There is a double imbalance between procurement of foodgrains and distribution for welfare purposes and between procurement and the country’s pattern of consumption. This can be corrected in the short term by expanding the coverage of subsidized foodgrains and making all people in rural areas and those in urban slums eligible, says Jean Dreze in an article in the Indian Express.
A large number of people are going to bed with their stomachs less than full as the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown has disrupted the economy. The country is going through a recession and this has worsened food insecurity. Many household surveys show that people are eating inadequate amounts and less nutritious food. In such a situation, it would be uncaring to dispose of excess foodgrain stocks as cattle feed or raw material for the production of ethanol, says Dreze, a Belgian national who has taken Indian citizenship. Dreze is not only cerebral -he has written books and papers jointly with Amartya Sen and Angus Deaton – but also caring. He lives a spartan life, is a visiting professor at Ranchi University and was a member of UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi’s National Advisory Council. He was the person behind MNREGA, the rural livelihood scheme, and the National Food Security Act.
Dreze says India procures more than needed. Annual procurement of foodgrains ranged between 69 million tonnes and 86.5 million tonnes between 2017-18 and 2019-20. (The figures in his article are slightly different. These are exact, his are near approximations). Annual offtake through various welfare schemes was in the range of 60 million tonnes and 66 million tonnes during this period. With protesting farmers demanding legal guarantees for assured procurement at minimum support prices (MSP), procurement will continue as before, he says. Stocks will remain high. They were 53 million tonnes as of the beginning of 1 January, 2021 and as high as 83.5 million tonnes in June.
The procured wheat cannot sell in the world market because of high prices. The best option is to use it to relieve hunger, Dreze says. India’s production of foodgrains was 285 million tonnes in 2017-18 and 2018-19. In 2019-20 it was 297 million tonnes. The second Human Development Survey shows that average cereal consumption was a little below 12 kg per person per month in 2011-12. Using this benchmark, aggregate cereal consumption is likely to be around 200 million tonnes in a normal year. Sustained poverty reduction would raise it a little beyond that but not much.
All out promotion of rice and wheat served a purpose at one time. Today, it makes little sense. There should be diversification towards nutritious crops such as millets, pulses, oilseeds and vegetables. This is necessary not only for better nutrition but also to promote equity and sustainability. Subsidies should be used to encourage crop diversification and nutrition security. Pulses could be procured at minimum support prices. These could be supplied through ration shops to the poor as was done during the lockdown last year.
(Photo: Procurement during the lockdown in Punjab)