dumping sites. This is the reason that thousands of tonnes of wheat is rotting in the godowns or in the open storage but the directions of the Supreme Court are being ignored to pass on the surplus foodgrain to the poor. In fact, the states which are having the maximum production of wheat crop like Punjab which is known as the ‘Food Basket’ of India are facing serious problem of wheat storage. The godowns in the whole of the nation are full of foodgrains and with the arrival of new crop; there is no space to store the same. This issue has been raised in the Parliament also by MP elected from Bathinda Harsimrat Kaur Badal, to make arrangements for the vacation of godowns in Punjab. She has repeated number of times that wheat and rice stocks stored in the Punjab godowns should be vacated by movement to the deficit states. 

In addition, the paddy stocks are also lying in the open which are yet to be converted into rice. The wheat has started arriving in the market and there is no space for its storage which can create a major problem for the Punjab government as well as for the farmers. Rotten foodgrain in the godowns is not fit for human consumption instead government has to incur crores of rupees for preserving it.

The states of Punjab, Haryana and MP are playing a major role in filling the national basket of foodgrain but the situation is that the farmers of these states are facing problem to sell their produce in the mandis. The Centre should understand that the state governments procure the wheat, rice and paddy for the Central pool and its storage problem is of Centre and not of the states.

The condition of the existing covered godowns, are so dilapidated that there is a need to keep a special budget for renovating the existing storage capacity by all the agencies. In fact, the government has not learned the lesson from the past and the situation is set to repeat itself in the years to come. As per the guidelines and norms fixed by the Central government, preference should be given to those godowns which are within a radius of eight kms of the railhead. This is done to reduce the transportation cost, cut down hassles and reduce the time taken to transport foodgrain between the grain market, godown and the railhead. 

In the absence of non-availability of any covered scientific storage, the agencies are left with no other alternative except to store the stocks in the lanes, roads of existing godowns, which are not free from natural vagaries and theft. Renowned scientist M S Swaminathan has already recommended to the Central government to set up grain storage facilities at 150 locations in the country each with a capacity of a million tonne. He after touring various procurement centres has also suggested that silos be built for long-term storage to prevent deterioration and rotting of foodgrain on account of delays in transferring the same to consumption states. He has suggested that Rs6000 crore should be spared by the state government for the construction of metallic grain silos. The Centre should chalk out a programme to dispose of the grains rotting in the godowns through auction at least for use of cattle feed being unfit for human consumption or throw it in the sea which is not even fit for animals so that godowns are vacated to accommodate the new crops. There is also a need to review the public distribution system (PDS) to meet the demands of the people and there is no problem of storage of foodgrains during the season. A detailed in depth study was made to know the root cause of the problem of storage space. 

Since foodgrain is a perishable item and has limited self life, the need of the hour is to change the focus from production to scientific storage, to save 15-20 per cent foodgrains which go waste every year or it is not fit for human consumption. Easy and fool proof solution is that the private sector and stage governments should become active players in arranging storage space to save the grain from rotting. In view of the fact that storage space cannot be created instantly, it would be better to issue the grains to flour millers and traders who have covered storage space in a transparent and market friendly manner. 

What I have observed in the past that the reason for the failure to hire more storage is the rates being offered for the covered storage are too low despite the fact land prices have touched Rs 50 lakh per acre even in the remote districts. 

A new policy of warehousing known as People Entrepreneur Godown (PEG) has been introduced with Nodal Agency as Pungrain as an out-sourcing agency. From the face of scheme, it looks to be good in view of shortage of staff with almost all the agencies and having no covered accommodation but it is not understood as to why the long term impacts have not been studied. 

This out-sourcing has already been tried by one of the agency in Punjab and was totally failure despite payment of heavy storage charges. Giving such heavy stocks to the private agency for storage against a nominal bank guarantee is not at all advisable. In the instant PEG scheme, two types of storage have been introduced, one; with custody and preservation of stocks and second; without custody and preservation by the agency. In both the cases, the involvement of the godown owner and possibilities of repeating the history of a big scam, cannot be ruled out. 

Frankly speaking, the major reasons behind the lack of covered scientific storage space which exposes grains to rain damage and the storage charges being paid to godown owners are very low rather insufficient to repay even the loans against the investment in view of rise in cost of land and construction. Only the revision of storage charges would encourage more people to construct scientific storage space only as the wheat stored scientifically on plinths in the open is susceptible to damage if not moved out within a year.
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