Local procurement and distribution of foodgrains can help fight hunger
By introducing the Food Security Bill (FSB) in the Parliament, the UPA II government has tried to fulfil its election promise of providing cheap food grains to meet the food and nutritional security of the poorest vulnerable groups in the country. However, the diluted bill has raised more questions about its intention to meet the objective of providing food security.
The reduced availability of food grains per person to 7 kg instead of 35 kg for the family, targeted beneficiaries who are yet to be identified and the way it will be implemented have led to more confusion than resolving the delicate issue of eradicating hunger.
With 60 percent of the children in our country suffering from malnutrition, and the development indicators showing that situation of hunger in some parts of our country is even worse than sub Saharan Africa, it was essential to initiate policy changes that address this misfortune. The economic achievements through high growth of GDP have failed to address the issue of hunger. Having realized the mistake with the apprehension of losing public support base in the forthcoming elections in five states, UPA II seems to be in a hurry to show that it is with “aam admi”. The result is the diluted FSB.
The initiative of providing foodgrains at subsidized price for the poorest family has been hailed by many economists as a right step towards inclusive growth. It is an affirmative action of distribution of benefits of development to the weaker sections of the society, with the idea of equity and social justice.
The penetration of PDS into remote areas has led to changes in food habits across the country from coarse millets to finer varieties of rice and wheat. This has been linked to the rise in diabetes in the country.
The only criticism is about the process of identification of targeted families, who should be eligible for such food subsidies. The National Advisory Council (NAC) and the left parties are of the opinion that instead of targeted PDS (Public Distribution System) it should be universal system, catering to the larger public. Some are sceptical about the pilferage of money as well as the food grains through ‘Food Corporation of India’, the main implementing body for PDS. The finance ministry is worried about the additional burden of subsidies. The agricultural ministry has raised apprehensions about procuring of additional food grains to meet this demand.
Nevertheless, most of the critics agree that this is a right step towards addressing the issue huger and malnutrition. Ironically the leaders as well as so-called experts in NAC have not been able to identify the real issues involved in providing the food security to people.
The most important issue is: will provision of 7 kg of cereals like wheat or rice and some pulses per family meet the nutritional requirement of the family? This may provide the necessary carbohydrates, but not enough protein and nutrients. The prices of pulses, vegetables and fruits have skyrocketed, beyond the reach of the poorest groups as well as for lower middle class families.
In reality, the food supplied through PDS is of abysmally low quality, stored in unhygienic conditions for long time that will have negative impact on health. It lacks micronutrients that are essential for developing the body. It also has high trace elements of pesticides residues that may eventually harm the health of the poorest groups. The penetration of PDS into remote areas has led to changes in food habits across the country from coarse millets to finer varieties of rice and wheat. This has been linked to the rise in diabetes in the country.
The food grain for the PDS is basically procured from Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh. The food production in these regions is heavily subsidized with support for irrigation and fertilizers. This is procured at higher prices from farmers and middlemen and then passed on to Food Corporation of India for supply through PDS. This adds the transport costs and the food miles to move food grain over thousand of kilometers.
PDS needs to gear towards local procurement and decentralized storage. This will strengthen the local farming communities. Dumping of cheap food grains form one region to the other parts of the country will have disastrous consequences for the subsistence farming sector in the entire country.
There is no incentive for subsistence farmers to produce grains at higher price when the returns are very low. The majority of farmers own less then one hectare of farmland. They are both producers as well as consumers of food grain. The flooding of cheap wheat or rice is bound to discourage them from growing food crops. Obviously, this will have negative implications for the food production and food security of the country.
The flooding of cheap rice in southern and eastern region in the country from northern states has forced the farmers to quit farming as it has become financially uneconomical and unviable. Many states are providing additional subsidies through PDS. Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh governments are distributing rice at Rs 1 per kilogram! Ironically, the ground level situation in these states indicates the phenomenon of drastic land use change from growing food grains to cash or horticulture crops. For example in Kerala the paddy land has decreased from 8 lakhs to 2 lakhs hectares over a span of twenty years!
The flooding of cheap wheat or rice is bound to discourage them from growing food crops. Obviously, this will have negative implications for the food production and food security of the country.
Unfortunately the farmers, who produced their own food and ploughed the agricultural fields with pride, have become “beggars” as a result of macro economic and agricultural policies. The small farmers practiced sustainable and ecologically sound farming practices that enriched the soil and enhanced the heath of community. This is replaced by the fossil fuel based chemical agricultural systems in most part of the country.
The dependence on industrial agriculture to provide food security will be a recipe for ecological disaster and social catastrophe.
The policymakers need to address these ground realities before embarking on implementing the Food Security Bill. These populist schemes may help the UPA to win the next elections, but in the process it would have led to irreversible damage to country’s food production system resulting in food insecurity of unprecedented scale. The signs are clear from the agricultural fields where millions of farmers have been forced to resort to abandon farming that is termed as ‘crop holiday’.
The need of the hour is that the political leaders as well as agricultural scientists and agronomists have to work together to evolve policies that strengthen the livelihood opportunities of farmers. We need to work towards attaining “Food Sovereignty” in which farmer’s access to land, seeds, water and other inputs are assured with an assured price for their produce. This will not only revive the countryside but will help towards economic recovery of the country.
But the question is: do our political leaders have the will to bring such drastic pro farmer policies to grow food? Or they are more satisfied with cosmetic changes doling out cheap food grains that will lead to more food insecurity?