Grow food in abundance

BHAVDEEP KANG

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A statutory right to food, in these times of global food insecurity, is both civilized and necessary. Ideally, nutritional security is the shared responsibility of both society and state. But with the breakdown of traditional social safety nets, there is little doubt that the state will have to take on wider responsibility for ensuring food availability and access, above and beyond the existing Public Distribution System (PDS).

Whether the National Food Security Bill (NFSA) drafted by the National Advisory Council (NAC) is the best possible framework legislation in the given circumstances is the subject of an ongoing public debate. So significant a law cannot be passed willy-nilly under pressure from the political dispensation; outstanding issues raised by members of the Union cabinet, the Planning Commission and civil society groups need to be resolved.

The most critical question remains whether there is enough food to go around. Supermarket shelves, stacked to bursting, would seem to indicate there is. Statistics on hunger and malnutrition would seem to indicate there isn’t. Foodgrain production in India in 2010-11 stood at 241 million tonnes, with a population of 1.21 crore. Per capita food availability in 2010 was 438 gms per capita per day, after storage and transportation losses and cattle and poultry requirements. In a written reply in the Rajya Sabha on 16 December 2011, the minister of state for agriculture gave the following figures.

Year

Availability per capita in gms per day

   

2007

442.8

2008

436

2009

444

2010

438

The Report of the Indian Famine Commission, London, 1880 (reprinted by Agricole, New Delhi in 1989) recommends a ton of food per five persons and in times of shortage, a ton of food per six persons per year. The former amounts to 200 kilogram per capita per year or 548 gram per capita per day. Even assuming that the reference was to a short, rather than a long ton, the figure would be 499 gram per capita per day. By these standards most of India is in the grip of perpetual famine!

Surveys by the National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau show that food availability and consumption are far below the standards recommended by the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN). The dietary guidelines for Indians says: ‘Daily intake of foods including cereals and millets (345 gms) in Indian households is lower than the recommended dietary allowance or RDA (of 400 gms). The average consumption of pulses and legumes like green gram, Bengal gram and black gram, which are important sources of protein for the poor, was about 31 per cent lower (24 gms) than the RDA of 35 gms per consumption unit(CU)/day. Consumption of green leafy vegetables (<14 gms) and other vegetables (43 gms), which are rich sources of micronutrient like betacarotene, folate, calcium, riboflavin and iron, was grossly inadequate. Intake of visible fat was about 71 per cent of the RDA.’

 

According to the ICMR (India Council for Medical Research) which sets nutrition standards, in order to ensure that everybody gets the minimum acceptable level of food, 543 gms per person per day (490 gms/day cereals, 53 gms/day pulses) is required to be produced.

These figures translate into a high incidence of malnutrition which accounts for India’s low ranking on the Global Hunger Index:

* India is among the most food insecure countries in the world; it ranks 67 out of 88 in the International Food Policy Research Institute’s 2011 Global Hunger Index.

* 87 per cent of the rural population gets less than the recommended 2400 calories/day.

* 64.5 per cent of the urban population gets less than the recommended 2100 calories/day.

* Over 40 per cent of Indian chil dren below six are clinically malnourished and 58 per cent of Indian women are anaemic (National Sample Survey).

* 12 of 17 states surveyed by the state hunger index show ‘alarming’ levels of hunger.

* India’s worst performing states have higher levels of hunger than countries such as Zimbabwe and Haiti.

 

As Union Minister for Agriculture, Sharad Pawar, observed in his interaction with state food ministers on 8 February 2012, a quantum jump in agricultural production is required before food security legislation can be effectively implemented: ‘Above all, we will have to take up a massive programme to increase food grain production without compromising production of other crops.’ Food Minister K.V. Thomas observed that despite recent increases in foodgrains production – estimated at 250 million tonnes this year, up from 217 million tonnes in 2006-07 – ‘this increase is being offset by… our inability to increase per capita availability.’

If a law providing for universal food security coverage is passed without addressing the ‘production, procurement, storage, movement and distribution’ issues, the shortfalls will have to be bridged through imports. Already, the huge gaps in edible oils and pulses are being met through imports.

