Food For All
Session 2

Welcoming the guests who had joined the seminar during the afternoon—especially, Shri Ajit Singh, Shri Nitish Kumar and Shri D. Raja—Shri R. K. Mishra gave a quick overview of the background of the seminar and summarised the proceedings of the morning. Then, he called upon Shri Ajit Singh to chair the session, recalling that there was hardly anyone in Indian political life who had put as much emphasis on agriculture as Shri Ajit Singh’s late respected father, Chaudhary Charan Singh.

Chairman’s Address

Shri Ajit Singh
President, Bharatiya Kisan Mazdoor Party

Agriculture has not been on the agenda of our nation for some time. However, agriculture continues to provide employment to 70 percent of our population. It remains the most important economic activity of our people. I have nothing against industry, but I feel worried when our newly installed Prime Minister visits the Chamber of Indian Industries (CII), before going to the Parliament.

Agriculturists are not organised. They are poor. So they have no voice in the polity of the nation. The industrial employees have their trade unions and the industrialists have their chambers. So they can effectively lobby for their cause. There is no one to represent and lobby for the cause of agriculture. That is why I am very happy that this seminar has been organised. An abundance of agricultural production is basic to the interests of the agriculturists. I hope this is the beginning, and this effort to bring agriculture to the forefront of national attention shall continue.

In a democracy you need to form organised interest groups to lobby for your share of the national resources. That is where agriculture suffers, because poor farmers form no organised lobby. About a year or so ago, I was talking to the then chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. I told him that he was not listening to the sugarcane farmers. He replied that everybody was free to talk to him. However, the owners of sugar-mills could take him to dinners and discuss matters with him as between equals. Which farmer could dare to see him and discuss matters concerning agriculture? Lobbying effort on the part of the farmers is missing. We have a farmers’ group in the Parliament; I do not remember when this group met last.

Agriculture has been getting a paltry share of national resources. Public investment in agriculture peaked in 1980-81, when it was about 15 percent of all investment. In 1985-86 the share of agriculture in public investment fell to 9 percent. In 1992-93 it was mere 6 percent.

Our population is growing at the rate of 2.14 percent per year. During 1981-91, rate of growth of production of foodgrains was about the same. In the five years since the liberalisation programme was launched, between 1991-1996, the rate of growth in production of foodgrains has fallen to a mere 1.06 percent. This is less than half of the growth rate of population. Average availability of foodgrains per capita in 1951 was around 495 grams per day. In 1991 it grew to 510 grams. Now it has fallen back to 495.

We have done rather poorly in increasing production of foodgrains. Whatever growth has taken place has been confined to a few states and districts of the North. Food availability involves both production and distribution. In the matter of distribution too our efforts have been limited. We make a lot of noise about distribution and the subsidies that we provide for it. We have a plethora of high sounding schemes. The latest such scheme promises to provide foodgrains at half the price for targeted groups. However, everyone knows that little of this targeted food reaches the needy. Much of it is diverted. In any case, three-fifths of all public distribution shops are located in the urban areas.

Both on the production as well as the distribution front we are running into problems. That is why I am happy that this effort has been made. I am looking forward to listening to the experts here. We are nowadays largely immersed in what seem to be momentous political events of the day. But the future of our country is going to be determined by what we do on this issue of food. We have had ten good monsoons in succession. That gives a certain sense of complacency. Let one monsoon fail, and we shall see what happens to the industrial growth and gross domestic product; the health of Indian economy is so closely linked with the health of agriculture.

Already our agriculture production is falling behind population growth. If this trend continues then in another ten or fifteen years we shall all forget the debate that we have been having for the last one or two years about how to export foodgrains. Instead we shall be wondering about from where to import foodgrains. It is high time that we begin paying attention to our agriculture, and especially to our food situation.

Finally, let me say that we have lost our sensitivity to people dying of hunger. Starvation deaths in places like Kalahandi have been debated so many times in the Parliament, yet nothing has changed. Now we have even stopped debating. Nowadays when people die of hunger there is not even a mention in the Parliament of India.

Average availability of 200 kg of food per capita per year does not mean that everyone gets even that much to eat. Large parts of our population in Orissa, in the tribal areas of Maharashtra and in Bihar get much less. People may not be technically dying of hunger, but they are hungry. They are dying, perhaps not of hunger but certainly of malnutrition. Malnutrition of children affects not only the body, it affects their mental abilities also. Various assessments of the Tamilnadu midday meal scheme show that one free meal per day has improved both the physical and the mental growth of children in that state.

