Early in September 2010, the Indian government said it would release 2.5 million tons of rice and wheat to the country’s poor over the next six months. It was following orders from India’s Supreme Court, which in turn had reacted to television reports that showed stacks of rotting food grain in railway yards. “Give [the grain] to the hungry poor instead of it going down the drain,” the court told the government’s counsel. The court also asked the state-owned Food Corp. of India (FCI) to expand and modernize its distribution infrastructure, and noted that 50,000 tons of wheat had already deteriorated. (Only 12,418 tons were damaged, the FCI claimed later.) The case brings renewed focus on the interlinked challenges of feeding India’s poor and overhauling its food grain procurement, storage and distribution infrastructure, experts tell India Knowledge at Wharton.

The issue has positioned the Supreme Court on one side and the government on the other. The court was not amused that the government had chosen to interpret an earlier ruling on the issue as a “suggestion” and not an “order.” The government felt that the court was exceeding its mandate. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told a meeting with newspaper editors — an annual event where the government is traditionally candid about its perceptions — that he respected the court’s “sentiments” and that concessional food should be made available to the poor. However, he suggested that courts should not get into the “realm of policy formulation.”

The Supreme Court’s order came on August 10, during its latest hearing of a 10-year-old right-to-food petition filed by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), an advocacy group based in New Delhi. Over the years, PUCL has secured some 50 other court directives on related issues, including prevention of starvation deaths, nutrition and immunization, says Kavita Srivastava, PUCL’s national secretary and convenor of its Right to Food campaign. The Central and state governments have been tardy in implementing those orders, she adds. With food grains, the government is in denial of the real problem, she notes. “Food grain availability and production is [adequate]. [But] the government needs to procure more by incentivizing agriculture with good rates.”

Revisiting an ‘Old and Tragic Story’

Thomas Donaldson, director of the Carol and Lawrence Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research at the Wharton School and professor of legal studies and business ethics, finds it troubling that India is grappling with the conflicting situation of hunger and rotting food. “A Nobel Prize in economics was given to Amartya Sen, originally from India, for his work on economics, hunger and government responses,” he says. “This is an old and tragic story.”

The Supreme Court took umbrage at the response of agriculture minister Sharad Pawar, who had initially said the government was unable to distribute food grain for free as transportation costs were high. In addition, it was already providing generous food subsidies.

“Markets can’t do everything,” says Donaldson, declining to comment directly on the court order. “One of the things they can’t do entirely on their own is accommodate basic needs or satisfy basic human rights. What needs to happen is for governments to be more creative about using markets so that they can accomplish policy objectives like satisfying basic needs.” Governments cannot shy away from the responsibility of distributing food to the hungry by citing economic inefficiencies, Donaldson says. “When the government says it is not efficient to distribute food in some instances, the problem with that is that efficiency depends on where you look for it.” He offers the example of a trucking firm that finds it is not going to be paid enough to deliver much-needed human blood supplies to victims of an earthquake. “It’s true that it’s inefficient for the company to do something that will create a small loss for it. But it is pretty clear here that it is not efficient for society as a whole to have that blood and not use it. So what is efficient for a government may not be efficient for society.”

“The government must bear the necessary expenses to [take] the food to the poor,” says Rajesh Chakrabarti, assistant professor of finance at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad. “But the question here is this: If there was no surplus food grain available, should we not have said that the government should import food to feed the poor? In other words, hunger is inexcusable, with or without surplus stock.”

Satyajit Majumdar, professor at the School of Management and Labour Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, says the court’s directive “draws attention towards the inefficient management of our storage and distribution system where social security is not heard of.” He sees the situation as alarming: “Before the situation worsens and we witness a civil war, it is better to feed the poor hungry citizens of this country.” However, he adds he is worried that “those sitting in influential positions may again find a way out for leakage of this grain.” He suggests social organizations — such as the Bangalore-based Akshaya Patra Foundation, which runs the world’s largest school mid-day meal program — be roped in to oversee the distribution of the grain and integrate that effort with other welfare programs along with private initiatives.

The creativity Donaldson wants to see in governments involves, for example, redistributing food in times of crisis. He recalls Amartya Sen writing about his personal experience as a nine-year-old, escaping the 1943 Bengal famine that claimed three million lives. “What [Sen] found was — and we find this again and again — there was adequate supply of food. This is the tragedy we have discovered about famines. In most instances — even in the context of famines — there typically is enough food to go around, but you have panic buying, hoarding, price-gouging and government mismanagement.” He points to nonprofits in the U.S. that collect and redistribute food and other supplies that would otherwise go to waste: Surplus Distribution Co. of Akron, Ohio, and Philabundance in Philadelphia; the latter has arrangements with large grocery chains to collect surplus food and distribute it to the poor and hungry.