Thursday, May 1, 2008

Food crisis offers Kerala opportunity to make a new beginning

Is the fracas among the political parties belonging to the ruling and opposition fronts over the responsibility for the rise in rice prices a continuation of their usual shadow fighting The two sides always try to make it appear as though they were responsible for all the good things that have happened here and that the other side was responsible for all the bad things. Since the Congress ranks are by birth anti-Communist and the Communist ranks are by birth anti-Congress, the crowds keep cheering their respective sides and enjoy the game.

The war of words between the fronts is rather like a quarrel among frogs in the well. The rise in rice prices did not happen suddenly. The prices of foodgrains were rising continuously during the last few years. World Bank vice-president Praful Patel, who is in charge of this region, recently said that grain prices recorded an increase of 70% in the last seven years

The Food and Agriculture Organization kept recording the increase in price year after year. Last year's report said that grain prices rose steeply in 2006 and that the trend was continuing. FAO revealed that in March this year prices reached the highest level in three decades. All this information did not reach the frogs in the well.

Kerala gets the good effects of the globalized system as well as its ill-effects in abundant measure. We must, therefore, know what is happening in the world. We don't produce our requirements of foodgrains. We must, therefore, know what is happening in the rice-growing countries. In last year's Economic Review, the Planning Board had referred to the decline in the area under rice as well as production in the other southern States and described it as a matter of concern. It did not refer to developments in the world market probably because India is self-sufficient in foodgrains and it is the Centre's responsibility to meet the State's needs.

Experts cite three major reasons for the worldwide rise in grain prices. One is the rise in energy prices. Many countries, including the United States, are giving priority to crops needed for manufacture of ethanol which is being used as a substitute for oil. As a result, food production has declined. Climate change and natural disasters constitute another cause of price rise. Over and above these comes
hoarding by traders hoping to make huge profits. This is probably the only area where the State government can do something. However, it may not do anything more than holding out threats of action. After all, barking dogs don't bite.

The Government of India has banned the export all varieties of rice other than basmati to prevent the world food crisis making its impact on the domestic market. This has adversely affected overseas Indians. Rice has reportedly disappeared from US shops patronized by Indians.

India's problem is not food scarcity but high prices. The worst sufferers are the poor. Kerala experiences both scarcity and rising prices. The worst sufferers here are those who do not get the benefit of the foreign remittances flowing around. The majority of the Dalits and the Adivasis are among them.

FAO expects the present food crisis to persist for years. It has put forward some proposals to deal with the situation in cooperation with national governments and international agencies. It asks that steps be taken to increase food production and make grains accessible to the weaker sections. This week UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon called a meeting of representatives of 27 agencies of the world body at Berne, capital of Switzerland, to discuss an action plan to meet the situation. It is at this time that the ruling and opposition fronts here are trying to amuse us raising controversies.

Our rulers' tradition is one of destroying agriculture. They did it through revolutionary land reforms. Shortly before the first Communist government fell, the Governor, addressing the State Assembly, said, "Unless food production is increased two or three fold Kerala's food crisis cannot be solved permanently. I am glad that, realizing this, my government has taken steps to augment food production. Some success has already been registered in that direction." We now know that his
expectations did not materialize. Now the area under food crops and production are both shrinking continuously. It was the revolutionary thought that transferred land from the landlord to the tenant, who was standing on the border, instead of the farm labourer, who was working in the paddy-field. Even before he got the land he had decided to give his children a modern education so that they can join the
ranks of the emerging middle class. In his hands, land became an asset that can help realize his middle class hopes. As he realized his ambition, the State's food security, which was already in peril, was lost completely.

The lesson we have to learn from the present crisis is that we have to do certain things to ensure food security. If we can think constructively, we can turn this crisis into a new opportunity. All cultivable land must be brought under the plough. The government must draw up a plan for this purpose urgently. The task of implementing the plan must be entrusted with the sections of people who have not lost interest in farming yet. That way the government can do justice, even if belatedly, to the Dalits and Adivasis who were denied justice at the time of land reform. As far as possible they must be encouraged to do farming on cooperative basis. The government must ensure that the financial institutions give them the help they need. It must acquire at pre-determined prices all the grains they produce under the plan and distribute them to the weaker sections through the public distribution system.
Based on column "Nerkkazhcha" appearing in Kerala Kaumudi dated May 1, 2008

1 comment:

Kuttan said...

I think its time to take a look at the land reforms. It was probably good for the time when it was implemented but that is has now become a road block to agricultural development. The only way can increase our rice production is to move away from sustenance farming by having bigger mechanized farms. Unfortunately the land reforms is a holy grail for the communists in kerala and no matter how bad things get they will not change that.