Food Inflation And Agricultural Swaraj
The retail prices of staple foods rose steadily through 2010, far exceeding in real terms what the Government of India and the banking system calls “headline inflation” and exceeding the rate of the rise in food inflation as calculated for the country. These calculations ignore the effective inflation and its increase as experienced by the rural and urban household, and they also ignore the considerable regional variations in India of a typical monthly food basket.
Moreover, from a household perspective an increase in the prices of food staples is not seen as an annual phenomenon, to be compared with some point 12 months in the past. It is intimately linked to job security, net income, and the pressure on the food budget given competing demands of medical treatment, education and expense on energy. When real net income remains unchanged for over a year or longer, the household suffers a contraction in the budget available for the food basket, and this contraction—often experienced by rural cultivator families and agricultural labour—is only very inadequately reflected by the national rate of increase in food inflation.
An indicator of the impact on households is provided by the price monitoring cell of the Department of Consumer Affairs, Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution. This cell records the retail and wholesale prices of essential commodities in 37 cities and towns in India. Data over a 36-month period (January 2008 to December 2010) for the prices of cereals, pulses, sugar, tea, milk and onions reveals the impact of the steady rise in the Indian household’s food basket.
In 33 cities and towns for which there are regular price entries, the price per kilo of the “fair average” quality of rice has risen by an average of 42% over the calendar period January 2008 to December 2010. In 12 of these urban centres the increase has been over 50% (Vijayawada, Thiruvananthapuram, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Patna, Cuttack, Bhubaneswar, Indore, Bhopal, Shimla, Karnal and Hisar). The average price rise over the same period for a kilo of tur dal, for 32 cities for which there is regular price data, is 46%. In 11 of these urban centres the increase in the price of tur dal has been over 50% (Puducherry, Bengaluru, Patna, Agartala, Nagpur, Mumbai, Indore, Ahmedabad, Shimla, Jammu and New Delhi). Where wheat is concerned, from among the 27 cities and towns for which there are regular price entries over three years, in 2010 the per kilo price rise is 30% and more.
If in search of a comforting cup of tea over which to rue the effect of the steady price rise, this too will cost a great deal more than it did three years ago. For 25 urban centres with regular price data, the average increase over the same period of 100 grams of loose tea leaf is 38% and in 11 of these cities and towns the increase is between 40% and 100%.
DO WE OWE ANYTHING TO BREAD-PROVIDERS?
The farming community is still not out of woods as the government has been neglecting this sector and at the same time favouring the industry sector with the sole objective to get creditability in the world community of elite class for having achieved higher GDP and the increasing Sensex. Rulers don’t think there is anything worth talking about the farming sector. Rather they feel a burden to achieve any economic progress for the consumption in the elite capitalist world.
Farmers are still suffering on account of support prices being lower than cost of production and having no access to easy loans from the market. He is still neck dipped in debts owed to local moneylenders. The farmers have almost become bonded labour of a kind. The government is not showing any real concern to release the bonded labour from the clutches of local moneylenders. The programmes launched by it such as Kisan Credit Card, micro-finance (we know the frauds committed by some such companies in Andhra Pradesh, lately), self-help-groups, NABARD banking network, which prefers to work in urban area than its prime concern in rural area, etc have failed in solving the real problem. This is nothing different than playing with the lives of farmers across the country. It has appointed a number of committees during the past six decades to solve the problems of indebtedness of this community. There is no clue with the government to solve this age old problem of indebtedness of this community. Despite throwing some relief packages on the face of the farmers, it has not stopped the suicides till date. RBI is expressing its helplessness by saying that it cannot compete with moneylenders due to various reasons.
Main Issues at stake
First, we deny the farming community the support prices for farm products based on cost of production with reasonable profit to help farming community to enjoy reasonably sustainable good lifestyle. The demand for cost of production-based support prices has been there right from early 1970s. Still the government is playing a hide-and-seek game on this account. Every year, it announces support prices for some commodities but does not disclose the basis for the same, like cost of production and profit margin considered for fixing support price for any farm produce. The state announces support prices unilaterally without giving any break up and assumptions considered for this or having any open dialogue with the farming community on this issue. Then there is a protest from the farming community, mainly the rich, to demand higher prices than declared. The government shows as if it has considered the issue on humanitarian ground and declares small increases in the support prices. Again there is no basis for this also. This small increase is some time lower than the effect of inflation taken place during the year. The leaders of farming community pat their backs and try to take credit for such small increases while addressing the meetings of farmers. The whole process is short of any transparency about cost of production and inflation aspects.
