Food insecurity

India and the US need to discuss the fears and options that either may have... India can’t remain passive and has choices to make, which will determine its place in the world

It is ironical that the more the government creates food insecurity through its “reform” policies, the more it talks of food security. Food security rests on a system, not on “schemes”. “Scheming” is a nasty word and the fact that the most vital parts of our lives are being reduced to government “schemes” is a major problem.

There is no vision and no systemic understanding of linkages between different parts of the food system.
For example, while constructing a house, one first builds a strong foundation. In the case of food security, the foundation is the ecological foundation of food production — healthy soils, diverse, resilient and renewable seeds and adequate water. Without conservation and rejuvenation of the ecological foundations of agriculture, there can be no food security.
The UPA government’s Food Security Ordinance does not address the ecological foundations of food security at all. It does not address the fact that our most fertile food-growing lands are being grabbed by the government to hand over to builders or to corrupt corporations to be spoilt by mining or to the industries to be poisoned and polluted. Land grab is a major threat to food security.
The pillars and support walls that uphold the architecture of food security are our hard-working small and marginal farmers. The reform policies of the last two decades have broken the backs of our farmers, and hence of our national food security system. Globalisation was imposed in India through the World Trade Organisation and global seed and biotechnology giants were given a free hand to lock Indian seed companies in licensing arrangements. As a result, farmers were trapped in unpayable debts due to costly, non-renewable seeds and chemicals and thousands of them were forced to commit suicide.
The latest Census data shows that there are nearly 15 million farmers (“main” cultivators) fewer than there were in 1991. Over 7.7 million less since 2001. Every day we are losing 2,000 farmers. The deliberate annihilation of India’s small farmers is the end of national food security. The Food Security Ordinance does not have one line on securing the livelihoods, production and incomes of our small farmers.
Distribution comes after production, and is the roof of the house. The Ordinance is thus an attempt to put up a roof, without securing the foundations and the support walls. The roof will clearly not hold. Also, can the government answer the simple question: where will the food come from?
The reason the government has not addressed production and procurement in the Food Security Ordinance is because these are the sectors the government wants to hand over to giant agribusiness corporations through other “reform” policies. That is why the Ordinance must be read with other policies that impact the livelihood of farmers and the right to food, like foreign direct investment in retail, changes in the State Agricultural Produce Marketing (Regulation) Acts, seed policies, the Biotechnology Regulatory Act etc.
Food sovereignty begins with seed sovereignty of farmers. The government is sowing the seeds of food insecurity by buying non-renewable hybrid seeds from MNCs at high cost and distributing to farmers at lower cost through taxpayers’ money.
The Ordinance must be read with food processing policies, which subsidise corporations and make junk food cheap. It must be read with the US-India Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had signed with US President George W. Bush in 2005, and which was a commitment to hand over seed to Monsanto, production and distribution of food to US agribusiness and retail to Walmart.
Since Independence, land reform, production and procurement were at the heart of our food security and food sovereignty policy. The universal public distribution system was central to it and it performed multiple roles. First, it integrated the country into one, with rich and poor buying rations at the same shop. Second, it helped regulate prices and prevented the phenomenon of steep price rise we witness today.
The economic policies imposed by the World Bank targeted agriculture and brought in multinational monopolies. It also turned the universal PDS into targeted PDS. The World Bank said this would reduce the budget expenditure as the government was spending too much on food subsidies. The food subsidy bill in 1991 was `2,500 crore. Last year, it was `50,000 crore and this year, it would be `60,000 crore. You are starving people and spending more money by not having a universal PDS to create food apartheid.
Most commentators have pointed out that the Ordinance is a political ordinance to garner votes in the next Lok Sabha elections. But in my view, it is also an economic ordinance and is part of the so-called “reform” process designed to break our food sovereignty and to facilitate the corporate hijack of India’s food system. Just as fertiliser subsidies do not go to farmers but the industry, the subsidy in the Food Security Ordinance will become a subsidy for the agribusiness.
First, a food system based on monopoly, corporate control, greed and speculation will lead to further uncontrollable increase of food prices. Since the government makes no commitment of buying from Indian farmers, it will buy from corporations. The combination of rising food prices in the market and cheap food to the “targeted” population can only be achieved through an ever-increasing transfer of our tax money to maintain the super- profits of agribusiness. This corporate subsidy that is built into the Ordinance is kept hidden. What is talked about is the “cash transfer” to the poor through “Aadhar”. Offering `3 for rice and `2 through cash transfer for wheat when the retail price is `40 and `20 respectively means that the poor are expected to spend `37 for rice and `18 for wheat from their pocket. Since they don’t have that money, the consequence will be mass starvation.
An alternative vision — where no child is hungry, no farmer commits suicide — is the Organic India Vision 2020. It was prepared by organic farmers at Vasundhara, the national gathering of ecological farmers on World Food Day. We can halve the costs of cultivation through ecological agriculture which makes the farmer free of costly seeds and chemicals, while doubling the nutrition output and health per acre.

The writer is the executive director of the Navdanya Trust

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