Food Supply in India: A Grim Outlook


Analytical Monthly Review, published in Kharagpur, West Bengal, India, is a sister edition of Monthly Review.  Its September 2009 issue features the following editorial. — Ed.

We now face the immediate need of a qualitative change in our most fundamental economic relationship — delivery of food supply. The problem is not the variability of the weather. Rather, the situation has arisen from an extended process rooted in the sharp growth in inequality that has accompanied the extension of capitalist social relations in the period of “reform”. The condition of fully half of the population has been steadily weakening over the last decades, growing ever more undernourished. At the same time the governmental tools available to respond to a food crisis have been under continuous attack, and are no longer able to fill their role.

According to the UNICEF report, “The State of the World’s Children 2009”, India has the highest rate of child malnutrition in the world. On average children in rural areas are twice as likely to be underweight as children in urban areas. The rate of child malnutrition is higher than that of sub-Saharan Africa. This is the baseline from which we can begin to assess the consequences of the failed monsoon.

The crisis has been building up for some time. Grain output has been stagnating for over a decade. For the five years from 2002-07 the average annual growth rate in agriculture has been a meager 2.2 percent, hardly more than India’s 1.5 percent annual population growth. Per capita availability of foodgrains in terms of kg/year was 162.5 in 2006, below the level of 1972 figure of 171.1. But the availability of foodgrains does not give the real picture of the food question; access to food is the main criteria. The decline in per capita availability masks a yet more severe decline for the disadvantaged sections, the inevitable result of the neoliberal dogma of rationing scarce goods by ability to pay — “market relations”.

The vast extent of the numbers living in extreme poverty is known in fact to everyone, but simply does not appear in the business press, television or Bollywood. At election time lying blather about “poverty reduction” appears, but the fact is that if we were to follow international criteria then 45 percent or more of Indians are extremely poor. Arguably the most significant achievement since Independence was the extension of food security to this immense sector of the population through the Public Distribution System, assuring a minimum level of supply. The PDS achieved, at least to some considerable extent, the rationing of scarce but necessary goods without making the means of payment the decisive consideration. But only the shadow now remains.

The “reform” post-1991 regime set out to destroy the Public Distribution System, and to no small degree achieved that aim. The means used was “targeting” — removing from the PDS tens of crores [a ‘crore’ is ten million ed.] of the poor deemed not poor enough. Yet the damage went far further. Every study we are aware of (see our review of this question in the May 2008 Analytical Monthly Review) shows that most subsidised food grains fail to reach the remaining “Below Poverty Level” supposedly still entitled to receive them, and that a very large percentage (approaching half) of those entitled in theory to ration cards do not have them. With relentless neoliberal logic, subsidies supposedly “targeted” for the poorest in fact now go to the ration dealers and their intermediaries who sell on the black, according to studies (necessarily unoffical and approximate), up to 40% or more of all subsidised supplies. With the PDS largely destroyed, the availability of food for the poorest once again depends on their ability to pay for it.

Food prices have been steadily rising in the five years since 2004. In these years between 2004 and 2008, when India had some good monsoons and “record production” of foodgrains was claimed, the price of rice went up 46 per cent, that of wheat by over 62 per cent, atta (whole wheat flour) 55 per cent, salt 42 per cent, etc. By March 2008, the average increase in price of such items was already well over 40 per cent. Then these prices rose again till a little before the 2009 polls and have risen dramatically in the past three months. Inflation based on year-on-year variation in consumer price indices (CPIs) has increased since June 2008. Various measures of consumer price inflation remained high in the range of 8.6-11.5 per cent during May/June 2009, and 8.0-9.7 per cent in March 2009, as compared with 7.3-8.8 per cent in June 2008. For the most disadvantaged who have fallen out of the wreckage of the PDS system, and we are talking of crores, the last years of price rise for foods have meant a steady gradual increase in hunger and malnutrition.

