Food for thought

The political establishment is yet to wake up to the fact that foodgrain production will not keep up with rising demand leading to massive food crisis in the country

MR Sivaraman Delhi

Is India heading towards a serious food crisis in the coming years?

The whispers in the corridors of power indicate an anxiety about such prospects. This is because there has been no growth in the production of foodgrain. In 2003-04, agricultural production peaked at 213.19 million tonnes of foodgrain. This year, barring sugarcane, all other agricultural crops have shown a high level of production. But this is no source of comfort, as the graphs of production and demand trends paint a different picture.

GS Bhalla and others in a paper for the International Food Policy Institute Washington DC (1999) have projected a demand for foodgrain at a modest 257.3 million tonnes in 2020. But India was not growing at this pace in 1999. With rising income levels, notwithstanding the changing pattern of consumption, the demand for foodgrain would definitely exceed 253 million tonnes in the current phase.

The figures relating to agriculture in the RBI Handbook of Statistics on the Indian economy (2006-07) should cause concern. The area under foodgrain has declined from a peak of 107 million hectares in 1983-84 to a little over 100 million hectares in 2006-2007. The decline is in the area under cultivation of coarse cereals, with no corresponding increase in area under wheat or paddy. The area under groundnut has declined sharply from over 8.67 million hectares in 1990-91 to 5.8 million hectares in 2006-2007. However, the area under soyabean has increased to 8.15 million hectares from 3.18 million hectares during the same period. The yield under sugarcane has been fluctuating around 66 tonnes per hectare, whereas it touched 71 tonnes per hectare in 2000-01.

Productivity is still hovering around 3,123 kg per hectare of paddy as against over 6,265 kg in China. In the case of wheat, China produces 4,455 kg per hectare as against 2,618 kg per hectare in India.

There is something fundamentally wrong in the implementation of agricultural schemes. Plan expenditure under agriculture and allied services has gone up from Rs 2,650 crore in 1998-99 to an estimated Rs 8,369 crore in 2007-08. To this has to be added the thousands of crores that the states spend on agriculture, irrigation and power for agriculture. In the last three years alone, credit to agriculture has more than doubled. Where have all these thousands of crores gone? The truth is, there has been no tangible result in terms of increase in agricultural production or productivity.

Why has Parliament not debated on such an important issue? There are scores of reports on agriculture and the plight of farmers, but they have merited little attention in Parliament. MPs and state legislatures are expected to keep a watch on how the bureaucracy implements programmes in the field and question them if they have failed. This does not seem to have happened.

Tamil Nadu claims it is in the forefront in development. However, its statistics relating to agriculture are depressing. The production of rice, the staple diet of Tamilians, has gone down from 6,893 thousand tonnes in 1997-98 to 5,220 thousand tonnes in 2005-06 — almost a 25 per cent fall. Coarse cereals have performed even worse with production falling from 1,662 thousand tonnes in 1987-88 to 730 thousand tonnes in 2005-06. This has resulted in an overall decline of around 30 per cent in the production of foodgrain from the level obtained in 1994-95. In contrast, Punjab and Haryana have managed to maintain production levels and Gujarat has shown an increase. If production has stagnated, what happened to all those resources spent on agriculture? Why has the CAG not done a performance audit of amounts spent on agricultural development schemes in the states?

The perfunctory approach to agricultural development is revealed by the introduction to the operational guidelines on the National Food Security Mission launched on May 29, 2007. It talks about increasing the production of rice by 10 million tones, wheat by 8 million tonnes and pulses by 2 million tonnes by 2011-12. It does not state on what basis this increase will be achieved. It has identified over a 100 districts in the country for focused attention. It talks about the scale of assistance under each programme but it does not state how widespread effect will be achieved. If 10 demo plots are laid under each of the missions, it will certainly benefit the farmers. It is silent as to how to spread the message and through what incentives in the absence of a proper extension framework on the ground.

During the Green Revolution, when block development agencies were functioning and collectors were held responsible for development schemes, there was perceptible impact on agricultural production. The blocks have now all but ceased to exist. Local bodies are more concerned with local politics and are not answerable to anybody. Under the World Bank-funded National Agricultural Extension Project, there was a hierarchical extension down to the village level — assisting the farmer through the Green Revolution. With the World Bank project ending in the late 1980s, the states almost wound up the set-up.

In a policy paper of 2000 on agricultural extension, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) has succinctly brought out the need to strengthen extension suiting modern day needs. In Tamil Nadu, there is a joint director level officer at the district headquarters and an assistant director at the taluka level with hardly anybody in place at the block level and none at the village level. Recently, there was an agitation by hundreds of agricultural graduates seeking employment.

With new technologies, newer variety of seeds and changing patterns of rainfall calling for a different rotation of crops, the farmer has nowhere to go for advice. Hundreds of crores are being spent in Tamil Nadu distributing free colour television sets, all for pork-barrel politics, caring little for agricultural extension that is badly needed. How does the government of India hope to implement National Food Security Mission schemes with hardly any extension staff in the field?

According to FAO data, an Indian consumes an average of 200 kg of food grain per year, as against 300 kg in China. One would expect demand to grow with growing income levels as people at low income levels would, instead of one meal a day, have at least two. Will India import its foodgrain and squander the food security it enjoyed for decades?

There are many reports and commissions. Somebody should fix responsibility for failures to implement schemes, punish those who were responsible and fix responsibility for implementation. And yet, the National Food Security Mission has been launched without looking at the ground realities. Is it not time for Parliament to constitute a committee to monitor the implementation of schemes on the agricultural front before India goes hungry?

There is talk of a paradigm change in agriculture by throwing it open to the private sector, which is possible only by repealing all the land reform laws passed 50 years ago to protect the interests of farmers. Would economic reforms and pro-liberalisation lobbies go to this extent, antagonising over 50 per cent of India's population when they are meeting stiff resistance against industrialists who want to usurp thousands of acres of land?

Union Finance Minister P Chidambaram has been lamenting the failure of the delivery system in India, but then, who is responsible? Is it only the bureaucracy and not the Union ministers and chief ministers who are busy in desig-ning novel gift schemes at the cost of the exchequer to short-change gullible voters?

The biggest failure of successive governments both at the Centre and in the states in the last one decade is that they have not cared for result-oriented governance. A GDP growth of nine per cent will not mean anything if a nation becomes dependent on imports for its food. It is time to wake up before it is too late.


The writer is former Revenue Secretary, Government of India, and former Executive Director, IMF