Monday, April 21, 2008

Kerala's high vulnerability on food front exposed

WITH food pieces rising sharply all over the country and the long-established public distribution system collapsing, Kerala stands exposed as highly vulnerable in the matter of food security.

The worst sufferers are the large sections of people who remain outside the channels through which remittances from abroad, which sustain the State's economy, flow.

The State needs about four million tonnes of rice a year. In the 1970s, production was around 1.35 million tones. Since then it has shrunk. Last year it touched a new low of 635,000 tonnes.

The outlook for the current year is dismal, summer rain having caused heavy production loss in Kuttanad and Thrissur. At the same time, supplies from Andhra Pradesh, traditionally the State's main source of rice, have fallen drastically due to heavy local procurements.

While other States abandoned or curtailed the public distribution system (PDS) built up in the country during World War II, Kerala retained it, providing universal coverage. This helped the State to tide over food shortages with the least hardship. Ten years ago, the PDS outlets were selling 185,000 tonnes of food grains a month.

In 1999, as part of the economic reforms, the Centre asked the State to limit the sale of subsidised grains to the needy. The two governments could not agree on the number of people who were below the poverty line (BPL) and therefore entitled to support. While the Centre puts the BPL population at 25 per cent the State claims it is 40 per cent.

In August 2006, there were 6.86 million families with ration cards. Of these, 4.77 million (69.5 per cent) were listed as above the poverty line (APL). A large number of card holders have not been buying grains from PDS outlets during the past few years as they can buy good quality rice in the open market at comparable prices.

Official figures show that distribution through PDS declined continuously until 2002. The off-take that year was 461,000 tonnes of rice and 81,000 tonnes of wheat. Subsequently, the off-take started rising, and stood at 575,000 tonnes of rice and 346,000 tonnes of wheat in 2005.

The Economic Review, which cites these figures, does not offer any explanation for the shift in trend. There is reason to believe that shopkeepers have been turning over their unsold stocks to rice mills. The State government overlooks the illegal transactions to prevent the shops from being uneconomic and closing down.

Aware of the fall in off-take of grains, the Centre started cutting the State's grains quota. As grain shortages developed and prices shot up, the State government said this was the result of continuous reduction in Central allocations. Appeals to the Centre to restore the quota did not yield immediate results.

The problem quickly became one of contention among the political parties. The ruling Left Democratic Front blamed the price rise on the Congress-led government at the Centre. The Congress-led United Democratic Front held the State government responsible. The Bharatiya Janata Party said both Central and State governments had failed.

Last week Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan led a delegation, which included leaders of the UDF too, to New Delhi to press the State's demand for urgent help. The two Fronts usually keep the BJP, which has no member in the State Assembly, out of such teams.

This time, the National Congress Party, which is not in either Front, was also excluded, even though it has two members in the Assembly. Disappointed with the response of Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, who is the leader of the NCP, to the State's plea, Achuthanandan accused him of playing politics. State NCP leader K Muraleedharan retorted that it was the Chief Minister who was playing politics.

The developments brought into sharp focus two maladies that afflict Kerala. One is the readiness of the political leaders to resort to partisan warfare even in a time of crisis. The other is the failure of the administration to ensure that the State produces enough grains to ensure food security.

The first Communist government had talked of augmenting food production. Addressing the State Assembly in 1959, the Governor said, "The food crisis cannot be solved permanently unless the production of rice in Kerala is doubled or tripled. I am glad that my government has realised the necessity for this and has taken steps to increase food production." Half a century later, those words sound like a cruel joke. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, April 21, 2008.

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