There are those who would argue that it is cheaper to import foodgrains than to grow them. Despite heavy subsidies on fertilizer, power and other agricultural inputs, the economic cost of wheat as computed by the Food Corporation of India is USD 359 a tonne. In mid-February, wheat was trading internationally at USD 249 per tonne. Similarly, pulses imported from Canada (where they are used as poultry feed) and aggressively marketed by the Department of Consumer Affairs as ‘yellow peas dal’, retail at Rs 26 a kg – half the price of indigenously grown pulses. In fact, Indian imports would have an inflationary impact on global markets, apart from undermining its own agricultural base and compromising its food sovereignty.

FCI estimates the economic cost of low grade rice is currently Rs 24.30 per kilogram; the issue prices envisaged in the NFSA is Rs 3 per kg. That’s a subsidy of Rs 21.30 per kg. When the minimum support price (MSP) for rice is raised, the economic cost goes up and the subsidy increases. As the issue price of foodgrains (Re 1 per kg for millets, Rs 2 per kg for wheat) are enshrined in the main body of the NAC’s draft bill, rather than in an annexure, they are immutable. The MSP is not. With the spiralling cost of farm inputs, particularly labour, fertilizer and seeds, the MSP must be hiked annually. Following the introduction of the nutrient based fertilizer subsidy, prices of urea and DAP (the most commonly used agro-chemicals) have gone up. To cite a recent example, the MSP of wheat was hiked to Rs 1285/quintal from Rs 1170/quintal – that’s Rs 115 per quintal at one go.

 

The food subsidy bill, already at Rs 63,000 crore in 2010, is expected to rise to Rs 93,000 crore if the NFSA is passed. This is probably a conservative estimate, says a Planning Commission note. It will probably be closer to Rs 1.02 lakh crore even without taking into account administrative, publicity, capacity building, evaluation, social audit and increased manpower costs and expanding storage capacity. The Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) alone is projected to cost Rs 35,000 crore per annum. And given that the MSP will inevitably increase, the food subsidy too would rise correspondingly, until it reaches unsustainable levels. Small wonder that Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who has to find the money and Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, who has to find the grain, have both cautioned against enacting the legislation without adequate preparation on the ground.

With food availability clearly restricted, is it fair to discuss entitlements? The Planning Commission had argued for an exclusionist approach, i.e., limiting coverage to Below Poverty Line (BPL) households. According to the Tendulkar Committee estimates, these would account for 46 per cent rural and 28 per cent urban households. The Rangarajan Committee, again citing insufficiency of grains, had endorsed this approach.

These suggestions resulted in a flurry of protest, with food policy experts pointing out that such an approach was no different from that of the already existing Targeted Public Distribution System. They argued for universal coverage, if the NFSA was to be at all meaningful. The NAC draft proposes near universal coverage of 75 per cent of the population: 90 per cent rural and 50 per cent urban households. In the bill cleared by the Union Cabinet on 19 December 2011, this was scaled down to 75 per cent rural and 50 per cent urban households. The jury is still out on the issue of coverage.

 

According to the Planning Commission, 74 million tonnes of foodgrain will be required to effectively implement the NFSA. This requires a quantum jump in food production which is feasible only through an expansion of the procurement base. Currently, it is restricted to a few states – Punjab, Haryana and Andhra Pradesh, although Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat have of late made strides in wheat production.

With soil degradation and falling water levels in Punjab, land productivity has declined. Accordingly, the government has shifted focus to the ‘East India Green Revolution.’ Pawar has warned that a minimum outlay of Rs 1.1 crore will be required to boost production in terms of irrigation, power, machinery, seeds and fertilizers. This exactly follows the script of the first green revolution, based on capital-intensive inputs and ultimately resulting in environmental degradation. The centralized model of food procurement and distribution continues, involving huge storage and transportation costs.

 

The alternative model of decentralized production, procurement and distribution has not received adequate attention, due to limited access to irrigation in other parts of the country. In these areas it would make eminent sense to promote non-water and non-energy intensive crops and farming technologies. Given the short-lived nature of green revolution technology, increasing water stress and the impact of climate change, there may be no option.

Logically, if food production is to increase, the increasingly bitter conflicts over land and water between agriculture and industry have to be effectively addressed in favour of the former. A clear-cut policy in this regard, which will include an amended land acquisition law, has yet to be formulated.

Of the triple-A of food security – availability, access and absorption – it is the first that must be urgently addressed. That is not to say that the debate over access – entitlements, delivery systems and PDS reform – is not equally important. The third, absorption, is linked with health and sanitation and this too needs simultaneous attention.

No amount of tinkering with the various drafts of the NFSA will help unless we implement the Taittriya Upanishad’s concept of annam buhu kurvita – grow food in abundance.

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