We know from history how some kings gave utmost importance to food security for every citizen, by constructing water harvesting structures, rivers, dams and encouraged cultivation.

One good example is tapioca cultivation in Kerala during a famed famine that occurred from 1860 to 1880.  Vishakam Thirunal Rana Varma, King of Travancore (1880-1885) brought Tapioca from Brazil, taught people to cultivate and cook it and he himself included it in his diet to give confidence to people. Tapioca was then distributed in rations to people of Travancore-Cochin State.

Various studies have shown that poverty and death during famines were not due to lack of production but distribution. “Famines in British Era were not due to lack of food but due to inequalities in food “ writes Dr. Amartya Sen.  He adds that the inequality was due to the undemocratic nature of the British empire.

Famines and Droughts

The last famine during the British empire was the Bengal famine of 1943 during which 2.5 to 3 billion people died.  Many writers wrote that there was enough food production during this period, but there was a negligence from the British government, who did not care to distribute food to all.

Food Corporation of India was established in 1965 to procure grains and distribute to deficit states and also ensure price control, says Prof R. Ramakumar. Food grain production was incentivised through Minimum Support Price to increase production, says Dr.Jean Dreze. Prof. Prabhat Patnaik said, “It was a ‘ship to mouth-era when we were importing from US.”

US food aid was reduced by Lindon B. Johnson when India criticised US for the Vietnam War. Those who say we can import at cheaper rate should remember this.

It was due to the Food Corporation of India and Public Distribution System that deaths could be averted or reduced during Bihar draught of 1966-67.  Though 2,353 deaths were reported, 20,000 ration shops supplying grains to people did help alleviating chronic hunger for many people.

During 1972 drought of Maharastra, 25 million people needed help. Public protests, marches, picketing and even riots had played a major role in getting the attention of the government.  5 million people were provided employment in creating, nurturing irrigation system and planting trees.  Through Public Distribution system, grains were given which prevented hunger deaths. The 2013 drought in Maharashtra affected 11801 villages but Public Distribution System ensured basic minimum food for people.

Global Interest in India’s food production

India’s agriculture sector continues to be vulnerable to drought. US and Europe keep pushing the Government of India to import grains from them.  They have surplus because they incentivise production to the farmer. However, in May 2018, US has complained to WTO that the minimum support price given for wheat farmers in India should be stopped.

Multinational companies keep a close eye, and target the Indian market for their food products. Our 135 billion people is the second biggest market after China, but China has production and import restrictions.

Cargill has openly stated that it will enter India only after Food Corporation of India is closed, said Prof. Utsa Patnaik.

Hunger and nutrition in India

India is doing poorly in the World Hunger Index, as it stands 94th among 107 countries (as per 2020 data). Our own NFHS data, covering 22 states shows an alarming situation, even before the pandemic.

World Nutrition Report says one in two women of reproductive age is anemic while at the same time, the rate of overweight and obesity continues to rise affecting almost a fifth of the adults, at 21.6% of women and 17.8% of men.

This situation persists in spite of national level interventions like FCI and PDS. This is because their powers have been diluted over a period of time.

In 1997, the PDS was brought in to cover only the people below the poverty line. Dr. Jean Dreze, however, argues for a Universal PDS so that food grains will not go waste and people will be assured of nutrition. There are many studies which shows the direct impact of PDS on people’s nutrition, including a study by MSSRF provides details of this in case of Tamilnadu.

Tamilnadu is a classic example of PDS success. Not so long ago, a Minister of DMK had stated that the success of PDS is the success of Governance in the state.

In 1967, Dr. Annadurai as Chief Minister (DMK) introduced 5 KG free rice scheme. When the central government brought changes to PDS in 1992, which did not make it universal anymore, the Tamil Nadu government led by DMK, did not accept it. Yet again in 1997, when the central government changed the system to target only a section of society, the DMK government rejected these changes and still continues with Universal PDS.

Ms. Jayalalitha brought in free rice scheme in 2011 and all state governments thereafter have followed suit.  There are 33,224 Fair Price Shops, 1,96,16,093 Ration cards and 9,574 staff in the Public Distribution System which has ensured food security.  Last year the food subsidy was Rs. 6,000 crore inspite of subsidised rice and wheat coming from Centre under TPDS.

In addition, Tamilnadu is a pioneer in the Noon Meal Scheme, started by Shri K. Kamaraj and improved by subsequent governments. The expenditure for nNoon-meal Scheme last year was Rs.1,172 crores.  In addition, we have Amma Canteens serving cheap, nutritious break fast and lunch at very cheap rates.

With the coming of the 3 farm laws, all this might be at stake. Food Corporation of India has not been paid dues of Rs. 2.7 lakh crore by the central government and its logistics have already been handed over to Adani. FCI will be closed, on grounds of allegedly making huge losses and that will be a death knell to the PDS. 

The Tamilnadu Chief Minister who supports the farm laws due to the control of BJP should understand. Last year Rs.50,052 crores from budget went for Debt Servicing alone which is 19% of the State Budget. Without FCI and PDS the Govt will not be able to provide free rice, noon meal and has to close the Amma canteens. Is he ready for that?  No Govt which can’t provide food to its people can survive.

Thomas Franco is former General Secretary of All India Bank Officers’ Confederation.

Picture credits: Ananth BS/Flickr

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