Food Security: Inconceivable without agricultural growth

March 18th, 2011 - 6:09 pm ICT by ANI  

Manmohan Singh By Rajendra Singh

Lucknow, Mar 18 (ANI): The Budget season is in full swing and allocations for various sectors being hotly debated upon both by policy makers and the public at large.

What is important to remind ourselves, is that where this will lead this country of over one billion, facing challenges of balancing economic growth with social justice and equity.

Food Security has moved from an issue of the poor and hungry and those who advocate their cause to the high-priority agenda of the political leadership. Given the widely divergent perspectives of the Public Distribution System (PDS) between the recommendation of the Rangarajan Committee and the National Advisory Council (NAC), this issue assumes critical importance.

Currently, Uttar Pradesh procures 30 per cent of India’s grain production or 42 million tonnes. If the NAC recommendations to extend the coverage to 46 per cent of rural and 28 per cent of urban population were implemented, the requirement would go up to 71.76 million tonnes.

The question is where will all this come from? The answer is also as clear. Agriculture needs far more attention than it has been getting. On it is based not only the livelihoods of 60 per cent of our population, but the challenge of meeting the food security needs of this country.

The Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, in his address to the nation on Independence Day, noted the growth of the agricultural sector over the last few years, but lamented that this was far below what was required. A four per cent increase in the sector was what was needed to contribute significantly to the nation’s economic growth.

Yet, agriculture continues to be beset with a multitude of problems, which lie sadlyunaddressed. Let us take the immediate situation of high prices of food grains.

The year 2006 registered a record low production of wheat, a staple. The following year, 2007, in response to the crises, a slew of measures were announced by the Central Government with a view to protect the large sections of society, who would typically be vulnerable to the phenomenon. Indeed, Food Security as a high-priority agenda for the political establishment came to be during this time.

Union Minister for Agriculture Sharad Pawar has made some optimistic predictions and says total food grain output is expected to be 232.07 million tones marginally lower than 234.47 in 2008-09. Despite crop damage due to drought, Pawar attributes growth in agriculture to focused intervention through Rashtriya Krishi Vigyan Yojana; National Food Security Mission; Accelerated Pulses Production Programme and availability of higher credit.

This is an interesting interface between the Centre and State Governments. In a way, theCentral Government programme can be seen as an engine, generating heat and light, which then need to ‘pull’ state level initiatives into a forward movement.

Interestingly, this forward movement is in the direction of strengthening agriculture, again a ’state’ subject. It equally drives home the point that nothing can be achieved without the state government and further down to the district and block level mechanisms ‘buying into’ the concept. There has been another interesting theory, which economists have called attention to.

The runaway inflation of essential items is attributed to the spurt in demand of ’superior’ foods like milk, eggs, pulses, vegetables and fruits. This reflects a growing prosperity of the people and a demand beyond the basic ‘food grains’ typically associated with ‘Food Security’ in this country.

This can be linked to the path-breaking Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA), which is said to have lifted sizable numbers from poverty and given them the means to indeed access these superior foods. This trend would call for a higher agricultural growth to meet the enhanced demands. It is against this context that one needs to view the situation on the ground vis a vis agriculture. The signs are disturbing with shrinking agricultural land; most of it still rainfed and thus severely compromised for lack of effective and widespread irrigational system.

This does not bode well for a nation that is grappling to overcome its hunger andmalnutrition. The problems are actually multi-dimensional and there seems to be a foundational flaw in not only what we have inherited in the agricultural sector, but also what we are planning.

Farming practices remained mired in stagnancy and low productivity. There is lack of ways of dissemination of knowledge and best practices amongst the farming community. This could include trends about the market for their produce, tips they would need to get a remunerative rate.

It is important to provide the farmer with all the inputs that he requires for cultivation,which also means subsidies for seeds, fertilizers, and power. Yet, the new Budget reflects an under provisioning of food, oil and fertilizer subsidies, which stands at Rs. 20,000 crore less than the current year. Then, there are infrastructual requirements like storage facilities; cold chains for specific agricultural produce equally fall in the priority area.

Awareness and solutions to problems of pests, diseases, and technological breakthroughs in farming practices are equally important. Storage facilities, which were widely perceived to be the one of the root causes of the disastrous situation of ‘rotting food grains’, still remain grossly inadequate. An additional 15 million tonnes of storage capacity is required even now, before a more widespread and enhanced requirement comes into being.

Juxtaposed as this was with millions of hungry mouths in the country, it presented a system gone horribly wrong. The situation still continues and is seen as perhaps the single-most serious impediment to Food Security in the country.

The production of fruits and vegetables over the last five to ten years has seen a growth, but too problems persist. Being a faster degradable item much is lost in transit, which becomes a burden for the cultivator immediately, but eventually finds its way out through higher prices for the consumer. It is laudable that the Budget proposes to have allocations for food grain storage and silos as well as incentives for cold chains.

What needs to be understood clearly that tackling the problems of agriculture is thebasis of meeting the challenge of ‘Food Security and Malnutrition’ that the country isgrappling with. The challenge is daunting and calls upon the government to have their earto the ground and come up with timely, sensitive and effective responses. The StateGovernments in particular need to be fully up to the task of ensuring that the farmers getthe best environment to enhance productivity.

The Central Government of course has a pivotal role setting the agenda for agricultural growth and evolving policies to ensure that it stays a priority. In effect, both the Centre and State Governments need to work in tandem to actualize the goal of four per cent, perhaps more growth in this crucial sector. (ANI)

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