India teeters on the brink of food crisis

By Sukanta Mandal

The spectre of one of the worst ever drought situations looms large over India. Central India suffered a massive 93% deficiency in rainfall in the first week of August, while the north-west of the country remained at 76% below the long-term average. This monsoon, the rainfall deficit in Punjab, the granary of India, varies from 35% to as high as 87% depending on location.

The average all-India deficiency of monsoon rainfall stood at 25%. Farmers have sown their fields twice or even three times, only to see the crop dry up. Both India’s president and prime minister have expressed concern at the impending spectre of famine in their ceremonial addresses to the nation on the occasion of this year’s Independence Day. PM Manmohan Singh has even gone to the extent of giving a call for a “second Green Revolution” to underline the gravity of the situation.

In a way, Singh has hinted at the right malady. It is not only “the monsoon, stupid” that is responsible for this famine-like situation. It is indeed the bleak agricultural scenario that is largely responsible for the present food crisis. Hence the talk of a “second Green Revolution”! It is an irony that India even after four decades of Green Revolution is still largely dependent on the ‘rain-god’ for its agricultural salvation. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition government has already proposed a food security law. This indicates that all is not well on the food front.

The questions of food security and right to food have become urgent political issues. The overall growth story so assiduously propagated by the Indian rulers has not addressed the basic issue of providing food security to the masses. Instead, stark hunger still haunts some parts of the country for most part of the year, nutrition indicators stagnates and per capita calorie consumption actually declines in most other parts, suggesting that the problem of hunger may have gotten worse rather than better.

Worse than sub-Saharan Africa

At the all-India level, 1.9% of the households suffer from hunger, according to the government’s National Sample Survey Organisation. Malnutrition in the country as a whole, as measured in terms of underweight children below three years, is estimated at 45.9%, according to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), 2005-06. The comparable estimate for 1998-99 was 47%. These rates are among the highest in the world and nearly double the rate of sub-Saharan Africa. More than half of women in India (55%) and 70% of children between 6-59 months of age are anaemic. 

According to NSSO data of 2004-05, population reporting a calorie intake level of “less than 100%” of the norm of 2700 kilocalories, formed 66% of the total in rural areas and 70% of the total in urban areas. The same survey shows that average daily intake of calories by rural population dropped by 4.9% from 2153 kcal to 2047 kcal between 1993-94 and 2004-05, and by 2.5% from 2071 kcal to 2020 kcal in the urban areas. Average daily intake of protein by the Indian population has decreased from 60.2 grams to 57 in the rural areas between 1993-94 and 2004-05 and remained at around 57 grams in the urban areas during the same period.

According to the Global Hunger Index and the India Hunger Index released by the International Food Policy Research Institute in October 2008, India’s record on hunger is worse than that of nearly 25 sub-Saharan African countries. The index, which measured hunger by ranking countries on three indicators  — prevalence of child malnutrition, rates of child mortality, and the proportion of people who are calorie-deficient — found that not a single state in India fell in the “low hunger” or “moderate hunger” categories. The best-performing Indian state — Punjab — displays “serious” hunger and ranks 34th on the Global Index.

The worst-performing state, Madhya Pradesh, falls in the “extremely alarming category” and ranks 82nd, with its people hungrier than those in Ethiopia or Sudan. Bihar and Jharkhand (73rd and 75th on the Global Index) have worse hunger records than Zimbabwe, Haiti and Bangladesh. Even a supposedly successful state like Gujarat dismally displays “alarming” hunger, coming 13th among the 17 Indian states in the survey. West Bengal too falls within the “alarming” category.

Peasant suicides

The question of food security is inextricably linked with the agrarian situation in the country. The country is yet to come out of the nagging agrarian crisis. This is all the more borne out by the fact that incidents of peasant suicides are still continuing unabated despite a huge waiver of agrarian loans to the tune of 600 billion rupees (US$12 billion) during the last year. As many as 21 debt-ridden farmers committed suicide in Andhra Pradesh during the last 40 days alone. The toll goes on increasing week after week. The number of farmers who have committed suicide in India between 1997 and 2007 now stands at a staggering 182,936.