Second, the government announces very often that it would abolish money lending business from the scene and relieve farmers from exploitation on a permanent basis. Everybody gets carried by this kind of announcement from their own elected government. This game too is being played for decades without any result. Some committees and the top brass of Reserve Bank of India have tried their hands to solve this problem. Nothing has been achieved so far in this matter. Rather RBI has almost pleaded for their inability in solving this problem due to its complex nature. NABARD, Self-help groups (they charges interest more than normal banks), micro-finance companies (frauds of large amounts have surfaced recently in AP), Kisan Credit Cards (as per Narsimham Committee, 58 per cent of rural households do not have bank accounts), registering all the moneylenders and making them to file details about loans and interest charged (many states legislated for this but never shown any seriousness in implementation), etc could not replace the local moneylenders. Nothing has succeeded so far. Bankers, both nationalised as well as private, are reluctant to finance small farmers having holdings up to one hectare. These banks cannot offer competitive mechanism to satisfy the farmers on 24×7 hours service at door step, maintaining privacy and confidentiality of borrows’ transactions, one-to-one business interest, quicker and hassle-free prompt loan-approval, and easy access to more loans when in difficulty, etc. Banking staff is reluctant to visit villages.
RBI says: “Despite penetration, the formal credit delivery structure has not percolated down to the villages. The villagers, especially the poor, have to necessarily depend on moneylenders for their survival. It seems from this that any attempts to stop money lending will affect the poor people by cutting off all access to credit. The main problem seems to be that the credit institutions that were created to replace the moneylenders have become very formal with cumbersome procedures. Equally important, the formal credit delivery channels also lack the personal bonds that moneylenders enjoy. The moneylenders lend loans for consumption purposes without hesitation, for example marriages, illness, education of children etc. This is not available with the formal banks despite cooperative banks existing in nearby places. Inadequate and delayed credits by banks force farmers to approach moneylenders, despite higher interest and coercive methods. Hence, bank’s loans become overdue and get branded as NPA (non-performing-asset). It is difficult to enforce legislation since in most areas, very few moneylenders have a valid license and no new licenses have been renewed for a number of years.”
RBI’s report dated November 2, 2010, confirms other aspect of neglect of farm credit during the first half of this year, when compared with credit to other sector. While credit flow to industry was highest at Rs 1,07,386 crore, flow to agriculture sector was only Rs 13,481 crore. The credit loans for personal housing schemes were more than agriculture at Rs 16,195 crore.
What could be solutions?
The above confirms that despite hype from the government about ‘looking after’ propaganda for the farmer community, the things have remained at the same levels which were at about a few centuries ago. The government has miserably failed in this matter of not replacing the moneylender category from the rural credit sector to stop exploitation of farmers. RBI has indirectly accepted its failure. Shall we allow the farming community representing more than sixty per cent population of our country and providing food for all the citizens to suffer permanently? Shall we allow them to commit suicides in lakhs as they have been committing in the past ten years? Shall we allow the government to take false credit by throwing a few thousand crores’ relief-packages for the rural community whenever the people cry for justice? Pipli (Live) film has exposed the government and media on this account. Shall we neglect the farming community providing bread for all of us, by allowing state to take a false credit for achieving higher GDP (The Economist of London has called it some years ago as Grossly Distorted Picture) by the monopoly industry sector and highly-speculative index of stock market? What is more important for the people of our country—higher GDP and higher Sensex or food safety for all? Wisdom lies in abandoning the failed model of the West and develop a local-centric economic development model. A few more radical decisions are required to correct the balance in our economy before we land in anarchic conditions:
- Zero-rate of interest on loans: Basic reason for farmers not getting out of the clutches of moneylenders or banks not providing loans to small farmers is the exploitative rate of interest and moneylenders’ urge to make quick buck. The government too is not interested to have out-of-box thinking. Best course, therefore, could be to radically change the policy decision as regard interest charges to provide security to almost half the population before it slips below poverty line. The state must provide loans at zero-rate of interest to all the farmers and small industries. This would expedite the process of abolition of moneylenders and private sharks in private sector permanently. By implementing it, none of them would be able to compete with the state at zero rate of interest on loans. Till the entire economy becomes interest-free, the government should provide the loss of interest on loans in its annual budgets. The amount involved would be too insignificant, when compared with tax losses suffered by the state on account of money parked in overseas tax haven countries by elite class of our society. As per America-based Global Financial Integrity’s latest report released in early November 2010, the amounts siphoned out from the Indian economy and kept in tax haven countries/islands during 1948 to 2008 is more than US $ 213 billion, the present market value of which is over $462 billion (Indian Rupees equivalent to more than twenty Lakh crore). An equal amount or more is lying tax-free in underground economy within the country. In fact, underground economy is overtaking the official economy. There is nothing to feel awkward about this policy of interest-free loans as many senior economists have talked about this in their analytical discussions. These include JM Keynes, Dudley Dillard, RF Harrod, Milton Friedman, Kenneth Kurihara, Paul Samuelson et al. Rate of interest should not be left to the market forces to avoid exploitation of borrowers. This is being practiced in developed countries today for reducing unemployment. The rates of interest in the USA, Europe and Japan are very close to zero. India should not feel awkward in the matter.
