Amrit Patel

Dr Amrit Patel - Consultant, Ahmedabad/India

Meeting the zero hunger challenge

At the Rio+20 Summit in Brazil in June 2012, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon launched the “Zero Hunger Challenge”. India is still a long way off from reaching this target. Amrit Patel highlights specific aspects that need focused attention to make India free from hunger.

As a signatory to the historic Millennium Declaration adopted at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2000, India is committed to end hunger. Although the percentage of hungry people dropped by about 35 per cent in 2013–2014 in comparison to 1990, India still has 190 million hungry people. The country remains home to one quarter of world’s undernourished population and nearly a third of world’s food-insecure people. One out of every three malnourished children in the world lives in India.

Almost half of the children under the age of five are stunted. Deficiencies in essential nutrients are unacceptably high across all incomes up to middle level in India. According to the latest Global Hunger Report, India continues to be among the nations where hunger is "alarming” and ranks 63 out of 78 countries having the worst Global Hunger Index (GHI). The most disappointing fact is that India lies well below some other South Asian countries – e.g. Sri Lanka (43), Nepal (49), Pakistan (57) and Bangladesh (58).

Even in the midst of intensified interventions for poverty alleviation, the persisting low level of anthropometric indicators of nutrition in India, for both adults and children, is a cause of serious concern. Intake of dietary energy per person is the most widely used indicator of the population’s level of nutrition. The National Sample Survey Organization data show a declining trend in estimated per capita calorie intake – in rural India from 2,153 calories in 1993–94 to 2020 calories in 2009–10 and in urban India from 2,091 calories to 1,946 calories respectively.

Agriculture is not producing enough

In 2013, the government of India enacted the National Food Security Act, which aims to provide subsidised food grain to 75 per cent of rural and 50 per cent of urban households. Efforts are being made for the households to systematically operationalise its implementation through a direct benefit transfer scheme where feasible and optimise the effectiveness of the public distribution system.

Besides, other measures including food-based social safety nets are being reviewed to raise effectiveness of programmes and make them result-oriented (e.g. antodaya anna rozgar yojana = food for work; mid-day meal scheme; national rural employment guarantee scheme).

In the last two decades, India recorded negative farm growth during five drought years. While food output rose by 32 per cent, the population grew by 42 per cent from 1994/95 to 2013/14. During this period, availability of food grains per capita increased marginally from 471 grams to 511 grams. How can this dismal agricultural growth be explained?

Low crop productivity: Although India has the largest amount of irrigated land and ranks second in terms of arable land, crops yields are only 20 to 40 per cent of the world’s best levels. For example, yield of rice in India in 2011 was 3.2 tons per hectare as against 7.5 tons in USA, 6.7 tons in China and 4.3 tons for the world’s average.

Average yields of coarse cereals were 1.0 ton per hectare in India as compared to 2.7 tons in USA and 2.1 tons in China. A study by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) showed that the difference between the yield of demonstration plots in farmers’ fields and the average yield of the geographical area varied by a factor of 3 to 6.

Farm size: Small and marginal farmers owning less than two hectares constitute over 85 per cent of the total. Although small farmers are efficient in production, their increasing number and shrinking farm size raises questions about their economic viability, sustainability and producing marketable surplus.

Partly, this can be attributed to inadequate access to technology, production inputs, institutional credit, insurance and marketing services. Small farmers are concentrated in rain-fed areas and cultivate crops under a high-risk environment, often confronted by frequent droughts, floods and soil erosion.

Soil health: Intensive agriculture for increasing food production has led to nutrient imbalance, declining water table level and its quality, decreasing organic carbon content, increasing soil erosion and degradation, and thus to overall deterioration of soil health.

According to ICAR (2010), out of a total geographical area of 328.7 million hectares in India, about 120.4 million ha (37 %) are affected by various kinds of land degradation – e.g. water and wind erosion, water logging, soil alkalinity, soil acidity and  soil salinity. Frequent droughts, floods and climatic variability/aberrations, also, impact soil fertility and cause land degradation, thereby affecting or even threatening crop production across the country.

Ineffective services: According to the latest “Situation Assessment of Indian Farmers” published by the World Bank, only about 28 per cent of all farmers use any kind of agriculture-related information. Most farmers are unable to access adequate credit, insurance and marketing services from the established institutions.

For marketing, small farmers have to deal with multiple layers of middlemen. These middlemen there take away about 47 per cent of the price of rice, 52 per cent of the groundnut price and 60 per cent of potato price paid by consumers On average, for the country as a whole, the Indian farmers realise only 20 to 25 per cent of the value paid for by consumers.

