Hunger amid plenty: a food management crisis

Hunger amid plenty: a food management crisis
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First Published: Tue, Mar 24 2009. 10 56 PM IST

Updated: Tue, Mar 24 2009. 10 56 PM IST
The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) is going to the people with the audacious claim of having provided relief to the aam aadmi (common man). A major plank of this claim is its performance in agriculture and food security. How true is this claim? And did the aam aadmi actually benefit under the UPA? Food constitutes almost two-thirds of the consumption basket of the poor. It is logical that any evaluation of the UPA’s concern for the aam aadmi has to revolve around its performance in providing food security to the poor.
The story of the UPA’s performance on food security is the classic case of hunger amid plenty. The UPA was fortunate to have four good years of monsoon starting from 2005-06. It did lead to an increase in food grain production from 198.4 million tonnes (mt) in 2004-05 to 230.7mt in 2007-08. Despite the 32mt increase in foodgrain production, the UPA was responsible for gross mismanagement of the food situation in the country.
Not only did the poor suffer from spiralling food price inflation for the major part of the UPA’s regime, the period also witnessed a decline in food availability.
Prices of food articles rose by 2.4% per annum during the previous government (1999-2000 to 2004-05) but increased at 6% per annum during the UPA’s rule (2004-05 to 2007-08). If the inflationary burden was not bad enough, even the per capita foodgrain availability witnessed a decline from a high of 494.1g per day in 2002 to 439.3g per day by 2007.
The mismanagement of the food economy was evident from the fact that despite a significant increase in production, the government had to import 6mt of wheat in 2006 and 1.8mt in 2007. Before 2006, India was a net exporter of wheat with exports of 4mt in 2003-04, 2mt in 2004-05 and 0.75mt in 2005-06. Part of the reason for importing wheat was the complete failure of the procurement and public distribution system, which is the backbone of ensuring food security to the poor. Despite record production in every year since 2004-05, the procurement of wheat declined from 20.6mt in 2000-01 to 9.2mt in 2006-07 and 11.1mt in 2007-08.
The decline in procurement had its impact on the allocations under the targeted public distribution system, which fell drastically from 71.7mt in 2004-05 to 37.27mt in 2008-09. Although the total off take did not decline during the period, remaining almost at the same level, the decline was pronounced for off take of below the poverty line (BPL) beneficiaries with a compensating increase for the Antyodaya Anna Yojana beneficiaries. Off take for BPL beneficiaries declined from 17.45mt in 2004-05 to 14.24mt in 2006-07 and 15.12mt in 2007-08.
Even in terms of financial allocation, the UPA’s performance remains dismal despite the increase in government revenues after 2004-05. The food subsidy bill, which increased to Rs25,746 crore in 2004-05, declined substantially in 2005-06 to Rs23,071 crore before recovering to Rs25,425 crore in 2007-08. This is lower than what it started with in 2004-05.
Also See Hunger Curve (Graphic)
The mismanagement of food was also severe in the case of the mid-day meal (MDM) scheme, which is the largest school meal programme anywhere in the world. Not only did the allocation under MDM decline from 2.75mt in 2004-05 to 2.16mt in 2006-07 before recovering to 2.53mt in 2007-08, the off take also declined from 2.13mt in 2004-05 to 1.66mt in 2006-07 and 1.83mt in 2007-08. That is a net decline of 300,000 tonnes since the UPA took over.
All these indicators are a testimony to the complete mismanagement of food economy and lack of concern for food security of the poor by the UPA. All this while government stocks were showing an increasing trend. Food grain stocks increased from 19.3mt in July 2006 to almost double at 36.3mt in 2008. That this happened despite an increase in foodgrain production by 32mt during the UPA regime is clear evidence of the priorities of the government, which failed to help the poor, already suffering from one of the worst spells of food price inflation since 2006.
Given the track record of the outgoing government in managing food economy, it is no wonder that India ranks among the worst countries in terms of nutritional or hunger indicators. The National Family Health Survey of 2005-06 has already pointed out the dismal situation in the country with malnutrition level of children at an alarmingly high level of around 40%.
Even the Global Hunger Index of the International Food Policy Research Institute has placed India 94th among a total of 118 countries for which the index was created. India was ranked 117, ahead only of Bangladesh, in the child malnutrition index.
The problem is clearly not of shortage with foodgrain production increasing substantially. The problem is of hunger amid plenty. The problem lies in the priorities of the government that has squandered the golden chance of utilizing this opportunity for strengthening food security of the poor. A government which cannot ensure even basic food security for its poor has no legitimate claim of being called a government of the aam aadmi.
Graphics by Paras Jain / Mint
Himanshu is 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 farmtruths@livemint.com
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First Published: Tue, Mar 24 2009. 10 56 PM IST