- State provides basic necessities: In a democracy, the state is expected to provide some basic needs to all the citizens for achieving better growth of the society and welfare of its people. These include food, water and capital. All these three cannot be handed over to private parties to avoid exploitation. Indian government has totally left capital to wolf in private sector. Former Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi had realised this and accordingly decided to get hold of capital sources from the economy in the hands of her government and to avoid use of this by private players for exploitation besides cornering the government by using money power. She nationalised all the major banks for this purpose. Other two i.e. water and food is presently getting in private hands. The process has already started through the public-private-partnership (PPP) programmes. This will only increase hardship of ordinary citizens on the same lines of suicides by farmers. The government is doing this under the garb of economic reforms. If the government is sincere about the welfare of the citizens, it should stop this practice to handover its responsibility to private players.
- Transparency in support price working: The government is jeopardising the interest of farming community from both sides. One, it does not disclose its working of support prices declared for farm products each year. It does not tell the farmers what cost of production and the effect of inflation has been considered by the state while arriving at the support prices. The cost of production of farm produce and also of cooperative societies’ products is openly available to anyone in the country. There is no secrecy in this matter. Second, the government declares unilaterally the support prices without taking farmers in confidence during the process of cost calculation. In that case the government should apply the same principle of declaring the support prices for industrial goods too. Farming community is the largest group of consumers of industrial products. The state does not want to displease the industrial lobby for obvious reasons. It does not disclose the cost of production of its goods to the consuming people that includes a largest group from the rural sector. The data are kept ‘secret’ even from the law-makers i.e. Parliament. Many stalwarts like AB Vajpayee, Bhupesh Gupta, NG Gorey, VB Raju, Krishna Kant, Brahmanand Panda, Gurumukh Singh Mussafir, JS Tilak, Mahavir Tyagi, Baboobhai Chinoy, et al had raised the demand for placing the cost audit reports of major industrial products on the table of Parliament in 1992. The treasury benches, irrespective of the political party flag, all the time denied an access to this report on the ground that these reports were classified documents, as such secret. Mussafir had cryptically asked: Even from the Parliament?
If the government is sincere to improve the health of rural population, it should take the above steps at the earliest before the farming lobby takes drastic steps in the matter. The leaders of the farming community are also working for their own personal political ambitions. They have least interest in going in details of this issue to help the farming community. If this continues in future, the chaotic conditions would prevail in the society for which the government will have to blame itself. Farmers would come on streets in a large number sooner that we think.
By DG Bokare
The sugar with which to sweeten that cup of tea has become prohibitively expensive over the January 2008 to December 2010 period. For the 32 cities and towns for which there is regular price data, the average price increase for a kilo of sugar is 102%, the range of increase being between 76% and 125%. This increase for sugar—relatively homogenous for the price reporting centres—exhibits the countrywide nature of the price rise of the commodity. Nor is there a household economy case for substituting sugar with gur, or jaggery. For the 17 towns and cities reporting data for gur prices over the same 36-month period, the increase in price over the period has been an average 118% with 11 of these centres recording an increase of over 100%.
Adding a third element of higher cost to the humble cup of tea is the price of milk. For the 25 towns and cities which recorded increases in the per litre price of milk over the 36-month period (one city recorded a drop) the average rise is 37%. In seven cities a litre of milk costs at least 50% more in December 2010 than it did in January 2008—Ahmedabad, Bhopal, Indore, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Patna and Hyderabad. In conspicuous contrast are the rates of increase in prices of cooking media—groundnut oil, mustard oil and vanaspati. Over the January 2008 to December 2010 period, the 37 urban centres recorded average price increases of 10%, 9% and 10% respectively for groundnut oil, mustard oil and vanaspati.
