Why should Bharat feed India at his expense?

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With 157.35 million hectares, India has the second largest agricultural area in the world. India has around 20 agro-climatic regions and the top 15 climates of the world exist here. Therefore, it is a large producer of a wide variety of foods. India is the world’s largest producer of spices, legumes, milk, tea, cashews and jute; and the second largest producer of wheat, rice, fruits and vegetables, sugarcane, cotton and oilseeds.

Agricultural exports account for 10 percent of the country’s exports and are the fourth major exported commodity.

The irony is that only 58.1 million hectares or only a third of agricultural land is actually irrigated. Of this total, 38 percent came from surface water and 62 percent from groundwater. India has the world’s largest well-equipped irrigation system.

There is a flip side to this great story of Indian agriculture. The Indian subcontinent has almost half of the world’s hungry people. Half of all children under five in South Asia suffer from malnutrition, which is even more than in sub-Saharan Africa.

Over 65 percent of agricultural land is made up of marginal farms and small farms of less than one hectare. In addition, the average size of farms has decreased. The average size of operational farms has almost halved since 1970 to reach 1.05 ha.

About 92 million households or 490 million people depend on marginal or small farms according to the 2001 census. This translates to 60 percent of the rural population or 42 percent of the total population.

Now we come to the heart of the hustle and bustle of today’s farmers. There is a pronounced bias in government procurement policy, with Punjab, Haryana, coastal PA, Telangana, and western UP accounting for the bulk (83.51%) of the ‘supply. The food subsidy bill increased from Rs. 24,500 crore in 1990-91 to Rs. 1.75 crore lakh in 2001-02 to Rs. 2.31 crore lakh in 2016 to Rs. 5 lakh crore in 2021.

Instead of being the buyer of last resort, FCI has become the farmers’ buyer of choice. Government policy has resulted in mountains of food grains coinciding with starvation deaths. Gains in rural prosperity and MSP supply have given rise to a few areas of concentrated rural prosperity.

In 2020, out of the production of 265 million tonnes of food grains, up to 91.42 million tonnes were purchased with MSP, while only 40.5 million tonnes were distributed. This leaves huge mounds in the warehouses. It is clear that there is a limit to what can be bought.

This again begs the question of why MSP purchases, which mean the highest prices, should only benefit a few regions?

The total subsidy provided to agricultural consumers in the form of fertilizer and free electricity has quadrupled from Rs. 73,000 crore in 1992-93, to Rs. 3.04 lakh crore now. While the subsidy was launched to reach lower-level farmers, it mostly benefited wealthy farmers. These are the people who are protesting for more.

These huge grants come at a cost. Thus, public investment in agriculture, in real terms, has declined steadily over the past twenty years. Almost all of the investment in creating additional irrigation potential has come from private sources, mainly in the form of more tube wells, usually supplied with free electricity. Free electricity has also put enormous pressure on the depletion of groundwater resources.

By 2050, India’s population is expected to reach 1.7 billion, which will then be almost that of China and the United States combined. In the four decades beginning 1965-1966, wheat production in Punjab and Haryana increased nine-fold, while rice production grew more than 30-fold. These two states and parts of it ‘Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh can now not only produce enough to feed the country, but also leave a large surplus for export.

With subsistence agriculture and agricultural labor being the main vocation, the priority should be to increase public spending on infrastructure and housing, in order to create demand for alternative labor. Instead of distributing the benefits to the agricultural sector through the purchase of MSPs and fertilizer subsidies, the Indian government should gradually move towards a benefit transfer regime based on the area cultivated and the nature of the land, in order to ensure a more equitable distribution of government largesse.

Finally, the entire government food price control apparatus to satisfy the urban population should be dismantled. A farmer who buys a motorcycle or even a tractor pays globally comparative prices. So why should farmers make food available to the modern, industrial sector at the lowest prices in the world?

Why should Bharat feed India at his expense?

(Views are personal)


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