While the world’s attention is focused on the formation of a responsible government in Afghanistan, its citizens face a serious food crisis. It is estimated that that about half of the country’s population, approximately 14 million people, are food insecure.
The World Food Programme estimates that 200,000 children in Afghanistan are malnourished. If global help does not reach in time, the coming winter and snow may result in serious shortage of food. This year’s drought and decades’ long wars are responsible for this crisis in Afghanistan.
Globally, food prices have been rising. The FAO Food Price Index has risen by 32.9 percent in August 2021 compared to August 2020. Even the United Kingdom has seen rise in food prices.
Last week Sri Lanka declared a state of emergency due to high inflation in food items and indications of an emerging crisis of foreign exchange. Prices of sugar, pulses, dal, some vegetables, etc. have sharply increased due to higher cost of shipping, depreciation of currency and possibly local hoarding. The Central Bank of Sri Lanka has reported a year-to-year food inflation of 11.5 percent in August. Sri Lanka is not ravaged by war (like Afghanistan). But it may also be considering something akin to India’s Public Distribution System (PDS). India’s Essential Commodities Act may well provide a model to Sri Lanka too.
The Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of reaching zero hunger by 2030 may be missed by several countries. COVID-19 has also contributed to it. Climate change has further contributed to loss of production in an already volatile region exposing a number of fault lines.
The recent IPCC report mentions South Asia as particularly vulnerable, predicting that the region will see hotter weather, longer monsoon seasons, and increased droughts as total global warming increases by around 1.5 degrees Celsius in the next two decades. Madagascar is facing a four year drought induced by climate change. The Global Hunger Index (GHI) of the South Asian region is already one of the worst in the world, second only to sub-Saharan Africa.
In India, the agriculture sector has been the saving grace during the downturn in a COVID-19-hit economy. The recently-released GDP data of quarter one of 2021-22 shows that the Gross Value Added (GVA) of agriculture along with manufacturing, electricity and financial services has surpassed the pre-pandemic level. Distribution of food grains under the PDS and additional allocations under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana have ensured that at least staple food grains, wheat and rice, were available to about 800 million people at nominal price or free of cost. This is not to ignore the enormous crisis of nutrition confronting large number of people who lost their income as a result of two serious waves of COVID-19.
India has also suffered from extreme conditions for food scarcity, famines and near famines especially between 1942 and 1956. The Bengal Famine of 1943 and 1944 is still a subject of much discussion and research. Mridula Chari in her fascinating paper titled Famished has documented that by November 1946, British India was importing one third of its ration allocations. On the eve of Independence, India still faced a shortage of 3-4 million tonnes of food grains.
The Union Government enacted the Essential Commodities Act in 1955. Due to several droughts in the mid-1960s, India faced humiliation when it had to depend on PL480 imports of wheat from the United States. Ship-to-mouth entered the lexicon of Indian planners.
Then came green revolution. The government set up the Food Corporation of India and Commission for Agriculture Cost and Prices (January 1965). Over the next three decades, India became self-sufficient in food grains. At present, India is the largest exporter of rice and the government has stock of wheat and rice which is many times over the norms of buffer and strategic reserves.
In 2005-06, the Union Government launched the National Horticulture Mission to enhance production of horticultural crops and to provide nutritional security. This has been a highly successful intervention which has not received the credit it deserved. During 2019-20, India produced 99.07 million tonnes of fruits and 191.77 million tonnes of vegetables.
The story of milk production due to efforts of Verghese Kurien and the support provided by the politicians of the era is well known. This has made India the largest producer of milk in the world.
All this was possible due to combined efforts of scientists who developed new varieties of various crops, extension workers who took the new farming techniques to farmers, and the farmers themselves who accepted these scientific innovations. Co-operatives took animal rearing and milk production to small farmers.
During the Narendra Modi government, the emphasis on production of pulses has yielded good results, and production has gone up from about 19 million tonnes in 2013-14 to about 26 million tonnes in 2020-21.
In our public discourse, mythology, religion, and history are discussed and appreciated much more than scientific achievements which have provided a large degree of food security to India. It is due to science that India is able to produce almost sufficient quantity of various food items, wheat, rice, sugarcane, milk, fruits, vegetables, flowers, honey, etc. However, it is true that India is still import dependent for pulses and edible oils.
Going forward the biggest threat to India’s as well as South Asia’s food security is climate change. As the largest and scientifically most advanced nation in the region, India has the responsibility to share scientific innovations to its neighbours too so that they can also mitigate the impact of climate change.
Science alone can provide the answer to challenges posed by increasing possibility of droughts, excessive rains in a short period, higher temperatures, rising sea levels and shorter monsoons.
Any government concerned with food security should be according highest priority to tackling climate change.
Siraj Hussain is Visiting Senior Fellow, Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, and Sarah Khan has done her MPhil on food policy at the University of Cambridge. Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.