Millennium Post

Beyond wheat-rice duopoly

To popularise nutri-cereals among farmers it is important to establish a robust pricing and support mechanism

Contrary to what your columnist had thought, the 'requiem for pulses' written on the occasion of the declaration of MSP, has taken a life of its own – thanks to WhatsApp and the questions that have been raised from an entire range of readers – from fellow bureaucrats to those dealing with agri-commodities, ecologists, RTI activists, and civil society activists concerned with matters of nutrition. The questions, though interconnected, have been grouped together under the following heads.

Do we know the actual requirement of pulses in the nutritionally-deficit districts? Why are we limiting ourselves to pulses? Why not promote eggs? If we are talking about pulses, why not include coarse cereals – which are disappearing from our cuisine so completely? Why are we promoting paddy, which is a water guzzler, in states which are chronically short of water? How are prices determined? Why should the states bear the burden for MSP? The credit is taken by the Union government. Why can't we learn from Israel on agriculture? They have such little water and they grow everything. Why does the intermediary still have such a major role to play? Why does he earn so much when the farmer is literally starving?

Well, the good thing is that the conversations have started. This is how answers will flow – for, in the first instance, we need to ask questions and look for answers. Google has answers to the conventional FAQs – but, our issue is that we are going beyond the 'conventional'. So, let's start.

With regard to the first question, we do know that the government has identified 316 nutritionally-deficit districts in 19 states of the country and the government is already running the Poshan Abhin (Campaign for Food & Nutrition) for these districts. If we were to provide just two kg per family to about 11 crore families, we get a figure of 33 LMT (raw) and about 24 LMT (peeled/processed). If this can be sold through the PDS at Rs 20 per kg, the difference between the procurement costs (MSP, logistics, and warehousing) and the sale price will be in the range of Rs 12-15000 crore, but one must realise that if this stock is not distributed through the PDS but, instead, sold in the open market, the losses will still be in the range of Rs 8-10,00 crore: but, the profit from this transaction will go to the intermediary (traders) who use a fanciful name of 'price arbitrage' instead of 'windfall profits'. The additional burden of providing pulses to the nutritionally-deficient 11 crore families is, thus, just Rs 7-10,000 crores, to be spread between the Union and the state governments, but this appears to be the only logical way to meet the twin objective of ensuring a fair return to the farmer and affordable nutrition for the resource poor.

Why not promote eggs? Good idea, but only if the districts had the requisite infrastructure and resources to produce this number for the MDM program. Unless we are talking about eggs from organised poultry units, it does not make sense to collect eggs from the backyard poultry, thereby, depriving households of their nutrition (robbing Peter to pay Paul). Moreover, transporting eggs, in most months, over uneven terrain is a major challenge; and, if not handled properly, they rot. Egg powder is a better idea and, in a subsequent edition, a cost comparison of the two will be made. For the moment, let me also admit that one does not have a sufficient date to address this issue. However, the National Eggs Co-ordination Council can perhaps throw some light on this. During his tenure as the Joint Secretary, Sanjay Bhoosereddy and I had a brief discussion on this in the Krishi Bhawan, but like so many ideas, we never took this to its logical conclusion.

Coarse cereals or nutri-cereals are they are now called (bajra, ragi, jowar) are already a part of the food security discourse – but, the problem is that there are a few takers for coarse cereals under the PDS. This is primarily because, if the difference in price between rice and coarse cereal is only Rupee one, then why should anyone opt for bajra or ragi in comparison to rice. The only way the off-take of nutri-cereals can be increased is by insisting states to pick up at least 75 per cent of the procurement and use it for the Mid-Day Meal scheme. Further, this can be applicable in schemes like the Amma Canteen in Tamil Nadu. Because perishability is an issue, we could also recommend fiscal incentives for the food processing industries using coarse cereals as the basic ingredient of their range of products. We have the technology for ragi, bajra and jowar biscuits and bakery products. Perhaps, this is a dialogue which the MoFPI can take forward with the leading food product companies in the country: ITC, Nestle, Patanjali, and Bisk Farm, to name a few. Nafed could take the responsibility of procuring and providing the required quantities to the food companies at MSP and could also take up the distribution of these through the various assigned PDS in the nutritionally-deficit districts.

The procurement and marketing of nutri-cereals, along with a set of good diversification options are, therefore, the condition – the precedent for paddy producing farmers to look elsewhere. We have to make the 'economics' robust enough for farmers respond to them on their own. Which brings us to question of how agricultural prices are determined. Apart from the basic concept of demand and supply, there are important factors like state policy which have always played a significant role in the pricing of agricultural commodities for these are politically the most sensitive. However, the 'political economy' of pricing agricultural commodities has not taken into account the ecological dimension – for, till very recently, it would have been brushed under the carpet. Not any longer. Water is a big issue and no longer is agriculture the only major claimant to all available water. Therefore, optimising the use of water and factoring this into the economics of production becomes imperative.

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

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