In mid April, as a food crisis was staring in the face in many parts of the world, Prime Minister Narendra Modi grandiosely declared that “India could feed the world“. While there certainly cannot be a case against international cooperation in times of crisis, one can’t help but wish that he were better appraised of India’s own vulnerability in this regard. Nevertheless, the government soon backtracked by banning the export of food grains from the country with conditional exceptions.

One could still give credit to the prime minister for the sensitivity and altruistic motive of his government towards the food security of the people, whether around the globe or in India. Alas, such altruism was put paid to by the Union commerce and food supplies minister Piyush Goyal on July 5.

While addressing a conference of states’ food ministers on ‘Food and Nutrition Security in India’, Goyal requested states to increase the sowing of rice.

“There is no problem with stocks, but there is a lot of demand internationally. So, the more our farmers produce, they get good prices in the international market also. So, this will help increase exports. I am also the Commerce Minister. So, I have to also keep increasing the exports,” he told the ministers.

Interestingly, this request by the Union minister came close on the heels of the advice issued to the rice surplus states by his own ministry to “diversify crop from paddy to other crops (pulses, edible oil, etc.) for sustainable agricultural development”.

Even the Economic Survey 2021-22 had impressed upon the states for an “urgent need” to go for diversification of crops away from wheat, paddy and sugarcane.

In March 2016, while inaugurating the ‘Krishi Unnati Mela’, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called upon farmers to undertake steps to conserve water and asked them to “focus on crop diversification and to go for allied activities like dairy, poultry and food processing to boost their income”.

The official document on doubling farmers’ income also states that “[d]iversification towards high values crops offers a great scope to improve farmers’ incomes”.

Given this background, what explains Goyal’s call to farmers to increase the sowing of rice? Is it for the food security of the country or to enhance farmers’ income? If the prevailing situation on the ground is anything to go by, none seems to be the case.

Reality check

For an honest appraisal in this regard, we should first be willing to reconcile with the contrary realities of mountainous stocks of food grains on the one hand, and India’s appalling levels of undernutrition and hunger on the other.

Representational image. Photo: Reuters

Unprecedented unemployment, poverty, rising food inflation, and a host of other problems run contrary to the notion of Indians being well-fed. Such a reality exposes policy planners’ disconnect with reality.

Secondly – as regards Goyal’s contention of letting the farmers have greater income by tapping into the international market – the open secret is that it is only Food Inc. that makes a killing. Farmers, whether in India or other developing countries or for that matter even in the developed ones like the US are increasingly being driven to despair.

In the recent case of wheat export, farmers did not benefit from ‘increased prices’ in international markets. Farmers kept asking for a bonus above the MSP (minimum support price), but the government did not provide it. A step further, it suddenly banned wheat exports on May 13, which made the situation more uncertain for farmers.

For all his concerns about increasing farmers’ incomes, the minister needs to be reminded of his government’s solemn promise to address the long pending demand of the farmers on the issue of MSP.

While farmers have been asking for MSP for all crops, proper procurement, and timely payments, it is disheartening to see that the government’s priority is to make profits at the expense of people’s pain. The government must acknowledge that agriculture is not merely an occupation for the farmers but also a way of life. Agricultural production is based on climatic conditions and socio-economic circumstances of that agrarian society.

The green revolution interventions may have fulfilled food necessities for a specific time, but they have had dangerous economic, ecological, and health repercussions. Additionally, today’s environmental crisis is grotesque. It can be ignored only at our own peril.

Moreover, the minister ought to remember that rice cultivation during the green revolution was incentivised only to fulfil the food needs of Indians; it was not meant for exports and to “feed the world”.

The kinds of rice varieties we have are not suitable for our environment and the situation is manageable only as long as the government assists in making up the losses. Farmers have been demanding government procurement for all crops for a long time so that farmers feel encouraged to move away from rice.

Lessons from Punjab on rice cultivation

Goyal also categorically requested Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab to increase rice production.

Paddy has a huge water footprint. A study by Professor Pritam Singh of Oxford Brooks University shows that it takes more than 5000 litres of water on average to grow one kilogram of rice. Punjab, which is already one of the largest producers of paddy, is feared to face water scarcity for irrigation purposes in the very near future.

Farmers clear rain water from their flooded paddy field, affected by the heavy rains, at a village on the outskirts of Amritsar, Friday, Sept. 10, 2021. Photo: PTI

Once known for rich water resources as a land of five rivers (panj – aab), in 78% of its total geographical area water table is going down – an emergency that owes directly to rice cultivation since its cultivation is not incumbent upon rainwater but upon drawing underground water.

Out of a total of 138 blocks in Punjab, the water table is considered ‘safe’ in only 20, while 109 blocks are categorised as ‘over-exploited’, two blocks are ‘critical’ and five are ‘semi-critical’.

Besides that, farmers need electricity to pump water for rice cultivation, costing hundreds of crores per year in Punjab. The brunt of attempts at reducing the cost of production has to be borne predominantly by the landless Dalit farm labourers as the landowners regularly pass resolutions for keeping the wages for paddy transplantation low.

The tragedy on top of all this is that rice is neither a crop native to Punjab nor is it a staple food for Punjabis. These facts seriously call into question the rationale of Goyal’s advisory.

The way forward lies in the government coming up with a comprehensive plan for crop diversification in accordance with the local agro-climatic conditions and food security needs of the people, especially in the states where the state of natural resources like soil and water is alarming.

To discourage farmers from rice cultivation, a case in point is the Punjab government’s declaration of MSP on procurement on moongdal (yellow lentil). This has led to a sudden increase of 77% in the state’s sown area of Moong, demonstrating that farmers are in for diversification. All they need is financial security from the government.

Whether the government wants to increase or decrease the sowing areas and cultivation of rice, it should do so while ensuring the economic and social protection of the farmers and the farm labourers. After all ‘food security’ of the people is not simply a tradable commodity.

Harinder Happy ([email protected]) is a Ph.D. Scholar, and Dr. Vikas Bajpai ([email protected]) is an Assistant Professor at the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Bajpai is the author of the book Food Security in India: Myth and Reality


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