There is something that remains largely unexplained in Chhatisgarh in central India. And it pertains to hunger, food procurement and food security. There are some uncomfortable questions that have surfaced. We need to look at them dispassionately as it impacts the future food security programmes in the rest of the country. .
The Right to Food campaign eulogises it, and the Supreme Court appointed Food Commissioners swear by it. But if the revamped public distribution system which banks upon the underlying principle of local production, local procurement and local distribution is so successful then how come the rate of farm suicides has also progressed in the same proportion? Supriya Sharma of the Times Crest has raised this in a thought-provoking article entitled: "There is Truth and there are Statistics" (Times Crest Jan 22, 2011 available at: http://www.timescrest.com/society/theres-truth-and-there-are-statistics-4590).
Supriya asks: "From just half-a-million tonnes in 2000, the state government bought 4. 4 million tonnes of paddy last year, at a bonus of Rs 50, bringing the minimum price of paddy to Rs 1, 000 per quintal. During the same 10-year period, the number of suicides of those engaged in farming stayed consistently high, showing an upward graph since 2003, hitting an all-time high at 1, 802 suicides in 2009."
Well, ever since the government began providing rice at Rs 2 a kg, farmers to do not find any economic sense in producing it for themselves and their families. They now produce rice entirely for the market. After all, they can sell what they produce at Rs 10 a kg and in turn buy rice for their household requirement at Rs 2 a kilo. For all practical purpose this serves as a cash transfer scheme, providing some additional cash in the hands of farmers. It saves them Rs 8 on every kg of rice that they need for their family. Some belive that as much as 90 per cent of the rice produced in Chattisgarh therefore finds its way to the market.
She quotes Sanket Thakur, director of Agricon, a shareholder co-operative of farmers, who says: "The statistics that are misleading are those of paddy production, " he claims. Thakur offers this logic:
if 8. 2 million tonnes of paddy was produced in the state, as claimed by agricultural department officials, but just 4. 4 million tonnes were procured by the government, where did the rest go?"
Another news report in The Economic Times (Sept 2, 2010) by M Rajshekhar under the head: 'New Food Rules' had in a way addressed the question posed above: "Ten years ago, Chhattisgarh grew 4 million tonnes of paddy, of which the state government acquired 300,000 tonnes, or 7.5% of the produce. In 2009-10, it grew 7.6 million tonnes; of this, 4.4 million tonnes, or 58%, was procured by the state. Of the rest, says Jaiswal, the state government official: “Only about 500,000 tonnes went to the mandis, the rest being retained by farmers as seeds or for self-consumption.”
The reason for 58 per cent paddy procurement is probably because: "For four years now, Chhattisgarh has been giving 35 kg of grain — comprising rice and wheat — a month at heavily subsidised rates to 3.6 million of its 4.4 million households. The ultra-poor pay Re 1 per kg, while the poor pay 2 per kg, against the market price of 12-17 a kg. The ration card is the document that enables this subsidised transfer." In other words, you get only 35 kg per family at a subsidised rate, which does not last more than 15 days. The rest has still to be purchased from the market, and therefore farmers are keeping part of the grain they produce for their own consumption.
This makes sense. But let us not forget the shift in food habits from the late NTR's popular scheme of providing Rs 2 a kilo of rice in Andhra Pradesh several years ago had led to the demise of the nutritious millets. I think it will be interesting to see what kind of changes the Rs 2 a kg (and Rs 1 per kg for the ultra poor) of rice scheme in Chhatisgrah brings about.
Nevertheless, the question that Supriya Sharma raised in her article still remains valid. If the rice procurement is so effective why are the paddy farmers committing suicide? I would be glad if some people who have been closely involved and have been following the revamped PDS can enlighten us more.