I was woken up quite early by a long distance call from Argentina on Monday. The person on the other line was a journalist from a TV network, who first apologised for probably calling up at a wrong time, and then went on to explain the reason. News reports said that China was grappling with a severe drought and it might lead to a significant shortfall in wheat production. She wanted to seek my opinion on what the Chinese crisis would mean for the developing countries, more importantly for countries in the Middle east and in India.
No sooner I had put down my phone, an sms arrived from Al Jazeera. By the time I realised that it was early morning, I had been continuously on the phone for three hours answering journalist queries. Since I had to be at the airport in a couple of hours I did apologise for not being able to come to their studios. But by the time I checked-in I had already stopped thrice on the way to give sound bites. Suddenly it appeared that the world had woken up to an insurmountable food crisis.
A day later as I scan the newspapers sitting in Mohali, in the heart of Punjab, I find that the panic I witnessed yesterday has simply disappeared. It doesn't however mean that the food crisis has been resolved. The crisis continues to grow, and with each passing month it is in fact getting worse. Perhaps you will hear about it again when some major newspaper has a lead story of the food prices spiralling somewhere where it makes more political sense.
UN FAO has been warning us for quite some time. FAO chief has time and again blamed commodity trading and food speculation to be responsible for the global food price index breaking the 2008 barrier when 37 countries, including Egypt, had faced food riots. Weather-induced crisis in Russia, Australia and now China (the world didn't know of China's drought till China decided to let the world know) has definitely made the international community to tighten belts and make necessary arrangements to tide over the crisis. But no one dares to question future trading. With $ 10 trillion at stake in commodity trading, who can dare to stand up to the power of a corrupt financial system?
Even President Obama prefers to look the other way. He thinks the more the future trading the more it will provide business oportunities for the US corporates, and that in turn will keep him in power. Only the French President Sarkozy, who is in a minority, is asking the right questions.
The Times of India reports (Feb 14, 2011): "Nervous governments across the world are trying to stem the tide in different ways. Several countries in West Asia are stocking up on food grain. Iraq, where agricultural production has declined considerably, has placed orders for 300,000 tonne of wheat from the US, with options for another 100,000 tonne. Jordan and Lebanon submitted tenders for 100,000 tonne and 22,500 tonne respectively. Algeria, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia too placed large orders recently. Others, like Russia, have banned exports. Vietnam has devalued its currency, the dong, by 9% to curb inflation."
India is luckily in a comfortable position. Wheat stocks in the godowns is currently at a high of 20 million tonnes. This is double the required norms. The wheat harvest is expected to be bumper this year, roughly 81 million tonnes. Sugar production is anticipated to be in the range of 24.5 million tonnes against the requirement of 23 million tonnes. Plus we have a carryover stock of 4.5 million tonnes. Production of pulses, potato, maize is also expected to be higher than last year. So unless the Indian Agriculture Ministry creates an artificial problem there is nothing to be alarmed about.
In 2007-08 also, when the world was faced with a terrible food crisis India had escaped unscathed.
But for how long?
Yes, this is a question that is being very conveniently ducked. Successive governments have tried to destroy the strong foundations of food self-sufficiency. The negative impact of these policies is yet to surface in a manner that it raises people's anger. More worrisome is the pace at which the UPA-II has remained hell bent upon destroying the edifice of social security that had sustained food self-sufficiency. Land acquisitions, privatisation of water, research, and market yards and the efforts to shift population from rural to urban areas will go down in history as a historic blunder. Such is the indifference of the intelligentsia and the academia that the seeds of destruction now appear to be sown all around, and with their consent.
I fail to understand why India is not drawing any lessons when country after country is feeling the pain of ignoring agriculture. It is not only policy planners who are at fault. The economists, the agricultural scientists, the business community, the academia, the civil society and the media are also part of the crime. They know what is happening and yet are reluctant to voice their concern. They cannot say they are not responsible for the simmering crisis on the farm front. It is a collective effort that is leading to the destruction of food self-sufficiency and thereby threaten food security.