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Fri18Apr2014

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The hunger index

By Rahul Goswami

In every one of India’s major states, less food is available for growing populations. The first India States Hunger Index shows alarming falls in per capita availability of cereals. Industrialised Gujarat ranks lower than Haiti on the Global Hunger Index, and Madhya Pradesh beats Ethiopia by only 0.07 points

In October 2008, the India States Hunger Index was released by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and its partner organisations in the Global Hunger Index 2008 project. For the first time, India’s states had been disaggregated from the national index. The States Hunger Index (see Table 2) shows us how hunger persists as a widespread and serious issue in India, and shows us also that economic strength, urbanisation and industrial development have not helped remove or even alleviate hunger in states that are financially powerful. 

This analysis shows how the states named and ranked in the Hunger Index have been unable to better the per capita foodgrain availability of the early-1980s, and points to some of the reasons why this has occurred in India’s major states. 

In Gujarat, whose government promotes the state as the most investor-friendly in India, only 27.5 kg of coarse cereals per person per year were available from Gujarat’s own harvest in 2006-07. For the period 2000-01 to 2006-07, the average per capita availability of coarse cereals per year was 35.7 kg. Compare that with the average 56 kg of coarse cereals per capita available for the decade of the 1980s (1980-81 to 1989-90). Rural Gujaratis also had more per capita pulses available in the 1980s than in the first half of the current decade. 

In Maharashtra, the state that has absorbed the most foreign direct investment in India and which contributes the largest portion of national gross domestic product, the difference between the 1980s and the present decade is just as startling. The average per capita availability of coarse cereals in the 1980-81 to 1989-90 period was 84.8 kg. For the seven years of this decade (2000-01 to 2006-07), that average per capita availability of coarse cereals from Maharashtra’s own harvests has plunged to 56.7 kg. In 1983-84, there were 163 kg of foodgrain available per person per year in Maharashtra. In 2005-06, that figure was down to 117 kg. 

In Tamil Nadu, where rice has been a political commodity and an election issue, there is less of it available for those who need it most. The average per capita availability of rice, from the state’s own harvests, in the 1980-81 to 1989-90 period was 98.6 kg. This has dropped to an average of 84.6 kg for the 2000-01 to 2006-07 period (see Table 1). Andhra Pradesh is the only major state ranked in the IFPRI States Hunger Index whose people have not seen a similar decline in availability of total foodgrain between the 1980s and this decade. 

But that is scant comfort, for with a ranking of 20.0 on the Index, hunger in Andhra Pradesh places the state in the ‘alarming’ category, together with Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Orissa, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. In the ‘extremely alarming’ category is Madhya Pradesh, where the availability of foodgrain per person has plummeted over the last 20 years -- it is only just over 60% of what it used to be. In 1981-82, the per capita availability of coarse cereals in Madhya Pradesh, from the state’s own harvest, was 82.3 kg per year. In 2006-07, that figure had dropped to 27.8 kg per capita. 

What does the 20.0 Hunger Index ranking for Andhra Pradesh mean? When placed against the Global Hunger Index 2008, this slots the state between Sudan and Kenya. Haryana and Assam would rank between the Republic of Congo and Kenya. Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan would fit between Guinea and Pakistan.  West Bengal and Karnataka would have Malawi, Rwanda and Cambodia as neighbours. Orissa and Maharashtra find themselves between Burkina Faso and Zimbabwe. Gujarat is worse than Haiti, but better than Bangladesh (barely). Chhattisgarh and Bihar are accompanied by Mozambique, Mali and Guinea-Bissau. Jharkhand is ranked lower than the Central African Republic and only just above Madagascar. Madhya Pradesh, the lowest ranked Indian state, is ranked higher than Ethiopia by only 0.07 points. Twelve of the 17 states in the States Hunger Index would fit into the lowest third of the Global Index -- and their combined population in 2008 is 885.5 million. India is ranked 66th among 88 countries ranked on the Country Index for 2008, between Burkina Faso and Zimbabwe, and is one of two countries among 22 in the Global Hunger Index’s ‘alarming’ category that is also a net exporter of cereals. 

How will these populations be adequately fed at reasonable prices from local food systems in their own states for the next 10 years? There is a combination of key factors at work that shape the response: pressures on land, cost of inputs, procurement channels (public and industry), and planning for local food security. So far, the State’s reaction to deep and widespread agrarian distress in India has been to offer short-term financial band-aids. The study and recommendations of a number of committees to address the changes that Indian agriculture is experiencing have hardly been built into these emergency measures, and even these do not look like they will be replaced with policy direction that combines an understanding of emerging constraints and needs: the need to provide enough food locally, the real costs of industrial agriculture, the impacts of the worldwide financial dysfunction, the imperatives of climate change. 

