Opinion: Food Insecurity - The Story That Won't Make Prime Time News

Here's a story that won't make the 9 pm news. As per reports in a few regional language newspapers (yes, they still have The Spine), the Union is proposing an increase in the prices of rice, wheat and cereals sold through the National Food Security Act (NFSA) by Rs.7 per kg for Priority Households (PHH).

Apparently, NITI Aayog has even recommended that the Food Ministry increases the price for sale to the poorest of the poor through Antyodaya Anna Yojana by Rs 1 per kg. The Ministry is said to have put this up for consideration by the Union Cabinet.

That brings me to the subject of the column this week: Food Insecurity.

2022 marks the second year since the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY), to provide additional food subsidies to the poor, was introduced. The scheme comes in six-month cycles and was extended for the sixth time in March with its term ending this month.

Access to adequate food has not improved since then, and the scheme should be extended. Let's begin with inflation. The retail inflation rate continues to remain at 7 per cent, far above the RBI's warning threshold. Consumers are paying more for food products. Rural inflation remains higher than in urban areas even last month. Alongside this, industrial output has fallen, hinting at a lack of consumer demand and a fall in employment. And let's not forget the rupee is in the doldrums vis-a-vis the dollar.

We all heard that India slipped to the 101st position out of 116 countries in the Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2021 from its 2020 position of 94th. We also heard the Women and Child Development Ministry's ostrich-in-the-sand response that the ranking had "serious methodological issues" and the FAO's methodology was unscientific.

However, other reports too show similar numbers. The 'State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World' report, published by 5 UN agencies this year, said that 4 in 10 people in India suffered from food insecurity in 2019-2021. India alone accounts for more than one third of the world's total severely food-insecure population.

This year's global events have not helped the hungry in any way. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused a global food security crisis with the disruption of wheat exports from these two countries. India's Prime Minister had claimed then that we would feed the world. However, the wheat crop this year has been decimated by a heat wave, made worse by human-induced climate change. Public wheat procurement in India fell 56 per cent, from 43 million tonnes in 2021-22 to 19 million tonnes in 2022-23. India also banned wheat exports earlier this year to protect itself from falling domestic wheat stocks.

The drought-induced wheat production crisis has already forced the public distribution system to rely more on rice distribution. We are presently in the Kharif season, when 80 per cent of India's rice is grown. This month, the Union government's Food Secretary disclosed that a fall in the paddy-sowing area due to shortage of rains has raised fears that India's rice production will fall short by 10-12 million tonnes. Paddy prices have risen by 8 per cent, and the government has banned the export of broken rice and imposed a 20% duty on the export of some rice varieties.

Climate-related changes cannot be controlled in the short term, but the Union must ensure that the food security of citizens is safeguarded. The numbers show that the government is eminently capable of doing this. The Union has a stock of 4.7 crore tonnes of foodgrains (as on July 1), whereas a six-month extension of PMGKY would require only 2.44 crore tonnes of stock (based on the last extension). The last extension of the PMGKY scheme cost the exchequer Rs.88,000 crore, which is less than the Rs. 1 lakh crore revenue foregone due to the slash in corporate tax in 2019-20.

There are some states like Bengal that provide free rations and doorstep delivery of these under the Khadya Sathi and Duare Ration schemes. But a Union government move to increase prices of grains under NFSA will have a catastrophic impact on our poorest citizens. The Union government has made no effort to control inflation and price rise. Now we hear the Union Cabinet won't clear the note and , in fact, extend the scheme. Go ahead, win the 'scripted brownie points'. We won't grudge you that. After all Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav cannot be celebrated on the back of hunger.

Postscript: The Union Government had decided to export 3 million tonnes of wheat in April. The next month, in May, a new notification was issued prohibiting export of wheat. Confused? Incompetent? You decide.

(Derek O'Brien, MP, leads the Trinamool Congress in the Rajya Sabha)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.

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