- The Indian economy, cruising smartly at an 8.4%
annual growth rate - second-fastest after China -
suffered a worrying bump with a food-grain
shortage that led to the government confirming
plans this month to import more than 3 million
tons of wheat.
With a global tender, India
began its wheat-importing process for the first
time in six years, prompting leading
agri-scientists such as Professor M S Swaminathan
to express concerns about India's future food
security. The genial, balding Swaminathan, called
the father of India's "Green Revolution" and
included in a Time magazine list of the 20 most
influential 20th-century Asians, attributed the
disquieting situation to decreasing agricultural
productivity in the past 10
Amid chest-thumping about the
current buoyant gross domestic product, the grain
shortfall ought to fan serious anxiety about
India's future self-sufficiency for a billion-plus
population. India's decreased attention to
agriculture has already cost a few thousand lives
of farmers committing suicide and contributed to
the previous government being knocked out of
power. The current coalition government has not
impressed many with its agricultural policies
"One percent of India's 8% growth
comes from agriculture," one of India's top
economists, Pai Panandikar, told Asia Times
Online. "We were complacent with buffer stocks of
about 60 million tons, which were soon exhausted
because of highly subsidized anti-poverty
government schemes - and other mismanagement,
including poor storage facilities. Buffer stocks
are down now to 18 million tons."
granaries are likely to be emptier with more
farmers shifting to more profitable cash crops.
Worse, Swaminathan, chairman of the National
Farmers Commission, quoting surveys, said nearly
40% of farmers want to move out of agriculture.
Panandikar, heading the New Delhi-based
economic think-tank the RPG Foundation, is among
those baffled that the situation is not ringing
alarm bells as loudly as it should. The RPG
Foundation in its April "State of Business"
monthly report observed: "Both in respect of rice
and wheat, stocks are 2 million tons each below
the minimum buffer stock that was planned."
India's growing food-grain woes reflect a
global problem of urban-centric economies
neglecting the sustaining rural base. The Economic
and Social Department of the United Nations' Food
and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in its latest
Food Outlook analysis called the current global
wheat-market situation "volatile".
reasons ranging from climate to bad economics, the
US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in its crop
report last month said the current world grain
harvest of 1.984 trillion tonnes dropped by 24
million tons from the 2005 harvest, and dipped 3%
from a historical high of 2.044 trillion tons in
The grain downfall comes amid
greedier consumption, a growing global population
and growing life spans. The world's farmers have
to feed an additional 70 million people every
year, or over a million more people a week, with
the population growth mostly concentrated in the
South Asian subcontinent and sub-Saharan Africa,
home to most of the world's hungry people.
The Indian government has allowed private
firms for the first time to import wheat, but the
import move itself has met with expected grumbles.
The government is paying US$21.3 per quintal for
the imported wheat, while the domestic farmers
have only been paid $15. Government-owned trading
majors such as MMTC Ltd (2005-06 turnover $343
million) announced plans to float new wheat import
tenders, if it gets a good response to its
50,000-ton tender that closed this Monday.
Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar
deflected criticism of lopsided import prices.
"It's wrong to allege that we are favoring foreign
companies. The amount of money spent on
transporting wheat from one part of India to
another is huge and makes up for this difference
in costs," he said, an argument not many are
Economists such as Panandikar
dismiss moves to import food grains as being
"impractical" because of higher import costs, made
possibly higher with tougher shipping and contract
regulations. Panandikar advocates more long-term
solutions to boost productivity, such as wider use
of bio-technologies and better water management
such as rainwater harvesting of India's ample
monsoon to battle chronic water problems farmers
The water shortage looks to be a
graver problem. "Water tables are now falling and
wells are going dry in countries that contain half
the world's people, including the big three grain
producers - China, India, and the United States,"
reports the London-based Earth Policy Institute.
"In China, water shortages have helped lower the
wheat harvest from its peak of 123 million tons in
1997 to below 100 million tons in recent years.
"Water shortages are also making it more
difficult for farmers in India to expand their
grain harvest. In parts of the United States, such
as the Texas panhandle and in western Oklahoma and
Kansas, depletion of the Ogallala aquifer has
forced farmers to return to lower-yield dry-land
farming." The US has already reported poor wheat
harvests from its breadbasket states of Kansas,
Texas and Oklahoma.
This month, the Indian
government-owned State Trading Corp identified
five potential suppliers, Toepfer, Concordia,
Glencore, ADM and Cargill, after relaxing many
quality standards relating to moisture content,
fungi and fumigation, from an earlier tender in
May that did not interest many suppliers.
India beat the import and the handout
phase in the 1970s, after high-yielding varieties
of grain helped bring in the Green Revolution when
India's food production raced ahead of the
population boom. But now the country obviously
needs a "Greener Revolution" to meet its
increasing consumption demands, and more
poverty-targeted programs like Mission 2007:
Hunger Free India, by the Chennai-based MS
Swaminathan Research Foundation.
2007 included setting up a Technical Resource
Center for Food Security and a study on "hunger
hot spots" in the Asia-Pacific region. The
foundation quotes Mahatma Gandhi saying bread is
God for the hungry. The neglected grain god now
demands more devoted cultivation.