Indian politicians must be the most shameless in the world. The way they pounced on lameduck US president George W Bush for saying that Indian consumption was creating the food crisis was worthy of an Oscar. Indians eating more would actually be cause for celebration because hundreds of millions of them do not even eat one square meal a day. But they don’t, not because of Bush, but because of our political and bureaucratic leaders who have run a system where the agriculture of an incredibly gifted country remains mired in perennial crisis. As the latest Economic Survey notes, the per capita availability of cereals and pulses was less than half a kilogram a day in the mid- 1950s, and it remains the same today. In fact, the daily availability of pulses has actually gone down from 65 grams in the first five years of the republic, to 32 in the last five.
Bush’s remark that the growth of the Indian middle class contributed to the food crisis, though overstated and off- target, was merely the stuff of politicians. This is election year in the US and there has been not only an unprecedented increase in prices of rice and wheat across the US, but even rationing. Last month some big chains in California actually instituted an informal policy of selling two rice bags per customer. The Bush Administration’s wrongheaded decision to promote biofuel based on corn by subsidising US farmers has played a significant role in the current crisis. But the problems in India have a uniquely Indian dimension. For the record, though most of the rice and wheat we eat is grown in India, since the mid- 1990s India has been the world’s largest market for edible oils and pulses.
The question that needs to be asked of our leadership viz, the political class, is why a country blessed with such bountiful land — India has more arable and irrigated land than China — should have to rely on importing these commodities. Indeed, had Indian farm productivity in cereals and pulses been even half of that of countries like the US and China, we could have been the breadbasket of the world. Indian agriculture has failed to deliver. In rice and wheat, our production just manages to keep ahead of demand, and we need to import pulses and edible oils because our domestic production is pathetic. Yields have not grown for a decade or more primarily because the sector has got little support from the “ system” run by these same politicians. The system, of course, means our government — union and state, their institutions such as ministries, agricultural universities, laboratories and agricultural extension services. Agricultural scientists made a great advance when C Subramaniam appointed Dr BP Pal as head of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in the place of an IAS officer in 1964, but today, the government agricultural science establishment which played a heroic role in our Green Revolution, has become a bureaucracy. Over the past decades a great legacy has been allowed to decay. Hybrid seeds require constant development and innovation — the function of the massive agricultural science set- up that was created in the Green Revolution years. But these institutions have let the country down despite the fact that government investment in agricultural research went up from Rs 3,300 crores in 1997- 98 to Rs 6,800 crores in 2001- 02.
Despite its current distempers, the Indian achievement in agriculture has been considerable. As The Economist points out, with just 3 per cent of the world’s land, we are feeding 17 per cent of its people. Indian food consumption has changed a great deal since the grim 1960s. People are eating more vegetables, meat and milk products. When I was a young child of a definitely middle- class family living in Almora in the 1950s, milk, eggs and even refined sugar were a rarity. But today, among the cheaper foods in the market are milk products and eggs. India is the world’s top producer of milk and vegetables. But the bald fact is that 30 per cent of our population lives on $ 1 per day and does not exercise many choices when it comes to diet; life is hand- to- mouth and often minus even the most basic of cereals. Our failure is not only that we have not lived up to our potential, but that we have displayed our abilities and then allowed them to wither. Mocking at the American diets may give us some cheap satisfaction, but it does little to assuage the hunger of many of our people. Historically, government policy focuses on three areas — rice, wheat and sugarcane production. Government policy provides support prices for wheat and rice and and for the cost of storing a huge buffer stock. The government also subsidises fertilisers, power, and irrigation. The subsidy bill of around $ 13 billion easily exceeds the $ 4 billion of public and private investment in the sector. The support price programme does not cover other crops and neither does it encourage farmers to diversify. The rising subsidies, all provided courtesy our politicians, have actually played a major role in stunting investment in the agriculture sector. The lack of incentives has led to an underdeveloped market system and iaadequate processing facilities. Marketing chains involve several intermediaries and as it is, rural infrastructure is so shoddy that it fails on almost every count — irrigation facilities, seed availability, roads, storage and processing facilities. So there is huge waste and the producer ends up getting only about a quarter of the price paid by consumers. Politicians who profess outrage at Bush also lack knowledge of history. Twice in the past 60 years, the United States has played a major role in saving hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives in this country by intervening in our food situation. In 1951, an emergency loan enabled India to import 2 million tonnes of wheat from the US. This was the beginning of the process that culminated in the 1960s when millions of tonnes of US food exports to India under PL 480 staved off famine from most parts of the country. Many will say that the aid was aimed at getting rid of American surpluses; it probably was. But a hungry man does not care, food is first of all food. You may quibble about motive, but American generosity has saved millions of lives in post- war Europe, India and elsewhere. Around the same time, assistance from the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, and the US government helped trigger what came to be known as the “ Green Revolution” in India. Dr Norman Borlaug visited India in 1963 along with 100 kg of seeds which were planted in a number of test locations. The first evidence of success was the Indian wheat harvest of 16.5 million tonnes in 1968, compared with 11.3 million tonnes in 1967. The Pantnagar Agricultural University was set up in July 1959 on the basis of a report by Dr H. W. Hannah; another university inspired similarly by the American land- grant institutions was set up in Ludhiana in 1962. These institutions were the first in India to combine education, research and extension work to neighbouring farming areas.
What the current crisis reveals is that, like it or not, we are part of a world system and the earlier we realise it, the better it is for our country and its people. Biofuel is not going to go away, and it is clear that as in the case of oil, the era of cheap food is over. Our political leaders need to be looking hard at this development and evolving policies that will enable India to win, rather than lose from this situation. India needs a new agricultural policy that will sharply boost productivity and incomes in the countryside. Its key components are: revitalising the agricultural sciences establishment, greater reform to provide protection for contract farming and leasing agricultural land, and additional investment, if necessary through FDI, for expertise in processing and marketing of food. Being a democratic country, politicians will necessarily be our leaders, but surely we have a right to netas with the leadership qualities to deliver.
This article appeared first in Mail Today May 9, 2008