Unfulfilled potential

With the second largest arable land area, India holds great potential for leading the world in food security and production

It is high time that India formulates a strategy to multiply food production and make food available to its poor millions at affordable prices instead of wasting energy on strategising agricultural marketing. Ranked 102nd in the 'Global Hunger Index' (GHI) of 117 countries, India urgently needs to increase food production. This is possible. India boasts an arable land area of 159.7 million hectares, the world's second-largest, after the US which has 174.45 million hectares. India is far ahead of fourth-placed China having only 103 million hectares. Russia is placed third with 121.78 million hectares. Yet, India's food grains (mostly wheat and rice) production target for 2020-21 is barely 298.3 million tonnes as against China's 347.9 million tonnes. A major consumer of corn, China's corn production target is 250 million tonnes. China is also a major importer of agricultural products, mostly from the US, to feed its people. Going by a report of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), India is heading toward a record wheat harvest and near-record rice production for 2020-21. Wheat production is forecast at 105 million tonnes while rice production is estimated at 117 million tonnes. In comparison, China's rice production target is 212 million tonnes and wheat output target 135 million tonnes.

Interestingly, the population estimates of both India and China are nearly at the same level of 1.4 billion each. China's staple food production is more than double the quantity produced in India. Yet, India often claims 'surplus' production of rice and wheat and plans for their export as in the case of the current year while the country's poor starve. Few are interested to find out the reasons behind India's grains 'surplus' claims and yet why so little food is available for millions of its poor families. The annual per capita income in China is USD 10,000, five times more than India's USD 2,000. With only 10 per cent of the world's total arable land area, China supports food demands of over 20 per cent of the world population. Unfortunately, no government in India has been able to explain why the country produces such inadequate quantities of food grains and overall feedstocks for such a large number of population. With proper planning and support from the government, India is quite capable of overtaking China as the world's number one food producer, including grains, meat, fish, poultry and milk. A much higher achievable food production level in India could help double its economic growth apart from achieving distributive justice to cover its underfed and undernourished millions.

It is not that India has not achieved much over the decades in food production. But, they have been mostly in pockets to serve those who can afford to buy them. India is second place in the world for milk and rice production. It has also got high classification as a producer of chicken, eggs and beef. However, such achievements helped little to fill the stomach of its hungry millions. India leads the world with the highest farm export growth (21.3 per cent) over the last decade. Paradoxically, nearly 30 per cent of Indian children are 'underweight,' according to the World Health Organisation. The authorities boast about India's growing food exports while the country's underfed millions struggle for a square meal, every day. India is said to be aiming to double farm exports from USD 30 billion to USD 60 billion by 2022, scout new markets hit by COVID-19, and put China at a disadvantage in bilateral farm trade, notes the details of consultations to "recalibrate" the country's agriculture trade policy. India's achievements in food production and export do not explain why it is the lowest-ranked country even among the South Asian nations and way behind the other BRICS countries, the lowest of which is South Africa at 59, in the 2019 Global Hunger Index. China ranks 25th in the index. China's latest food policy is focussed to further fight the state of hunger in the country.

"India's overall rice yields are still well below the world average, with wide variations in productivity among the country's major producing states. Analysts suggest that there is further room for increasing rice productivity in the country by expanding irrigation facilities and further improving the development and adoption of newer varieties and technology," a USDA study report said. Rice consumption in India in 2019-20 was estimated at 102 million tonnes, an increase of only three per cent over the previous year. Consumption is expected to increase further in 2020-21 to 108 million tonnes with the Government pushing more subsidised rice, the USDA said. Rice exports in 2020-21 are forecast to recover to 12 million tonnes on higher exportable supplies.

In this context, it may be pertinent to mention that as late as on February 6, this year, the Chinese Government released its annual policy guidelines on agriculture and rural development known as the 'No 1 Document.' The timing is important in the context of COVID-19 which became a pandemic by then. The Government repeatedly stated that China must be self-reliant in the production of staple grains, namely rice and wheat. This year's 'No 1 Document' stipulates that grain area and production should remain stable in every province in 2020. The minimum support price (MSP) programme will continue to be implemented in major grain-producing regions. Pilot programmes offering full production, cost-based and income-based, insurance will be further expanded in rice, wheat, and corn production areas. The document calls for greater use of high-yield varieties and crop rotation between soybeans and corn. One wishes that the Government of India also produces such a 'No 1 Document', listing the policy guidelines to substantially raise the grain production in the coming years. It should make a clear statement on MSP's future to ensure that more food is made available to the poor at affordable prices.

Views expressed are personal

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