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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 49, November 21, 2009

Drought, Food Prices and the Poor in India

Tuesday 24 November 2009, by Sitaram Kumbhar


Chronic Drought and Temporary Relief

The politics of drought and food is not a new phenomenon in India. The drought is likely to give rise to inflationary pressures on food prices. Nevertheless, there is a need to make an assessment of the looming hunger due to acute deficit of rainfall this year and its’ likely impact on the people who are/were on the edge of hunger. The impact of the drought could be severe due to multifarious reasons which this paper attempts to explicate.

The Prime Minister has said: “We are in a very strong position to manage the consequence of drought. Our food stocks in particular are very high. We should not be over-pessimistic.” (The Hindu, September 2, 2009) However, the fact remains that historically possession food has either divided the human society into two camps, the possessed and dispossessed, or resulted in a sort of struggle to actually get access to sources of livelihood even today. The old and perennial struggle to occupy a piece of land could be seen in this context. The ongoing struggle for land throughout India is basically a struggle for livelihood. Despite the monsoon dependency of Indian agriculture the land is something very dear to the people; that is why the Government of India finds it difficult to actually acquire even a small piece of land.

It is not easy to understand the starvation that afflicts much of the rural households in India. Any attempt to check the looming hunger needs a clear understanding of the rural people’s access to food. We cannot put all the people in the rural/urban areas in a single group because a household’s access to food depends on multiple factors. Therefore, the policy intervention needs different schemes to effectively address the problem of different groups. A single scheme or policy intervention for a whole mass of this country will not be meaningful unless it addresses on priority basis the worst affected groups because they deserve more. The need is to “treat equals equally and unequals unequally”.

Let us look into the vulnerability of different groups of people in rural India to the drought. The worst affected the during the drought are the rural poor and farmers. These two groups are more vulnerable because they do not have any savings to buy food from the open market even if foodstuff is available in the local market. The Public Distribution System cannot address the problem because a large number of rural households are bigger in size. A big family with ten members gets the same quantity of rice that a small family of three members gets. In such a scenario, a big family will need more foodstuff from the local market to feed the family. So it is necessary that the skyrocketing prices be controlled. The drought will force the people to buy foodstuff from the market for the whole year and not just for four to five months. The prices of pulses are already high.

The farmers constitute a large segment of the rural population and it will become difficult for the government to meet their food requirements and tame the rising food prices in the local market. Making food items available in the rural market must be the priority of the government to ward off starvation deaths and to avoid any sort of food rioting which cannot be ruled out if the food shortage is acute. Already there have been food riots in 30 countries. In fact the world food prices have jumped 83 per cent since 2005 and poor households spend 80 per cent of their incomes on food. In a developing country like India, a food shock of this magnitude is a major political event because the poor households expect the government to do something when prices rise. Paul Collier (2008) argues: “The real challenge is not the technical difficulty of returning the world to cheap food but the political difficulty of confronting the lobbying interests and illusions on which current policies rest.” Many others argue that the developed
countries neglected innovation in agriculture. Catherine Bertini and Dan Glickman (2009) raise four vital issues—Washington has invested too little money and talent in combating the root causes of hunger; aid efforts have been hampered by the developed countries’ short-sighted trade and economic policies; not enough was done to keep multinational institutions such as the development banks and FAO focused effectively on hunger; and aid to end hunger has been distorted by the imposition of the Western political views.


Food paucity is a serious issue as most of the States in Central India and the North-East have received very scanty rainfall which is less than normal. This has put a major chunk of the rural populace to the risk of starvation, especially the agriculture dependants and agricultural labourers who have no savings to buy food from the market. The monsoon dependency of Indian agriculture is once again facing a serious challenge. The drought and food prices have already become a political issue in most of the States. Starting with one of the biggest States with the largest population in India, Uttar Pradesh, to the territorially smallest States in the North-East, ‘drought’ and ‘upward mobility of food prices’ are taking a political turn. This has made most of the States edgy and they have started diverting the regional level anger towards the Central Government. The Opposition political parties in most of the drought affected States have started doing opportunistic politics. The political parties need to sit together and chalk out a genuine strategy to minimise the adverse impact of drought on the vulnerable sections and to contain the upward mobility of food prices. The politicians need to stop retributive politics over these genuine issues of the general masses. There are certain problems, such as the rising food prices, which are not within the control of the government as these have much to do with the global trends of food prices. In today’s world, which is more integrated than ever before, much of the happenings outside India influence domestic affairs. It becomes difficult to insulate the country from international currents due to the ruling elite’s old desire to make India a so-called “superpower”. India cannot become a “superpower” unless it overcomes the problem of poverty and inequality.

