An insightful article on “The wheat mountains of the Punjab” by Professor M.S. Swaminathan – one of the world's leading agricultural scientists and food policy experts – and a couple of reports on the Supreme Court of India's observations and directions on the same subject, published in this newspaper have drawn the attention of readers in substantial numbers.
The article, published on May 11, 2011, throws new light on the present condition and the future of Indian agriculture. The Supreme Court's observations and directions reported on May 15 (“Release 5 million tonnes of food grain: Supreme Court” and “Planning Commission asked to revise BPL norms”) relate to the fair and timely distribution of the available food grains to the people.
The Bench comprising Justices Dalveer Bhandari and Deepak Verma directed the central government to release immediately five million tonnes of food grains for distribution in 150 districts most stricken by poverty, or other poorer segments of the country. In another key direction, the Court asked the National Planning Commission to revise the per capita norms to update the poverty line in the light of the May 2011 index or any other subsequent dates.
Professor Swaminathan commented on the good news of bumper crops this year in the Punjab-Haryana region. He estimated that wheat production this year might reach a level of 85 million tonnes. He noted that the Punjab farmers produced nearly 40 per cent of the wheat and 26 per cent of the rice required to sustain the Public Distribution System (PDS). He alerted the establishment to the need to arrange for adequate and protected storage facilities, taking a lesson or two from last year's experience in several parts of the country, where thousands of tonnes of food grains went to waste for want of safe storing.
Around this time last year, readers may recall, the country was passing through a food crisis and the phenomenon of double-digit inflation. The skyrocketing prices of food grains and food-related items badly affected millions of ordinary Indians. This led to prolonged discussions at various levels, political and governmental, on providing food security to the people.
The role played by the news media and social activists in taking these issues to the people was commendable. But it was when the critical issues were taken to the judiciary at the highest level by organisations such as the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) that the challenge took on a new dimension. Yet several key aspects such as the number of people to be covered by the PDS, the quality and the quantity of the essential items to be distributed under PDS, and the status of food grains stored in the hundreds of Food Corporation of India warehouses, in hired private godowns, and in lorries under tarpaulin covers remain unresolved to this day. A Hindustan Times report on July 26, 2010, “India lets grain rot instead of feeding poor,” revealed that thousands of tonnes of wheat and rice were rotting in godowns instead of being distributed to the needy. When this was brought to the notice of the highest court in the land, it said: “If you cannot store the grain, give it to the people to eat.” The Government saw it as “straying into the executive's domain.”
A year has gone by and the outcome is yet unclear. The central government's positive response to the latest directions of the Supreme Court has raised certainly expectations. While directing the government to rush five million tonnes of food grains to the 150 poorest districts in the country, Justices Dalveer Bhandari and Deepak Verma mandated immediate action against mass hunger. “Admittedly,” the judges commented, “in the 150 poorest districts of India, the problem of malnutrition is very intense and is related to the inadequacy or lack of food in those areas.” This urgent emphasis on the challenge of malnutrition is vital considering that the government was until recently reluctant to make any commitments in this regard. Earlier during his argument, the counsel of the People's Union for Civil Liberties extensively quoted from the National Family Health Survey-3 (2006) of the Government of India to point out that under-five mortality rate in the country was 74 for every 1000 live births. Millions of children die every year in India on account of malnutrition.
Professor Swaminathan has been consistently suggesting that nutrition should be part of the right to food and hence integral to food security. The wake-up call from the distinguished scientist should inspire the media to sustain and intensify their coverage of food and agriculture, rural livelihood and nutritional status, the crisis of hunger and the system's response across this vast land.