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In Spite of Surplus Production, Why is Hunger Striking India?

Public Policy
Sep 16, 2020 1:28 PM 5 min read

India is among the few countries to have achieved grain self-sufficiency. As per Second Advance Estimates for 2019-20, total food grain production in the country is estimated to be at a record 291.95m tonnes, which was well over the 230m tons of food required to feed the country’s population that year. 

Despite these numbers, hunger remains a major issue in India. In the ​2019 Global Hunger Index​, India ranks 102​ out of ​117 qualifying countries​. On one hand, India continues to suffer a hunger crisis approaching “alarming levels”, and on the other hand, it struggles to manage the overproduced grains.

Agri-produce wastage is an emerging challenge that undermines the efforts to end hunger and malnutrition. According to the UN, about 40% of the food produced in India is wasted, which translated to around ₹92,000cr ($12.5bn) per annum, and leaves 194 million Indians undernourished.

A Brief History of Food in India

Although India is self-sufficient in food production now, the situation was less than ideal in the years following Independence. 

Then came the Green Revolution in Punjab, which was initiated in the 1960s to increase food production and curb malnutrition in the country. Despite its success, it gave rise to other problems. The movement flourished in the states of Punjab and Haryana whereas other states did not show impressive results. It compromised the production diversity and promoted wheat and rice, which later gave rise to "Nutritious Hunger", which is a deficiency in certain nutrients. (This problem persists to this day.)


In Spite of Surplus Production, Why is Hunger Striking India?


The agricultural sector in India prioritises yield over the need to actually feed people. The use of excess fertilisers with hybrid seeds, coupled with the emphasis on high yield to earn profits, did not bode well for the sector. An unsustainable model of production and transportation with industrial agriculture and chemical farming eventually led to an agrarian crisis. 

To tackle these problems, several initiatives were taken. One such initiative was the setting up of the Food Corporation of India (FCI) and Public Distribution System (PDS) in 1965. These would help in the procurement of wheat paddy and grains through state agencies at Minimum Support Price (MSP). 

But the system was very ad hoc, slow and expensive without a liquidation policy. The major objectives of procurement, storage and distribution continued to be disrupted. There was a need to restructure MSP as the farmer suffered losses.

The White revolution from 1970 to 1996 provided a boost in milk production, animal and cattle-based products. However, the shelf life of all these products was compromised since India had no infrastructure for cold storage and quick supply. Only 3% of the total produce used to reach consumers and while the remaining 97% was wasted.  


The Exacerbating Food Wastage Crisis Today

Food wastage is happening at several levels from harvesting, transporting, processing, packaging and consuming. There are several loopholes in the supply and infrastructure system of farming in India. The total production of cereals is around 28 crore tonnes, out of which only around 8 crore tonnes is procured by the FCI. Despite procurement efforts, a part of the produce gets wasted due to open storage facilities. 

For the past three years, the FCI has saturated its storage options, due to the ‘excess’ stock of food grain. This produce could be saved by withdrawing it from the distribution network from time to time, aggregating it and then redirecting it to the people in need.

Here's a chart of surplus stocks above stocking norms held by FCI from December 1st 2014 to May 1st 2020:


In Spite of Surplus Production, Why is Hunger Striking India?
Note: The surplus stocks include rice, wheat, unmilled paddy and coarse cereals. Quantity of unmilled

paddy has been included as it is and has not been converted into rice equivalents.

Source: Department of Food and Public Distribution


Additionally, amidst this crisis, excess grains are failing to reach people suffering from extreme hunger. This begs the question – how can the efficiency of resource distribution channels be improved? 

The table below shows the number of excess stocks over the stocking norms capacity:

Some schemes like providing ​mid-day meals at schools​, ​
anganwadi systems, creation of mega food parks​, ​Kisan Rail etc. were implemented by the Government to reduce hunger. But the root cause of food shortage in spite of surplus production has yet to be resolved.  


The Way Forward 

Firstly​, for reaching zero hunger, the food system should be made more efficient and sustainable. It must cater to the high nutritional needs of the day. For an efficient supply chain, increased storage facilities with advanced technical solutions to improve shelf-life are prerequisites. Sufficient allocation of funds for the setting up of cold stores, warehouses and silos can reduce the wastage of food grains and other produce. The expansion of new road infrastructure, such as Bharatmala, is expected to ease the supply of goods and allow for faster delivery.

Secondly​, technology is a key enabler of operational efficiency in the supply chain. It’s crucial to analyse the geophysical parameters such as soil type and irrigation facilities all over India, and distinguish them into crop zones. A collaborative study can be carried out by research institutions as part of their sponsored projects. Introduction of smart tracking technology using blockchain, artificial intelligence and data analytics to help drivers locate the fastest route can enhance the process of transportation of crop produce. Drivers can also be equipped to make more informed decisions by identifying faster transit routes. Real-time tracking can be done by investing in new business models that reduce food loss in the early stages of the supply chain. 

Thirdly​, new norms for reducing food waste at the consumer level should also be introduced. Countries across the world have implemented creative policies to tackle this issue. For instance, Canada recovers unused food items from makers and retailers, and delivers these food ingredients to cook over 22,000 meals each day. In West Africa, the effective use of solar dryers resulted in extending the shelf life of fruits and tubers has reduced post-harvest losses. Packaging techniques such as vacuum packing and nitrogen flushing can also be used to help preserve the freshness of food for longer periods.

Lastly​, production practices should be regulated with more synchronisation between cropping patterns, diverse food habits and production diversity by promoting a balanced multi-crop system and imbibing climate-friendly models. 

Pope Francis once said:

Throwing away food is like stealing from the table of those who are poor and hungry.

Indeed, if we all took one step towards reducing food wastages, millions of people can be saved from the pangs of hunger.


Written by Shraddha, ‘In My Opinion’ Scholar, Moolya Foundation

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal


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