People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 23

June 10, 2007



Food Security Under Threat


A NEO-LIBERAL regime seeks to integrate the entire economy, including its agricultural sector characterised overwhelmingly by peasant production, into the capitalist world economy. Peasant agriculture, instead of being protected by the State against domination and encroachment by multinational and domestic corporations, gets “opened up” for the hegemony of corporate capital, which entails dispossession, displacement, exploitation through adverse terms of trade, and an adjustment of the pattern of production to the dictates of the global market. Such adjustment necessarily implies a shift away from food-crops to other more exotic crops, ranging from fruits and vegetables to flowers and bio-fuels like jatropha; and it is in turn superimposed upon a shift of the pattern of land use away from agriculture to real estate and luxury construction. It follows then that a curtailment of foodgrains production and an undermining of food security are the inevitable sequel to the introduction of a neo-liberal regime. This fact, evident from the history of numerous third world countries in Latin America and Africa, also emerges clearly from India’s comparatively shorter experience of liberalisation. Per capita foodgrains output in the country has declined since the beginning of the 1990s; even the absolute foodgrains output has become stagnant since the beginning of this century. Along with this stagnation there has been a simultaneous curtailment of foodgrains demand through policies of government-expenditure contraction in the countryside. Sometimes the demand contraction has outpaced output contraction, as was the case until 2002 when 63 million tonnes of foodgrains stocks had accumulated with the FCI; and at other times, such as now, the opposite has happened, causing an inflation in foodgrains prices.


The UPA government’s proposal, placed before the National Development Council meeting on May 29, re-emphasising the goal of food security, and setting a target of a 20 million tonne increase in foodgrains output by the end of the Eleventh Plan, must appear at first sight therefore as a welcome step, not only because food security is important per se, but also because it goes against the grain of neo-liberalism. The problem however is that the same resolution proposed by the UPA government also wants to carry forward the neo-liberal project of making peasant agriculture subservient to the needs of corporate capital. This is evident not only from the fact that the resolution makes no mention of price-support, tariff policy, procurement operations and the public distribution system, but also from the strong references it makes to contract farming, and from its general technocratic orientation. And what is more, the resolution itself claims lineage from a report prepared by an NDC sub-committee chaired by the union agriculture minister, which makes no secret of its corporate orientation. That report, while again remaining conspicuously silent on the issue of prices and public procurement, asks not only for corporate and contract farming, but even for a reversal of land reforms facilitating tenancy.


Some defenders of the UPA resolution have argued that prices are a matter outside of the purview of the Planning Commission, and hence have no reason to figure in an NDC resolution devoted to the development of agricultural plans. But such bureaucratic hair-splitting is not persuasive. To talk of planning without a price-policy is meaningless. Besides, the Planning Commission itself has in the past used price-policy as an instrument of economic stabilisation: in 1974 for example when the country was facing an inflation rate of 30 per cent, it was on the basis of the Planning Commission’s intervention that procurement prices for foodgrains were kept constant, as an instrument for turning the domestic terms of trade against agriculture and thereby putting a check on inflation. The conclusion is inescapable therefore that the UPA government, even while showing concern over food security, has not abandoned its basic policy of bringing peasant agriculture under the hegemony of corporate capital. This amounts to a fundamental contradiction in the government’s agricultural policy.


This contradiction is so obvious that one feels amazed at the pervasive lack of appreciation of it. The goal of food security necessarily means an interference with the market. It means that the output-mix is not exclusively determined by the interaction between demand and supply on the “free market”, but is influenced by a set of other considerations, relating to “food security”. If agriculture is opened up to the dictates of the “free market”, then only those crops will be grown for which there is demand in the international economy. And the massive pull of the purchasing power of the advanced countries combined with that of the local rich, will far outweigh the food needs of the indigent Indian masses in determining our cropping pattern. Since the demand emanating from the advanced countries is not for additional foodgrains, of which they have huge surpluses, but for a whole range of goods that are not producible in those countries but are required for a diversified consumption basket (such as fruits and vegetables), opening up to the world market necessarily entails a shift away from foodgrains. And if peasant production is hegemonised by corporate capital which is driven exclusively by the quest for profits rather than any concern for national food security, to talk of food security and “liberalisation” in the same breath, as the UPA is doing, simply betrays inconsistency and confusion. The fact that this confusion, far from being exposed and critiqued, is simply repeated by numerous commentators, is a symptom of the depressing level of intellectual poverty that surrounds us at present. Far from there being any genuine backtracking on the part of the UPA, we simply have the arbitrary and eclectic superimposition of an impossible slogan of food security on the basic neo-liberal agenda.


