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Not on the plate

The global food crisis is especially harsh on the poor. A major faultline of the Asia-Pacific region is that 600 million or two-thirds of the world’s poor are concentrated in this region.

india Updated: Apr 03, 2008 22:57 IST

There is no doubt that there is a global food crisis, with high prices of rice and wheat creating social unrest in many developing countries. The rice-growing economies of Asia-Pacific are highly vulnerable, thanks to the neglect of agriculture. This is perhaps the best time for them to address long-festering problems on a war-footing. More specifically, they “must show greater political will to address decades of policy neglect and failure in agriculture”, according to Noeleen Heyzer, United Nations under-Secretary general and executive director of the Economic and Social Commission for the Asia and Pacific (Escap). Such a forceful message is being delivered particularly when the region’s growth prospects continue to remain robust despite recessionary clouds gathering over the US economy.

The global food crisis is especially harsh on the poor. A major faultline of the Asia-Pacific region is that 600 million or two-thirds of the world’s poor are concentrated in this region. This is where reversing the past neglect of agriculture is imperative as 60 per cent of the working population still lives off the land. “Growth and productivity in agriculture are slowing, and the green revolution has bypassed millions. The mounting pressure on farmers is evident in declining subsidies, rising input prices, protests over landlessness and an alarming number of suicides among the indebted,” notes the latest Escap report. There is tacit support for India’s farm loans waiver scheme, given the link between rising debt and farmer suicides.

Escap’s message ought to resonate among policymakers in India, which exemplifies all the problems in neglecting agriculture. Such neglect was responsible for the slower reduction in poverty despite rapid growth. Productivity of agricultural labour is low and stagnant due to this neglect. Just a one per cent increase in productivity is enough to reduce dollar-a-day poverty of 2.37 million people. Nudging it up to Thailand’s level of productivity would take 218 million out of poverty in the region as a whole, notes the report. To weather the global food crisis, revitalising agriculture thus is imperative: encouraging R&D and commercial farming, stepping up investments in infrastructure as well as facilitating the shift of people out of agriculture.