Finally, the volatile allium cepa, or common red onion. In 29 cities and towns reporting regularly the per kilo prices of onion, the increase in price of the vegetable has been astonishingly steep. The average increase for 29 cities is 197.5% and in 14 the increase has been 200% and above—New Delhi, Shimla, Ahmedabad, Indore, Mumbai, Rajkot, Agartala, Aizawl, Bhubanesawar, Cuttack, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad and Vijaywada. In pale comparison is the otherwise worrying average increase of 39.5% for a kilo of potatoes—this is the 36-month average increase recorded by 27 urban centres.
When examined at a point in the calendar, the rise in prices of staple foods has for the last four years tended to be worrying if not alarming. What has been the response from the Central Ministry of Agriculture, and from the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution?
The Agriculture Ministry has busied itself with, as Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar told the Economic Editors’ Conference in October 2010, “channelising our efforts through effective policy instruments and programmes to ensure higher investments—both public and private”. Pawar had at the time told the Conference: “We have concentrated on enhancing production and productivity both by bringing in high-yielding varieties, hybrids and efficient farm equipments. Our efforts towards increasing soil nutrients have seen to the new fertiliser subsidy regime. We have also worked on easing the availability of credit to the farmer and offering better risk mitigation instruments.”
The ministry has drawn up new programmes and strategies, among them the setting up of soil testing laboratories, what it calls “water harvesting and micro irrigation structures”, the provisioning (or contracting of) storage and processing facilities, what it calls “sophisticated pest surveillance and monitoring systems” and finally “IT-enabled knowledge dissemination systems for the farmers”. Pawar has rarely missed an opportunity to say that investment plays an important role in achieving higher growth rate—this falls in line with the central government’s overall planning guideline of “faster and more inclusive growth”, an intellectual trap which prohibits questioning of how ‘growth’ can be both ‘faster’ and ‘more inclusive’ when in fact 20 years of economic liberalisation have proven exactly the opposite.
Transfer Agriculture To Concurrent List In Constitution To
ENSURE FOOD SECURITY FOR ALL
The 1919 and 1935 reforms no longer relevant now
The National Advisory Council (NAC) of the Government of India headed by Congress president Sonia Gandhi which is struggling with measures aimed at ensuring food security for all in the country is making heroic efforts on this front. The NAC however, does not appear to have discussed structural reforms in the Constitution in order to ensure unfailing food security for all.
This, despite the fact that the most important personality in this NAC besides the political leadership is Prof MS Swaminathan, who had made radical suggestions while presenting the fifth and final report of the National Commission on Farmers. Presenting the fifth and final report of the National Commission on Farmers, on October 4, 2006, Dr Swaminathan had suggested the setting up of a National Food Security and Sovereignty Board.
He had also suggested that Agriculture should be included in Concurrent List of the Constitution through an amendment. During the British days, both agriculture and water had become “transferred subjects” through the Montague-Chelmsford reform of 1919 and the Government of India Act 1935. The world and India have changed drastically in most aspects since those days.
We should not carry the baggage of those days with us any more. Both agriculture and water must become concurrent subjects now. At present, under the Constitution, agriculture is a state subject. This creates some problems in implementation of the policies enunciated by the centre.
In his suggestion for a National Food Security and Sovereignty Board, Prof Swaminathan had said that the Prime Minister would be the Chairman with the Union Minister for Agriculture and Food, Union Ministers of Finance, Rural Development, Commerce, Water Resources, and other ministers concerned, the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, Chief Ministers of a few food surplus and food deficit states and leaders of principal political parties as members. The objective of the proposed board was to promote policies based on a holistic review and national consensus on pricing, procurement, and universal public distribution system and commerce (home and external).
The National Commission had urged the central and state governments to consider seriously the question of including agriculture under the Concurrent List in Schedule VII, Articles 246 of the Constitution. Important policy decisions like those relation to prices credit and trade are taken by the Government of India. Also, several pieces of legislation including the Protection of Plan Varieties and Farmers Rights Act, the Biodiversity Act, and the Food Bill are administered by the Government of India.
He said that substantial funds were provided by the Government of India for rural infrastructure development including irrigation, village roads and markets. By placing agriculture in the Concurrent List, serving farmers and saving farming became a joint responsibility of the centre and the States, a truly national endeavour in raising the morale, prestige and economic well being of our farm women and men, Prof Swaminathan said.
