Way back in early nineteen sixties, practically every food scientists in India were chanting the now familiar "mantra" that 35% of the country's food was being wasted and urgent measures were required to stop this enormous waste which would only assure food security. After billions of rupees spent on food conservation research during the last 50 years and successfully managing the Green Revolution that ensured plentiful supplies of food grains, is it not a quirk of irony that same "waste mantra" is still repeated ad naseum to day by the Minister for Food Processing Industry at the Center, who might not have been even borne at that time? There is no dearth of conservation technology in the country to prevent the waste and scientific design of grain storage structures is within the reach of the government, if it really desires to arrest the grain wastage. Unfortunately what is lacking is the political will and dynamism on the part of the government that obstructs a long term vision.
While scientists can be excused for raising the wastage bogey to justify their research programs and funding, it is a shame on the part of the government to continue to take this stand, without even carrying out a scientific study on extent of food wastage in the country, areas where such wastage occurs and the reasons for the same. But for the occasional expose by the media now and then, especially during rainy season, no one seems to be over concerned about the waste, if it really takes place. The "Save Grain Campaign" of the Food Ministry had spent millions of rupees in making farmers aware of the simple techniques of storage and conservation, especially in rural areas and it is doubt full whether there is really any waste of grains in the country side.
Then who is wasting them? Could it be Food Corporation of India and the State Ware Housing Corporations which procure grains, store them and supply to thousands of Ration Shops across the country? According to FCI annual report filed before Lok Sabha, wastage is placed at about 1% which could work out to less than a million ton. Recent Supreme Court intervention ordering GOI to distribute food grains being held by the agencies under it free of cost to poor hungry people does not speak well for a country like India with aspirations to become a super economic power one day. While pronouncing the order probably the learned judges do not seem to have been correctly informed about the "grain dynamics" and the concept of food security through buffer stocks. Food grains are vulnerable to infestation if not properly stored and fumigated with chemicals like Phosphine or Methyl Bromide. High moisture in the grains due to improper drying after harvest can attract fungal attack but it rarely happens unless unseasonal rains are encountered
According to the Minister "the level of wastage of agricultural food items is estimated to be 30-35% valued at about Rs. 30,000/- crores in the country, occurring at various stages of handling after harvesting due to fragmented farming, lack of adequate post-harvest infrastructure such as lack of cold storages / cold chain facilities, transportation, proper storage facilities etc". The pious and vague statement that "the wastage would be reduced by promoting the development of food processing, strengthening of post harvest infrastructure and filling the gaps in the supply chain" does not mean much except that the Minister has mastered the right vocabulary to impress his audience! The citizen in the country must have been sick hearing this statement because this has been the stand of GOI for the last 5 decades!
One difference this time that may be a source of hope for the Indian citizen is the fiscal provision in this year's budget for improving the cold storage infrastructure which is more relevant to handling of horticultural produce which is vulnerable to spoilage due to their high degree of perishability. If the cold storage and frozen food distribution facilities are strengthened spoilage of fruits and vegetables can be reduced significantly and if these schemes are implemented as promised, credit must be go to the government. But there is big "if" whether these grandiose plans materialize any time in the near future.