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The Food, the Bad and the Ugly

by P. SAINATH

Mumbai

The government of India’s economic survey presented to parliament in the ongoing session shows a truly dismal foodgrain availability situation. Every year for the past seven, the country’s agriculture minister Sharad Pawar (also the boss of world cricket), stands up and announces yet another handsome rise in foodgrain production. He does so by sticking to absolute or aggregate figures. So if foodgrain production in one year was 245 million tons and 248 million the next, that’s a new ‘record.’ He’s declared about half a dozen such records in the past eight years.

The reality? The daily per capita net availability of foodgrain has been falling steadily and dangerously during the years of “economic reform” in India. If we take five-year averages for those years from 1992 to 2010 — the figure declined every five years without exception From 474.9 grams of cereals and pulses for the years of 1992-96 to 440.4 grams for the period 2007-2010 (The 2011 figure is yet to come). A fall of 7.3 per cent. There has not been a single five-year period that saw an upward blip.

What about the 20 years preceding the reforms? That is 1972-1991? The per capita availability figure rose every five-year period without exception. From 433.7 for 1972-76, to 480.3 grams in 1987-91. An increase of 10.7 per cent.

Not reaching the needy

Consider the average for the latest five years for which data are available. It was 441.4 grams for the period 2006-2010. That’s lower than the corresponding period half a century ago. It was 446.9 for the years 1956-60. Not great news for a nation where malnutrition among children under five is nearly double that of Sub-Saharan Africa’s. (A point the India Human Development Report 2011 — from a wing of the Planning Commission — concedes).

If production is rising, which it is; if the upper classes are eating a lot better, which they are; and if per capita availability keeps declining, which it does — that implies three things at least. That foodgrain is not getting to those who most need it. That the gap between those eating more and those eating less is worsening. And that food prices and incomes of the poor are less and less in sync.

It also tells us how disastrous the reforms-era policy of “targeting” through the Public Distribution System (PDS) has been. The poor have not gained from “targeting” in the PDS. They have been the targets. The “reforms” period has seen more poor and hungry people shut out of the PDS in practice. The latest budget suggests that “targeting” is about to get more ruthless. A universal PDS covering all would cost much less than what the government gives away each year in concessions to the corporate sector.

Small wonder that Agriculture Minister Pawar sticks to aggregate numbers in his claims of records. He stays with production in absolute numbers, because that’s rising. As the Big Boss of Cricket in India (and the planet) Mr. Pawar would not be satisfied with totalling up how many runs a batsman of his makes. He’d divide it by the number of innings the batter has played. He’d perhaps even look at the number of balls he faced, strike rate and so on. But when it comes to his boss role on foodgrain, aggregate figures will do. The big numbers look so nice. Why complicate things by looking at how much foodgrain is available per Indian? That too, per day or year?

Economic Survey document

For those worried about food availability, though, it matters. The highest figure for any year in our history was the 510.1 grams for 1991. That’s the year the economic reforms were launched.  Aha! Chalk one up for the reformers? Not really. The data are based on the agricultural year — i.e. July to June. So the 1991 figure corresponds to the production of July 1990 to June 1991. Manmohan Singh made his speech launching the reforms on July 24, 1991. And the average for 2010, after nearly two decades of “reforms,” was 440.4 grams.

The decline across the reforms years has been dismal. Indeed, some five-year periods in this era compare poorly even with those in the pre-Green Revolution years. For instance, 2006-10 throws up worse figures than 1956-1960. All figures from 1961 are seen in the latest Economic Survey of 2011-12. (http://indiabudget.nic.in/es2011-12/estat1.pdf See A22, 1.17. Last year’s survey has data going back to 1951.

This, of course, is the point at which someone pops up with: “It’s all due to the population. The poor breed like flies.” Is it? The compound annual growth of population (CAGR)was much higher in pre-reform decades than it is now. But the CAGR for food production was always higher and ahead of it. Even in 1961-1971, when the CAGR for population was 2.24 per cent it was 2.37 for grain production. In 2001-10, the figure for population was just 1.65 per cent. But foodgrain production lagged behind even that figure, at 1.03 per cent. (For the growth rate in foodgrain, we have not taken 2010-11 into account. We have only advance estimates for that year and these can vary quite a bit from final figures).

In all the southern states the fertility rate is either at replacement level or even below it. And the population growth rate is falling everywhere in the country, and at quite a rapid pace. Yet, per capita availability has declined. So the population claim does not fly. There may be one-off years in which the growth rate of food production (or even per capita availability) gets better, or much worse. Hence, looking at five-year or decadal averages makes more sense. And the trends those show are awful.

This is a context where foodgrain production per capita is on the decline. Where, however, the buffer stocks with the government in fact show an increasing trend. So per capita availability is in fact declining at a faster rate. It means the poor are so badly hit that they cannot buy, or have access to, even the limited grain on offer.

GHI ranking

True, this will invite yowls of rage from the Marie Antoinette School of Economics (or ‘Let-them-eat-cake’ crowd). For them the decline only shows that people now care less for cereals and pulses. They’re eating much better stuff since they’re doing so much better. So much better that we’d be lucky to reach Sub-Saharan Africa’s rate of child malnourishment in a few years. Or improve enough in the Global Hunger Index (GHI) to challenge an upstart Rwanda in a few years. Presently we rank 67 in the GHI (out of 81 countries with the worst food security status). Rwanda clocks in ahead of us at rank 60. India’s GHI value in 2011 was worse than it was 15 years before that in 1996.

We’ve spent 20 years promoting cash crops at the expense of food crops. No one knows quite how much land has been converted from the latter to the former, but it would run to millions of acres. As food crop cultivation has grown less remunerative, many have abandoned it. As farming tanks across large swathes of the country, more and more land lies fallow. The owners have given up on the idea of making a living from it. Close to seven-and-a-half million people quit farming between 1991 and 2001 (and we still await the figures for 2001-11). Two decades of policies hostile to smallholders, but paving the way for corporate control, have seen public investment in agriculture crash. No surprise then that foodgrain production is “growing” only in absolute numbers but falling at an alarming rate in per capita terms.

P. SAINATH is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, where this piece appears, and is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought. He can be reached at: psainath@vsnl.com.


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P Sainath is the founder and editor of the People’s Archive of Rural India. He has been a rural reporter for decades and is the author of ‘Everybody Loves a Good Drought.’ You can contact the author here: @PSainath_org

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