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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 42, October 9, 2010

Starve. This is Incredible India

Thursday 14 October 2010, by T J S George


What’s it with these economist wizards— that they can see figures and percentages so clearly and yet are blind to human beings? Food rotting in godowns when people go hungry attracts little or no attention. But the slightest suggestion that foodgrains likely to rot are better given away to the poor makes them throw textbooks at you.

Montek Singh Ahluwalia was the very picture of wizardry when he said that free distribution of grains would not be good for food security. The implication is that letting them rot in godowns would ensure food security. We, the people, cannot comprehend such obfuscating profoundness. That’s why we are not wizards and they are.

But who is talking about “free distribution of grains” anyway? The proposition is that free distribution is better than free rotting. To ignore the rotting situation and dwell on the economic philosophy of free distribution as such is not exactly wizardry. It is dodging. It is insensitivity which appears to have become an essential ingredient of governance, Indian style.

The reality is worse than what we might innocently presume. The rotting, most of us thought, took place because of inefficiency leading to lack of storage space and lack of transportation. But in fact the unseen operators of the govern-ment machinery are very efficient. They allow the rotting because it is beneficial to them. To put it simply, this is another story of corruption.

It turns out that babus can make money from decaying wheat which is an ingredient liquor companies need. So, a quiet little tie-up with breweries is a nice little way to get rich. You can also have quiet little tie-ups with big-time grain merchants because thousands of tonnes of grain going bad means higher prices in the market.

Sharad Joshi, the maverick farm crusader of Maharashtra, threw light on another aspect of the corrupt system. According to him, large-scale rotting of foodgrains and periodic fires that gut the government’s cotton godowns fit into the same pattern. In both the Food Corporation of India and the Cotton Corporation of India, procurement is often less than recorded figures thanks to (a) profitable pilferage at source, (b) profitable generosity to vendors, and (c) profitable diversion of stocks. (Profitable, that is, to the crooks.)

“The accounts of Maharashtra’s Cotton Procurement scheme,” says Joshi, “can never be tallied unless there are half-a-dozen fires in the cotton stocks at different places in the State. Wheat is not as combustible as cotton, but it is susceptible to spoilage.”

THE likes of Montek Singh Ahluwalia may not even be aware of these grassroots realities. They are ivory tower wizards. The real wizards are the faceless, nameless denizens of babudom and clerkdom who device loopholes in every foolproof system, every economics theory.

This must have been known to our Union Minister for Cricket, Sharad Pawar, since he is a politician and not a PhD. That perhaps explains why he said that free distribution of grains to the poor was not an implementable idea. When the Supreme Court said it was an order and not just an idea, the Minister promptly said he would try to implement it. Of course, he won’t because, among other things, he can’t.

The “other things” include the sinister influence of foreign consultants. It transpires that substantial storage space the government had rented earlier was returned to the property owners five-six years ago. This was on the advice of an MNC consultant. Now there is a proposal to rent space again. Naturally the rents will be double or triple what they were six years ago. Large property owners across the country will benefit and perhaps another well-connected foreign consultant.

The problem is beyond Ahluwalia’s wizardry to solve. The culture of middlemen and politician-bureaucrat nexus will triumph because the wizards make no attempt to counter it. Therefore wheat will rot, cotton will go up in flames – and the starving will continue to starve. We are Incredible India indeed!

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