The concept behind suggested reforms is to ensure that every child born in India has to be ensured his or her daily bread. The scheme has to be universal in character and not confined to one region or the other. It should not be forgotten that even today, about three crores of Indians still go to bed hungry every night according to FAO figures often quoted by writers on this topic. The state has the responsibility to feed them too.
One recalls that in ancient days, the rulers would not partake of food unless they were convinced that all their subjects had their daily bread. This should be the ideal behind ensuring food security for the country.
Of course, this means that the state should pay much more attention to agriculture than it does today. As Prof Swaminathan told The Times of India on Independence Day eve this year, in an interview published in August 15 issue of the newspaper, Independent India became free with famines and she continues to suffer from this scourge. Much, much more has to be done in order to raise production and productivity of food grains crops.
Covering agriculture for the national daily this scribe was associated with, he used to write often that the production of food grains in India would be something like 240 to 250 million tones a year. Ten years into the 21st century, we are yet to reach the figure of 240 million tones a year. No wonder we are still a hungry nation. This fact alone could spur us into suggesting that agriculture should become a concurrent subject in our constitution.
In the last ten years, about ten million children have been born in India. It is the duty of the state to feed all of them. These children do not understand what is a Union List, a State List or a Concurrent List in the Constitution of India. If they are born in India, they have the right to food and it is the duty of the state to feed them. They are assets of the nation. This principle should be adopted towards tackling hunger.
By Arabinda Ghose
The continuing recourse to finance and technology has meant that progress in agriculture for India is measured now in terms of increase in gross capital formation in agriculture as a proportion of agricultural GDP which, Pawar pointed out, “has gone up from 14.1% in 2004-05 to 21.3% in 2008-09”. Who has been responsible for such capital formation, has it in fact taken place on the one and two-hectare farm plots which up to 50% of farming households actually cultivate on, how much of this capital formation is corporate and includes logistics and food processing infrastructure—these are questions sidestepped by both concerned ministries and India’s national agricultural research system, run by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR).
They ought not to be so ignored, especially when there has been for each of the last five years greater evidence of not only rise in the prices of food staples but also stagnation of incomes for cultivator households. What impact does a steady rise in the prices of a typical food basket have on the rural consumer? The 61st round of the National Sample Survey (July 2004 to June 2005) provided state per capita averages for consumption of basic food items over a 30-day period. Using this data as a baseline, the impact on quantities consumed becomes clearer, and also helps explain some of the coping strategies resorted to, by rural households with 10%-20% of the rural poverty line.
■ In 2004-05 in Andhra Pradesh, the rural per capita cereals consumption for a 30-day period was 12.03 kilos. At the time this cost the consumer Rs 113.60. The NSS reported in 2006-07 that per capita rural expenditure on cereals had risen to Rs 118 in the state. By mid-2010 the price for 12.03 kg of rice in Andhra Pradesh was Rs 240—212% up. Similarly, increases in the per capita 30-day price for cereals in some other states are: in Bihar (13.16 kg at Rs 112.98) up by 210%; in Maharashtra (10.49 kg at Rs 82.36) up by 255%; in Rajasthan (12.68 kg at Rs 85.58) up by 274%.
■ In 2004-05 in Rajasthan, the rural per capita pulses consumption for a 30-day period was 0.5 kilo. This had then cost the rural consumer Rs 11.54. By mid-2010 the retail price for this amount of pulses in Rajasthan was Rs 22.25—193% up. Similarly, increases in the per capita 30-day price for pulses in some other states are: in Andhra Pradesh (0.7 kg at Rs 19.36) up by 150%; in Bihar (0.7 kg at Rs 16.43) up by 202%; in Maharashtra (0.87 kg at Rs 22.44) up by 211%.
■ In 2004-05 in Bihar, the rural per capita consumption of milk for a 30-day period was 2.97 litres. This had then cost the rural consumer Rs 36.31. The NSS reported in 2006-07 that per capita rural expenditure on milk had risen to Rs 39 in the state. By mid-2010 the retail price for this quantity of milk in Bihar was Rs 71.28—196% up. Similarly, increases in the per capita 30-day price for milk in some other states are: in Maharashtra (2.72 litres at Rs 33.25) up by 221%; in Rajasthan (9.48 litres at Rs 102.89) up by 221%; in Andhra Pradesh (3.05 litres at Rs 32.83) up by 251%.
