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Food insecurity a big threat

For a country aspiring for a much bigger role in the world, India has a long way to go when it comes to food security, reports Veenu Sandhu.

india Updated: Oct 28, 2006 02:43 IST

Vilas Kitukle, a 35-year-old cotton farmer from Fubgaon in Amravati, has attempted suicide twice this year. Both times he failed. But villagers fear he might try to kill himself again.

That he could be the next statistic on the growing list of Vidarbha's farm suicides. Maharashtra's cotton belt has already seen 1,006 farmer deaths since June 2005. Across India, the figure has crossed a thousand this year alone.

For a country aspiring for a much bigger role in the world, India has a long way to go when it comes to food security, agriculture analysts say. As of now, the picture is grim and will grow grimmer if farmer deaths are treated as mere statistics.

India's first Social Development Report released this January says about 260 million Indians — that is 26 per cent of the population — continue to live below the poverty line. Worried that the rising wheat prices might add to their misery, the country returned to the world market after a gap of six years to buy wheat. It also allowed duty-free wheat imports by private players.

Farmers as producers and consumers

The need to import food to maintain a food security system has arisen after nearly 30 years, says MS Swaminathan, chairman of the National Commission on Farmers. Maintaining a balance between population and the capacity to produce food is becoming more and more challenging, adds the man who sowed the seed of Green Revolution, watched it flourish, bear fruit and then collapse.

"In nations like the US, farmers form only 3 per cent of the population," says Swaminathan. "As compared, 70 per cent of India's population comprises farmers and those engaged in farming. So, farmers are also the largest chunk of consumers of agriculture produce," he adds. With production down, they are the ones most affected, both as producers and consumers. Today, even the heartland of the green revolution — Punjab, Haryana, and Western Uttar Pradesh — is facing economic and ecological problems. Wheat production, which would have been close to about 90 million tones had agricultural policies been environmentally friendly and small farmer oriented, is estimated to be less than 70 million tones this year, he adds.

But like the others, Swaminathan is confident that a second Green Revolution — in fact an Evergreen Revolution — is possible. One way of doing it is by tapping the production potential of Bihar, Orissa, Eastern Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, and Assam. India must also accelerate the pace of agricultural growth from the one-odd per cent to at least 4 per cent if it wants to attain a sustained growth rate of 8 per cent during the Ninth Five Year Plan, adds Padma Bhushan R.S. Paroda, former secretary of DARE and director general of Indian Council of Agriculture Research. Paroda has recently given a ten-point status paper, 'Strategy for Increasing Productivity Growth Rate' to the Planning Commission.

Tapping the cooperative system

He says in India, increased wheat production is synonymous with increased food security. Currently at second position after China, it can become the largest wheat producer in five to 10 years if we adopt an aggressive and well-planned strategy with greater emphasis on eastern and north-eastern regions, Paroda says.

"Also, a minimum buffer stock has to be maintained or else food security gets affected," he adds. The minimum support price for farmers also needs to be somewhere close to the market price, he says cautioning that doing away with the MSP would be against national interest.

"An integrated strategy such as food guarantee scheme plus employment will go a long way in achieving food security," adds Swaminathan.

The Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation Limited has already shown how. Its former chairman, Verghese Kurien says cooperatives are the answer. "Why not have rural electricity cooperatives like America does? It will help farmers," declares the Milkman of India.

First Published: Oct 28, 2006 02:43 IST