Food and Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar is visibly excited. Agricultural exports have jumped nearly 56 per cent in 2011-12 to hit a record Rs 187,000-crore. With the government lifting the four-year-old ban on the exports of non-basmati and basmati rice, eight million tonnes of foodgrains were exported thereby swelling agricultural exports. In the process, India has now become the biggest exporter of rice in the world.
This year, 2012-13, Sharad Pawar is hopeful of an upswing in export of basmati and non-basmati rice to hit an all-time high of 9 million tonnes. To ease stocks, the government has also allowed export of two million tonne of wheat in July, and has set up an expert committee to further examine the issue. No wonder, the Minister is now promising to introduce a long-term export-import policy. “Government is actively considering free exports and imports of agricultural commodities,” he told an economic editors conference at New Delhi recently.
Either he is oblivious of the repeated UN warnings of global food prices spiralling once again or remains defiant to hand over country’s hard-earned food security to market forces that he continues to argue in favour of freeing food imports of all controls. International prices for wheat have already risen by 25 per cent in 2012, maize by 13 per cent and dairy prices rose 7 per cent in September, warns UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. “It means that food supplies are tight across board and there is little room for unexpected events.”
In such a grim situation, and considering that FAO has placed India among the high risk countries – which may be susceptible to famine and social unrest stemming from food shortages and price fluctuation – along with Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Yemen, any tinkering with food import-export policies is likely to be disastrous. My worry stems from the pathetic record in addressing the growing concerns of food insecurity and malnutrition that prevails, and that too at a time when the grain silos are overflowing.
The day Sharad Pawar was brimming with excitement over possibilities of enhancing food exports, three UN organisations – Food and Agricultural Organisation, the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the World Food programme -- came out with its annual State for Food Insecurity report. Accordingly, with 217 million malnourished people, India tops the malnourishment chart. As far as child nutrition is concerned, India is placed at the bottom of the global chart.
It is a strange paradox of plenty. While on the one hand India is pushing its agricultural exports, on the other nearly 320 million people go to bed hungry. The number of hungry and malnourished in India almost equals the entire population of America. When it comes to malnutrition, several studies have pointed out that nearly 43.5 per cent of children under five are underweight. India fares worst than even sub-Saharan Africa. According to the 2011 Global Hunger Index India ranks 67 among 81 countries, sliding below Rwanda.The 2012 Global Hunger Index prepared by the International Food Policy Research Institute. Welt Hunger Hilfe and Concern Worldwide have ranked India 65th among 79 countries. India’s ranking in the hunger chart therefore sees no change between 2011 and 2012.
With the per capita availability of foodgrains – including cereals and pulses – sliding to 441 grams per day in 2010, from a high of 480 grams in 1991 when economic reforms began, it is quite evident that hunger is actually growing. Although an impression is being given that as incomes are seeing a rising trend, more people have shifted from cereals to nutritious foods like eggs, meat and fruits. This is however not correct. According to a 2010 report of the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), the consumption of cereals as well as nutritious foods like fruits, milk and eggs too is falling in urban and rural areas. Despite the rapid economic growth, per capita calorie consumption is steadily on the decline. The 2007 NSSO too had pointed to the same trend in falling consumption of both cereals as well as nutritious products.
Continuously rising food inflation over the past several years has certainly widened the gap between the haves and have-nots. Experts agree that for a large section of the population, buying two square meals a day is now becoming more difficult. Several studies have pointed to the growing inability of a majority of households to the per capita calories consumption of 2,100 in urban and 2,400 in rural areas. It means most people are unable to meet the minimum nutritional requirements.
In other words, hunger is becoming more acute and visible. More and more people are going to bed hungry. I therefore don’t understand the logic of exporting food at a time when millions are living in hunger. The mounting food surplus is essentially because the poor and needy are unable to buy foodgrains even at below the poverty line prices. Opening up the export of wheat (it is banned at present) India will certainly join the ranks of the major food exporters, and in the process earn some foreign exchange. But the bigger question remains as to who will feed the hungry living within the country?
There can be nothing more criminal for any hungry nation to export its staple food. It is the primary responsibility of the government, as enshrined in the Directive Principles, to ensure that every citizen is well-fed. Unfortunately what is not being realised is the declining fall in per capita availability of foodgrains matches the availability at the time of Bengal famine in 1943. Isn’t it sad that even after 70 years of Bengal famine, we still live in the shadow of hunger and starvation? How can any sensible nation therefore justify food exports?
Food management essentially means distributing the available foodgrains among the poor and hungry. A beginning must be made by immediately stopping the export of staple foods, and simultaneously launch all out effort to reach foodgrains at the doors of the hungry millions. #