The goal of food for all can be achieved only through sustained efforts in producing, saving and sharing foodgrains.
The Supreme Court of India has rendered great service by arousing public, professional and political concern about the co-existence of rotting grain mountains and mounting hungry mouths. In several African countries hunger is increasing because food is either not available in the market, or is too expensive for the poor. Food inflation is showing no sign of abating. In our country, chronic hunger is largely poverty induced. The progress made in achieving the targets of U.N. Millennium Development Goal No. 1, namely reducing hunger and poverty by half by the year 2015, is being reviewed this month in New York. The available data indicate that we may have years and years to go before we achieve this target. Globally, the number of persons going to bed hungry has increased from 800 million in the year 2000 to over one billion now. The position is likely to get worse in the near term, since the prices of wheat, rice and maize are going up in the global market. Adverse growing conditions in Russia, Canada and Australia are partly responsible for the recent escalation in grain price. Nearer home, Pakistan is still recovering from serious flood. According to a recent U.N. report, 3.2 million ha of standing crops and 2,00,000 heads of livestock have been lost. Pakistan may need large quantities of wheat seed for rabi sowing for which we are the only suitable source. In our country, Jharkhand, Bihar and West Bengal had until recently experienced deficit in rainfall. Often, early drought is accompanied by severe flood during September-October and hence we need both drought and flood codes to be put into operation at different times during the S.W. Monsoon period, particularly in Bihar and Assam. Local level seed and grain banks should be built to ensure crop and food security under conditions of unpredictable monsoon.
Among the steps needed to address concurrently the alleviation of hunger and safeguarding farmers' income, the following four need urgent attention:
Distribute the grains for which there is no safe storage facility: Gandhiji emphasised that hunger should be overcome without eroding human dignity. He wanted every Indian to have an opportunity to earn his or her daily bread. There are however seriously disadvantaged sections of our population like orphans, street children, widows, old and infirm persons, pregnant women suffering from anaemia, children in the age group 0 to 2 belonging to poor families, and those affected by leprosy, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, who need to be provided with food free of cost. In the case of diseases like leprosy, TB and HIV/AIDS, we need a food cum drug approach since many of the patients suffering from such ailments tend to be undernourished, thereby reducing the beneficial impact of the drug. A National Committee I chaired had made this recommendation nearly 30 years ago in the case of leprosy. The recent decision of the Government of India to provide 25 lakh of additional foodgrains for BPL families is a welcome step. This should be supplemented by providing free food to those suffering from extreme destitution and poverty through delivery systems like community kitchens run by agencies not likely to be affected by corruption.
Food stocks exposed to rain and consequently having high moisture content are likely to get infected with Aspergillus sp., leading to the development of mycotoxins. Hence, they should not be distributed among the poor, without prior testing by institutions like the National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad, and the Central Food Technological Research Institute, Mysore. We should not add to the nutritional problems of the poor by offering them grains containing aflatoxins. Food losses due to poor storage should be measured both in quantitative and qualitative terms. Subject to such screening, foodgrains fit for human consumption are best distributed free among the most deprived sections throughout the country. To begin with, about 5 million tonnes of wheat and rice could be allotted for this purpose from the stocks for which good storage conditions are not available.
Procurement of Kharif Crops: The recommendation of the National Commission on Farmers (NCF) that the minimum support price (MSP) should be C-2 (that is, total cost of production) plus 50 per cent is yet to be implemented. The government has, however, been moving in the direction of an MSP which is relatively fair to the farmers. The MSP announced for rice and pulses is reasonably attractive and, consequently, the production of pulses, rice, jowar, bajra, maize and oilseeds is likely to be good. Over 20 million tonnes of rice will have to be procured during the next three months. Hence, no further time should be lost in making arrangements for the safe storage of the purchased grains. Also, the procurement by the Central and State agencies should extend to pulses and crops like jowar, bajra, ragi and maize, so that there is a diversification of the food basket. Procurement at remunerative price is the key to keeping up farmers' interest in farming. Unlike the Right to Information Act which can be implemented with the help of files, the Right to Food can be implemented only with the help of farmers.
The gap between potential and actual yields is high in pulses, oilseeds and the other crops sown in rainfed areas. Instead of going to Canada and Australia for producing pulses for us, the State and Central governments should procure them directly from our farmers, as is being done in the case of wheat and rice. The 60,000 pulses and oilseed villages in rainfed areas, for which provision of funds has been made in the Union Budget for 2010-11, should be designed on a systems approach with concurrent attention to all the links in the production, protection, procurement and consumption chain, as envisaged under the Rajiv Gandhi Pulses and Oilseed Missions of the 1980s.
Safe storage: From the Vedic period, food has been invested with an aura of respect and reverence. It is sad that this respect has been destroyed by those in charge of procurement and storage, particularly when we are classified as a nation with the largest number of under- and malnourished children, women and men in the world. I have frequently pointed out that the future belongs to nations with grains and not guns. Our farmers are confronted with the challenge of producing food for 1.2 billion human beings and over 1 billion farm animals. The demoralising impact of the indifference shown to the safe storage of grains produced by hard labour in sun and rain by millions of farm women and men can only be imagined. The sense of national shame now prevailing because of the projection by the media of the sad state of storage conditions, should spur both the Centre and the State governments into action. The storage can start in every village in the form of grain banks and rural godowns and extend to strategic locations (hunger hotspots) throughout the country. It is time we invested in a national grid of ultra-modern storage structures.
Rice, wheat and other grains can help to address protein-calorie under-nutrition. But only attention to horticulture, milk and eggs can help to overcome hidden hunger caused by the deficiency of micro-nutrients like iodine, iron, zinc, vitamin A, vitamin B12, etc. For example, drumstick or Moringa provides most of the micronutrients needed by the body. There are horticultural remedies for every nutritional malady and hence nutrition should be mainstreamed in the National Horticulture Mission. Home Science College students well-versed in nutrition should be inducted into the Mission. Like Ashas in the case of the National Rural Health Mission, they should become Nutrition Messengers in both rural and urban areas. A Siksha Food Park (a Training Food Park) should be established by the Ministry of Food Processing in major Home Science colleges to train women's self-help groups in the science and art of food processing and preservation. Attention to the preservation of perishable commodities is as important as attention to the safe storage of foodgrains.
Sow extensively during the rabi season: The rabi season is around the corner and it will be prudent to review the arrangements for the supply of the needed inputs like credit, insurance, seed, fertilizer and extension. Special efforts will have to be made to mount compensatory production programmes in areas affected by unfavourable weather during kharif. Rabi pulses and oilseeds need particular attention from the point of view of choice of variety, soil health enhancement and plant protection. The aim should be to achieve a higher per-day and per-crop productivity so that even if there is a premature rise in night temperatures in March, yields do not go down.
To sum up, we had paid considerable attention to grain storage during our “ship to mouth” existence days, as evident from the grain storage structures built in major ports. Home-grown grains however failed to receive as much attention as the imported ones. Similarly, the Save Grain campaign which was launched when we were food deficit was abandoned at a time when we needed it the most. It is to be hoped that the prevailing widespread interest in saving and sharing grains will lead to an effective “distribute, procure, store and sow” movement. Without this pre-requisite, it will be difficult to implement a legal right to food for all.
(The author is Chairman, M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation & Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha.)