Serious issues like the upward mobility of food prices, and the need to minimise the impact of the drought on the people in general and rural poor in particular have to become first priority of the government to ward off starvation deaths. The government must remain ready and alert before the food insecurity becomes acute and not take steps after it becomes uncontrollable. In fact, the Indian food scenario has enormous impact on the world food prices. The Western countries have already blamed the Indian food habits for the upward mobility of the world food prices.

India had imported 25 lakh tonnes of pulses in 2008. The consumption of pulses has gone up in the developed countries and declined in the developing countries. As a mater of fact, the prices
of pulses have gone up in Canada, Australia, Myanmar and Turkey which are the main exporters to India. The prices of pulses have already reached the climax and the possibility of further rise looms large as a result of the drought in India. It is useless to play hide and seek with the monsoon. The need of the day is to go for comprehensive agricultural reforms to improve the agricultural infrastructure in rural India.

The small and medium irrigation projects need to be given urgent priority than big dams as the symbol of modern India. The big dam is like playing a gamble because we do not have assured calculation beforehand to suggest what amount of agricultural land could be irrigated in the post-dam period. In most parts of the country the waters of the “big dam” are diverted to industrial houses and not to the farmers as had happened in the case of the Hirakud Dam in Orissa. Therefore, the big dam may not necessarily lead to increase in agricultural output. Big dams also create regional inequality at the sub-national level. Regional disparities have widened in most of the States due to the big dams. These create serious environmental degradation because the natural flow of water is blocked and a large chunk of agricultural land and forests are submerged. Other contentious matters which have become extremely serious are displacements and land acquisition.

Conversely, small and medium dams/irrigation projects are realistic, environmental friendly, submerge less agricultural land and displace less or no villages. From such projects even the small farmers tend to benefit more than the big dams. Availability of irrigation in rural India will make rural India food surplus. The farmers with even a small piece of land can also produce food sufficient for their household consumption because it is possible to grow crops twice in a year. The watershed development projects have become questionable. Despite huge expenditure into these we could not improve rural India’s access to water for irrigation. What to speak of fresh drinking water, even the access to water for daily household uses is facing severe challenges.

India’s dependency on foreign countries to feed its growing population is a sad commentary on on the ruling class. It is the outcome of perennial policy failures. The farmers’ loan waver scheme of the Government of India to stop the farmers’ suicides and their distresses could not reach the poor farmers. The government knew very well that the small farmers’ loan from the public sector is negligible. Most of the poor farmers borrow from the informal sector. Thus, the farmers’ loan waiver helped the rich farmers who had borrowed large amounts from the public sector and not the poor farmers as much as it should have benefited them. There is a need to understand whether the lobby of rich farmers, who are mainly politicians and family members of the former ruling class, forced the government to implement such a scheme or it genuinely wanted to help the dying farmers as a responsibility. This should not have happened and there should have been a provision to cover the poor farmers’ informal borrowings.


Some scholars in India have mooted the idea of another “Green Revolution”. India needs an “Ever Green Revolution” which is sustainable. Nevertheless, the share of agriculture in India’s GDP has steadily declined from 46 per cent in 1960 to 20 per cent today, even though 70 per cent of the population is still engaged in this sector. India is by far the world’s largest consumer of pulses but production of pulses has stagnated between 13 and 15 million tonnes, causing a decline in availability from 60.7 grams per person in 1961 to 35.5 grams in 2007. The Green Revolution in 1971 only boosted food production in some of the North Indian States in general, and Punjab and Haryana in particular. The consumption of fertiliser and insecticides had gone up. As a result, the productive capacity and water retaining capacity of the soil got depleted in the process.

The study of the rural economy in general, and poverty in particular, have neglected “livestock” as an integral part of it. Livestock was an integral part of the rural economy. Why has livestock been dissociated from any debate on rural economic insecurity or poverty? The possession of livestock fulfils multiple purposes. First, people get access to meat, milk and milk made proteins. Secondly, the increase in livestock in the rural areas will increase agricultural productivity as sufficient bio-fertiliser could be produced for application in agricultural land. The other positive contributions of bio-fertiliser are: bio-fertilisers don’t cause any pollution in environment; they don’t destroy other micro-organism in soil; they don’t turn the soil acidic or alkaline; they don’t contribute to soil erosion by breaking of soil structure and increase the fertility of agricultural land. The decline of live-stock is mainly due to enormous shrinkages of common property resources (CPRs) in rural India. The landless villagers were livestock dependant like the rain dependency of the Indian farmer for agricultural activities. The availability of CPRs was encouraging the landless rural villagers to keep livestock which was of great help to them in averting food insecurity as they used to sell the same as and when needed to buy foodgrains from the market. The decline of CPRs has become a challenge in keeping livestock as the former were commonly used for grazing and taming domesticated animals. Now the rising prices of foodgrains and decline of livestock in rural India have made these sections more vulnerable. Therefore, the functioning of the Public Distribution System and effective implementation of the NREGA will have critical roles to play during droughts like the one we are now facing.

