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 percent of the 1.2 billion population.
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"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."The government has raised the price it pays to buy wheat by more than 70 percent 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.
Officials say that, in all, about 6 million tonnes of grain worth at least $1.5 billion (955.5 million pounds) 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.
In India 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.
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."
A government-supported survey published earlier this year found that 42 percent of India's children under 5 are underweight, almost double that of sub-Saharan Africa. The finding led Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to admit that malnutrition was "a national shame".
The cause of this widespread malnutrition cannot be tied mechanically to a lack of staples like rice and wheat.
Many families living on less than $2 a day are fuelled and filled by subsidised carbohydrate-rich food like wheat chapatis. These lack the much-needed protein and other nutrients that come in more expensive food. Poor hygiene and contaminated water are also to blame because they cause illnesses like diarrhoea, which prevents nutrient absorption.
Still, there are real grain shortages in the poorest states.
Here the problem is an inefficient and corruption-prone distribution system. Eighteen months ago investigators said millions of dollars worth of grain meant for poor families had been siphoned off and sold locally and abroad in a scam involving hundreds of government officials.
In 2010 the Supreme Court urged the government to distribute grain free to the hungry rather than let it go to waste in warehouses and open fields, but that hasn't happened.
This is because state governments are reluctant to buy extra grain for distribution under the food welfare programme and, even if they were, only people with under-the-poverty-line ration cards would be entitled to buy it in subsidised shops.
"The problem of rotting grains and the poor going hungry lies in the system itself," said Biraj Patnaik, principal adviser on food issues to the court.
The government is now planning a food security scheme that will guarantee cheap grain to 63.5 percent of the population.
However, critics see this as political gimmickry. They doubt that the new scheme will be less corrupt, more efficient or better targeted than current programmes, and they suspect that the government will not be able to afford a plan that may cost as much as $12 billion in additional subsidies a year.
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