The issue of food and hunger is a very serious subject. We are going to have several eye-catching events and celebrations tomorrow and the day after, and perhaps during the whole of this fiftieth anniversary year of Indian Independence. Nevertheless, we should continue to focus our attention on the issue of food and hunger that forms the core of the freedom of a people.

Keynote Address
Shri D. Raja
General Secretary, Communist Party of India

I share the concern expressed by Shri Ajit Singh in his presidential remarks. Agriculture must be given priority. I am told the ninth five-year plan gives high priority to agriculture. How far we shall achieve the targets is to be seen. I join the chairman in congratulating the organisers.

However, I do not agree that the sharing of food was a religious or spiritual practice in India. It was not so. I come from Tamilnadu and I find several people here are from that state. I cannot quote Vedas, but I can quote the Tamil epic Manimekalai. The whole epic deals with the problem of hunger. The epic speaks of a miraculous vessel, so-called akshaya-patra. The vessel is given to someone, from whom it passes into the hands of Manimekalai, the heroine of the epic. She then keeps distributing food to the hungry, and thus tries to eliminate hunger in society. This epic belongs to the sangam period, which is placed at around 2,000 years ago.

This is an ancient story. Let me now come to the modern days. There was a saint in Tamilnadu in the nineteenth century, Swami Ramalingar. He took it as a mission to fight hunger and disease. He established a matham where people, irrespective of caste or creed, could go and pray in front of a light and then eat together. He was a modern saint. These two examples show that there was hunger in the past and there is hunger now.

Golden age was not in the past. If at all there is a golden age, it is in the future. We should try to advance towards that golden age. Food for all remains an eternal endeavour of mankind. It is a lofty ideal. We should fight for food for all. But how do we achieve this ideal?
Someone made a reference to China. Those who are talking about liberalisation and reform of the economy should understand how China went about doing this. China started its reforms in 1970 with agriculture. The objective of the reforms was food. They started with producing more foodgrains to feed their own people. Only then did they move to other sectors. Chinese reforms do have their own Chinese characteristics. What is our Indian approach to reforms?

In agriculture, our objective must be to develop productive forces. Productive forces in the agrarian sector cannot be developed, unless land reforms are genuinely implemented. We communists tried our best to fight for land reforms. Wherever we came to power, we tried to implement land reforms. We are still fighting for land reforms. Land reform is the first priority. Without it we cannot develop the productive forces.

Then, at the second stage, we should try to improve the productivity in agriculture. In this context, the question of small and marginal farmers must be properly addressed. It is true that there was green revolution at a point of time. Certain parts of the country prospered. The prosperity, however, did not percolate. It did not expand to other parts. So increasing productivity remains a challenge to be met.

The world is moving fast; there is genetic engineering, there is biotechnology. These technologies are not only for improving foodgrain crops, but also for improving cattle. Milk consumption in India is amongst the lowest. It took several years for me to find out that there is something like ghee. That is the life in villages.

We shall have to address these issues, the issue of land reforms, the issue of protection of small and marginal farmers, and the issue of acquiring and disseminating newer technologies.

International bodies too have been talking about hunger, but little has been achieved. World Food Summit was held in 1974. It was decided there that the objective of food for all would be accomplished by 1994. Last year there was another food summit in Rome; there the question of providing food for all was not even discussed. They resolved that in the next twenty years efforts shall be made to lift about half of the hungry of the world out of their state of hunger. It was only Fidel Castro who tried to show up the pettiness of this goal. He said, “What kind of cosmetic solutions are we going to provide so that 20 years from now there would be 400 millions instead of 800 million starving people. The very modesty of this goal is shameful.” He observed, “Hunger, the inseparable companion of the poor, is the offspring of the unequal distribution of wealth and of injustices in the world. The rich do not know of hunger. It is capitalism, neo-liberalism, …external debt, underdevelopment and the unequal terms of trade that are killing so many people in the world.”

