The Question of Food Security

-- Srilata Swaminathan

A number of things have happened in the past year that has brought the whole question of food security, or insecurity, into sharp focus. The famines prevailing over vast areas of India, our bursting granaries as people go hungry, WTO’s attack on our agriculture and farmers, the media’s spotlight on starvation deaths in Orissa and, finally, the Supreme Court’s horrified reaction to the plight of the hungry as represented in a writ petition filed by the Peoples’ Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) demanding peoples’ right to food.

India is known all over the world as a country of extremes, of paradoxes and mysteries but nothing could be more paradoxical than our bursting granaries on the one hand and our starving millions on the other. A further paradox is that in spite of our over 60 million tonnes of surplus grain our country does not have food security. Both these paradoxes need to be examined.

The term ‘food security’ has two meanings. The first is the food security that a nation needs to achieve in order to maintain its independence, maintain its sovereignty and not be manipulated by its dependence on outside forces for such a basic and essential necessity. India has, by and large, achieved this type of food security.

The second meaning of food security is the right and ability of the citizens living in a country to have secure access to food and this right, unfortunately, is denied to the majority of our men and women. Hence, India, in this sense, has by no stretch of imagination achieved food security.

There is no doubt that no nation can have full sovereignty or independence if its production and access to food is controlled by antagonistic outside forces. Who controls our food controls us. The humiliating position that our rulers led by Indira Gandhi found themselves in when she was forced to go with begging bowl in hand before Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s and the manipulation through PL480 was a lesson that our elite was determined would not happen again. So, the country went into overdrive on the green revolution front and became ‘self-sufficient’ in food grains so that our privileged rulers no longer had to face the same mortification!

But here, let’s be very clear on one thing. Our rulers did not want self-sufficiency in food so that they could feed the people of our country. They only wanted it so that they could not be manipulated nor be humiliated. Moreover, they did not want to see the recurrence of an acute food crisis — a major component of a revolutionary crisis — as witnessed in the second half of the 1960s.

Before going into an analysis of food insecurity faced by India’s millions lets first examine what India has achieved in food security. There is no doubt that India has impressive food production records. Where we need a buffer stock of only 20 million tonnes we are now holding a reserve of 60 million tonnes. Exactly a month ago, on the 29th. August a senior official in the Ministry of Agriculture confirmed that food production is estimated to go up by 12 million tones in 2001-2 to 209 million tones from 196.7 million tones last year. These stocks are enough to give one whole year’s food grain to the 50 million poorest in our country and still leave a comfortable buffer.

But this remarkable accomplishment has been achieved at the most devastating costs. In fact, one can say that the Indian ruling classes have attained this by mortgaging the future of our agriculture and the lives of the 70 million men, women and children who are dependent on it and, hence, the very future of our country. This has been done over the years through policies that have placed our agriculture into the hands of the US and their MNCs. In spite of warnings from many spheres our rulers, through their greed, corruption and shortsightedness have allowed the strengths of our agricultural system (its vast and varied indigenous seed bank, the self-dependence of our farmers in agrarian inputs and our rich productive soil) to be completely depleted and destroyed. We are now totally dependent for seed and inputs on MNCs. In fact our nation’s future food security is in great jeopardy as our agriculture slumps and loses its self-sufficiency and sustainability.

Another major blunder of our ruling classes was to bypass and sabotage all the far-sighted recommendations of the Kumarrappa Committee which the Congress Party had set up at the time of India’s independence and which strongly recommended the redistribution of agrarian land to the tiller. This would have had far-reaching positive results in both increase in production and equitable distribution of wealth among the greater part of our population thus reducing poverty and destitution while giving the people much needed purchasing power. All this would have led to a genuine foundation of food security for our masses.

Instead, even after half a century of independence 13% of rich farmers control over 80% of all agricultural land, over 90% of all jobs in both public and private sector are in the hands of the upper castes as is over 84% of all industry, wealth and resources of our country. Over the years, and exacerbated by structural adjustments, new economic policies, globalisation-privatisation-liberalisation, the rich have got richer while the poor have become more destitute and marginalised. These policies, of which our government is an ardent follower, plan to have the control of the whole world’s food resources and distribution in the control of 2-3 American MNCs. Which will be the end of our national food security, anyway.

In the recent PIL (Public Interest Litigation) filed in the Supreme Court the horror shown by the judges over the corruption and inefficiency where 16 states don’t even know how many BPL (Below the Poverty Line) families they have, only further emphasises how far removed the ruling elite are from the actual realities prevailing in the country. One does not need to go into the wilds of Orissa or Rajasthan to see the terrible poverty of our people. Perhaps their air-conditioned cars with their tinted windows do not show them the starving beggars and malnourished children whose increasing numbers are visible at every traffic light in our capital. But this ignorance/indifference is typical of our rulers and in spite of it they still feel that they have the right to rule!

The anti-people attitudes of the government and our ruling classes is amply revealed in the Public Distribution System which is delivering less and less grain even as the number of our poor swells due to marginalisation and unemployment. Grain distributed through the PDS (Public Distribution System) has fallen drastically where it used to be over 20 million tonnes ten years ago it has fallen to less then 10 million tonnes today and the government makes excuses for this by saying that even this is not purchased by the poor. They seem to forget that the poor do not have the purchasing power to buy food. As a result, millions of our population go hungry every day, 48 % of children below the age of 4 and over half our total population suffers from serious malnourishment. Even today more than thirty percent of our population lives a below-subsistence level existence. But the government would rather spend a whopping Rs. 2,200 per tonne per year financing these food grains and a further Rs.6000 crores in storage of its excess food grains or sell them to MNCs at a 50% subsidised rate rather then address itself to these problems. In fact, which MNC is our government out to conciliate by its recent import of 3 lakh tonnes of fertilizer at the cost of over 300 crores of rupees when we are already holding excess stocks of 45 lakh tones?

It is these very overflowing granaries that indict our ruling classes as they clearly show that they have no intention of sharing this wealth with the poor. They would rather let the grain rot or get eaten up by rats or sell it to MNCs at heavily subsidised rates (Rs.5.65 per kg. when BPL families have to buy it for over Rs.6.40 per kg.) rather than let our rural and urban poor have access to it.

It is because our people are deprived of access to food that and that our children are underfed that our ruling classes are able to hold such indecently large stocks of grain. And a further twist to the story is that it is the very masses who produced these grain stocks by their sweat and labour that form the majority of the 500 million who go to sleep hungry every night.

It is extremely important for us to understand that, in the end, the reason for this disastrous state of affairs is not due to oversight or apathy but due to deliberate political policy. It is not by chance but by design that our agricultural production is gradually sinking, that less and less money is being invested in agriculture, that subsidies to farmers and farming is being reduced, that electricity to farmers is being given at unaffordable prices, that the Indian government had to remove QRs (quantitative restrictions) at the diktat of the US and opened the gates to unfair competition from abroad.

The Hindu mindset is still well in place and feels that it is the lot of the poor to serve the rich and the rich have their own priorities for the way the country is run. It is important that our ruling classes get cheap labour for their factories, for agriculture and for their domestic needs. These huge stocks of food manipulate our masses so that they vote in the manner expected and required.

In the end, it is a political question of who eats and who doesn’t, who controls our people by denying them basic rights like the right to work and eat and who gets every right whether he/she works or not. It is a political question as to who will control and distribute this vital necessity, to whom, in what quantities and in return for what! Food security for our millions is intrinsically tied up with political power, land ownership and the equitable distribution of wealth. These deep injustices and exploitation of our people cannot be resolved through mere legislation or a court judgment but can only be resolved through a major political upheaval.