The food price spikes of 2008 (and the steady rise in the price for households of a basic food basket through 2006 and 2007) have shown the effects of the impact of inputs. For the farmer, the costs of agricultural inputs, especially energy, will rise. Today’s global agricultural system is predicated on the availability of cheap, readily available energy, for use in every part of what the food industry calls ‘the value chain’. This is visible both directly (cultivation, processing, refrigeration, shipping, distribution) and indirectly (manufacture of fertiliser and pesticides). The cost of urea, a fertiliser, has almost tripled since 2003. Until mid-2008, the increase in energy prices had been both rapid and steep, with one major commodity price index (the Reuters-CRB Energy Index) more than tripling since 2003. Petroleum and food prices are closely correlated. The rapid rise in petroleum prices exerted upward pressure on food prices as fertiliser prices nearly tripled and transport costs doubled in 2006-08. High fertiliser prices have direct adverse effects on the cost of production, especially for small-scale farmers. 

These costs have been considered by all the recent national studies on agriculture that have sought to find a route to food security in India: the Committee on Financial Inclusion chaired by Dr C Rangarajan; the Expert Group on Agricultural Indebtedness, chaired by Dr Radhakrishna; the Expert Group on Agricultural Distress chaired by Dr S S Johl; the National Farmers’ Commission headed by Dr M S Swaminathan; the Expert Group on Credit Deposit Ratio, chaired by Dr Y S P Thorat; and the Sub-Group on Institutional Credit for the Eleventh Five-Year Plan. Yet the real price of food, which is distorted, and the real costs of food cultivation, supply and consumption -- in social, cultural and political terms -- have still to be recognised by central and state planners. 

That is the reason the question of how the 885.5 million people in 12 Indian states may be fed, all of which have ‘alarming’ levels of hunger, cannot be answered by the State. For the Ministry of Agriculture, an answer is to be found in increasing the yields of food and non-food crops year after year, which will also sidestep the problem of scarce cultivable land (see Figure 1: Crop growth index chart). There are indications enough that the yield curve is plateauing. The chart -- crop growth index numbers from 1980-81 to 2006-07 -- shows that at the all-India level, land under foodgrain cultivation has changed little for 25 years. Where cultivation has increased, it has been allocated to non-foodgrain crops (oilseeds, sugarcane, cotton). The index of growth in yield for non-foodgrain crops is conspicuously higher than that for the most common foodgrain: rice, wheat, pulses (tur or arhar, gram, kharif and rabi pulses) and coarse cereals (jowar, bajra, maize, ragi, barley and small millets). 

Figure 1: Crop growth index numbers

In September 2008, news reports on agriculture were indicating a drop in production of pulses, with the Department of Consumer Affairs expecting imports of pulses to rise to 3 million tonnes from last year’s 2.7 million tonnes. The all-India area under pulses has shrunk by about 17%, to 9.95 million hectares against 12 million hectares last year. A significant reduction in pulses acreage has been reported from Andhra Pradesh (34% less), Maharashtra and Karnataka (both 32% less) largely due to insufficient rains in the main sowing season. 

A steady upward yield curve cannot be a solution that our informal and formal agricultural knowledge systems can continue to consider. “Since there is no likely prospect of any further increase in the area under cultivation over the present 142 million hectares, much of the desired increase in foodgrain production has to be attained by enhancing the productivity per unit area. Foodgrain demand of India is estimated at about 300 million tonnes (mt) per annum by 2020, necessitating an increase of about 91 million tonnes from the estimated 209 mt production for 2005-06,” stated a 2006 policy paper from the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (New Delhi) on ‘Low and Declining Crop Response to Fertilisers’. 

The Academy said that the main reason for low and declining crop responses to fertiliser is “the continuous nutrient mining of the Indian soils without adequate replenishment”. It estimated that about 28 million tonnes of primary plant nutrients are removed annually by crops in India, while only 18 mt or less are applied as fertiliser, leaving a net negative balance of around 10 mt of primary plant nutrients. The public outputs of the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences tend to be poorly articulated and read as being very distant from the real concerns of farm and village, but the essential clues are all there. 

