Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Can India's current food crisis be resolved

Today is Indian Republic day. It is time to celebrate Indian progress into the 21st century. In over 61 years what has India achieved? Indian population has grown from about 400 million to 1.18 Billion now. India has officially (not underlying) reduced poverty to some extent. More and more kids are getting educated although the government has acknowledged that only 11% of the children are getting any school education leave alone any further education. 

India has achieved much by following the path of industrialization from the time of independence as opposed to the path China adopted during Mao's time. Today, India can manufacture anything from nano bots to satellites. The capacity is there. India for the past 20 years are so has achieved progress through supporting the IT industry and to a small extent the biotechnology industry. Although these industries have placed India on the global map they have done very little to reduce poverty. IT industry caters predominant for  a few million engineering graduates and biotech industry even to a smaller number. India produces just over 300,000 engineering graduates per year. It produces fewer PhDs per year. 

China has achieved a lot in 20 years and has reduced poverty considerably. Chinas per capita income is over $3000 compared to India's over $1700 during almost similar time frame. Both countries have emerged quite smartly from the Global Financial Crisis through stimulus packages although Chinas was much bigger than Indian package. Recent articles in business magazines have described Chinas recovery as teaching US how to do capitalism. Of course there are lessons to be learnt by this for all nations.

Despite all these successes India has severely lagged behind in alleviating poverty and improving educational status of the poor. So what is going wrong? In my opinion the very democracy that shines light on India's wonderful resilience to survive and thrive has been its downfall to some extent. Indian democracy borrowed the British West minister system of democracy to a large extent. However India adopted a multi-party system rather than 2 party preferential system adopted by countries such as Australia New Zealand etc. which are also commonwealth countries. The multi-party system in India has been used and misused by politicians to such an extent that it will create uncertainty within the parliament so much so that even good ideas such as RTE (Right to Education) take a long time to implement. What Indian poor do not have is time. If India waits any longer to implement this then it will further deteriorate financially and socially. Indian political system is not helping the poor in anyway to get educated.

The next issue is the false welfare setup by the Indira Gandhi government using wedge politics to set up a unviable reservation system. In over 40 years reservation system has only helped creamy layer of the society in all manner as they are capable of understanding the policies and thereby using them to their advantage. The real poor person neither has an understanding nor the courage to ask about these policies thereby leading to continuation of poverty. The proof of the taste of pudding is in the eating. Right now the reservation system has left such as bitter taste in so many peoples mouth that it has led to more and more division of the society and added another layer to the society that is already so divided along class, class, state, district, sub caste, tribe, rural vs city, rich vs poor and every other conceivable way. Instead of bringing cohesiveness and co-operation in the society the only thing the so called affirmative action is doing is fragmenting the society over and over again. A dis united country can not move forward with one goal of progress and prosperity for all and thereby breeds unhealthy competition and corruption of all manner as the society becomes dog eat dog society. Today's corruption is proof of such a path taken by the society.

A key thing more than anything that India is doing and has not done is giving priority to agriculture and food security. This is amazing in a country where there are over 1.18 billion to feed and over 52% of the population is employed by the agricultural industry. In a country of so many employed by this sector there is a massive shortage of labour even to pick fruits and conduct farming activities. These problems some years ago would only be seen in countries such as Australia where there is a small population with a large economy fueled by mining sector. Farmers in India constantly complain about lack of labour!. Manufacturers also constantly complain about skilled and unskilled labour unavailability. Everyone one points the finger at the false welfare employment guarantee schemes introduced by the government in the name of alleviation of poverty.

India's neglect of the agriculture sector by all political parties is both foolish and ultimately detrimental to the food security of the nation. World over governments have now recognized that food security has a significant primary role to play in Bio security and National security of the nation. A hungry disgruntled nation can only have the best possible breeding ground for unsavory activities and other behaviors which create a social stress and community disharmony. In some parts of India already the effect of such gut wrenching poverty and dis appropriate wealth earning capacity has led to severe social and political unrest. Unfortunately leaders of the governments of the world have failed to pressure India politically to reform the agriculture due to their zeal to secure a market for their countries products. Indian successive government's failure to address the poverty has been reduced to slogans such as Gareebhi Hatao and "aam admi need to be helped" etc which have neither meaning nor substance.

The current high food prices have been proof or lack of serious priority given to the agriculture sector. Politicians are engaged more in political battles in a game of how much can we blame each other rather than putting out serious policies. Few months ago the PM called for increase in agriculture production from 2% to 4% however with no higher investment in critical infrastructure facilities need to increase its out put in a meaningful way. 