What Castro said about the world, applies to India also. Unequal distribution of wealth is the source of hunger. Hunger is not caused by natural catastrophe. Hunger is man-made. You do not allow people to consume and they have no purchasing capacity. The consumption pattern in India has been studied by many research centres. This is a highly skewed pattern showing grossly unequal consumption. This is the India where we live. How do we change this consumption pattern? Who has created this hunger in India?

We shall of course have to produce more. We shall also have to ensure equitable distribution. Do we have proper distribution of foodgrains? I share the concern expressed by Shri Ajit Singh. I hold the view that public distribution system should really benefit the needy and poor. But if this system is not working, who is responsible? Who runs the public distribution system? It is the bureaucracy. And, what is the character of our bureaucracy? Are the officers sensitive to the people? Are they responsive to their aspirations? Do they understand hunger?

We should really undergo the experience of hunger. It is not enough to understand hunger through books or statistical figures. We should understand hunger. It is not that everyone should starve to learn about hunger, yet we have to learn to be sensitive to the hunger of others. We must have a strong will to fight hunger, to fight poverty. It is not that we cannot eliminate hunger from India. We can certainly feed our people. We can give them decent shelter. We can give them the basic needs. We only need a national commitment to achieve these goals.

If every one is committed to elimination of hunger and poverty, then we shall certainly be able to find a way out. Food for all should be our target. Let us join together to achieve it.

Shri K. S. Bains
Former, Agriculture Secretary

While calling upon Shri K. S. Bains to speak, Shri Mishra recalled that Punjab has the highest production per capita in the country; and it also has a system of large-scale sharing. Punjabi people are greatly inspired by what their religion teaches them. In every Gurudwara in Punjab, there is free food available at almost all times. Anyone can go there and get a proper meal. No public distribution system can achieve what has been achieved there, simply because people there believe that food should be shared. The example of Punjab proves that if people are moved by religious sentiment, they can eradicate hunger from India.

Shri K. S. Bains, former chairman of Punjab and Sindh Bank, who was at one stage closely involved with agriculture as the union agriculture secretary, said:

Before we proceed to search for a solution, let us first define the dimensions of the problem. By the year 2000 our population shall be near a billion. To provide for 200 kg per capita per year of consumption for this population, it is generally presumed that we shall need to produce about 200 million tons of foodgrains. However, any number of surveys by the agriculture ministry, the food ministry and the national sample survey have shown that about ten to fifteen per cent of the harvest is lost in storage and distribution. Another two to three percent for some crops, but more generally five percent, is needed for seed. Therefore to obtain an availability of 200 kilograms per head, the gross production by the year 2000 shall have to be around 235 million tons. Production of 200 million tons, which we keep proposing as the realizable target, shall just not suffice.

Between 1950 to 1985, we increased production of foodgrains by about 100 million tons, and reached the figure of around 150 million tons. In the 15 years between 1985 to 2000, we need to have an incremental production of 85 million tons if we are to reach the target of 235 million tons. Now at the near end of 1990’s we are producing only around 190 million tons. Going from here to 235 million tons in the next 3 years is impossible. The modest target seems unrealisable, given the fact that for the past few years we have been relying more on good rains than on any real investment in agriculture.

Next let us look at the question of self-sufficiency. To ensure even the low level of availability that we have, we have been importing about 3 million tons of foodgrains annually on the average. During the last couple of decades at least that much food has been imported. Imports become necessary because the buffer goes down every four years, and there is a minimum of buffer stocks that the government has to maintain.

A large country cannot really depend upon import of foodgrains to any significant extent. It is impossible. I have been in the ministry of food for pretty long. The moment the food ministry decides, actually the moment any discussion takes place in the cabinet about importing some quantity of foodgrains, prices in the major grain markets of the world begin rising. We can keep importing two or three million tons a year. However, given the behaviour and size of international market of foodgrains, to import even 10 to 15 million tons is out of question.

There is some talk in certain circles, that if our industry grows and we have enough foreign exchange, then anything can be imported and anything can be exported. Such arguments do not work in the matter of foodgrains. The quantities we require just cannot be imported, howsoever large a reservoir of foreign exchange we might have. In order to assure availability of a mere 200 kilograms of foodgrains per capita per year in the year 2000, we need to supplement our production by 45 million tons. Such a large amount cannot be imported. It has to be produced. The question is whether we can or cannot enhance production to this level.