India’s average wheat and rice yields are lower than those of other major world producers. Rice yields are among the lowest for major producers, and wheat yields remain near the world (and US) average despite the fact that a relatively high share -- about 87% -- of Indian wheat area is irrigated. Although roughly 90% of wheat area and 75% of rice area is already planted with high-yield varieties, a United States Department of Agriculture paper on ‘Indian Wheat and Rice: Sector Policies and the Implications of Reform’ (USDA Economic Research Service, May 2007) observes that average wheat yields in major states remain about 25% lower than levels achieved in experiment stations, while rice yields are about 50% lower. 

Far more to the point is the ‘Manifesto on Climate Change and the Future of Food Security’, which was written and distributed this year by The International Commission on the Future of Food and Agriculture. “In material, physical, and biological terms the industrial agriculture economy is a negative economy that requires huge energy inputs,” states the Manifesto. “The cost of energy inputs are externalised and the financial calculus is dependent upon subsidies. Current financial and trade regimes continue to perpetuate and enlarge this negative economy. Instead of rewarding long-distance, uniform, centralised food systems, policies should support the principle of subsidiary. In other words, local production for local consumption should be the first tier of food security. This means shortening the food chain and food miles.” 

That is not a recommendation which will pass muster with India’s corporate agriculture and industrial farming system. With its food processing and retail verticals, this sector sees large and viable production and consumption markets in all the states included in the Hunger Index. “The agri-biotech industry’s sales have shown tremendous growth: from US$82.37 million in 2004-05 to US$149.14 million in 2005-06 and US$230.9 million in 2006-07,” says a briefing on organised food processing from the Ministry of Commerce, India Brand Equity Foundation (a partnership with the Confederation of Indian Industry), in October 2008. “It accounted for about 10.84% of total biotech industry sales in 2006-07. According to estimates by the agri-trade promotion body, Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA), India’s exports of agricultural and processed food products in 2007-08 has grown by 38%, which in absolute value terms is US$6.59 billion, against US$4.79 billion in 2006-07.” 

The demands of the domestic food processing industry are heavy and growing. Nearly 55% of the maize grown in India is used for food, 14% for livestock feed, 18% for poultry feed, 12% for starch, and the balance for seed. The estimate (in 2006-07) is that about 42 million tonnes of animal feed and around 14 million tonnes of poultry feed were produced and used. The large-scale processing of maize is mostly confined to wet milling, which produces starch, liquid glucose, dextrose and sweeteners (like high-fructose syrup) for industrial use and for a variety of convenience and snack foods. Most of the wheat grown in India is used for food (67%); the rest becomes animal feed and finds industrial and commercial use. One estimate from the food processing industry is of over 50 million tonnes of wheat being processed every year into whole-wheat flour (atta) in the unorganised sector. In addition, there are an estimated 820 roller flour mills in the country, with a combined installed grinding capacity of over 15 million tonnes. 

Figure 2: Agri-commodity model 

For India’s food processing sector, bridging the space between rural farm and urban food needs via the food processing sector, organised retail and the welter of ancillary businesses that support contract farming is the answer (see Figure 2: Agri-commodity model). That nearly 80% of agricultural produce in more industrialised countries is processed and packaged is an indicator of vast scope in the sector in India (as suggested by ‘India Food Report 2008’ which was released this year at Mumbai’s Food Forum India). In the next few years, the industry aims at raising the share of processed food to 20% of total agri-produce, and expanding manifold the country’s current share of the global processed foods market (currently 0.03%) to 3%. In 2007-08, about six in every 100 tonnes of fruit and vegetable produce were processed. For 2008-09, oilseeds output is expected to rise because of an increase of about 0.4 million hectares (2.3%) in sowing. The coverage under soybean has also risen appreciably by 9.3% to 9.54 million hectares chiefly due to higher plantings in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka. 

The influence of this approach on crop-growing choices has been visible. Take oilseeds in Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat; cotton in Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra; and sugarcane in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka. The average annual production of these non-foodgrain crops in the period 2000-01 to 2006-07 is, for all these states, a large percentage jump over annual average output in the decade 1980-81 to 1989-90. These are increases that far outstrip those achieved for foodgrain over the same two periods and in the same states. The average for oilseeds in Madhya Pradesh increased from 1.28 mt to 1.41 mt, for oilseeds in Gujarat it increased from 1.97 mt to 3.26 mt, for sugarcane in Andhra Pradesh from 10.7 mt to 17.33 mt, for sugarcane in Karnataka from 15.4 mt to 26.52 mt, for cotton in Gujarat from 1.54 mt to 4.12 mt. 

