With the spectre of drought looming large over India, the issue of food security is back on the agenda. The slowdown in the economy and the consequent depressed demand along with rising food prices have already contributed enough to create a gloomy outlook for the Indian economy and agriculture.
It now appears likely that the promised food security legislation will be delayed, if media reports are to be believed.
This crisis of drought also presents the right moment to ask an important question: Can we feed our billions? The answer is yes, provided the government has the willingness to do so. There are three essentials of any food security legislation: availability, access and absorption.
The availability aspect is the one which is directly linked to farm production. And, although we have not done well on increasing food production in the last two decades, the last four years are a good indicator of the potential of Indian agriculture in producing enough for everybody.
But as the drought has clearly shown, luck can sometimes run out, and therefore, what is needed is a long-term strategic vision to raise food productivity. Considering that almost 60% of Indian agriculture is still rain-fed, there is a great opportunity to tap this potential by increasing the spread of irrigation. We also require development and extension of low water-absorbing seeds and technology in these areas.
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But even in the irrigated areas, there is a huge variation in crop productivity. A large part of eastern India produces one-half or one-third of its potential. All these are known facts. What is needed is a political vision and strategy to implement them.
But these require greater public investment in agriculture, which has been on a steady decline since the beginning of 1980s. How will the farmer respond, and is it really possible to achieve the goal of producing enough for everybody? Research has repeatedly shown it is possible.
The elasticity of food production to public investment is very high in India, compared with other countries except for some east Asian countries. Whenever the government has invested heavily in agriculture, the farmer has responded with high rewards.
But things are different on the access front. Access is not just making food available in every nook and corner of the country but also making it accessible to everybody.
Unfortunately, the two institutional arrangements for these two objectives have been big failures. The Food Corporation of India is not only inefficient and corrupt, and thus, amenable to political pressure, but it has also hardly ever fulfilled its role of making food available from food-surplus states to food-deficient ones. The public distribution system (PDS) is on a downward spiral ever since targeting was introduced in the early 1990s. It has virtually come to symbolize the evil of public service delivery in rural India. It hardly exists in urban India. If it sounds unbelievable, try and remember a PDS shop in your locality.
The third component is absorption. This requires multi-pronged efforts than simply making food available to every household. This is due to the complex nature of our society which is a myriad of relationships within and outside a household. The component of absorption requires taking the challenges of gender inequality of food absorption—it is well known that women eat last and the least, even among the so-called middle classes—along with malnutrition of children and adolescents.
It is no wonder that malnutrition is highest among children and adolescents compared with adults, and among women when compared with men. While programmes such as the integrated child development scheme for young children and pregnant mothers and the mid-day meal scheme have been successful in reducing malnutrition among these vulnerable groups, they are still plagued by insufficient allocations and neglect.
The answer to whether we can feed the billions is only partly dependent on the drought. Food security will not improve after the droughts are over and rain gods smile on our farmers. The challenge of food security was always there and may be as serious in the years of record productions in the last four years as it is now in the year of drought.
It is unfair to blame the drought for the food security mess we are in. A large part of tackling food security depends on what we can do in terms of policies to feed our population. And this requires policies not only for ensuring availability of food, but also making it accessible and ensuring absorption to each and every person of society.
The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word crisis. One brush stroke stands for danger, the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger but recognize the opportunity.
If the media reports are to be believed, the government is only looking at the danger aspect. This drought does not represent the danger of food insecurity but is the opportunity to urgently enact the food security Act.
Himanshu is an assistant professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and visiting fellow at Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi. Farm Truths looks at issues in agriculture and runs on alternate Wednesdays. Respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org