The ministry of agriculture always has had this advantage compared to other ministries, that most of the means required for increasing production are concentrated within it. It controls and administers everything concerned with agriculture. In contrast, if you look at say, the ministry of industry, then you find that there are separate ministries for steel, chemicals, textiles, etc., and also for commerce. Anything that the ministry of industry wants to achieve requires decisions by all these ministries. All that is required for achieving targets in agriculture comes within the control of the single ministry of agriculture; except that about five years ago the department of fertilisers was separated from the ministry, and I think it should be brought back. The ministry of agriculture administers even the financial aspects of agricultural development. National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development is under its control. The entire cooperative sector is under it. The technology development institutions like Indian Council of Agriculture Research are under it. Thus the ministry of agriculture is on the whole well equipped to implement decisions concerning agricultural growth, once clear decisions are taken.

If we decide to significantly increase production of foodgrains, then what is the way to go about it. Today about 75 per cent of the irrigated area is under foodgrains. Only about 25% is under cash crops like sugarcane and cotton. Therefore, from the currently available irrigation, not much increase can be expected in the irrigated area under foodgrains. If anything, more of irrigated area is likely to be diverted to commercially lucrative crops like sugarcane, and even plantation crops like poplar.

On current assessments, a total of about 110 million hectares can be brought under irrigation. So far we have utilised only about 50 million hectares of this potential. However there is no way we can effect any substantial increase in irrigated area during the next few years through major irrigation projects. Quite apart from the environmental problems associated with such projects, which are now being loudly talked about, these also have long gestation periods.

Therefore we are left with minor irrigation. Unless we can concentrate on minor irrigation, it will not be possible to achieve any substantial increase in production of foodgrains. Minor irrigation cannot succeed unless the holdings are consolidated. If Punjab and Haryana have registered tremendous increase in minor irrigation, so that about 55 percent of the irrigated area in these states is under minor irrigation, it is due to consolidation of holdings. Once the cultivator has his land in one place, he will invest, he will level the land and put in a tubewell.

We have not been able to implement consolidation of holdings in much of India. According to the national sample survey, holding of a cultivator in Bihar is dispersed over 9 places on the average, in Orissa the average is about 17 and in Bengal it is 11. In such a situation we cannot expect the cultivator to invest in minor irrigation. Land reforms are a very vast area. Among these, consolidation of holdings is an important facet. Even if we cannot implement the land-ceilings and other measures directed at equitable distribution of land resources, we should certainly take up consolidation of holdings. This aspect of land reforms cannot be neglected any longer.

Chief Guest’s Address
Shri Nitish Kumar
President, Samata Party

Shri Nitish Kumar spoke in Hindi. The following is a brief English version of his speech:

Let me begin by congratulating the Centre for Policy Studies and the Observer Research Foundation for organising this seminar on a core national issue. It is my good fortune that Shri Ajit Singh, who is deeply aware of the problems concerning agriculture, is chairing this session and Shri Lal Krishna Advani is present here.

The situation regarding food in India is indeed serious. In 1990, the union ministry of agriculture had fixed a target of 240 million tons of production of foodgrains by the end of the century. Now that we are nearing the end of the decade, the target seems beyond us. Therefore, the ministry has decided to lower its target. The problem does not disappear by merely shifting targets.

It is an unfortunate fact that the planners, economists, thinkers, intellectuals and the statesmen of India have not paid as much attention to agriculture as it deserves. If we were really serious about producing enough food for our people, then it could have certainly been done. We have abundant cultivable lands. Even today not all cultivable land has been brought under the plough. Of the land that we cultivate, only about one-third has been provided with any kind of irrigation facilities. Two-thirds of our cultivation is still dependent upon the vagaries of rain. If we could arrange to irrigate all of our cultivated lands, then we could achieve much higher targets than the 240 million tons that the ministry of agriculture is finding beyond its reach.

We have talked a great deal about green-revolution. But, as is well known, the so-called green revolution is limited only to Punjab, Haryana, western parts of Uttar Pradesh, and a few districts of Andhra Pradesh and Tamilnadu. Other parts of the country are deprived of all technological improvement or inputs. Our agricultural scientists are indeed highly competent; but in most parts of the country the extension services are nonexistent. The knowhow generated in the laboratories does not reach the cultivators. The extension workers are asked to take up extraneous responsibilities, like supervising the building of roads and culverts in the rural areas.