These are India’s large and economically powerful states. Yet that apparent industrial strength -- of which the commercial crop increases may be seen as an indicator -- has not lifted the indices that make the India States Hunger Index or has done so very marginally. The index is computed by averaging the three underlying components: the proportion of underweight children, the under-5 mortality rate (expressed as a percentage of live births), and the prevalence of calorie undernutrition in the population. “The lack of a clear relationship between state-level economic growth and hunger is alarming,” say the index report’s authors. 

Madhya Pradesh has an economy which, in 2007 (at the prices of that year), was more than four times the size of the state economy in 1990-91 and almost 16 times the size of its economy in 1980-81. But the increase in the state’s population, from 1980-81 to 2007, has not been matched by an increase in the amount of foodgrain it produced (click here to see Table 4 ). Kerala’s economy in 2007 was more than nine times the size of its economy in 1990-91. As is the case with Madhya Pradesh, the growth in Kerala’s measured economy and in its population has not been matched by a rise in available local foodgrain. This is the general pattern to be found in the 15 major states (West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh are exceptions that beg an in-depth understanding of their agricultural economies). However, this narrowly focused comparing of indices does not take into account the steady rise, over the last five years, of the wholesale price index, the consumer price index and the real rate of inflation. They also do not take into account the demands of the food processing sub-sector of industrial-retail agriculture business. All these factors and demands have contributed to available foodgrain shrinking. 

The Hunger Index explains the point: “The implications of this, taken along with the relationship between the 2008 index and poverty, are that, first, economic growth is not necessarily associated with poverty reduction. Additionally, even if there is equitable economic growth that improves food availability and access, this might not lead immediately to progress on improving child nutrition and mortality, which need more direct investments to enable rapid reductions. Thus, in addition to wide-scale poverty alleviation, direct investments in improving food availability and access for poor households as well as direct targeted nutrition and health interventions to improve nutrition and mortality outcomes for young children will be needed to impact the index scores and rankings of Indian states.” 

The State Hunger Index does not bring the agricultural crises of the last five years into its analysis. In January 2008, the ‘Action Plan to Address Agrarian Distress in India’, a report to the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD), dealt exclusively with agrarian distress which it described as “only a part of the problem”. The NABARD report said that pressures that push people towards poverty are health and social expenses, apart from the failure of investments in business (including farming). “Medium-term initiatives that should be rolled out on a national scale include (1) mechanisms to strengthen food security at the household level, (2) regulatory mechanisms for inputs like seeds, (3) risk mitigation at both the personal as well as the professional level, (4) relief for failure of investments like failed wells, and (5) reducing vulnerability on account of ill-health,” recommended the report. The report also wants more public investment in extension services, training and research to promote organic agriculture, and added that village knowledge centres “which can be a one-stop shop for all support services needed by farmers” will have to play a strong role in the future. 

What is missing from the NABARD report is recognition of urban and commercial demands on scarce land resources. According to state-level land revenue records, foodgrain is grown on 121.5 million hectares in India (in 2005-06). This is a number that has, on paper, changed little from what it was a decade earlier. Is this a reliable number, and do the land revenue records of 33 states and union territories tally with agricultural land use data? Likely not, for, as we have seen in every single state in the last three years that has experienced rural revolts against land use for industry, land revenue records have been found to be out of date. Few states and union territories in India conduct regional planning exercises, and therefore few plan the use of their lands outside municipal corporation and council limits. With the exception of Kerala and Goa (where panchayats are only now becoming aware of their local planning responsibilities), Indian states do not synchronise out-of-date land classification records with actual use of land. Even with this accounting deficiency, land available for foodgrain has declined in 11 of the 17 states ranked in the Hunger Index, as recorded by the Ministry of Agriculture (see Table 3).  

While the sale and purchase of agricultural land among cultivators is a part of normal land market transactions, the pattern of such sale for the last eight years has yet to be studied in detail. An indication of the value of such study -- and how it will help understand an important factor responsible for the foodgrain decline and the rise in prices of a basic food basket -- comes from the National Institute of Rural Development. It studied 16 villages spread over four districts in Orissa and Bihar, and found that many small and marginal farmers are compelled to sell their land mainly due to two factors: (1) emergency family needs caused by illness, marriage and similar events, and (2) uneconomic holdings. Typically, small and marginal farmers have poor access to credit, inputs, new technology and information on innovative farm practices, which often makes farming non-viable. 