What has to be done?

A modern and professional agricultural sector can boost farm productivity and make India “zero hunger”. Measures are required, among others, in the following areas:

Research: While the first Green Revolution in 1970s had its genesis in the Seed-Fertilizer-Irrigation technology, the second Green Revolution should originate from the application of radiation-induced mutation techniques and biotechnology along with integrated nutrient, pest and water management technology.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has called for increased investments in radiation-induced mutation techniques that help in producing crop varieties with high yields and disease resistance that can grow in stressful conditions such as drought, flood and salinity.

This technique has been in use since 1920s, and more than 3,000 varieties of 170 different plant species have been released for cultivation world-wide. Similarly, biotechnology in recent years has created unprecedented opportunities and revolutionised research activities in the area of agriculture, e.g. plant tissue culture and genetic engineering leading to transgenic plants carrying desirable traits like insect and herbicide resistance; tolerance to salinity, drought and major pests; enhancing nitrogen fixing ability, improving storage/shelf life, proteins and crops for food processing, thereby addressing problems related to malnutrition, poverty and hunger.

India should, therefore, concentrate on inventing new seeds and planting material of various field crops through the application of new technology. Research should focus on food crops, pulses, oilseeds, vegetables, fruits, milk, fish, eggs, broilers and meat so that people can access nutritional and balanced food.

Potential of ICT: Information and Communication Technology (ICT) has the potential to revolutionise Indian agriculture in terms of raising crop productivity and profitability per unit area and resources. Several apps offered free of charge by the business initiative e-Choupal and the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development in particular are now available.

Many more can be developed which can help farmers access authentic, accurate and timely information related to high-yielding variety seeds, production-enhancing and cost-minimising farming practices, efficient use of water including micro-irrigation systems, integrated nutrient and pest management, post-harvest management practices, measures to mitigate adverse impact of climate change and marketing of farm produce in domestic and international markets.

Irrigation: Strategic action is need to ensure that, in the long term, the share of food output under irrigated farming increases from the current level of 56 per cent to 75 per cent. Some shortcomings need to be eliminated to achieve this. For example, there has been an increase in the number of incomplete irrigation projects awaiting completion since 1970s. Currently, there are 557 irrigation projects yet to be completed.

Furthermore, over the years, there has been a manifested lack of attention to water legislation, water conservation, water use efficiency, water harvesting and recycling and infrastructure. The Government should consider policy, regulatory and institutional frameworks for the efficient, sustainable and equitable allocation of water.

Most State Governments have yet to enact the Act to facilitate participation of stakeholders in the Participative Irrigation Management [PIM] programme from 2010-11. A campaign should be launched to create awareness among farmers about the importance of micro-irrigation systems through effective demonstrations to make them believe what they see for themselves and learn from other farmers who have successfully adopted and benefited from these systems.

Food Management: A significant percentage of food produced never reaches the consumers for a plethora of reasons. Apart from wastage of perishable food, wheat and rice are also abundantly wasted as annually around estimated 21 million tons of wheat rots and is infested by insects and pests. This is because of inadequate/inappropriate storage facilities accompanied by inefficient management of the Government-managed Food Corporation of India (FCI) with no accountability for improper proper storage, huge losses/wastages during transport and due to pilferage, insect-pest-rodent infestation, etc.

The solution to the country’s future hunger problem lies in formulating a strategic action plan to minimise losses to zero by 2017 from the currently estimated wastage of 33 to 50 per cent of all food produced. Policy interventions and programmes are needed to ensure that the envisaged production of food grains is guaranteed even under frequent unpredictable weather conditions, drought and floods in some parts of the country. The public distribution systems must be redesigned and mechanism installed to redress public grievance. 

In order to achieve “zero hunger” in India, the country will have to ensure that all people have 100 per cent access to adequate food all year round and that the food system is sustainable. Smallholder productivity and income must substantially increase, and it must be ensured that there is no waste of food output and food. The government should develop state-of-the-art technologies and put in place effective mechanisms to implement the national food security programme.

Instead of focusing on the mere access to enough food emphasis must be given to the right kind of food. Moreover, there is no efficient implementation of safety-net programmes to prevent diseases, or for the the provision of safe drinking water, adequate sanitation and education. A stronger political will needs to be demonstrated right from policy-making to commitment for result-oriented implementation to make hunger and malnutrition a reality of the past.

Dr Amrit Patel,
 Consultant, Ahmedabad/India
Email: dramritpatel(at)yahoo.com