Establishing the links between unorganised employment, the availability of safe drinking water and sanitation, housing conditions and food absorption, the Report on the State of Food Insecurity in Urban India, by the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation in 2010 said: “There is a substantial body of literature on average consumption levels in India that indicates not only low levels of per capita calorie consumption, but also a trend that reflects either stagnant or declining consumption levels over time across the various states of India.”
Whether urban poor or rural non-farm labour or agricultural labour in peri-urban regions, how is the recommended dietary allowance of the Indian Council of Medical Research met, if at all? For the youth and young adults, the food deficit is sought to be met by regular consumption of low-volume low-value packaged processed foods, usually priced at Rs 5 to Rs 10 per unit. While a generation earlier, processed food in rural areas was most commonly a packet of biscuits, today it may be a small packet of savouries or ‘farsan’, one of the many varieties of cheap confectionery, or small portions of dry baked products. These are usually in the 50 gram range, high in either sugar or salt, and the volume of their consumption contributes to the Indian processed food industry’s conviction that its sector is assured of annual growth of 14%-15%, overlooking entirely the underlying reasons for some of this consumption.
The Consumer Expenditure Survey of the 63rd round of the NSS, carried out in 2006-07, estimated that in 2006-07, just over half (50.3%) of the Indian rural population belonged to households with monthly per capita consumption expenditure (MPCE) less than Rs 580 at 2006-07 prices. It is an indication as much of the precariousness of household food security as it is of the growing income inequalities in India—both rural and urban—that the average MPCE in 2006-07 was Rs 695 in rural India and Rs 1,312 in urban India at 2006-07 prices. The corresponding average MPCE in 2005-06 (NSS 62nd round) was Rs 625 in rural India and Rs 1,171 in urban India at 2005-06 prices.
“The wholesale/retail prices are largely determined by market forces,” Prof KV Thomas, Minister of State for Agriculture, Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, said in answer to a question in the Lok Sabha on the price rise. “Different layers in the distribution channels lead to the entry of intermediaries and contribute to the high prices paid by the consumer. Lack of market integration is one of the factors that give rise to the emergence of the intermediaries.” This reply, on November 16, 2010, is part of a series of statements by the minister seeking to disconnect trading in food commodities from the rise in prices of food staples.
On November 19, 2010, in his reply to a question in the Rajya Sabha, Prof Thomas said that the volume of trade in agri-commodities in the commodity futures markets from April 1, 2009 to January 2010 had increased by 102.59%. He said the “growth in volume and value of futures trade is not necessarily because of continuous rise in prices” and added, “it would not be correct to say that the growth in the trade volume in agricultural commodities during 2009-10 was due to excessive speculation or by causing inflation or indulging in profiteering”.
Three weeks later on December 12, 2010, Prof Thomas replied to a question in the Lok Sabha: “Futures trading does not impact the price or availability of any commodity in the short-term. But in the medium or long-term price discovery process facilitates strategic action by various stakeholders including policy planners in government to augment production and imports in shortage situation and export and MSP (minimum support price) operations during surplus situation, thereby helping the consumers and producers respectively as well as stabilise the prices.” The four-year-old complaints of households all across India over rising food prices, and the lamentations of thousands of farming households over inadequate minimum support prices describes a quite different reality.
Growing commodities exchanges, encouraging market innovations, the building of infrastructure to help the movement of food (logistics) towards planned ‘mega’ food parks and sprawling modern terminal markets en route retail distribution channels, the reliance on biotechnology and mechanisation, and the diversion of India’s public national agricultural research system to serve industrial agendas—these are the focus areas in the agriculture sector for the UPA 2 government. Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, Dr Montek Singh Ahluwalia, said so bluntly on October 4, 2010 when he asked the vice-chancellors of state agricultural universities to carry out research-based projects with the help of industry. More investment in knowledge management and in diversification is needed, said Ahluwalia, falling back on the familiar and imaginary bogey of the unsatisfactory ‘growth rate’ of Indian agriculture as the driver of such action.
Still missing entirely in the strategies of the two ministries directly concerned with food production and consumption, and missing also in the sprawling national agricultural research system of India, is the recognition that decisions about the production of food lie with the producer and consumer. This is missing because control over production and distribution is sought—by government for political ends, by corporations for profit. Campaigns such as the just-concluded Kisan Swaraj Yatra have done much to reveal the true nature of the struggle over control of food production and distribution in India. Until there is a far stronger and thereby genuinely more inclusive agricultural swaraj, the burdens of rising food prices and shrinking food sovereignty must be borne by our homes and cultivators.
By Rahul Goswami