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India vulnerable to food price shocks: study

Oct 02, 2012

Indian planners are talking about moving away from the old idea of giving special concessions and subsidies to the small farmers, even as the Global Food Index brings to the fore India’s appalling state of nutrition.

India is vulnerable to food price shocks, according to the Global Food Security Index 2012 released in New Delhi last week. India’s high vulnerability to food price shocks is explained as being due to a high incidence of poverty and food expenditure, in relation to other outlays.

The Global Food Security Index (GFSI) conducted by the Economicst Intelligence Unit (EIU) and commissioned by American chemical company DuPont, ranks 105 countries in accordance to their relative level of food security in three internationally established categories -- affordability, availability and quality and safety. This study ranks India 66th, much below its neighbour China which has been placed at the 38th position.

India’s Planning Commission member Abhijit Sen said the country had done badly in nutrition but not too badly in several other parameters of food security. "We do particularly badly on nutrition. This is an area where we do appallingly badly,” he said at a function coinciding with the release of the report. “We do not do so badly in other areas. Indices like this (make) a person like me curious, why we are 66th position," Sen wondered aloud.

Giving a sneak preview of India’s 12th five-year plan on the agricultural sector, Sen said this plan would be different from the 11th Plan in terms of its focus on the viability of small farm economy. “We are moving away from the old idea of giving special concessions and subsidies to the small farmers.  We are creating a format in which small farmers can become more effective agents for their own collective good which can be done through any form of organisations like co-operatives,” he said.

Sen said that there was recognition that the country could no longer ignore all the ominous messages on climate change and that natural resources were under tremendous pressure. “The government is working on a whole new scheme for sustainable agriculture. What form (the scheme will take) is still to be ironed out,” he said.

Talking about the intention of the Indian government to reduce the number of existing schemes, both in agriculture and animal husbandry, Sen said the country has the largest agricultural research system and extension networks and a new technology mission will strive to 'marry' the two systems.

Even as the study attributes India’s high political stability as the primary driver of its first place rank in food availability within South Asia, the lack of a diverse diet and low protein quality constrain India’s score in food quality and safety, placing it at the third spot among the five countries in the region. India is behind Pakistan and Sri Lanka in terms of protein intake, according to the report that makes no mention of the vegetarian food-culture of the Hindu-dominated country where a large section of people do not eat meats. Besides, poverty makes these diets unaffordable.

EIU’s regional Director, Pratiba Thaker put it like this: “India’s food is starch-based.” Explaining India’s ranking, Thaker said that India’s moderate global ranking means it has some strengths, yet it also has some areas that it needs to work on, like the infrastructure and storage facilities to help the produce reach the markets on time, which in turn will ensure good money for the farmers.

Peter E Kenmore, Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) representative, said farmers in India will have to adapt to the changing scenario in the agricultural sector. Food for the national welfare schemes like the mid-day meal programme for school children should be sourced locally. “It will be not only reduce the procuring cost, but also ensure monetary rewards to the farmers for their agricultural produce,” he said.

Regretting the fact that India is home to the largest number of malnourished children, Salil Singhal, Co-Chairman, CII National Council on Agriculture said that Indian agriculture must deliver to match rising aspirations of the rural people to be at par with the urban middle class.

“We face the twin challenge of more income to farmers to one hand while and the expectation of lowest possible food items by the consumers.  Given India’s diverse agro climatic conditions, over sixteen types of soil types along with resources like availability of second largest arable land, highest irrigated area, India has the potential to provide not only food security to its citizens but also full scale nutritional  security as well,” Singhal said.

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