The impossibility of this slogan becomes apparent if we ask the very simple question: what instrument does the government have for increasing the level of foodgrains output? True, the resolution talks of many worthwhile things, relating to increase in public investment, increase in credit to the agricultural sector, a revival of the extension system which had all but disappeared from rural India, emphasis on rain-fed agriculture and watershed management, and above all a new and massive research effort the need for which cannot be over-emphasised. But unless the incentives of the peasantry are strengthened, unless agriculture is once again made remunerative, and unless the peasantry is insulated against risks by the provision of assured remunerative prices linked to costs of inputs as well as the cost of living, none of these otherwise worthwhile measures will bear fruit. Food security requires above all making foodgrains production worthwhile for the peasantry through the institution of a system of assured remunerative prices. We had such a system and still have on paper but it has been allowed to fall into disuse and decay.


Food security has three other essential requirements: one is the injection of adequate purchasing power into the economy especially into the hands of the rural poor. The government may claim that with programmes like the NREGS this is exactly what is happening. But not only is the scale of employment envisaged under the NREGS extremely meagre, but the budgetary provisions for the NREGS are so paltry that even this promised scale of employment support is far from being realised. The second requirement is a system of public distribution at prices affordable by the poor. It is not enough in other words that there be adequate production, and even purchasing power in the hands of the poor. Unless the government intervenes to ensure that the output actually reaches the consumers instead of being hoarded in anticipation of speculative gains, and also that the purchasing power in the hands of the poor actually “counts” instead of being edged out by the even larger purchasing power in the hands of the non-poor (as would happen when an excess demand springs up for what was till then an adequate foodgrains output, because of the burgeoning urban taste for processed foods and animal products), there can be no food security for the bulk of the population. This is what the public distribution ensures. And in India the public distribution system, far from getting strengthened, is in the process of being wound up.


The latest attack on it comes from the reported moves to take the “APL population” out of the ambit of the PDS. The government had already introduced dual prices into the PDS, one for the BPL and one for the APL a decade ago in 1997; now, the entire APL is sought to be taken out of the PDS. This is reprehensible. It is a well-known fact that whenever targeting has been tried in the public distribution system, it has been the precursor of its gradual dissolution. In India however there is an additional fact, namely that the so-called BPL population is a gross underestimate of the actual poor. This is true not only of the official Planning Commission estimates based on a “poverty line”, but of all official estimates, including what the ministry of rural development’s recent survey is throwing up. In fact if we take the 61st round of the NSS, pertaining to 2004-5, and apply to it the standard “norm” of 2400 calories per person per day to define poverty in rural India, then the proportion of rural population below this “norm” comes to a whopping 86.5 per cent, which marks a remarkable increase from the figure of 74.5 for 1993-4. One may choose to take a lower “norm” of, say, 2100 calories. Even then the figure for 2004-5 comes to 59.8 per cent, up from 49.5 per cent a decade earlier (Utsa Patnaik in EPW, forthcoming). The figures for 2004-05 are much higher than any estimate of poverty emanating from official sources would suggest. The ‘APL’ designation therefore is grossly incorrect. Confining the PDS to the ‘BPL’ population will simply amount to excluding millions of starving and malnourished persons from the protection of a system of public foodgrains supplies. The argument is equally strong for urban areas which show a sharp decline in average calorie intake by 2004-5 compared to 1999-00 according to the 61st Round.


The third additional essential requirement for food security is that there should be no eviction and dispossession of the peasants from the lands they cultivate and no downsizing of their incomes, for in such a case even if they are thrown on to the NREGS (and even assuming that the latter does cater to all who demand work), they would still have suffered a sharp curtailment in their food intake. This requires the abjuring of all efforts towards corporate and contract farming, an additional reason for doing so over and above the impact of such farming on the output-mix that was mentioned above.


Even if 20 million tonnes of additional foodgrains are produced by the end of the Eleventh Five Year Plan as envisaged in the NDC resolution piloted by the UPA government, that would still mean a level of per capita output well below what the country had at the beginning of the 1990s. In other words even the target set by the UPA is paltry. Meeting even this paltry target in the absence of proper incentives for the peasants in the form of remunerative prices is an impossible task. But on top of all this, none of the three additional conditions for food security mentioned above is likely to be fulfilled. Indeed the tendency in each case is in the opposite direction, namely to undermine food security rather than strengthening it. As long as the UPA government remains committed to the neo-liberal agenda of integrating peasant agriculture to the world market, as long as it seeks to make peasant agriculture subservient to corporate capital, and as long as it makes “fiscal rectitude” and “sound finance” its over-riding objective to the detriment of NREGS and PDS, its professed concern with food security will have a completely hollow ring about it.