June 21, 2012

Irony runs its play every year in India as food grains rot in godowns while 23 crore people go hungry every day. GOI Monitor talks to food and trade policy analyst Devinder Sharma on the issues stalking agriculture and public distribution   

Q. One of the reasons for surplus food not reaching the needy is that states are not picking up the grain. Why is this happening?

Food grain procurement and distribution is a shared responsibility. Centre supports the states financially when they pick up the grain and states pitch in by bearing a component of the price subsidy. Now the states want the payment beforehand while Centre says it will be delivered later.

States don't really have the finances to undertake this activity. Because of this dilly-dallying the states don't show keenness in procuring the grains. Also, many states don't really want the grains. For instance, people in north eastern states don't eat wheat, so why should the states procure it? A food minister told me once that some of the north eastern states actually sell a large portion of their share in Delhi itself.

Q. Can increasing minimum support price (MSP) for coarse grains and pulses help deal with the issue of food security?

Price definitely has a role to play but it is not the only component that should be looked into. If a good support price could be the only factor, we would have solved the problem years ago. In India, we have only four crops for which there is assured market- wheat, rice, cotton and sugarcane. This is the reason why farmers keep on investing in these crops and all attempts of diversification fail.

We import 2-2.5 Millon Tonne (MT) of pulses every year. Our production of pulses has been hovering around 14-16 MT for last 40 years. Though the procurement price for pulses has gone up, there are not enough buyers who offer that price and farmers are forced to go for distress sale. The difference is, in case of wheat and rice, Food Corporation of India steps in if price falls below the MSP but there is no such mechanism for other crops. If we want to increase production in a sustained manner, we need to have mandis. I am so happy to hear that UP has started building more than 2,000 mandis because earlier crops from UP, including wheat, was flowing into Haryana's mandis in lure of assured price. Just two things need to be done to support farming:

Every state should have a network of mandis and every state should have adequate storage facility at local level. In 1979, the Indian government had started a remarkable campaign promising 50 silos of 1 MT capacity each across the country. Just imagine if this had been done by now we would have solved the problem of hunger and there would not have been any transportation cost too. Though we have PDS shops across the country but the food supply is through central system. Local production, local procurement and local distribution should be our moto. Chattisgarh has done very well on this front. It's a classic example of how production can be multiplied by increasing the capacity of the state to procure and distribute locally. Other states also need to be more imaginative than being dependent on the Centre.

Q. You are against export of food grains since we have not been able to feed our population. But since the food is rotting anyways, should not we sell it and at least earn some foreign reserve?

We have a deficiency in the system which is why the food is not reaching the people. Once we allow the export, this inadequacy will only intensify. It's responsibility of the government to address this issue rather than going for an easy way out.

Q. Why do you think green revolution turned out to be such a big success?

There were multiple factors for increase in production after the green revolution. Besides the use of fertilisers, the area under cultivation expanded, there was an increase in irrigation network and introduction of technology. All these factors have been studied in great detail but another important thing which has been left out is how the whole package was developed to sustain this production.

Assured price mechanism was developed so even if there was abundant production, farmers were confident of earning at least the minimum support price. Despite all its minuses, FCI has done a good job in not only ensuring procurement but also creating a market for the produce. If before green revolution, we could have put in place this system of assured price and assured market, probably we could have managed to touch the same production levels.

Q. There has been lot of talk about organic farming giving as much yield as chemical farming. Why then it hasn't picked up?

There are a couple of reasons for organic not picking up the way it should. Most farmers are still not convinced that once they stop using fertilisers, the yield will not decline. Also, they have got addicted and have forgotten to farm in the traditional, organic manner. To promote organic, we need to employ the same strategy we used for chemical farming. If the whole state machinery and agriculture universities start promoting organic farming, we will see a lot of change.

Sadly, the effort that was put in to promote chemical-based agriculture is not seen in organic Also, if there can be a subsidy for hybrid seeds and fertilisers, why not for traditional seeds and organic manure? The government has tilted the balance in favour of chemical farming through incentives. There is also a need to offer initial support to farmers who want to shift to organic. In US, much of the subsidy support for agriculture goes to farmers who shift to organic farming. Why can't India also take similar steps? More importantly, agriculture universities have not focussed on non-chemical success stories.

Q. Are the policy makers not aware of the successes of organic farming?

I don't think they are unaware. In Andhra Pradesh, a government programme in support of organic farming occupies 35 lakh hectare. All crops are being grown there and the productivity levels have not gone down. There has been improvement in the state of environment, ground water level, health of people and food is also reaching the needy. However, policy makers are not interested in taking lessons from there. The planning commission does not want to promote organic because this will lead to dip in sale of fertilisers which add to GDP.

Q. The input cost of farming has been on rise. Do you think this will help in a long run as farmers will eventually shift from highly-expensive chemical-based farming to organic?

Everything has its benefits. Today the farmers need fertilisers and with the government de-controlling cost of DAP, its price has doubled. This is leading to decline in usage and inturn imbalance in soil nutrient as urea is picking up and phosphorous is going down. But yes I agree, farmers can shift to non-chemical practices in the long run as it worked in Brazil. At one point of time, Brazil was not providing subsidy on costly nitrogen fertilisers  and farmers went in for traditional methods. Instead of going down, the production of sugarcane and soyabean shot up and Brazil became one of the biggest exporters of these two crops.

Q. Many states offer power subsidy to draw already-depleted ground water. What can be solution to this?

There is no denying the fact that we need to rationalise the subsidy. For instance, in Punjab, why should rich farmers also get this incentive? Water is a complex issue because we consider it as available for free consumption and hence are not able to put a value on it. I am not saying we need to go for the World Bank's formulae of pricing the water, but something needs to be done. Around 40 per cent of country's wheat and 60 per cent of rice come from Punjab. Each kilogram of rice consumes 5,000 litre of water while a kilogram of wheat sucks up 2,000-3,000 litre water. So, Punjab is actually exporting its water. The state has to re-orient its cropping pattern so that there is fall in water usage.

System of Rice Intensification (SRI) is an excellent method to grow rice with minimum water but where is the will to promote it? There is a study that by 2020 Punjab will face severe crunch of groundwater. It should have created panic but nobody seems to be bothered. Instead, the cultivated area under water-intensive crops like sugarcane has been on the rise despite the fact that sugarcane requires five times as much water as wheat and rice. We need a cropping pattern based on every state's sustainable level of water requirement rather than going about it blindly.