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Delivering food to a billion people

India's food problem is bifocal. A fast growing democracy cannot continue to live with any more deaths due to hunger and malnutrition. Yoginder K Alagh writes. Economic Outlook graphic

india Updated: Nov 13, 2012 02:08 IST

India's food problem is bifocal. A fast growing democracy cannot continue to live with any more deaths due to hunger and malnutrition. Simultaneously, it has to resolve the problem of meeting the rapidly rising food needs of a growing economy or what is called food inflation, basically an inability to grow and deliver food adequately and efficiently to meet the rising and diversifying demand.

Indians are good demand modelers. Those who aren't poor, do not increase their grain consumption at all. The poor, including in rural areas, who increased their grain consumption by half if their income grew by one percent in the Seventies, now do it only by a fifth. The opposite is true of all other food items. For eggs, milk, poultry, fish, edible oil, butter, fruits and vegetables, when income rises by one percent, demand rises by one to one and a half percent and in some cases, by two percent.

Production in agriculture rises slowly and growth of four percent plus in this field is not easy. After all, food is not cars or air conditioners. Apart from this, India is also grappling with a land and water problem and while it recognises the problem, it has not always successfully helped its small farmer base or built bazaars and roads in villages and small towns, neither has it taken adequate measures to process and transport food items.

What can we do?
India built a successful plan of food self-reliance mandated by Indira Gandhi, which relied largely on spending money on canal irrigation and pump sets - a strategy which, according to Jeffrey Sachs, former director of the UN's Millennium Project, can be replicated to benefit regions such as Sahelian Africa, which includes countries in north-central Africa, south of the Sahara Desert.

Today, though spending has increased, irrigated area is not rising. The Planning Commission honestly says it's not sure why and in desperation, has suggested the Andhra Pradesh Farmer Managed Irrigation System, where technology is used to show the farmer falling water levels so he or she can regulate use. But that is only a beginning. We need a lot else to sustain agriculture in areas with distressed ground water.

Land acquisition has become another bone of contention, with the state and the dispossessed ranged on opposite sides. It's naive to think that our voracious hunger for land and minerals and the problems of declining land base of agriculture will be behind us any time soon. A land market needs clear titles of ownership but land records in many states are in dismal condition. If we are wiser than we have previously shown ourselves to be, it will take five to seven years to improve crucial areas such as soil and water.

What until then? One answer is technology. Bt cotton is the only real success in Indian agriculture and hybrid paddy is going places. Initiatives such as the Sunshine Project, run by civil servants in Gujarat, gave adivasis two tonnes of maize per hectare which they can eat and sell as feed to make money.

Forty million Indians have moved from villages to towns, but our babus and netas, stuck in the politics of Panchayats, don't acknowledge them as towns. Bazaars in these 'census towns', as they are called, receive no help from the government. The street doubles up as a marketplace and the roads are in such a pitiable state as to be non-existent. There is no infrastructure for aggregators or processors.

A few companies, farmer's groups and cooperatives are working to change this. But the government hasn't intervened - our FDI is in metros rather than where the farmer goes.

In my book, Future of Indian Agriculture, I have shown that if India introduces FDI in villages and small towns, then by 2020, the poorest Indian will have an income a fifth higher than today. If we manage to overcome our land and water problem, incomes will rise by a third. We have allowed farmers to register producer companies, but our business chambers lobbied to drop them from the Company Law (the Second Amendment to the Companies Act 2002 emerging from a committee I chaired). We protested and hence a mangled version was retained.

Most importantly, India can only launch a final assault on problems such as hunger and chronic malnutrition if it follows focused and persistent policies. How many people go hungry? How many are chronically undernourished? What and how should they be fed? Is a system of universal coverage always necessary? All these questions have business-like answers. One-fifth of Indians are chronically undernourished, and in some areas, much more. They must get food and not just grain. With Aadhaar on its way, universal coverage is the only way to cover everybody.

We are trying to solve one of the greatest problems mankind has faced. Two decades ago, a classmate at Wharton said to me, "Yoginder, nothing ever succeeds in India." Right, Robert, but nothing ever fails in India either.

Economic Outlook graphic

YK Alagh is Chancellor, Central Gujarat University and former Union minister of planning, power, science & technology. Write to us