David M. Malone
Is India facing a lasting crisis in agriculture and a serious threat to its food security? In a word, yes.
Agriculture policy, driven by bursts of fear and enthusiasm, often shows politicians in a very poor light the world over: serving up short-term fixes for public worries over food security and pandering shamelessly to farm (and fishing community) voters.
But does this lead to good policy to achieve lasting growth in output? Sadly, often not. No country has a monopoly on expensive, counterproductive and trade-distorting agricultural policy. The current World Trade Organisation (WTO) Doha Round has foundered repeatedly on the reluctance of the United States and the European Union to cut back on subsidies that have done so much to damage the agricultural interests of others. The U.S. stampede into biofuels only two years ago significantly undermined international stocks. Even my own country, Canada, one of the world’s most efficient grain and livestock producers, maintains a system to prop up the prices of dairy and poultry products, leaving hapless consumers to face some of the most expensive milk, eggs and butter in the world.
India was once at the apex of international achievement in agricultural innovation. Drawing on a wide variety of international grain types, pioneers of high yielding hybrid seeds, notably M.S. Swaminathan, were able to achieve in the 1960s and 1970s a real “green revolution” in India, boosting agricultural productivity impressively and making the country fully self-sufficient in its main food requirements for the first time in modern history. Scientific innovation was supported by energetic policy at the Union and State levels to achieve one of the world’s most striking agricultural successes of the 20th century. But then, as so often with success, a purposeful policy dissolved into politicking and piecemeal implementation.
Unsupported by rigorous policy, excess use of fertilizers, unsustainable use of water resources encouraged by free or subsidised electricity for farm pumps led to soil degradation and depletion of sub-surface aquifers. This occurred at a time when an expanding population, the first hints of the consequences of climate change and a sudden spike in agricultural commodity prices in 2007-2008 linked to lower international grain stocks and a sharp rise in commodity prices, notably oil, provided an unwelcome reminder to Indians that all was not well with the agricultural policy. What ensued was impulse buying on international markets at the same time as export of some items was prohibited (hurting mainly other developing countries, the industrialised world having cornered all the food it needed). One salutary measure offered by Delhi was the lowering of tariffs on some necessary international food imports but by November 2008, the government was again raising tariffs on some products (soya) in order to protect domestic producers.
What do all these measures, taken together, amount to? Certainly not a coherent set of policies to raise productivity over several decades. Rather, as elsewhere in the world when governments face similar pressures, they smack of political expediency and improvisation.
Is India facing a lasting crisis in agriculture and a serious threat to its food security? In a word, yes. There is no reason for short-term panic. India remains in good years capable of meeting its main needs and simultaneously of earning sizeable sums from agricultural exports. Rather, it is the combination of Indian demographics with the growing success of the country’s overall economy and environmental stress that create a challenge: increasingly prosperous Indians will be eating more (and probably wasting more also, as do middle classes everywhere).
Global rice production has stagnated for the past 10 years, while the price has increased four-fold. President George Bush raised the ire of Indian commentators last year when he commented that the international food crisis was due to an expanding demand from India and China. Perhaps his mistake was not in differentiating between them: food consumption in China more than doubled after 1990. India’s consumption rose much more modestly, by roughly 30 per cent. But does anybody seriously believe that a significantly more prosperous India will avoid greater food consumption, including of meat (so expensive in grain to produce)?
It may be instructive to take a short detour and consider the diverging path of early economic reforms in India and China. India’s key economic reforms of the early 1990s centred on liberalisation favouring the manufacturing and services sectors. These were tremendously successful but little was done for agriculture. China, on the other hand, starting its key reforms earlier, focussed first on agriculture, perhaps sensing that a dramatic drop in rural poverty might make other reforms more saleable politically to those sceptical of change.
A fine article in Economic and Political Weekly by Shenggen Fan and Ashok Gulati in June 2008 traced the outlines of China’s revolutionary attempt, in the late 1970s, to raise agricultural production by encouraging multiple experiments at the local level, “learning by doing.” Only after it was clear what worked (and what did not), a process Deng Xiaoping described as “crossing the river while feeling the rocks,” did Beijing launch a full-bore nationwide reform process that succeeded dramatically in raising production and decisively reducing rural poverty. These are steps India still has not taken.
That said, in the current global slowdown, rural India may be better equipped to absorb the shock than its highly privatised Chinese counterpart because of the wide range of Indian anti-poverty programmes constituting a fragile but hopeful safety net.
Is improvement of productivity and nutrition a matter only of agricultural policy? Obviously not.
As is well known but never ceases to surprise, India suffers from higher levels of child malnutrition than Sub-Saharan Africa. This is not because basic Indian foodstuffs are less nutritious than Africa’s. Canada’s global micro-nutrient initiative, co-funded by U.N. agencies and the World Bank, while making a significant contribution to fighting against malnourishment, stunting and wasting in India (all at heartbreaking levels, all with life-long effects) is not as successful as it should be. Why? Because of poor rural health, education and physical infrastructure (the latter inhibiting the free flow of foodstuffs that would naturally alleviate nutrition problems).
Thus, “food security” relates to much more than agricultural incentives and disincentives. Wider national policies and programmes are at least as important. And yet, in spite (or perhaps because) of India’s vibrant democracy, admirably free and crusading press and dynamic civil society in constant contention with each other, little has been achieved in recent years.
An early debate on climate change is beginning to take hold in India. Whether or not the Copenhagen Conference later this year produces a successor to the Kyoto protocol, India will need to take a number of steps now in the interests of its own food security.
Canada and India share an unwelcome phenomenon: melting ice — lots of it, in Canada’s north and in the Himalayas. For India’s northern breadbasket, this portends shifts in water supply that could destroy the foundation of the country’s food self-sufficiency. Prudential steps need to be taken urgently to mitigate and adapt to the effects of these coming changes in water supply.
The success of the U.S. and Canadian rural development model depended, within decades of the first European farming settlement, on creating non-farm rural jobs so that sub-division of farms and unemployment could be avoided. These jobs mostly related to servicing a growing agricultural sector and processing food, in order to get as much of it as possible to distant markets intact (a major challenge for India today with respect to fresh produce). Rather than misguided attempts to force rural migrants from urban settings they have reached in search of livelihoods, coherent government policies need to encourage good non-farm jobs in rural areas.
As an enthusiastic and respectful friend of this great country, I hope that the next Parliament and government will tackle the full range of policies necessary to boost agricultural production and nutritional progress. India is not short of agricultural land. Per capita, it has as much as Italy and Germany, both highly efficient agricultural producers. It is not short of water: the monsoons, while sometimes disappointing, can be counted upon to reward sensible water management policies and programmes. Above all, India abounds in admirable human capital: optimistic, hard working, endlessly entrepreneurial. If any country can succeed in boosting world agricultural production, it should be India. But this will require a range of sound policies, determined implementation and a rebalancing of national attention to include more systematically and meaningfully rural interests and perspectives.
(David Malone, a former Canadian High Commissioner to India, is President of Canada’s International Development Research Centre. These lines are drawn from a millennial lecture, endowed by The Hindu, he delivered at the M.S. Swaminathan Foundation in Chennai on January 23, 2008.)
Corrections and Clarifications
The article "India: challenges in agriculture" (Editorial page, February 7,2009) was based on a "Millennium Lecture" that Dr. David Malone delivered atthe M.S. Swaminathan Foundation in Chennai on January 23, 2009. The authornote incorrectly mentioned it as "millennial" lecture on January 23, 2008.