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Self-sufficient but hungry: Why India starves despite producing enough

09:33 AM Aug 13, 2020 | Bhavdeep Kang

Annam bahu kurvita (grow food in plenty) is an oft-quoted Upanishadic injunction. The other part of the scriptural food doctrine is Annam na paricaksita (do not abandon/neglect/waste food). The sages of old knew that growing food was not enough; food discipline was necessary, ie, it must not be wasted. From that perspective, the launch of a Rs one lakh crore infrastructure fund for creating post-harvest management systems is a vital initiative.

The aforementioned sages would doubtless have been appalled at the massive level of wastage in India. A 2015 study by the ministry of agriculture put food wastage at Rs 92,651 crore annually (and this is before it reaches the shelf or table). Contrast this figure with the Rs 1.08 lakh crore spent on the National Food Security programme last year.

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The loss of Rs 250 crore worth of food every day, quite enough to wipe out malnutrition in the worst-affected districts in the country, is a human tragedy. Parents all over the world admonish children who refuse to finish their meals, “Think of the starving children in (Africa, Asia, Bihar, etc)”. The same applies to food wastage.

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Five million eggs, packed with vital nutrients, are damaged every year. Some 1.4 million tonnes of soyabean is wasted, while three million tonnes of onions and tomatoes, the staples of north Indian cooking, never make it from farm to fork. Mango lovers will be appalled to learn that over 1.5 million tonnes of mangoes are spoiled annually. Likewise, two million tonnes of bananas and a million tonnes of citrus are lost.

India is self-sufficient in food, with agricultural production outstripping food demand by an increasing margin every year. Yet, it ranks 102 on the 2019 hunger index. To make sense of these contrasting scenarios, the food wasted annually – over one-third of the total – must be factored in. While the “failure of entitlements” is being addressed through the Public Distribution System, the National Food Security Mission, mid-day meals and a variety of other programmes, a nutrition gap persists.

Cereals, dals and oilseeds, although less perishable than fruits and vegetables, show a high-degree of spoilage and together account for an economic loss of of Rs 32,000 crore a year. The losses occur at every stage of the supply chain. This underlines the need for storage at all levels, from village to district to state. Recognising the gap, Budget 2020 proposed 162 million tonnes of decentralised storage, at the block and taluka levels. It also envisaged village-level warehouses managed by women's self-help groups (SHGs).

In terms of cold storage, on paper the existing capacity of 39 million tonnes appears adequate. However, highly perishable commodities, which constitute the bulk of fruit and vegetable produce cannot be stored for more than a fortnight. So, cold stores in themselves are not enough – forward linkages in the form of cold chains, agri-processing units and diversified markets are necessary to ensure minimal wastage.

Cold chains, such as the Kisan Rail (refrigerated wagons) promised in Budget 2020 can ensure rapid transport of fresh produce to markets, while agri-processing can enhance the shelf-life of agricultural produce (banana chips, dehydrated onion flakes, tomato sauce and mango pulp last a lot longer than the ripe produce!).

Reducing wastage goes hand in hand with enhancing farm incomes. Improving the farmers' holding capacity – through credit and warehousing - is essential for proper price discovery. Integrating negotiable warehousing receipts (against which loans can be taken) with the National Agriculture Market (e-NAM) was an important policy measure, announced earlier this year.

The most vulnerable agricultural produce – fruits and vegetables - are also the most price-volatile. In the case of highly perishable goods, farmers dump their produce when prices fall to the point that taking it to market is not worth their while. In the absence of low-cost storage or farm-gate buyers, the produce goes waste. Agri-processing and diversified markets can minimise this trend.

The infrastructure fund must be seen together with the recent agricultural reforms which liberated rural markets from artificial curbs. The removal of stock limits on produce with a high shelf-life – edible oil, oilseeds, cereals, pulses, onions and potatoes – should encourage the private sector to invest in storage facilities. The consequent introduction of state-of-the-art storage technologies and price stability will benefit consumers.

In disbursing the fund, priority must be given to farmer producer organisations (FPOs) and women's SHGs. Given the challenges of fragmented land holdings, collective post-harvest management by FPOs and SHGs can go a long way in reducing costs and wastage, besides creating employment and improving farm incomes.

The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.

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