Why India’s ‘growth’ focus is ignoring the food access question
How much food will India need to grow to feed our population in 2011-12? How much in 2013-14? Will we need to import wheat and rice or will we be self-sufficient? Do we know the environmental cost of this self-sufficiency? Are we willing to bear it? These are the questions that the Government of India, its ministries and its planning agencies must find answers to before the start of the Twelfth Five Year Plan period, which is 2012-17.
The foodgrains view from mid-2011 is one of relative comfort — 235 million tonnes is the estimate (including 94 mt rice and 84 mt wheat).
From this position, the Government of India has a set of six broad-brush objectives. These it wants its ministries and departments, connected directly and as adjunct to food and its provision, to internalise. It wants state governments to shape policy to support these objectives, which are:
* Target at least 4% growth for agriculture. Cereals are on target for 1.5% to 2% growth. India should concentrate more on other foods, and on animal husbandry and fisheries where feasible.
* Land and water are the critical constraints. Technology must focus on land productivity and water use efficiency.
* Farmers need better functioning markets for both outputs and inputs. Also, better rural infrastructure, including storage and food processing.
* States must act to modify the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) Act/Rules (exclude horticulture), modernise land records and enable properly recorded land lease markets.
* The Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana (RKVY) has helped convergence and innovation and gives state governments flexibility. This must be expanded in the Twelfth Plan.
* The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) should be redesigned to increase contribution to land productivity and rain-fed agriculture. Similarly, the Forest Rights Act (FRA) has potential to improve forest economies and tribal societies. But convergence with the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM) is required for strengthening rural livelihoods.
Are these objectives reasonable? Are they equitable and will they encourage an agriculture that is ecologically sustainable in India? From a resources use perspective, the government is right to point out certain constraints (land and water) and administrative improvements (land records, using NREGA labour for farm needs). The direction to provide better infrastructure in India’s rural districts, the better to link farmers to markets with, has been stated in every single Five Year Plan for the last five plan periods, and has been repeated in every single plan review and even more often in the Economic Surveys which accompany the annual budgets. (Under the Bharat Nirman programme, this need has to an extent been met, but the beneficiaries are as likely industry and land developers as they are cultivators.)
Protecting livelihoods in agriculture, cultivation and from use of forest produce is not, however, a central aim for food and agriculture in the Twelfth Plan. This omission, surprising from the social equity point of view, is taking place because the central government has before it three points it is trying to make sense of, and to decide the best way to tackle. In brief, these three points are: there is a “structural change” taking place in nutrition (more consumption of dairy and meat); there are world factors influencing foodgrain production, consumption and use in India; there are indications that agriculture’s share of GDP is today edging higher than it was five years ago, and that per capita agricultural income is increasing faster than overall per capita income.
It is the last trend, as seen by the central government although not by smallholder farmers and marginal cultivators, which is being taken as proof that new approaches to agriculture are delivering income benefits. The new approaches revolve heavily around the provision of infrastructure that aids modern terminal markets, agri-logistics, cold supply chains, integrated farm to retail companies, agricultural commodity traders, private warehousing service providers, export-oriented food processing units, contract farming operations which are linked to branded processed food, and exporters of cereals, fruits and vegetables. It is here that the growth in agricultural GDP is taking place and it is here that the rise in per capita agricultural income is being recorded. The central government will fight shy of a real cost-real price district analysis of agricultural investment and income because it will reveal the huge structural imbalances that are forming — that is why a national outlook artificially disaggregated into states becomes far more comfortable to defend.