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3. Historical perspective of food management in India

3. Historical perspective of food management in India

Shortage of food has not been unknown to the societies world over throughout the ages. The most extreme form of such shortage, the famines, have also been experienced by societies in varying degrees. Some of the notable instances "beginning with 436 B.C. when thousands of starving Romans threw themselves in the Tiber; or in Kashmir in AD 918 when one could scarcely see the water of Vitasta (Jhelum) entirely covered as the river was with corpses; or in 1933-37 in China, when we are told, four million people died in one region only; or in 1770 in India when the best estimates point to ten millions deaths; or in 1945-51 in Ireland when the potato famine killed about one fifth of the total Irish population and led to emigration of a comparable number" (Amartya Sen, 1981).

India, with a vast population and uncertain harvest due to dependence on monsoon rains, has always been vulnerable to famines. The countries in the North also face year to year variation in precipitation and resultant fluctuations in harvests. Their buffer stocks and their ability to purchase, allows them to sail through such fluctuations with no adverse impact on food security. However, in countries like India, dependent as they are on vagaries of the monsoon, even one year of drought can, depress the production very substantially and also dry up the reserves and pipelines stocks. A second successive year of drought not only further depresses the production, but there is hardly anything left in the private or community stocks and the pipelines also get completely dried up. The situation then becomes ripe for a famine. The problem was further compounded earlier due to lack of transportation facilities and even if there were surplus foodgrains stocks in one part of the country, it would not be possible to transfer huge stocks from such parts to distressed areas. So, famines remained a part of India's history. Kautilya, the great statesman of ancient India, in his exhaustive chronicle on statecraft "Arthashastra" (321-301 BC), has advised the kings that during famine, the king should show favour to his people providing them with seeds and provisions. He may either do such works as are usually resorted to in clamities; he may show favour by distributing either his own collection of provisions or the hoarded income of the rich among the people". (Bhatia, 1970). In Vedic era, the parting direction of Guru to his disciples, was to go and grow foodgrains. The saying "Annam Brahmam" (grain is God) also illustrate the importance that was given to foodgrains. There was "a gradual evolution of an elaborate system of precautions against famines and for grappling with food problems... The Mauryas under whom India received her first unity-both cultural and political-laid down elaborate instructions to the higher officers with respect to the measures for dealing with famine and other natural calamities" (Acharya, 1983). Villages were encouraged to have their own "grain reserves" and kings used to maintain their own emergency stocks. "The Sohgaure Plate-another early Mauryas document discovered in Gorakhpur district, records an order to Mahamatya (Chief Minister) of Sravasti to the effect that certain store houses (Katha galani) at Triveni, Mathura, Cancu, Modena and Bhadra are to be opened to cultivators in season of distress" (Acharya, 1983). Occasional famines appear to have occurred in India in some sort of regularity all through-it is said that India faces a major drought once in fifty years. There were 14 famines between 11th and 17th century (Bhatia, 1985). It, however, appears that earlier these famines were localised and it was only after 1860 that famines come to signify general shortage of foodgrains in the country: Frequency of famines also seems to have increased, there being 20 between 1860 and 1909. However, the Governments remained unaffected by these famines and perhaps felt that, at worst, the prices of foodgrains in affected areas will go up but foodgrains will also reach those areas through the marketing channels in view of the attraction of high prices. In fact, "the Famine Commission (1880) had observed that each province in British India was surplus in foodgrains and annual surplus, including of Burma (then part of British India, later an independent country Burma and now Myanmar) was 5.16 million tons" (Bhatia, 1970). At that time, annual export of rice and other grains from India was to the tune of one million tons. Situation seems to have changed drastically on the eve of the Second World War and the Bengal Famine of 1943 is known to have claimed around 3.5 million lives though the official Famine Inquiry Commission had pegged the figure at 1.4 million. However, the Commission did make a general observation that "as many as 30% of the people remained hungry." In any case, this famine jolted the Government out of its slumber and gave birth to a new era of food management in the country, resulting in introduction of policies of control on price and regulation of the distribution of foodgrains by the State.

