Every day some 3,000 Indian children die from illnesses related to malnutrition, and yet countless heaps of rodent-infested wheat and rice are rotting in fields across the north of their own country.
It is an extraordinary paradox created by a rigid regime of subsidies for grain farmers, a woeful lack of storage facilities and an inefficient, corruption-plagued public distribution system that fails millions of impoverished people.
And it is an embarrassment for the government led by the Congress party, which returned to power in 2009 thanks in large part to pledges of welfare for the poor, who make up about 40 per cent of the 1.2 billion population.
Quite why the authorities could not simply offload the mountains of grain for free to fill empty stomachs is puzzling, but the explanation lies in the complex regulations that govern procurement and distribution.
"This is a case of criminal neglect by the government," said D. Raja, national secretary of the Communist Party of India, an opposition group. "The ruling party has been the worst manager of the demand-supply of food grains."
Officials say that, in all, about 6 million tonnes of grain worth at least $1.5 billion could perish. Analysts say the losses could be far higher because more than 19 million tonnes are now lying in the open, exposed to searing summer heat and monsoon rains.
Saddomajra, a village in the bread-basket, Punjab, is one of the dumping grounds for the record stockpile of wheat that has accumulated after half a decade of bumper harvests in the world's second-largest producer of the grain.
Here there are thousands of sacks of decomposing wheat, occupying an area the size of a football field and towering in some places to the height of a house.
Tarpaulins cover most of the mounds, but many of the bags are torn, spilling blackened grain blighted by fungus and insects.
"The wheat has been lying there for the past five years. It smells very bad," said Hakkam Singh, who works as a watchman at the open field. "Nobody steals it, but people use it to feed fish and poultry farms."
At another dump, on the outskirts of Amritsar, locals told Reuters that officials sometimes dip into the sacks of rotting grain to mix it with fresh wheat for distribution to the poor who hold ration cards.
WHEAT STOCKS AT ALL-TIME HIGH
The government buys rice and wheat from farmers at a guaranteed price, a support system akin to the subsidies that led to Europe's notorious butter mountains and milk lakes.
The government has raised the price it pays to buy wheat by more than 70 per cent since 2007, which only encourages more production. As a result, stocks are now at an all-time high of about 50 million tonnes, 12 times more than the official target.
"It's related to pure economic security for the farmers," said Purnima Menon, a research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute in New Delhi. "They make a safe choice of crops."
Rajiv Tandon, a senior adviser for health and nutrition at aid organisation Save the Children in India, said that to diversify the country's food basket farmers should be offered incentives to grow vegetables and other cash crops.
However, he said root-and-branch modernisation is needed. The farm sector was transformed by the introduction of high-yielding seeds, fertilisers and irrigation during the Green Revolution nearly half a century ago, ending a dependence on imports, but it has seen only incremental reform ever since.
Storage is one of the biggest problems of all.
"For the last 25 years the storage capacity has not been upgraded at all," Tandon said. "Part of the grain is officially stored outside store houses, where the chance of rotting is high. There are often not enough sacks and tarpaulins, and sometimes it is dumped by a graveyard or cremation centre."
Grain stocks officially deemed as stored in government warehouses now stand at a record 82.4 m illion tonnes. However, that is about 20 million tonnes more than actual capacity, which means grain lying in the open is being passed off as "stored".
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