Jul 14, 2016

Pulses import -- abandoning food self-sufficiency.



There is something going wrong. A government-to-government contract to import pulses from Mozambique, at a time when farmers in India are increasingly forced to commit suicide, bears testimony to a flawed economic policy that will eventually uproot Indian farmers. I don’t know whether this is being done deliberately or whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi is being kept in dark of the grave consequences of taking contract farming to other countries.

I remember, some decades back, when Balram Jakhar was the Agriculture Minister he too had proposed cultivating pulses in some African countries and importing it. During the UPA regime, the then Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar too had wanted India to undertake pulses cultivation in Burma and Uruguay, which could then be imported. But all these years, the fanciful idea, a brainchild of some ignorant bureaucrats in the Ministry of Agriculture, had remained only confined to media statements. This time I am told the bureaucrats in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) had sternly managed to prevail.

As per the news reports, India will identify a network of farmers with the help of local agents in Mozambique and provide them with appropriate technology, including seeds and improved equipments. These farmers will be assured before they take up cultivation that whatever they produce will be purchased by the Indian government at a rate not less than the minimum support price (MSP) that is given in India. The basic idea, says an official of the Ministry of External affairs, is to grow a network of farmers.

If India can build a network of farmers in Mozambique to grow pulses on a regular basis I wonder why a similar network of farmers can’t be built in India. Why is India not making a similar commitment to pay a higher price and make assured procurement that could have easily raised domestic production and thereby increase its availability. While in India, the government leaves farmers to face the volatility of markets, in Mozambique it agrees to provide an assured market by buying whatever is produced. This is grossly unfair.

The key to increasing domestic production of pulses lies in assured purchase. Although the government has raised the MSP for some of the important kharif pulses, by providing for example a bonus of Rs 425 per quintal to make it Rs 5,050 per quintal for arhar dal, but price alone may not be enough to raise production in the long run. I have always maintained that unless the government launches procurement for pulses, on the lines of wheat and rice procurement, there is little possibility of enhancing domestic production. If the government can assure farmers in Mozambique of buying whatever they produce I see no reason why the same cannot be done within the country.

From Mozambique, India expects to import 100,000 tonnes of pulses, which will increase to 200,000 tonnes in a matter of few years. Additionally, India is also exploring the possibility of taking cultivation of pulses to some other African countries, including Tanzania, Kenya and Malawi. The increasing reliance on pulses production in Africa to meet the ever-growing domestic demand will however leave behind a trail of destruction on the farm front which has perhaps not been properly visualized.

Food security is the primary responsibility of any government. Yes, I agree. But in India, unlike countries like Singapore, food security should not be met from imports. Considering that India has a massive army of 600 million farmers, faced with a terrible agrarian distress over the past few decades, what the country needs is production by the masses and not production for the masses. Instead of helping farmers in Africa, it makes political and economic sense to help farmers within the country. This is exactly what was achieved when India launched Green Revolution in 1966. The nation must admire the political sagacity of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to have assiduously built up a public procurement system to pull the country out from a perpetual hunger trap. Grow more food was then the slogan.

There can be nothing more disastrous for any country to abandon the principles of food self-sufficiency as a pre-requisite to ensuring food security. Ensuring food self-sufficiency is the hallmark of ascertaining national sovereignty. Let’s not forget, India escaped food riots in 2007-08 when the world was faced with an unprecedented food crisis. At least 37 countries had faced food riots at that time, and all of these were countries which relied on food imports. India had ample food reserves at that time, an outcome of a continuing policy of maintain food reserves. Any tinkering that allows for dismantling the public procurement system is therefore fraught with dangers.

Secondly, there are lessons to be learnt from the way India badly messed up with edible oils. At present, country imports nearly 74 per cent of its edible oil needs exceeding Rs 70,000-crores despite having the ability to produce it within the country. Although the consumption of edible oils has doubled in the decade ending 2015, the fact remains that India was almost self-sufficient in meeting its edible oil needs in 1993-94. Following the Oilseeds Technology Mission that ex-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had launched in 1985-86 India was producing 97 per cent of its edible oil requirement ten years later.

What went wrong were the faulty trade policy whereby import tariffs were reduced drastically thereby bringing in a flood of edible oil imports. If only India had continued to block cheaper imports by maintaining higher import duties, the Rs 70,000-crore that is spent on imports would have gone to the benefit of Indian farmers. Since oilseed is mainly a crop of primarily rainfed central India, imagine the economic benefits that would have accrued to farmers. But the tragedy is that while Indian farmers suffer, the benefit is being passed to farmers growing oilseeds in Malaysia, Indonesia, Brazil and United States from where the imports pour in.

After oilseeds, it is now the turn of pulses, which carries a zero import duty. With India getting into Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with European Union, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, among other countries, there is a growing fear that import tariffs on milk and milk products, vegetables, fruits, poultry, and even wheat are on the chopping block. I shudder to think of the socio-economic and political consequences of relying on food imports to meet the food security needs. While on the one hand such a policy will push farmers out of agriculture, it will take the country back into the days of ‘ship-to-mouth’ existence when food used to come directly from the ship to feed the hungry mouths. #  

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