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Indian Food Crisis?

By Mukesh Ray

28 April, 2008

Most parts of developing world are reeling under severe stress of feeding its population. In last weeks we have experienced riots over food in various parts of the world; Bangladesh, Argentina, Egypt, Mozambique, Indonesia, Mexico, Dubai, Haiti, Nepal, Philippines etc, riot like situation continues in India, Pakistan, Jamaica, Yemen, Burkina Faso and Sub-Saharan Africa. Record world prices for most staple foods have led to 18% food price inflation in China, 13% in Indonesia and Pakistan, and 10% or more in Latin America, Russia and India, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO). Wheat has doubled in price, maize is nearly 50% higher than a year ago and rice is 20% more expensive, says the UN. Next week the FAO is expected to say that global food reserves are at their lowest in 25 years and that price will remain high for years.

According to FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation), the present crisis has three major reasons behind it. Firstly the increased use of Bio-fuels, which means tonnes of cereals diverted to produce ethanol and millions of hectare of land diverted under Jatropha Plantation. Secondly the increased consumption of meat, which need millions of tonnes of feed based on cereals. Thus cereals which could have fed humans are used for feeding cattle and poultry to produce meat. Thirdly the impact of climate change on the crops, severe droughts, floods and untimely rains have destroyed crops in huge quantities.

Government of India is using the same logic to explain the present price rise and reduced food stocks. But reality of course is just opposite to it. Our production has not declined till now (we might experience low production in the khariff, due to untimely rain), we hardly produce any biofuel and our per capita meat consumption is below one kg, which is one of the lowest in the world (it is 50 kg for US). So the question remains intact; why is the price of cereals rising?

The answer lies in the intentions and policies of the government. Allowing MNCs to enter into the food market, and freezing the minimum support price of cereals have forced the farmers to sell their products to these large corporations. In the mean while the Essential Commodities Act was systemically weakened so that government control over food loosens. Now the situation is so that there is enough food in the nation but millions are starving and the price rise has forced many more millions to cut on their food consumption. At the same time we are importing wheat from US which is almost double the price we have given to our farmers. All this is leading to an upward surge in future commodities market further leading to the price rise.

If the problem is created, there will be manufactured solutions as well. There are raids conducted on small hoarders which hardly will have any impact on the price rise. But the man behind the green revolution comes again with an answer, and obviously it is an "Evergreen Revolution" (ER).

With the blatant failure of green revolution, the policy makers have nowhere to hide. Most of the agricultural regions which were the centres of green revolution have now become centres of farmer suicide. Most of the land quality has deteriorated beyond repair; water levels have reached danger marks, farmers are suffering from cancer and the input cost in farming has risen above output cost. The revolution has died and has killed thousands of farmers with it, and millions more are in a position to take their lives. The revolution, which lived short, was a technological patchwork to a social problem existing in Indian society since long. Both the problems of access to food and low productivity could have been structurally resolved by successful land redistribution. The option chosen was scientific and derailed the naxalbari movement, as it could provide food to the poor for a few more decades.

The era of green revolution is over but the policy makers are not ready to accept the fact that they cannot hide anymore behind the curtains of technological solutions for problems that need mass social changes and political will. The land movements in past few years have shown that the existing problem is going to get exacerbated in future and price rise is adding fuel to it. Any attempt to force Evergreen revolution to the eastern and central India will have severe outcome. The time has come when some serious structural changes are required to resolve the food crisis. Any trader, including MNCs must not be allowed to stock huge piles of grains, and the control should be taken back by FCI. As a long term solution land re-distribution and organic farming are the way forward towards a sustainable farming, as they are the only option available to provide gainful livelihood to millions and healthy food to the nation.

Mukesh Ray, After completing his masters in Scoial Work from TISS, Mumbai, in 2006, have been working as a researcher with an NGO named Navdanya. He has worked on the issues of SEZs, land acquisition, corporate entry in retail and food. He works on policy related issue by doing researches, advocacy and activism.

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