Agrarian Crisis & Food Insecurity: Feeding Off Each Other

Posted on July 24, 2011

By Shruthi Venukumar:

Nowhere is the contrast between the “Two Indias” so stark as in the realm of food security. Food security is measured in terms of the availability of food and one’s access to it – a situation in which one is able to live without the fear of starvation by procurement of food in socially acceptable ways. Food should not only be adequate in its calorific value, but also in its nutritive potency.

The problem of food security in India locates its roots in the agrarian crisis, to the extent that it is a vicious cycle now. India’s inheritance from the British Raj was an agricultural base that was in shambles. After having lived more than half a generation on doles from the West, the Green Revolution swept most of our hunger away with the magic wand of chemical fertilizers, high yielding seed varieties and effective irrigation facilities. It was a steroidal growth. Today, the areas that lay bare to the Green Revolution have begot the distinction of “The Other Bhopal”, high and low on a cocktail of hydrocarbon dope. The dependence on fossil fuel-based fertilizers has linked our agriculture to fluctuating global oil prices; an effect multiplied by transportation costs involved in farming. Extensive irrigation has resulted in the curse of a plummeting water table, further aggravated by the other extreme of overdrawing of water. The high yielding varieties of seeds, once hailed as the saving grace of Indian agriculture, have led to the loss of biodiversity in our crops. India is one of the fastest expanding breeding grounds for Genetically Modified Seeds (GMS). We went from 5000 sq km to 13000 sq km of land cropped under GMS in a span of one year from 2004 to 2005. Such varieties have high regulatory costs, which the Indian farmer may be unable to bear. In case of genetic contamination, the repercussions may be fatal, leading to the depression and vanquishment of indigenous seed varieties. The business interests of some GMS companies from abroad are not immune to being under the glare of suspicion.

Indian agriculture is typified by subsistence farming. Inheritance laws command fragmentation of holdings. Ultimately, the size of an individual’s holding drops to being such a miniscule patch that it fails to breed profits. Our farmers are ill-equipped with inadequate knowhow on the science of agriculture. Irrigation is at the whim of the Rain-God! A single crop failure is enough to drive the farmer into a debt trap, often becoming a death trap at the jaws of loan sharks. India has a farmer suicide rate of 46 per day. Suicide is often aided by pesticides bought on debt! Public bank funding for agriculture is scarce. Commercial banks that do hand out hope do so at high interest rates (after all, they have their own interests to take care of). Loans are often diverted to competing industrial clients. Talk of a level playing field for the rich and the poor alike!

For decades now, agricultural land for food production has seen a shrinkage in favour of industrial, residential and cash crop expansion. Government schemes like MGNREGA have inadvertently led to the abandonment of sick farmlands in favour of a day’s manual wages in many cases, leading to the multiplication of woes and lows. Overcropping has made the soil give up its fertility. Cycles of floods and droughts have left us low and dry.

Ever since the economic liberalisation and the adoption of the Structural Adjustment Programmes, the Indian farmer has been on the edge. Competition in the open market, with global counterparts having much lower input costs has put many a farmer out of work. The government-determined Minimum Support Price on crops is often so low that even input costs scurry to find cover. The desperate farmer sells out to middlemen who pay just marginally higher.

Will our agriculture survive? The answer is in the headline – “Post-Independence record Rabi crop yield of 235.9 million tonnes. Agri growth at 4.4%.”. The dampener comes like a tagline – “Lack of storage space for grain. Crop loss feared due to ravages of natural calamities and forces of nature.”. Bumper crop fails to be stocked up as buffer crop due to a countrywide shortage of godowns. In the tug-of-war between the country’s courts and lawmakers on the matter of free distribution of grain, the stocks rot in unsanitary conditions and (according to claims and reports) sell out to the liquor industry (a robust revenue generator). The resulting hunger generates a stunted workforce, too weak to work and earn a decent living. The affected rural poor flounder in their task of crop production, leading to lower yields. It leads to forced unemployment among the urban poor too, owing to poor health, damning them to a life of dread and squalor and unceremonious death. The hunger-agricultural slowdown-poverty nexus is a self-sustaining one. Lack of food security can also birth the practices of theft for survival, pointing to a poverty-hunger-moral corruption flow chart. Snags in the Public Distribution System (PDS) adds to the food crisis. Oftentimes, the beneficiaries are those with no need of ration cards. Stocks are often siphoned off to the open market. A large number of the needy are devoid of any PDS cover as the current poverty line runs way below the actual headcount of the poverty-ridden.

It is food-for-thought as to why the Government is reluctant to invest in the agricultural sector even one-sixth of what it gave away in tax cuts to the country’s 49 dollar heavyweights according to the Forbes List (2010). That the Union Minister for agriculture holds meaty posts in the world of sports administration also, casts doubts on the government’s assessment of the problem. Is our democracy falling into the clutches of malpractices wherein the State’s urban focus translates into a criminally willful underdevelopment of rural belts and hence, as suggested by financial theorist William Bernstein, creating a chunk of people too feeble to analyse and resist the Sovereign’s Will? Hopefully not.

The way out of the bog is not beyond reach, if sought. A combination of public finance for poverty-ridden farmers, tax exemption on the testing, certification and transportation of agricultural products and inputs. subsidies on fertilizers, crop insurance, “food-for-work” and “food for education” programmes can work as a single stroke shot against the problems of agrarian crisis, food insecurity and unemployment, provided every stage in the implementation process is followed diligently. Only meaningful and gainful employment can steer people towards a favourable purchasing power and keep them stay put in a comfortable position. The fascinating feature of the crisis cocktail is that pumping reforms into agriculture would, without question, necessitate more hands in the field (literally and figuratively). A self-fulfilling solution to unemployment! Schemes like replacing PDS with direct cash transfer doles for food, which are not corrected for inflation, should be decided against. Cash also stands the risk of being frittered away by an irresponsible family head instead of being spent on food. The Food Security Bill should not only aim at 1200 calories per head per day, but also take into account the requirement of other nutrients in one’s diet that wheat and rice (the beneficiaries of the Green Revolution) alone cannot conjure up.

Food security is one of the Directive Principles of State Policy, which are fundamental in the governance of the country. It is the duty of the Government to press these principles into the law. It is only then that the dream and adoption of inclusive growth will cast aside its robe of rhetoric and race into reality.


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