We need to pay attention to improving our traditional agricultural practices. We cannot develop agriculture only on the basis of exotic seeds, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides. Our use of these is already nearing the danger level. We are using chemicals that are banned in the rest of the world. Mechanization too can have only a limited role in our agricultural development. To decrease dependence upon mechanization and chemicals, we need to develop our cattle-wealth. Agriculture in India cannot be improved unless we preserve and nurture our cattle.

We also need to curb the tendency to import agricultural commodities at the slightest provocation. Recently we have imported wheat which is full of exotic weeds. During the Janata regime of 1989-90, we faced some scarcity of edible oils. The then government resisted the immense pressure that was brought upon it to import. If the government had succumbed to the pressure then the growth in the production of oil-seeds that we have witnessed during the last few years would not have taken place. The political leadership today has lost the moral courage to call upon the people to bear with occasional scarcity. We import whenever there is a slight decline in production. Consequently, the cultivators suffer.

The problem of imports of agricultural commodities is going to become even more acute. We have become partners in the WTO arrangements, that oblige us to take part in the international trade in agricultural commodities. The direction in which such international arrangements are moving is ominous. If we are not careful, we are going to lose control over what we produce and how. I remember that Mahatma Gandhi had initiated the Independence movement from Champaran. He began by liberating the cultivators of that area from the forced farming of nil. The British needed nil for the cloth that their mills were producing. They made the Champaran farmers grow nil, which destroyed the fertility of soils so thoroughly that it has not been recovered even today.

What the new international arrangements like the WTO shall make us grow on our lands, we do not even know yet. They are not interested in letting us grow foodgrains; the USA grows so much of foodgrains that the produce has to be dumped in the seas. They shall be happy if we stop growing foodgrains for ourselves, and import what they are obliged to destroy today. When we begin to import food from abroad, then our food-security shall be really lost. Control over foodgrains shall become the new determinant of international power. We have to seriously ponder over this emerging situation.

The issue of Annadana that has been raised in this seminar is also very important. It is true that we have had a tradition of sharing; especially the poorer sections of society share the little they have amongst themselves. During my childhood we were told that by sharing alone does one become great. Much of the constructive work, which was a major part of our Independence movement under Mahatma Gandhi, was financed by the handfuls of grains that people used to set aside daily for the cause. That sentiment needs to be revived today. If the political parties today could think of financing themselves in the same way, by asking their supporters to set aside a handful of grains for the cause, then the rampant corruption of today would probably come under control. We need to bring ourselves back to these ideals of concern and sharing; otherwise the way the world is moving, we seem to be in danger of becoming enslaved again.

Concluding Remarks
Shri Ajit Singh

Former Union Minster for Food

Concluding the second technical session of the day, Shri Ajit Singh said:

I wish we had more time and listened to others also. The theme of today’s seminar is concerned with recollecting the Indian discipline of growing and sharing food. Unfortunately those of us who joined in the afternoon could not hear much on that subject. While arranging future discussions on this issue, we should think of holding larger plenary sessions.

I agree with Shri Raja that land-reforms are crucial for agricultural development. As Shri Bains has pointed out, consolidation of holdings is a major aspect of land-reforms. While undertaking land-reforms, we must keep in mind the minimum size of a viable holding. We must see to it that holdings are not fragmented into unviable units of half an acre and a quarter acre. Shri Nitish Kumar has mentioned the importance of organic fertilizer and traditional agricultural practices. These are important issues. Shri Bains has rightly pointed out that in future we shall have to rely largely on minor irrigation.

I must once again raise the issue of investment in agriculture. Unless we raise investment in agriculture, nothing will happen. We are just not investing in agriculture. Shri Raja has also raised the issue of subsidies. Agricultural subsidies in India constitute less than 5% of the value of agricultural produce. In the so-called developed countries such subsidies are many times higher. In India what we refer to as agricultural subsidies are essentially subsidies for inefficient fertiliser industry or electricity boards. In other countries, subsidies often constitute direct payments to the cultivator.

The issue of agricultural pricing is also very important. Unless we give remunerative prices to the cultivators, we cannot expect them to invest in agriculture. Already, urbanization is putting pressure on arable lands. The cultivators are being forced by economic pressure to shift lands under foodgrains to commercial crops. The present situation seems unfavourable for growth in foodgrains. We are soon going to be in trouble in the matter of food.