According to the National Sample Survey of 2006, over 40 per cent farmers are willing to desert agriculture. Roughly 80,000 farmers with landholdings and landless labourers alike are supposed to be moving to the cities every year. Studies show that by 2020 around 70 per cent of the Tamil Nadu farmers, 65 per cent of those in Punjab and nearly 55 per cent of Uttar Pradesh’s farmers will move to the urban centres. The idea of ‘reverse migration’ and providing urban amenities in the rural areas is almost a daydream.

Politics at the sub-national level has already started to officially declare a district fully drought affected or partially drought affected. The demands are growing for inclusion of certain regions in the officially declared drought affected list. As of now, no all-party meeting or debate has been organised to meet the challenge of food insecurity. A single national policy on food and agriculture won’t work. India needs region specific policies in most of the cases. Agriculture, for example, is highly embedded with sociological issues. The farmers in certain regions associate continuation of agriculture with social dignity even if the investment is higher than the output in some cases.

The Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, has already said that “the need is for us to act promptly, collectively and efficiently”. He has asked the States to immediately commence relief operations while implementing contingency plans for crops, water, and human and animal health. The prices of foodstuffs and vegetables have already reached the apex. The drought might push up the rising prices of food items further. The poor, middle class and salaried class have already been alerted. In fact, the calorie intake declined steadily between 1972-73 and 1993-94. The consumption of cereals has also experienced enormous decline in India. The Eleventh Five Year Plan acknowledges that after a growth trends till the 1990s “agriculture lost the growth momentum from that point on and subsequently entered a near crisis situation”. (Eleventh Five Year Plan 2006)

The reduced production of kharif crop in the current year may have an inflationary impact on prices of the food items. The government has already announced that the paddy cultivation acreage has come down to 228.19 lakh hectares from 285.95 lakh hectares. Nearly one-third of India’s cultivated area was seriously affected by the drought following the failure of this year’s monsoon. The Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy (CMIE) scaled down the the GDP growth forecast to 5.8 per cent as against its earlier estimate of 6.6 per cent. The ASSOCHAM has said that rainfall deficiency will lead to inevitable economic slowdown that could reduce economic growth to 4.7 per cent this fiscal. What is puzzling is that the pulse prices are soaring in anticipation of deficit crop though the government claims that the production area has gone up.

The Indian economy showed great resilience growing 6.7 per cent last year in spite of being buffeted by the worst global recession in a generation but below-average monsoon rains this year threaten to call a premature end to the celebrations—paradoxically at a time the global economy is showing signs of recovering. So far, 278 districts have already been declared drought-hit in 11 States. After continuous increase in food production since the 1970s there are instances of declining tendencies in food production. This deserves serious public intervention. The health services need proper attention of the government during the year of the drought because deprivation of nutritional intake is more likely to increase health problems among the poor. The decline of live-stock, the CPRs, lack of savings, and pilferage in the implementation of PDS and NREGA will put the rural poor at risk. Therefore, the implementation of welfare schemes must be vigorous. The MPs need to spend MPLAD funds for irrigation so that durable assets could be created.

The instruction of the Central Government to State governments to reduce the coverage of PDS to implement the National Food Security Act is immoral when it would guarantee 25 kg of rice or wheat per month at Rs 3 a kg. The is because during the year of drought the people on the edge of the officially drawn poverty line tend to fall into the poverty trap. The claims that the government has 50 million tonnes of foodgrains, enough to meet the PDS for 13 months to avert food insecurity, is questionable. In fact, Sainath (1996) has discovered that most of the districts with the highest concentration of the poor are food surplus districts like Kalahandi in Orissa. Therefore, the idea that foodstocks can automatically trickle down to reduce poverty and food insecurity is a wrong idea. If the government has huge stocks why has it not yet intervened to control the spiralling food prices?

The government has increased the minimum support price of paddy, exempted from service tax transportation of agricultural products, allowed duty free import of raw sugar till December 2010 and is contemplating “open market operations” to control the prices of food items. The government is only taking temporary measures but India needs sustainable steps to ward off the adverse impact of the drought and the consequent food insecurity.


Bertini, Catherine and Dan Glickman (2009), ‘Farm Futures: Bringing Agriculture Back to US Foreign Policy’, Foreign Affairs, May/June, 88(3), pp. 93-105.

Collier, Paul (2008), ‘The Politics of Hunger: How illusion and Greed Fan the Food Crisis’, Foreign Affairs, November/December, 87(6), pp. 67-79.

Government of India (2006), Towards a Faster and More Inclusive Growth: An Approach to 11th Five Year Plan, Government of India, Planning Commission, Yojana Bhavan: New Delhi.

Sainath, P. (1996), Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories from India’s Poorest Districts, Penguin: New Delhi.

The author is an Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Shyamlal College, University of Delhi.

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