Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The crisis that isn’t

- Archana Kulkarni (M.A. Economics,I Year)

The parched earth and cloudless skies reveal the all too familiar story of agriculture in India – that of gross neglect by the powers that be, whether of government or of nature. Despite achieving self-sufficiency in food grain production and famines becoming a distant memory, droughts continue to evoke fears of food scarcity and starvation. With the monsoon proving deficient yet again, speculation is rife regarding the adequacy of food grain stocks in the country. 246 districts from several of the less developed states in the country have been declared drought-affected. The government has made efforts to keep the rumormongers at bay financially, materially and through repeated assurances that the reserves of food grains will see the nation safely through a difficult period. However, the words ‘food crises’ continue to strike fear deep in the hearts of those who live a hand- to-mouth existence.  

Is the fear of an impending food crisis justified? The answer to the question is quite simply ‘no’. The government has adequate reserves, amounting to a quarter of the total quantity of cereals produced in the country, riding on bumper production of rice and wheat in the preceding two years. The Public Distribution System will ensure that the poor are not hard hit by deficient food production. The ‘food crisis’ as it were is non-existent; but the truth cannot quite be captured in the simple ‘no’ stated above.  

Food scarcity is an unlikely prospect at best. The drought has raised concern largely because it coincides with the beginning of a slow recovery from the global economic crisis and food prices have been rising for some time now. Although inflation has declined to reasonable levels, the prices of essential food items like pulses, vegetables and sugar continue to remain high. The latter could be attributed to the heavy weightage of food items in the inflation indices but this is little consolation for the common man.  The drought and poor kharif crop mean that farmers’ incomes will take a severe beating and this may lead to farmer distress, spiraling into indebtedness. Agricultural labourers will bear the brunt of the deficient monsoon, deprived of employment and income. These labourers could take recourse to employment in the unorganized sector; however, the consideration of this alternative would indicate their desperation and the exhaustion of all other survival strategies.

Consumers comprise the third party affected by the drought, mainly on account of rising prices. This impacts low income groups who spend a majority of their earnings on food. The PDS, it is important to note, is not a universal system but a targeted one. Families with threshold income levels are not covered under the PDS despite the fact that high food prices could push such families beyond the threshold into poverty.  The answer to the question - ‘Is the fear that of an impending food crisis justified?’ would then be contingent upon one’s position in the economy and the resources one commands.  

The main crisis at present is not so much one of food but of agriculture. The deficiency of the monsoon has been larger than previously and being the second drought in less than a decade makes it a grave portent. The effects of climate change are palpable. The unreliable monsoons, alarming declines in groundwater levels and levels in sub-surface aquifers, and glacial meltdown have doomsayers predicting water shortages by 2050. Unsustainable patterns of water usage in the country are compounded by the subsidized provision of water and electricity, which only contribute to such usage. The fast disappearing forest cover can only accentuate our growing predicament. Agriculture, subject to the vagaries of the monsoon, must become the symbol of the process of climate change.  

Besides climate change, several fact-ors may cause a food crisis in the long run. These include growing demand for food from growing and more prosperous populations, lifestyle-induced dietary changes towards greater consumption of meat (translating into food grains being used for rearing animals). In the recent past the diversion of corn and land for the production of bio-fuels such as ethanol, leading to rising food prices and shortage of food, became a matter of heated debate. In the competition between energy and food prices picking a winner is no rocket science. Given these factors, the food crisis seems inevitable unless measures are taken to stem the tide of forces antagonistic to food production. India must look to invest in agriculture, encourage alternative cropping patterns, crop diversification, sustainable water utilization and management and improve weather monitoring systems. These measures could go a long way in ensuring food security and eliminating the specter of drought or famine. Food security must be viewed from the perspective of ensuring adequate levels of nourishment given India’s abysmal record in this sphere, rivaling that of sub-Saharan Africa. The food crisis must be taken as a challenge to direct our energies towards the transformation of agriculture, not in the interest of electoral results, or even food security, but in the interest of agriculture itself.

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