Millennium Post

A requiem for pulses!

If paddy farmers get a raise, wheat farmers in Rabi can also expect a similar dispensation. Wheat shares a competitive advantage with paddy

The announcement of substantial increments in MSP for Kharif is indeed good news for the agriculture sector. This will give the necessary boost to farmers' income, and also push up the demand in the rural areas. Moreover, the requirements of the PDS system, driven by the Right to Food Act also necessitate increased procurement, as well as sufficient reserves. And if paddy farmers get a raise, wheat farmers in Rabi can also expect a similar dispensation. Wheat shares a competitive advantage with paddy–the big off-take takes place to meet the commitments under the NFSA. But it is time the mandate of the NFSA is expanded beyond the wheat-rice duopoly, especially for districts which suffer from chronic malnutrition. The production and procurement of rice and wheat is more than sufficient to meet the food security requirements of the country in terms of cereals. And in recent years, the country is witnessing bumper production of pulses, and we are now in a position to meet our domestic requirements. So it's time to look beyond the usual!

While working on a paper on the eco-system of India's Food Security, it became apparent to this columnist that when procurement of a commodity within a state is linked to consumption within the state itself, there is a virtuous cycle which has the potential of giving a major boost to agricultural incomes and rural prosperity. As wheat and rice are the principal crops – all the major players, vis the state government, Government of India (GoI), and Food Corporation of India (FCI) take full responsibility for procurement, logistics, and distribution – and thanks to technology interventions, the system has become quite streamlined. Moreover, with the near-universal coverage of Aadhaar card, it is now possible to track whether food grains are reaching the intended beneficiary or not. It is important to note that today we have both institutional strength and the technology to manage both procurement and distribution of food. It is also important to place on record that the government has taken pro-active steps towards the rehabilitation of NAFED – thereby making it possible for Union and interested state governments to undertake production of pulses, and indeed several state governments , including MP, Rajasthan, UP, West Bengal, Odisha, Punjab, and Haryana have taken advantage.

However, as pulses and oilseeds are not within the ambit of food security, the big problem is that even when the government takes the first steps towards procurement, where is the offtake? If the procured quantities are ploughed back into the market within the next few months, the prices of the next year's production will plummet. As such the Central and state governments should jointly work out a distribution mechanism of utilisation of the stock within PDS in the districts with the highest incidence of malnutrition in the country thereby creating a 'demand', stabilising the market, and preventing the recirculation of the same stock by intermediaries.

This columnist proposes that over and above the buffer stock, the holding stock of around 35 lace MTs should be sold to the PDS beneficiaries at subsidised rates of around 50 per cent of the market rate. The subsidy should be in the range of Rs 8000 crore, a small sum for the governments to ensure income security for farmers who grow pulses (usually marginal and small), and nutrition support to the most vulnerable districts.

It is true that the food subsidy bill is burgeoning – but let us not forgets that as per the provisions of the Act, the issue price of wheat, rice and coarse cereals was to be linked to the MSP. However, this has not been done, as it is not politically expedient to do so. So year after year, the subsidy on provisioning wheat and rice will grow, and the poor farmer who grows pulses in rainfed conditions, and produces a crop which makes more ecological sense, helps improve the soil and is more nutritional will be left out of the ambit. As also the poor, who unlike the rich are mainly dependent on pulses as the main source of protein, and who now find it well beyond their reach? Therefore, both from the perspective of equity and ecology, there is a very strong case for including pulses within the 'mandated foods' under food security.

In fact, the Union government may insist that the states from which pulses are procured should at least utilise the amount procured from within the state for the mid-day meal, ICDS centres, and other PDS programs. Thus, if 16 LMT of Gram has been procured in Rajasthan, this should also be utilised in the state. This will also put pressure on the state governments to get the priorities of the agriculture and food departments in sync with each other. For much too long, these departments have operated in their own silos. It's time for us to take a holistic picture – and if this is done, one would also realise that if farmers are given fair recompense for their efforts, the rural credit structure would be on an even keel with a positive impact on farm credit, farm equipment, and mechanisation. Without this, the entire exercise of doubling farmers income would not make a significant dent in the agrarian economy of Rainfed areas, where the bulk of our marginal and small farmers eke out a living with their sweat and toil.

(The author is Director General, ATI & Additional Chief Secretary, Government of West Bengal. The views expressed are strictly personal)

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