And now comes the bad monsoon of 2009. We are officially told, writing in the first days of September, that fully half of the country is suffering drought. We earnestly hope that September will see better than average rainfall, and that the extent of the shortfall shall be mitigated. Yet the question at issue is not unpredictable weather in one month or another; it is the consequences of what ecologists have told us is certain — that facing us today are the results of global climate change and irresponsible market driven practices in the absence of planning. Not only this year but in the years ahead there will be repeated crises arising from water shortages. A study published in Nature in August this year recounts that a satellite study shows that groundwater reserves in northern India have dropped sharply between 2002 and 2008. This depletion, due primarily to irrigation, is accelerating over time. And even in the absence of consensus on a causal linkage between global warming and bad monsoons, there is consensus on the increased prevalence of extreme weather variation — i.e. that the previously rare event (such as a failed monsoon) will be more frequent. Once again, the future has arrived.

In the last weeks the rise in food prices has accelerated. And the broken channels of the remaining PDS distribution system are everywhere visibly disintegrating. A Times of India report of September 2nd is a good illustration of the problem (and of one among the available solutions):

Maoists . . . seized 75 ration cards from ration dealer Laxmikanta Das’ house at Memul in Salboni on Tuesday and allegedly distributed them to actual card holders who had so far been unable to buy anything through the public distribution system. In fact, the dealer allegedly used to lend money to the poor people of the area, keeping their ration cards with him as mortgage. Maoists also seized 1,500 litres of kerosene from the accused ration dealer’s house-cumgodown.

Ration card holders like Debjani Das, Rekha Das, Dhanapati Das, Shambhu Tudu and Gopal Hembram — whose cards Das kept with him — wondered how “the corrupt ration dealer piled 1,500 litres of kerosene as his ration shop was closed for about two months”.

Shambhu Tudu and Gopal Hembram said, “We know Maoists are banned in our country. But neither political parties nor officers dared to seize our ration cards from the influential ration dealer. Maoists did it.”

West Midnapore district magistrate Narayan Swaroop Nigam said, “We have got to know of the ration card of the racket from local sources. I have ordered a probe into it.”

Predictably, we are told by [Union finance minister] Pranab Mukherjee that food supplies are sufficient, that any shortfall shall be met by purchases on the international markets, that the economy was recovering, and not to worry. This was then followed by the usual nonsense about aggregate growth rates. As ever, disaggregation paints a different picture. The supposed 6.1% year-on-year growth for the June quarter of 2009 was more than half accounted for by a sharp increase in the trade balance. But the increase in the trade balance was wholly accounted for by a decrease in imports far greater than the decrease in exports. So half of the “growth” was due to contraction! But even this “recovery” is about to take a tumble. Agriculture’s contribution to GDP for the September quarter is forecast to be off ten percent or worse. And the drop in the price of petroleum products in the first half of the year (resulting in the positive trade balance) has reversed. Food prices are climbing rapidly, and the purchases on the international markets promised by Pranab Mukherjee will be very costly indeed.

Yet even were it possible that aggregate growth rates were to be restored to “India Shining” brilliance, the question at issue would remain. With agriculture now contributing but a sixth of GDP though providing the livelihood of more than half of the population, a fundamental divergence has emerged between the real world and that of capitalist economic calculation. Let us recall that, according to home ministry records (and surely an undercount), more than 180,000 farmers have committed suicide since 1997, a period in which GDP has supposedly doubled. If, say, over the next two years agriculture’s contribution were to be cut in half, the aggregate GDP would increase provided only that service sector, banking and real estate and so on expanded by a fifth (a rate achieved in most recent two year periods). Of course instead of two lakh of farmer suicides we would be dealing with deaths numbered in crores, while the business press would no doubt celebrate “growth.” This is what we meant in suggesting that the question of food supply now requires a qualitative change in our most fundamental economic relations. The path of neoliberal market “reform” has come to the edge of the cliff.