Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Tuesday, Jul 30, 2002
Agri-Biz & Commodities - Foodgrains
Heading towards a hunger trap
K. P. Prabhakaan Nair
Malnourished children in the Bastar region of Madhya Pradesh... It is a tragic irony that New Delhi has been unable to translate the most basic of human needs into the legal right of every Indian, especially when the granaries are full
WITH about 815 million people around the globe going to bed with empty stomachs each day, the chief of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation has this to say about food and hunger. "We say, before you go and have a special meeting of the G-8 group the world's richest conglomeration to discuss the digital divide, you need to look at the three elements you need to live, which is, to breathe, to drink and to eat".
Yet, more than half a century after the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, where the right to food was clearly acknowledged, more than 200 million Indians go hungry every day. As always, hunger was "discussed", debates followed, and all the messiahs preaching about world hunger dined in the opulent capital of Italy, Rome, on the occasion of the World Food Summit in June.
The World Food Summit has become a meaningless ritual, where millions are spent to host and entertain those enamoured of the sound of their own voices, and nothing meaningful ever happens. Five years ago when the delegates met, pledges were made to cut the number of hungry to 400 million by 2015, but now, it has been estimated that 580 million will still be hungry.
At a farm subsidy of more than $1 billion a day by rich nations, huge foodstocks pile up in developed nations, while more than 1.2 billion live on a dollar or less a day having not enough resources to buy food.
The latest notification of the Minister for Food and Public Distribution, Mr Shanta Kumar, that India plans to export 1.5 million tones (mt) 1 mt of wheat and 0.5 mt of rice gives a rosy picture of India's food production. The reality, however, is disturbing:
Between 1980-81 and 1989-90 and from 1990-91 to 2000-01 (the first phase of the "reform" period) yield levels of all crops plummeted. For major cereals, wheat and rice, the fall was 42 per cent and 64 per cent, respectively.
For pulses, it was 83 per cent, oilseeds 75 per cent, and sugarcane 28 per cent. All foodgrains put together, it was 51 per cent. Only in the case of coarse cereals (poor man's food, such as, bajra, ragi, etc.) has there been a microscopic (1.9 per cent) increase.
Many economists in India tend to conclude that these yield decreases are attributable to lowered area sown. In reality, this is not so.
For instance, during the above-mentioned period, area under wheat increased 157 per cent while that for rice 54 per cent. Clearly, the so-called "Green Revolution", centred primarily on wheat and rice, has run out of steam.
In the case of rice, an almost similar situation has been shown by the long-term studies of the "Mega Project" involving India, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Mali and Burkino Faso (on the African continent) sponsored by the International Rice Research Institute in Philippines. Results of the project point an accusing finger at the environmental, especially soil-related, degradation a fall-out from the "high input technology" of the so-called Green Revolution, as the prime culprit in falling rice yields.
The soil of northern China, below the Yangtze river, the bread-basket of the country, is so loaded with nitrates due to excessive application of nitrogenous fertilisers to prop up the rice crop that people drinking about two litres of water a day (normal consumption for an adult) end up with nitrate accumulation in their bodies. Nearer home, the soils of Punjab and Haryana are, again, so polluted with chemical fertiliser residues, especially nitrates, that water is no more potable.
One might wonder at the twin problems of falling yields and area expansion, coupled with bulging "buffer" stocks of wheat and rice in the Food Corporation of India godowns.
The answer lies in the distorted food policy of New Delhi which, while pampering the super-rich wheat and rice farmers of Punjab, Haryana, Western Uttar Pradesh and Andhra, through the dubious "Minimum Support Price" (MSP) syndrome, ensured that no switch over to alternate crops took place. The MSP largesse, of course, has substantially enriched the farm lobby, 2 per cent to 3 per cent.
Political considerations overrule financial prudence. Look at the cold facts. The revised estimate of the food "subsidy" for 2001-02 is a record Rs 17,612 crore on the basis of disbursement.
The total expenditure is most likely to be, at the least, 20 per cent higher when amounts outstanding against stocks held by State governments are cleared. Of the above sum, more than Rs 12,000 crore alone would be required to stock the colossal mountains of wheat and rice in the FCI godowns.
