Where are we heading to on the hunger front?
by K P Prabhakaran Nair on 03 Jun 2015 1 Comment

The report card on the annual performance of the Modi government during the year past is out, and the “experts” have made their commentaries. Conspicuously, hardly any touched upon the deficiency of the Modi government on the agricultural front. The warning bells have rung, and, yet again, India has fallen by the wayside on the hunger front. Data in the following table calls for much attention, at the same time, much concern.


Table 1. Top ten undernourished countries


Hungry by millions



















North Korea                                                               


Source: Latest FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation, Rome) data


The Millennium Development Goals (MDG) targetted reduction of hunger by half by 2015. We are in the middle of the year, and yet, we are the hungriest in the world, with 194.6 million out of a total of 1.2 billion, plus minus, that is, 17 out of 100 Indians go to bed each night with a hungry belly. This is a shame after the country having had its run on the so-called green revolution for more than three-and-a half-decades, which is supposed to have produced “surplus” food. Where has the “surplus” gone? China, our big neighbour, has done much better, with a total population of 1.3 billion, plus minus.


This calls for some deep introspection. Is there something fundamentally wrong with the way the “powers-that-be” are practicing Indian agriculture? If one looks at world history, every nation which is at the forefront of economic and industrial progress, first laid a strong foundation for agriculture. The classic examples are the United States (North America, Canada included) and Europe.


Post-independence, Nehru was in a very great hurry to industrialise India, because he was enamoured of the “progress’ made by the US and the Soviet Union, and he chose the Soviet Model with disastrous consequences, so much so that Indira Gandhi was literally forced to go to Washington with a begging bowl; what followed was the ignominious PL 480. Only during a brief period under Lal Bahadur Shastri did agriculture receive some importance. His clarion call “Jai Jawan Jai Kisan” still resonates in public memory.


My concern is: is Modi making a terrible mistake neglecting agriculture? Alternatively, is there none close enough to advise him on the crucial place of agriculture in the Indian economy? It is not by coincidence that a close scrutiny of the membership of the NITI Aayog, which has his handpicked “experts”, there is none with a clear vision for Indian agriculture? Look at the mess we already have on hand.


At the beginning of the UPA 1 in 2004, one of its first moves was to put in place a National Commission on Farmers (NCF), which made the suggestion that the minimum support price (MSP) given to farmers should be 50 per cent more than the “weighted” average of the cost of production, whatever it means. Whatever the technical merit or demerit of the suggestion, it was an incentive to the farmer which the current dispensation in South Block is dispensing with.


This author strongly believes that meddling with the MSP is no real answer to the maladies which plague Indian agriculture. One hears and reads a lot on the so-called “Land Bill”, which is in limbo. I have more often than not felt that the planners and “powers-that-be” must have a drastic change in the mindset and should not make the grievous mistake equating all “land” as “soil”. As of now, India does not have any “breakthrough” technology available on the shelf to bring about a real increase in food production.


My fundamental question is: why are so many Indians hungry? If, indeed, the position which the green revolution enthusiasts have taken all the past decades, namely, that India has produced “surplus” food, has any merit, why are so many hungry? Alternatively, is it not that food does not come cheap anymore? Go to the villages and see.


A critical assessment of the partitioning of the daily budget of a rural household will show that more than 50 per cent of its daily income is spent just on food, primarily, staples like rice and wheat; supplementary vegetables, meat and eggs, come as “luxuries”. India’s production lags far behind demand. I have keenly watched how the Chinese succeeded in reducing the numbers of hungry – it has been a combination of a very sensible population policy (one child norm) combined with intelligent use of the soil. Yet, go to the “cradle” of the green revolution – Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh – and you will see that there are thousands of acres of degraded soils where it is difficult to grow even a blade of grass – all thanks to the mindless use of soil resources.


If one carefully observes how the Indian economy has performed over the years, it will become very evident that whenever there was a good monsoon, and the farmers harvested a bountiful crop, there was an upswing in Indian economy because, more food grains in the hands of farmers meant more purchasing power and consequently an upswing in manufactured and other fast moving goods. With a merciless summer leaving thousands dead in north, western and central India, and an ominous El Nino waiting to happen, one can only keep one’s fingers crossed. Only the rain Gods can save Modi and the Indian economy. The slogan “Make in India” must be rephrased as “Make More Food in India”.  


The latest newspaper headline news that India pipped China on the GDP at 7.5 per cent is no reason for euphoria, because, first of all, it is just for the Quarter 4 (the last quarter of the financial year past, and the methodology used has been changed and is also in question). Two, one can say for sure that we are the leading Asian nation in economic growth only when India beats China for the entire financial year, not just in the last quarter. That is yet to happen, and the GDP also shows that while manufacturing has taken off, the farm front is nose diving, which is cause for much alarm.         

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