ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Food: Dealing with the 'Excess'

Dealing with the

The facts do not appear to make ordinary sense: a huge buffer stock of 45 million tonnes of grain, a large proportion of which is being stored out in the open for want of adequate storage; export of grain at prices much below market price in the country, in order to make it saleable in the international market; disaster- affected areas chronically short of desperately needed foodgrains; and a population, large sections of which continue to be short of calories because they have no purchasing power and so register high incidence of deficiency diseases. To the experts of various kinds, each component of this mixed up picture makes sense: the stockpile has to do with somewhat unregulated high cost growth and an inefficient public distribution system which has defied repair. That Orissa's drought-affected areas and another state's flood-devastated regions do not get adequate rations is because food and matters of food security have been, for 50 years, used as give-aways by the political system to earn points in the race for power. And the fact that a large proportion of the population, an approximate 28 per cent of it even by the most optimistic computations, remains below the poverty level and is unable to purchase food – which incidentally is rotting in the country's godowns – is an almighty miscalculation. While ill health as a consequence of diseases is being tackled by a fairly well defined plan of action, deficiency diseases – or, simply, starvation – are something the system refuses to recognise and is therefore unable to tackle. It is such deliberate blindness that has resulted in nutritional anaemia continuing to affect large sections of the population, especially women, and continuing to result in high levels of maternal mortality.

But to describe this mess as resulting from sectoral myopia would be too simplistic. The problem is more basic and its roots are so well-grounded and widespread that to resolve it requires a fundamental review which discards sectoral blinkers. Through the decades, agricultural development has been viewed as a matter of applying science to old practices, of 'improving' yields, and food security as an issue which would go away with development and growth. This unintegrated development is now resulting in consequences unanticipated. Ironically, the composite picture does not seem to have influenced the solutions being sought. A parliamentary standing committee on consumer affairs, food and public distribution has recommended that over two lakh tonnes of foodgrains declared as 'damaged' be dumped in the sea to make room for the new crop. The 'excess' foodgrains are being sought to be exported at subsidised prices, contributing further to the subsidies burden. And most recently the prime minister has announced yet another scheme through which an estimated one crore families, the poorest of the poor, will be given 25 kg of grain per month – rice at Rs 2 and wheat at Rs 3 per kg. But this is hardly likely to help the Food Corporation of India manage its stocks, for the scheme, even if it is actually implemented, will use up only about three million tonnes annually. However, the fact that water mismanagement is affecting river flows, and agriculture continues to be weather-dependent means that there is no assurance of good harvests in all regions regularly. In fact, because of rainfall deficiencies in 30 of the 35 meteorological subdivisions, current predictions are that the rabi crop in most areas is likely to be poor.

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