Food For Thought
With nearly a sixth of all people in the world, many of them still mired in poverty, India may face food crisis in the year 2011. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations has sounded an alarming bell to the developing countries about possible steep rises in food prices during 2011, if proper measures are not taken immediately, i.e. to enhance significantly the production of major food crops. FAO said: “With the pressure on world prices of most commodities not abating, the international community must remain vigilant against further supply shocks in 2011.” World cereal production is likely to go down by 2 per cent during 2010 and global cereal stocks may decline sharply. The price of wheat increased by 12 per cent in the first week of December, 2010, as compared to their November average. Since India is already experiencing food crisis, FAO’s warning may prove to be the last straw. The crisis has been building up for some time. Indian farmers seem to have hit a dead end, as their foodgrain yields are no longer going up. Grain production has been almost stagnant for more than 10 years and now there is a growing gap between supply and demand of foodgrains.
Let’s examine the root-cause of this serious problem, It is unfortunate that even after the eleven Five Year Plans, the country could not evolve a more viable, practicable and objective policy on the agricultural sector. Today, the farmers are helpless without any proper guidelines as to the betterment of their conditions. The land reforms process is far beyond the objectives it proposed to achieve. To deteriorate the condition, PDS is generally notorious for leakage and waste. Almost 65 per cent of allotted grain gets diverted to the open market. Nor do structural glitches like out-of-reach PDS outlets help the poor. Everyone knows there’s crying need for an overhaul of PDS infrastructure. At the same time, the prevailing mismatch between production and post-harvest technologies should be ended. Safe storage, marketing and value addition to primary products have to be attended to at the village level. It speaks volumes about the non-seriousness of the Congress-led UPA-II coalition government, and its irresistible desire to make political capital out of any populist move it thinks electorally advantageous. It reflects poorly on the ruling dispensation, that in the absence of a clear policy and governance focus pulling in different directions are leaving the public confused.
Now let’s turn to India’s food inflation, which rose sharply to 12.13 per cent for the week ended December 11 from 9.46 per cent in the previous week, marking a return to double-digit levels after a gap of a few weeks on the back of rising vegetable prices. With onion prices hitting as high as Rs 60 to Rs 100 a kg across Indian cities, the beleaguered aam aadmi is cursing the UPA government for its burdensome economic policies. Also prices of food and other essential commodities are spiralling up like nobody’s business and common people are groping for a respite. An official statement this week, quoting provisional data, also showed that the inflation rate for fuel had increased slightly to 10.74 per cent from 10.67 per cent in the week ended December 4, hence hike in petrol price. According to the data released this week, the prices of onions were up 33.48 per cent from a year ago, vegetables by 15.54 per cent, fruits by 20.15 per cent, milk by 17.83 per cent, eggs, meat and fish by 19.35 per cent and rice by 1.40 per cent. Overall, the annual rate of inflation for primary articles, which have a weight of 20.12 per cent in the WPI, with base year 2004-05, stood at 15.35 per cent for the week ended December 11 as compared to 13.25 per cent for the previous week. In this backdrop, it is worth mentioning that Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, who is more busy in cricket affairs being ICC President than protecting the interests of aam aadmi, and thus not giving a damn to aam aadmi’s problems, often loses the thread of what he has said only recently—that he said he was no astrologer and could not predict when prices would start coming down. He is not alone. Policy-makers, from the PM to Chief Ministers, have engaged in the time-honoured game of finger pointing. The usual suspects are all there: Recalcitrant states, greedy hoarders, and exploiting capitalists. Our leaders, lost in the labyrinth of passing the blame, fail to understand that the food crisis was waiting to happen, both in the short run and the medium term, and nobody saw it coming—rather they turned a blind eye to it—and chose to make believe that it would go away even as Cassandras were crying themselves hoarse.
We have been squeezed between rising desires for consumption but constant or declining per capita availabilities for most articles figuring in the food price index for the whole of the last decade. India’s galloping aspirational growth has been yoked to a pair of limping bullocks in case of the most essential commodities. This inflation, which the aam aadmi—for whom every politician cries a bucket of tears — has been experiencing for now close to two-and-a-half years, has been a disaster in the making for a while. Neither the economic mandarins nor the generals and captains of industry, now engaged in a self-congratulatory mood for having come out of the recession faster than the West, chose to see this coming. Herein lies the chronicle of an as yet unfolding tragedy. Whether and how we could cope with this recurrent crisis is the subject of a wider debate.