A reality check from the farm

The notion that India is not just food self-sufficient but also food surplus has been gaining traction in many quarters, including parts of the policymaking establishment over the past decade. That food grain output kept rising to record levels year after year helped propagate this idea. The experience this year — Hindustan Times reported on August 29 that India’s food output is likely to fall for the first time in six years — offers a good reality check, which should ensure that policymakers do not get complacent on the food sufficiency front.

First, a premature and abnormally long heat wave seriously damaged India’s wheat crop. Now, large parts of India’s rice-growing region are staring at a significant shortfall in rice output, if not a complete crop loss. The reason, once again, is the climate. The headline figure on a normal monsoon notwithstanding, many rice-growing regions have had a deficient monsoon, hence the expected loss in rice output. Episodes such as the double whammy to India’s rice and wheat output are likely to become the norm rather than the exception, given the manifestation of the climate crisis. Anybody who claims otherwise is in denial mode. What does this mean for India’s food security? And what does it mean for the livelihoods of those who depend on farming? The two cannot be seen as separate challenges. There are three points of note here. One, the food security situation, especially in terms of affordability, would have been far worse if India did not have strategic food reserves far in excess of mandated buffer norms. This year’s climate-inflicted loss has coincided with a geopolitical shock. These food stocks have been castigated by many in the past, but their utility is evident now. Two, even though the public distribution system will help prevent food shortages, including for the farmers who have suffered crop losses, their income loss will lead to economic pain. There must be serious thinking about developing response systems to such problems, given that they are likely to get more frequent going forward. Three, while farmers face the worst effects of the climate crisis, a large section of them are contributing to undermining the climate and the environment — even if this is done inadvertently.

Policymakers must find a way to achieve a synergy between the goals of supporting farmers’ incomes and making them stakeholders in protecting environmental sustainability.

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