Indian Food Policy: A Plentiful Harvest while Millions Starve

By Keshia Pendigrast

According to a recent New York Times article, agriculture policy in India is shaped by two central goals: to achieve higher, more stable prices for farmers than they would normally achieve in an open market, and to distribute food to the poor at lower prices than is available from private stores. India ranks second in the world in agricultural output, and the sector employs 52 percent of the labor force. Yet one-fifth of its people are malnourished, double the rate of countries like Vietnam and China.

Sacks of rice that have suffered decay and weather damage. (Photo credit: New York Times)

India’s technical innovations and generous wheat subsidies have lead to massive success in the production of rice and wheat. According to a Reuters article, in 2011 Indian Food Minister K.V. Thomas said that wheat and rice exports would only cease after they had reached 2 million tons. August 2011 brought Indian wheat stocks over 35.87 million tons, substantially higher than its target of 17.1 million tons, set for the July-September quarter. Government warehouses were overwhelmed with over 25 million tons of rice.

But according to a World Bank study, only 41.4 percent of food stocks in warehouses reached Indian homes.

“It’s painful to watch,” said Gurdeep Singh, a farmer near Ranwan India, in an interview for the New York Times. Singh recently sold his wheat harvest to the government. “The government is big and powerful. It should be able to put up a shed to store this crop.”

“The reason we are facing this problem is our refusal to distribute the grain that we buy from farmers, to the people who need it,” said Biraj Patnaik, principal adviser to the Supreme Court on the right to food, in an interview for the New York times. “The only place that this grain deserves to be is in the stomachs of the people who are hungry.”

According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, India’s government spends almost 750 billion rupees (US$13.6 billion) on agriculture projects:  fertilizer subsidies, village-level organizations, agriculture education programs at secondary schools and at university level etc.  While this has succeeded in increasing its agricultural output by almost 50 percent over the past two decades, 250 million Indians remain, as they did 20 years ago, malnourished.

Disparities between production and distribution have made the need for restructuring India’s agricultural policy apparent. Recent government reports show that states like Tamil Nadu and Chhattisgarh have incorporated technology to track food and ration cards, and have seen vast improvements, while states like the Bihar province are experimenting with food stamps.

Indian Parliament officials predict that a decision regarding the restructuring of agricultural spending is likely to be reached at the end of 2012. Until then, the government is working on temporary solutions on grain storage problems, like implementing new silos and exporting more rice. Changes in grain distribution schemes for the impoverished will only be implemented at the end of the year.

Keshia Pendigrast is a research intern with Nourishing the Planet.

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