NEW DELHI (AP) — In fields along a northern Indian highway, mountains of grain have turned black with mildew after getting soaked in the rain.
The millions of tons of wheat rotting because India ran out of warehouse space to hold another bumper crop illustrate a core problem of the nation's food crisis: India can grow plenty of food but cannot store or transport it well enough to nourish its 1.2 billion people.
Warehouses are overflowing and huge quantities of wheat and rice are stored in fields under tarpaulins and thin plastic sheets, risking decay.
Food Minister K.V. Thomas said Thursday that the government was taking "all necessary steps" to increase its storage capacities.
The government has partnered with the private sector to attract investment in building warehouses, and new storage spaces will be available by the end of the year, Thomas said.
Opposition parties, and even some of the ruling Congress Party's coalition partners, have called the rotting grain a scandal.
"It is unfortunate that while people are dying of hunger, food grain is rotting in the open," said Sharad Yadav, a key opposition leader.
"We are confronting a serious food crisis, and the government is indifferent to this colossal waste," Yadav said.
In Khamanon village in Punjab state, farm workers Wednesday picked out grains from a mound of mildewed wheat, trying to salvage what was still edible.
The wheat has been lying in the open for nearly a year, during which the plastic sheeting that covered it developed holes, exposing the grain to rain, frost and sun.
Around the workers were hundreds of thousands of sacks of grain stacked nearly 3 meters (15 feet) high in an open area the size of a football field. Some sacks had split open and the grain had formed dense black clumps.
The edible grain will be repacked in fresh sacks and sold, said a caretaker, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Four bumper harvests over the past five years have swelled food grain production across the northern states of Punjab and Haryana, collectively known as the "granary of India."
India's grain production is expected to touch around 253 million tons this year, nearly 10 million tons more than the previous year, Thomas said.
In April, Food Corporation of India, the state-run agency responsible for purchasing grain, warned the government about the severe shortage of warehouses for the new crops being harvested.
The government has been reluctant to allow an increase in grain exports for fear of political protests at a time when it has been dogged by double-digit inflation of food prices for most of the last year.
India will export up to 7 million tons of rice this year and a similar amount in the next fiscal year, according to government figures.
Economists say selling the grain to the poor at subsidized prices is not a viable solution because it would expand the fiscal deficit.
Other activists have slammed the waste of grain when nearly half of India's children under age 5 are malnourished.
"The rotting of food grain is tantamount to criminal neglect in a country which has one of the highest rates of child malnutrition globally and the largest proportion of hungry people," said Biraj Patnaik, an adviser to India's Supreme Court on food policy issues.
Patnaik said the government's refusal to distribute the grain to the poor, holding it back to rot "purely on fiscal grounds, is particularly distressing."
Associated Press writer Altaf Qadri in Khamanon, India, contributed to this report.