The Planning Commission’s Working Group on Land Relations highlighted these pressures in its July 2006 report to the Commission. The “increase in urbanisation and in the area under non-agricultural uses due to various development activities, speculation in land markets around cities and towns has also grown,” said the report. “Speculators purchase prime agricultural land at low prices and make fortunes by selling them to builders and urban dwellers at very high prices. Also, land transfers to non-agriculture (uses) often causes environmental damage. Moreover, land acquisition by the government for development projects raises land values in surrounding areas.” As has been seen thanks to the protests over special economic zones in many states, state governments are hasty in making promises to industry (both public and private) of providing land at low prices. As a result, farmers become net losers when gauged by the compensation they receive and also by the alternative livelihoods their households must turn to. “Since the land market is generally weighted against small and marginal farmers, a group approach should be adopted wherever possible to enhance their bargaining power,” the report suggested. 

Even if such an approach is adopted, could it work in the existing environment?  

Private investment in agriculture has increased modestly in recent years, whereas public investment has declined, falling from the equivalent of 10% of agricultural output in 1981-83 to just 5% in 1998-2000. Total public and private investment in agriculture amounted to about 16% of agricultural output in 2000-03, below the 29% investment/output ratio for the rest of the Indian economy. Public investment has been weakened, in part, by budgetary pressures stemming from the large increase in expenditure on the foodgrain subsidy (the cost of foodgrain price support and procurement, storage, and public distribution), and input subsidies on fertiliser, water, and power. 

That condition is unlikely to change. In fact, given the financial pressures at the Centre and state level, the drying up of ready money in the private sector and growing international recognition of the environmental and health risks of high-input industrial farming, finance for agriculture will be harder to come by. Just as there is a view today that the global financial crisis is also an opportunity to change the dominant economic model, so too with the growing agricultural crisis. 

In April 2008, the Independent Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) launched its report which was approved by 57 governments. The IAASTD was an inter-governmental process, co-sponsored by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United National Environment Programme (UNEP), Global Environment Fund (GEF), and the World Bank. It conducted a three-year evidence-based assessment on agricultural science and technology and on the future of agriculture. It made a critique of conventional industrial farming and called for a fundamental change in farming practices so as to better address increasing food prices, hunger, inequities and environmental crises. 

The report reflects a growing consensus among scientists and many governments that the old paradigm of industrial energy-intensive and toxic agriculture is outdated, while small-scale farmers and agro-ecological methods provide the way forward. Its conclusion is that the past emphasis on production and yields brought some benefits, but these came at the expense of the environment and social equity. The global financial crisis, which began in 2008, provides a disturbing background for the critique of conventional industrial farming, for many of the market mechanisms that have created the financial crisis will not work against the regeneration of agriculture, at least for the short term. 

In October, economist Prabhat Patnaik explained that “with the interlinking of global financial markets, asset price booms in the US tended to produce stock market booms, and more generally financial sector booms, even in industrialising countries, where banks and other financial institutions withdrew from productive sector lending to speculative lending, from rural to urban lending and from agriculture and small-scale sector lending to consumer credit to the affluent and loans against securities. This damaged the productive base of the peasant and small-scale sector”. Worse, the role of the State too changed to supporting the financial sector boom and maintaining the confidence of investors instead of sustaining peasant and petty production. 

The result, he pointed out, was an absolute decline in per capita cereal output in the 20 years from 1980 to 2000. The per capita figure in 1980 was 355 kg and by 2000 it had fallen to 341 kg. This decline in output also meant a decline in per capita cereal consumption for the world. However, since per capita cereal consumption (taking both direct and indirect consumption into account) increased for the advanced countries, the overall decline for the world as a whole was caused by a massive decline in countries of the South, and this was so even for China and India which experienced remarkably high GDP growth rates. 

As with states in the Hunger Index that boasted impressive economic growth, so too with India (and China) at the national scale. “While commodity prices have always risen and fallen with changes in supply and demand, world agriculture now appears to be undergoing a structural shift towards a higher demand-growth path,” observes ‘The State of Food and Agriculture 2008’, one of the flagship reports of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations. “Many countries, especially in Asia, have entered a period of faster economic growth that is generating strong demand for higher quality diets including more meat, dairy products and vegetable oils.” 

With 2008 behind us, the high growth path and economic trajectory are imperilled by the global financial crisis and worldwide economic slowdown. Until now, in industrialising Asia, factors such as demand rising because of (urban) incomes rising, and expanding biofuel production, have exerted upward pressure on prices. The FAO report points to “decades of depressed commodity prices” that have led many governments in developing countries to neglect investments in agricultural productivity, and “higher petroleum prices may signal a long-term shift in the cost of agricultural production, making it more costly for farmers to intensify production”. For now, the continuing relevance of many of these factors must be questioned before we learn the causes of hunger despite growth, and its solution. 

(Rahul Goswami is a writer and researcher based in Goa) 

InfoChange News & Features, January 2009