This is larger than the Centre's combined Plan and non-Plan expenditure (budgeted) for agriculture, rural development, irrigation and flood control.
All this, while the average per capita net food availability per day has plummeted a full 4 per cent (from 482 gm to 463 gm) in the "decade of the reforms" (1991-2001) well below the minimum of 500 gm per day prescribed by the National Institute of Nutrition in Hyderabad. And the tragic irony is that during the decade past annual food production rate declined to 1.7 per cent, while population increase shot up to 1.9 per cent, clearly bearing out the Malthusian concept of population growth overtaking food production.
With the population projected to increase to about 1.7 billion by 2050 and a cereal deficit around 36 million tonnes by 2025 even with a low per capita income growth around 3.7 per cent (as the latest study by the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute shows) India is clearly inching towards a hunger trap. New Delhi's directionless food policy is aggravating the situation. Notwithstanding the oft-repeated claims of the capital's mandarins and their cohorts in the agricultural fraternity, the food scene, far from being "surplus", is ringing emergency bells.
A look at the consumption pattern proves the point. Between 1977-78 and 1987-88 ("pre-reform period") the proportion of consumer spending on cereals to total food expenditure fell markedly nearly 8 per cent and more than 10 per cent for urban and rural populations respectively, while there was a shift to dairy products, edible oils and livestock items.
In sharp contrast to this, during 1987-88 and 1999-2000 ("first phase reform period") diversification from cereals declined, with the food budget share allocated to dairy and livestock products increasing only marginally, even coming down in the case of edible oils.
Remarkably, the budget for cereals stagnated at around 26 per cent for urban population and declined from 38.5 per cent to 37.4 per cent for rural population. What does this indicate?
First, the country is not producing enough foodgrains to make it uniformly cheap. Second, with the government raising the MSP year after year, the difference between the domestic and international prices of principal cereals, such as wheat and rice has dramatically narrowed with the former showing an upward trend and making it out of reach.
Households spending close to 40 per cent on food is, indeed, a sad commentary on the state of food affairs. The "export" charade is only enriching the super-rich farmers and the middlemen. In such a situation, India has no right to point an accusing finger at the West, when it has not set its own house in order.
Right to food
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights enacted in 1948 has the Article 25 which says "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food... and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control".
In 1966, the UN General Assembly adopted the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which further formalised the right to food as a basic human right. Yet, more than half a century after adopting the Declaration,
India has more than 200 million hungry (220 million to be precise as per the latest FAO statistics) which is 17 per cent of the total population, comprising primarily of pregnant mothers, working men, women and even children in the most vulnerable age group.
The right to food has been treated as an "aspirational right", which has to be achieved through economic development and, hence, gets pushed to the periphery, while it should have been at the centre of all rights.
The Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their protocols of 1977 provide a legal basis for safeguarding the right to food of prisoners and war victims, but the same right is not safeguarded during times of peace.
Some of the arguments countries such as India put forth in justifying the inability to legally enforce the right to food are:
(1) high cost of enforcement, (2) inability to define economic and social rights in legally binding terms and (3) that protecting such rights would involve redistribution of private resources and such rights can be abused by repressive regimes.
Though there is a number of such repressive regimes spread across the world, where dictatorial regimes take away from people fundamental rights, India cannot claim to be free from such sins, because it has mountains of food garnered in the FCI godowns.
The FAO has proposed a new global `Anti-Hunger Programme' and asked for an annual allocation of $24 billion in public investments for agriculture and rural development. The bill, it is hoped, will be picked up by the affluent West.
It is a tragic irony and a gross travesty of justice that New Delhi has been unable to translate the most basic of human needs into the legal right of every Indian, especially when the granaries are full.
This is a breach of promise the Prime Minister gave to the nation when, at the time of swearing in, he said that given the mandate, he would banish hunger from the face of India "within ten years".
Half way through his regime, we have many more hungry mouths than we started with. And that too, during the year of the World Food Summit!
(The author is a senior fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.)
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