So what does Indian agricultural sector need? The first and foremost thing needed is proper storage facilities as over 50% of the produce is wasted. Indian private sector needs to invest in silos for storage of grain properly, chiller facility to store perishables and good trucks to move the goods without exposure to elements and vermin leading to huge wastage.

The current system of wasteful and corrupt "mandis" should be removed and government should fix the price as per market and procure grain and produce for the PDS system at a market price and not artificially fixed price which distorts the market and leads to black market supply of grain and hoarding. Middle men should be companies and not individuals who have a hold over the local market and do not have any accountability for anyone especially the farmer as they usually act as money lenders as well. All octroi should be abolished.

Farmers need to provided help but not free water electricity and useless promises. Farming should be treated as a large or medium scale business if the farmer has over 10 hactares of land. Anything under that should be considered as a small business. Those who have over 10 hactares of land should be provided bank loans and in case of loss should be claimable on tax. Small business farms should be provided loans by the government at the market rate and in case of a loss should be provided extra time for repayment rather than waiving off of loans.

This financial system will allow only those who want to and can seriously participate in agriculture production to be part of the farming community and reduce the rort. Water and electricity subsidies should be provided only on the basis of farm profitability and not free. These will allow the farmers to use these critical commodities effectively and efficiently which will increase productivity. Farming should come under the nations tax system like any other manufacturing and business systems. Chinese and Soviet systems only started to produce efficiently only after they moved to accountable subsidy system. Farming should be provided with subsidy as rest of the world is doing. However free for all is not the way to do it.

Farmers should be provided with incentives to use efficient systems of irrigation such as drip irrigation and allowed to use electric pumps only at night. This is stop over watering and water logging which occurs today leading to lower production per acre. Fertilizers should be provided only after soil testing as today excess use of nitrogen fertilizer is seen in the fields as soil testing is generally not conducted and proper use of fertilizer is not done. Excess use of fertilizers leads to diseases and leaching of nitrates into soil contaminating it and creating contaminated aquifers and waterways and rivers.

Farmers should be allowed to deliver grain to a nearby silo not more than 50km and perishables such as vegetables to nearby chiller storage areas. India needs to learn to treat food and farmers with respect and therefore treat the product carefully. Indian governments just can't keep relying on good rainfall for future productions. Perishables are costly to import and Indian government should give more thought and care to production, transport and storage.

The agriculture R&D sector should be turned on its head. All funding bar private ones should be on the basis of transparent competitive assessment of the project proposals and scientists should be accountable for all research conducted. Those who are capable of technically adopting to modern agricultural practices and tools should be provided retraining and redundancies where needed. Scientists should asked to travel to rural areas at least once a fortnight or located in larger rural areas to make technology transfer accessible to farmers of all sizes. Scientists based in major cities is not a viable option ti improve farming systems. Once the projects are approved there should be no political interference on the money spent or research conducted. All research should be evaluated for product output not for amount of paperwork they generate or the politicians they cater to. New productive varieties and local adapted best management practices based on overseas experience should be implemented. All farming activities should be converted to competency based training system and rural youth trained to ensure these skills are recognized, insurable and portable. In house training is not viable option outside the family farm.

Farming education should be part of the curriculum at a young age starting form early high school where children learn all animal husbandry management and agriculture production skills up to year 10 and have better understanding once they come into ages of 17-18. This  will lead to rural skill development and provided skilled labor to rural sector as it is getting mechanized. This system will also allow rural youth to train and develop business opportunities such as contract seed bed preparation, sowing, field management and harvest, grain storage, grain marketing , IT skills in commodity trading etc. This will also reduce rural youth migration to the cities reducing the city population burden while keeping social and community systems financially viable and health in the rural areas. Prospering towns, district and villages will only lead to better rural production.

To the Indian Government and PM Dr. Man Mohan Singh I am only a agricultural scientist yet I can provide you with so many ways to improve the rural sector. No more hoodwinking and no more excuses regarding rural employment or poverty. Its time to act not throw slogans or use aam admi for vote bank. India is in the brink of crisis from all angles. Its population is expected to increase by another 200 million in the next 30 years. Stemming rural poverty can only help to stabilize India and reduce poverty. No more excuses. No more calls for higher productivity without providing a platform for production to increase. No more excuses.
No more blame game and crass politics.

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