The government’s Economic Survey 2008-09 informs us that food grains production in the country is showing signs of gradual decline. Production of food grains in 2008-09 is estimated to be 229.85 million tonnes, which is lower than the target of 233 million tonnes set out for the year, as well as lower than final estimate of 230.78 million tonnes for 2007-08. The overall production of cereals in 2008-09 has shown a decline of 0.2% over 2007-08.

Food security essentially involves procurement of a sufficient quantity of food grains by the government to be distributed to the masses through the Public Distribution System. But the overall procurement of rice, wheat and other predominant cereals, which reached 42.4 million tonnes in 2005-06, declined to 35.8 million tonnes in 2006-07, but improved marginally to 37.6 million tonnes in 2007-08. The decline in PDS wheat procurement in the 2006-07 Rabi [spring] Marketing Season is attributable to a shortage of production of wheat below the targeted levels, lower market arrivals, high ruling market prices, negative market sentiments due to low stocks of wheat in the central pool and aggressive purchases by the private traders.

Hence the government took the decision to import wheat to meet the deficit in the central pool for meeting commitments under the Targeted PDS and other food-based welfare schemes and emergency relief measures. The government placed orders to import 5.5 million tonnes of wheat in 2006-07 at a weighted average price of US$204.7 per tonne and 1.8 million tonnes in 2007-08 at weighted average price of US$373.8 per tonne. We are told that the buffer stock position of food grains in the country on 1 April was “comfortable”.

Still the talk of further wheat imports is making the rounds in the corridors of the Food and Agriculture Ministry. The private players have already been allowed to import white sugar without paying any import duty. Meanwhile, food grains prices are skyrocketing. Between 2004 and 2009, the price of basic consumption items such as cereals, pulses and edible oils has doubled, even trebled, and are set to climb even further.

Commodities futures speculation

Apart from the faulty agrarian policies and failing monsoon, one of the principal villains behind the spiralling prices of food grains has been the adverse impact of the commodities futures market on the prices of agricultural goods. Agricultural commodities accounted for a large share of the commodities traded in the commodities futures market. This spurt in speculative transactions in food grains has encouraged hoarding and manipulation of prices by a few unscrupulous big players through the intervention in the commodities market.

The persistence, in fact increase, of high levels of hunger in times of globalised growth indicates that, as the resolution on the agrarian crisis adopted by the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)’s eighth party congress observed, the “severe malnutrition crisis widespread in India, especially among children and women, is inseparably linked with liberalisation in agriculture”. The subversion and dismantling of state procurement and PDS, as well as high food prices thanks to widespread speculation and hoarding have aggravated hunger.

The “targeted” PDS regime introduced a decade ago restricts the food subsidy to “Below Poverty Line” (BPL) families. In practice, the poor and marginalised find themselves excluded from the BPL lists and the extent of coverage of BPL families is very low. Hence, to deal with food insecurity in an effective way, it is not sufficient to restrict the PDS to targeted sections like the BPL population alone. Because the process of identification of the BPL population is far from fault-free, a large number of people who are food insecure would be excluded if the PDS remains confined to the BPL section alone. For instance, the last NSSO survey found that the percentage of Indians living below the poverty line declined from 26.09% in 1999-2000 to 22.15% in 2004-05. However, a report from the government commission into social security for unorganised workers headed by Professor Arjun Sengupta found that 77% of India’s population subsist on Rs20 (US$0.40) a day. Are the 55.85% of Indian people excluded from the BPL lists in spite of subsisting on Rs20 a day, not “poor”? Can we imagine that they are not hungry, or are not entitled to food subsidy?

The PDS is a major state intervention to ensure food security to people, especially the poor. The government’s Eleventh Five-Year Plan has observed that the PDS seems to have failed in making food grain available to the poor as is evident from falling levels of cereal consumption over the last two decades. In 1997, the PDS was redesigned as the Targeted PDS (TPDS) where higher rates of subsidies were given to the poor and the poorest among poor. However the Economic Survey 2008-09 candidly admitted that some major deficiencies were also identified in the TPDS. These included high exclusion and inclusion errors, non-viability of fair price shops, leakages and failure in price stabilisation. Hence, there is the need for strengthening and universalising the PDS mechanism.

[Abridged from the September edition of Liberation, monthly journal of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist).]