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Thursday, Aug 22, 2019

Not a grain to spare

We need to develop the capacity to take informed proactive decisions, and action, to maintain substantial grain reserves as well as universalise our PDS, writes MS Swaminathan.

india Updated: Sep 07, 2007 00:08 IST
MS Swaminathan
MS Swaminathan

Towards the end of 1966, the late Vikram Sarabhai and I called on the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, to brief her on the power of television and remote sensing techniques in accelerating the progress in enhancing the productivity of farming systems. She turned to me and asked, “How soon can we build a stock of 10 million tonnes of wheat”? I was a little taken aback by this question, but I later realised that this was because we had to import 10 million tonnes of wheat that year, largely under the PL-480 programme of the United States. More than anyone else, she understood the relationship between food sovereignty and national sovereignty. I recall mentioning to her then that the first production breakthrough will occur in 1968 and that we can build the grain reserve desired by her by the early 1970s. Fortunately, this happened, although in agriculture, predictions can often go wrong as a result of factors like unfavourable weather and pest epidemics.

Indira Gandhi was determined to build a large grain reserve, irrespective of the cost involved, often against the advice of the Planning Commission and Finance Ministry. This was a significant chapter in the evolution of our food security system. I recall the instance to emphasise that had this wisdom continued to guide our public policy, we would not now have been in a position where we buy wheat from abroad at a cost double of what is paid to our farmers.

In Indira Gandhi’s time in the 1960s and early 1970s, our population was only 600 million. Now it is over 1.1 billion. Chronic under-nutrition and malnutrition are widespread, particularly among children and women. A ‘blame game’ does not help anyone. What is important is to learn appropriate lessons from the economic and political dangers inherent in policies, which will make us depend upon imported food to operate the Public Distribution System (PDS).

First, how can we achieve the desired growth rate in agricultural production? The growth rate in the production of cereals declined from 4.13 per cent in the period 1984-85 to 1994-95. From here it dipped to 1.09 per cent between 1994-95 and 2004-05. Annual growth rate in the agriculture sector as a whole declined from 3.69 per cent in the period 1990-96 to 1.65 per cent during 1996-2005. Net sown area, gross cropped area, fertiliser use and electricity consumption all declined. Growth rate of terms of trade for agriculture declined from 0.95 per cent per annum during 1990-96 to -1.63 per cent during 1996-2005. In Punjab, even farmers with over 3.00 hectares are unable to earn an income comparable to that of a class IV employee of the Government of India.

Small and marginal farmer households account for 84 per cent of all farmer households. Fifty seven per cent of India’s total employment and 73 per cent of total rural employment come from this sector. Farming in our country is the backbone of the livelihood security system for a majority of our population.

The National Commission of Farmers (NCF) has proposed an integrated strategy. This involves concurrent attention to soil health care, water-harvesting and efficient use of the same. Concurrent to this are credit and insurance reforms; agricultural techniques that are socially, environmentally and economically sustainable; and assured and remunerative marketing opportunities. Special emphasis will have to be paid to Bihar, eastern UP, West Bengal and Assam, where water is not a limiting factor in crop production.

Defending the gains already achieved through conservation farming, and extending the gains to rain-fed areas and eastern India, should form part of the sustainable food security strategy. An important part of such a strategy would also be to make new gains through farming-systems diversification and value-addition. Unfortunately, the proposed National Food Security Mission involving an outlay of Rs 5,000 crore during the Eleventh Plan period is based on a business-as- usual approach, which is controlled by numerous bureaucratic committees, with farm women and men being relegated to the position of “beneficiaries”.

The second major need to ensure food for all and forever is the building of a few instruments like a land-use advisory system based on the integration of data from meteorological systems and marketing factors. In addition to this, a market intelligence system is required, which will help safeguard the interests of farmers on the one hand and ensure adequate grain reserves through timely imports, on the other.

The policy of allowing large multinational corporations to mop up our wheat surplus was fatal in terms of timing. China has a very efficient food management system. For example, at a time when the price of rice was double that of wheat, China adopted the policy of exporting rice and importing double the quantity of wheat for every ton of rice exported.

The NCF has suggested a pricing policy for procurement for public good. It will be prudent to adopt this system as soon as possible. The NCF has also suggested the establishment of a National Food Security and Sovereignty Board chaired by the Prime Minister, with the concerned Ministers and leaders of all the major political parties and a few Chief Ministers as members. We need to develop the capacity to take informed proactive decisions, and action, to maintain substantial grain reserves as well as universalise our PDS. The sooner we do this, the greater will be the possibility of avoiding both a ‘ship- to-mouth’ existence and widespread food riots.

MS Swaminathan is Chairman, National Commission on Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Security

First Published: Sep 07, 2007 00:05 IST

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