To the price-hit common man, food inflation easing from nearly 20 per cent to a little above 16 per cent is a statistical mirage. And the president’s call for a “second Green Revolution” will seem talk in the air. Politicians, nonetheless, are battling each other instead of high prices. Agriculture minister Sharad Pawar has faced opposition snipers and the Congress’s friendly fire. Tackling prices, he retorts, is the government’s collective responsibility. He’s more right than he guesses. In a country with the largest proportion of cultivable land to total land area, recurring food crises can’t but be the shared doing of successive governments. UPA, NDA or ‘third front’, nobody’s exempt.
In the current crisis, the recent go-ahead to release foodgrain in the open market should have come sooner, given projections of the drought’s impact. In charge of food distribution and consumer affairs, Pawar can’t dodge flak for letting things slide. But other UPA representatives too have waffled. Some suggested the rabi crop alone would work magic while others admitted supply side issues without elaborating quick remedies. States, meanwhile, have reportedly not been lifting their quota of PDS food stocks.
Pratibha Patil’s right about India needing to up farm productivity to prevent food crises. But no government till date has genuinely tackled the problem at source. First, efficient food distribution goes a long way towards aiding poor consumers. Yet we’re still to see reform in the Food Corporation of India or a leak-proof PDS. Second, massive upgrade is overdue of irrigation infrastructure to reduce rain-dependence and counteract groundwater depletion; joining of rivers was a suggested step forward by the NDA govt., something, which could have worked wonders if it were implemented. Third, reform of agriculture is imperative to remove structural anomalies bedevilling the sector.
Patil lists the right medicines: better farming inputs and techniques, market access for farmers and industry-agriculture synergies. Administering them is another matter, given political opposition to big retail giving farmers direct approach to better-paying buyers and eliminating predatory middlemen. Big-ticket investment is essential for the farm sector to gain from modern technology, build better storage and cold chain infrastructure and create more jobs, especially in food processing. Unless the political class acts on these issues, its championship of the aam aadmi and kisan will remain an eyewash.
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