Deficit Monsoons – Economy & Food Security – Policy Imperatives

September 14th, 2009

Round Table Discussion – ‘Deficit Monsoons – Economy & Food Security – Policy Imperatives’ by Prof. Arun Kumar – Professor Social Sciences, Centre for Economic Studies & Planning, JNU and Mr. Brij K. Taimni – Member National Consumer Dispute Redressal Commission & Former Food Secretary Government of India. in collaboration with ASSOCHAM in ASSOCHAM House, 47 Prithviraj Road, New Delhi.

  • It is important to realise is what a drought is and what makes us characterised as a drought. There are 35 meteorological subdivisions in India and of these, 9 will have deficient rainfall almost every year. The larger the number of subdivisions that have deficient rainfall, the larger is the drought.
  • In the first week of August, Central India had 93% deficiency in rainfall, a massive and unusual. The north-western part, the country’s green bowl had 76% below the long-term average, a massive and unusual deficiency.
  • The bulk of the rain takes place in India during the monsoon months, unlike some other countries where rainfall is more evenly distributed. Rains received during monsoon have to provide water for the remaining part of the year, which is why it is very critical.
  • Crops are very specific to temperature, moisture and other such soil conditions. One cannot plant a summer rice plant in the month of November or December, or plant wheat in June; it will not work. Having sufficient rainfall at a late stage does not change the scenario to any significant extent.
  • Despite certain areas being irrigated, they will still face problems. Monsoons, apart from the precipitation, also provide a cloud cover that is very important because it prevents the evaporation of water.
  • We will likely have problems in drinking water availability due to water shortages. The water table may go down further necessitating more pumping; many wells may just dry up in the drought-affected areas. Animal husbandry may also be affected because of reduction in the availability of fodder and water for the animals.
  • Historically, droughts have been major shocks to our country’s economy. Roughly, droughts have had a four-year cycle, looking at a long period of 100 years. In each of these droughts, not only is there a fall in agricultural production, but also in the non-agricultural production sector. The impact on economy due to shortfall in agricultural output in comparatively less because the share of agriculture in GDP has come down dramatically. In 1947, agriculture used to constitute about 55% of GDP; it now constitutes only 17% of GDP. The dependence on agriculture of the economy has come down dramatically.
  • Production of the non-agricultural sector falls because food is the major item in the consumption basket of a vast majority of the people. A rise in food prices leaves lesser money to be spent on other items.
  • Modern agriculture is very water-intensive. We have shifted our cropping pattern from certain less water-intensive crops to more water-intensive crops. When the food crop begins to fail, there are expectations in the trade of likely shortages ahead and the traders begin to hold back supplies. In agriculture, rich farmers and traders begin to hold back supplies in anticipation of obtaining better prices later on.
  • There are many checks and balances against price fluctuation in the economy, one of them being dual pricing or the public distribution system, introduced in 1967.
  • In the recent past, we have been witnessing an economic crisis, not just because of the drought but a global economic crisis that is creeping in. Currently, the output in the economy has declined more because of the global economic crisis and not because of the food crisis. In the coming 8-9 months we may witness the combined effect of the global slowdown. Though India will come out of it, we will feel its effect on growth.
  • Those who depend on agriculture are in a marginal economy and their contribution is marginal. This will lead to a further split between the organised sector and the unorganised sector, which is widening very rapidly.
  • The government is taking many steps. When a drought is declared, there is a package of relief measures. Short duration crops are made available, as are subsidies on irrigation and other things. But because the government spends a lot, there is that much more corruption and the money does not reach the ground. Government policies have to be made more effective.
  • The NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) provides money for employment generation. It is not uniformly working well everywhere, but in some areas it is working satisfactorily and in those areas it will be able to prevent the adverse effects of this phenomenon.
  • The current deficit monsoon may lead to a revenue deficit of at least 4%; fiscal deficit of all levels of government stands at roughly 12%, which might go up by another percent leading therefore, to a very fiscal deficit.
  • Food security has not been on the agenda of any country till the middle of twentieth century. Hungry and malnourished people were dealt in a routine manner, generally benefiting from the generosity and philanthropic attitude or well-to-do or the system in place at a given point of time.
  • For the first time in 1974, the World Bank held its First World Food Conference and defined food security and said that every man, woman and child has a right to be free from hunger and malnutrition. The full credit for bringing this subject of food security per se on the global agenda goes to the Food and Agricultural Organisation, which held the only World Food summit in 1996 in Rome.
  • We have never concerned ourselves directly or tried to look at food security in a composite manner so as to deal with both food and nutritional security. At the time of the first World Food Summit in 1996, out of all the malnourished people in the world (at that time 836 million) India’s share alone was 25%. As per the latest FAO report in the study of food security in the world 2006, we continue to have 212 million undernourished people out of the population of more than one billion.
  • A nation which aspires to be the leading country or a developed country in the world cannot afford to have 25% of its population in undernourished conditions.
  • The whole question of nutritional security was attempted to be addressed to the National Plan of Action in Nutrition (NPN) in two formats. Firstly to improve the protein energy malnutrition, iron deficiency, iron deficiency disorder, vitamin A deficiency through various health schemes and secondly, by supplemental effort at enhancing food intake for children, lactating mothers and later on adolescent girls. The trickle-down effect to resolve the question of food security hasn’t worked.
  • Strong political will is required, reflected both from the Central level reaching up to the (now) powerful gram Panchayats. To deal with the whole question of alleviation and eradication of poverty and malnutrition through responsible and more importantly, accountable administrative governance infrastructure.
  • Food security will pose a serious challenge, but two things are in our favour. There is a buffer stock of almost about 15 million tonnes of food grains against our total off-take of about 35 million tonnes a year. Secondly, the Government of India has released additional quantity of food grains for calamity relief in the current year.
  • We need to strengthen and revised various relief systems eg. Annapoorna scheme, Big Green Scheme, mid-day meal scheme, wheat-based nutrition programme and supply of food grains.
  • Drinking water could become a major challenge. After independence, two specific target schemes were introduced to meet droughts – the Drought Prone Area Programme (DPAP), which has been discontinued, and the National Watershed Development Programme.


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