By Ipshita Agarwal

Edited by Liz Maria Kuriakose, Associate Editor, The Indian Economist

Tracing the Indian predicament- Where is the food? Where is our money going?

Imagine a pipe, with a tap as its source at one end, and a tub as its outflow on the other. Some people are responsible for ensuring that the tap functions properly and adequate water is supplied to the pipe. On the other end are some people who require water for consumption from the tub. What if, the first set of people were doing their job well and making sure water was going in, but the second set of people was getting a fraction of the water introduced into the pipe? What’s more, the second set of people was paying Rs.70 for every tub of water, but the first set of people just got Rs.15 for their job?

What would you say is the problem here? Why is the outflow not matching the inflow at the other end? There has to be a leak in the pipe, right? How else could the water and the money be lost in the way?

Indeed. This leak… is our system. That’s the Government and the intermediaries and other stakeholders. The first set of people is our farmers, growing crops and introducing the input into this system. The system and policies are the leak in the pipe. Consumers like you and me are the second set of people, who pay exorbitantly high prices on the face of food scarcity. If only our farmers had a voice strong enough to ask, where is my money if there is food inflation? If only we asked, where is my food if the farmers are growing it?

During UPA – II’s tenure, we heard the term ‘policy paralysis’ way too much. That’s exactly what has happened to the agricultural sector. Not enough investment, negligible infrastructural development for agriculture and allied activities, knowledge gap of the farmers, innumerable intermediaries and their vested interests – together spelled disaster for the agricultural sector. Today, as hopes rest on NaMo, the question that people are asking is – Was the industrial sector allowed to develop at the cost of the agricultural sector? Now that the damage is done, is it possible to undo it and move towards progress?

The answer to both the above questions is YES!

How do you repair this massive leak that the system has just widened over numerous years?

There are two types of activities that the Government looks to take up, at this stage.

The most obvious one, though not the first, is, increasing food supply. Our population is growing and so the demand for food. We need to invest in agriculture, develop infrastructure to support it and bring in more area under cultivation (if that’s even possible, anymore).

The not-so-obvious one, which should come first, is, to make sure that all that is being produced reaches the consumers. This means repairing the leaks in the system, it means putting in place a system of checks and policies, which ensure that there is negligible wastage of food grains.

The most frontal programme launched by the Government of India towards ensuring this was the Public Distribution System (PDS), followed by the Targeted PDS. Today, however, what remains is a gaping leak. There is an urgent need to revamp and revive the PDS if we ever want to achieve complete food security. How do we do that, then?

We learn from the state of Chhattisgarh. In Chhattisgarh, a majority of people are satisfied with the PDS and would opt for it over an unconditional cash transfer, if given the choice. The Government of the state brought in many measures to improve the efficiency and working of the PDS. One of them was, shifting the management of ration shops from private dealers to community-based organizations such as gram panchayats, self-help groups (SHGs) and cooperatives. The new system led to better accountability because those run­ning the shops were from the villages. The second step taken was to address the issue of diversions and leakages during transport of food grains from Government godowns to PDS outlets. The system of private-operated trucks was replaced by a state-run system with clear demarcation of trucks, which also ensured the timely distribution of food.
Satisfied BPL families of the state said they would prefer the PDS over a cash transfer as the latter would involve travel to banks situated far off, and would eliminate the food security that was available to them under the PDS.

This brings us to another important but seldom addressed issue – that of lack of adequate banking facilities in the rural areas. Banking and insurance facilities are extremely vital, especially for the farming community. Lack of adequate credit makes farmers dependent upon their previous season’s earning i.e. savings, and makes them incapable of taking risk. They are not able to acquire and employ specialized technology, the monsoon is inadequate, the crop fails, they have to borrow from the moneylenders at exorbitant rates for the next season and this cycle continues, pushing them into a vicious debt trap. The reason being the lack of affordable credit at the right time.

Crop insurance is another measure that has been debated, but not widely implemented. The farmers’ lives are fraught with risk and uncertainty, especially because of their dependence on rainfall and nature as a whole. Anything that helps to mitigate this risk will enable them to invest in advanced technology as they will be assured of negligible risk in the event of crop failure.

The knowledge deficit of the farmers is another concern that needs to be addressed on a large scale. The average Indian farmer is unaware about the numerous policies available for him, the concept of Minimum Support Price, availability of technology and high yielding variety of seeds etc. It is this ignorance that pushes him into further poverty and most farmers become victims of exploitation by the moneylenders and intermediaries.

During UPA – II, agriculture sector development was neglected at the expense of development of the industrial sector. What many politicians failed to realize was, that both could have been done hand in hand, in fact supplementing one another. Infrastructural development in the agricultural sector would not only have improved agricultural output, but also developed the industrial base of the country.

Today, as we stand at the threshold of what every Indian hopes, is the beginning of a new era; there is a long way to go. Only when our food producers are properly fed, should we claim a right on the food grains produced by them.

The leak in the pipe – the system, is made up of people. People like us. We can change it, with some structural help from the Government. It is time this leak was mended before it is too late.

Ipshita is a second year student pursuing B.Com Honors at SRCC, Delhi University. She loves to read, interact and network. Books are her first love and she dreams to set up a chain of bookstores around the globe. Writing is her passion and she is particularly interested in the fields of public policy, politics and international relations. She aspires to build a career in public life and take up writing as a medium to bring change.

Posted by The Indian Economist | For the Curious Mind