Food Situation at the time of Partition of the Country

Partition of the country in 1947 left India with 82% of the total population of undivided India but only 75% of the cereal production. The surplus province of Punjab was partitioned and West Punjab, which had a well-established network of irrigation canals, went to Pakistan, Sind province, which too was a surplus province also went to Pakistan. These two provinces together used to supply about one million tons of foodgrains to other provinces in undivided India. At the time of independence, thus, the new nation India started its tryst with destiny with lots of handicaps as far as food security was concerned.

Soon after becoming an Independent nation on 15 August 1947, India opted for planned economic development. Rapid economic growth to improve the standards of living of all, through appropriate distributive mechanisms was an important principle of Indian Planning. Gandhi's philosophy of aiming for contentment and happiness with wants being kept at a low level, and each village becoming more or less a self-reliant entity, was quickly given a go by. This was an universal phenomenon during that period, the days of psychological and spiritual happiness and contentment were getting replaced by materialistic well-being. Modernity was the concept in vogue. In fact, the idea of what constituted good life seemed to be not significantly different between the socialist and the capitalist modernisers. while "the Gandhian approach has always talked about the voluntary limitation of wants, the 'need for having self-reproducing village communities and about issues bearing a better balance between man and nature, Gandhi and his disciples looked more like moralizing old men than people who could be expected to change the direction of the society. Thus, the modernising school under Nehru won the day" (Sukhamoy Chakraborty, 1988). Since then, Indian planning has consciously and consistently accepted "growth with equality" as the cornerstone of its strategy. The equality concept requires, among other things that market forces would not be allowed to have unrestrained free play and will be controlled to an extent that will help superimpose social policy over the economic policies. Striving for equality, in practical terms at least the minimum level of standard of living, including of the household food security, was an important practical manifestation of such equality. The concept of attainment of a minimum standard for all the people becomes all the more relevant in case of commodities like foodgrains which are required by all to satisfy one of their most basic human needs and critical lack of which had resulted in loss of millions of lives in the pre-Independence history of this country. The equity concept in respect of food becomes absolutely compelling in a country like India, where around 300 million people were still living below the poverty line; their physical and mental growth being stunted on account of poverty led malnutrition. India's food policy seeks to achieve the social justice through its price, foodgrain production & distribution policies; through the mechanism of world's biggest public distribution system; through various poverty alleviation programmes, in some of which foodgrains is distributed as part of the wages and through programmes launching a direct attack on malnutrition. This superimposition of social policy over the food policy to control, albeit as minimal as possible, the freeplay of open market forces is nothing peculiar in India; most of the countries do it. "The necessity for food stamps programme in the U.S., however, suggests that market oriented economies may never become rich enough for all consumers to be able to afford adequate diets from their own earned incomes. Even rich countries will have hungry people if there are not food interventions" (Timmer, 1986). We will have, later on, an occasion to refer to these programmes and policies as these have a strong bearing on the status of the food and nutrition security scenario.

Emergence of a Comprehensive Food Policy in Independent India

The food policy of independent India was examined by a Foodgrains Policy Commission under the chairmanship of Sir Purshottam Das Thakur Das in 1947 which submitted its report in April 1948. It came to the conclusion that imports were necessary to enable maintenance of central reserves to guard against crop failures and such reserve could be of the tune of two million tons. It simultaneously recommended that the commitment to maintain the rationing system, introduced during the World War II, as also the need to import foodgrains, should be liquidated in phases. The Commission also recommended that the indigenous foodgrains production should be increased by 10 million tons per annum till self sufficiency is achieved. Without saying so in as many words, this Commission did ask the country to move towards the first stage of national food security by attaining self sufficiency and can be justifiably termed as the first major policy initiative towards the achievement of food security. However in December 1947, all controls on foodgrains, imposed in the wake of Bengal Famine and War, were removed all at once. The time for such a dramatic reform was perhaps not opportune and the weather Gods too were not willing to cooperate. There were floods and crop losses. This resulted in steep rise in prices of foodgrains and the controls were immediately reintroduced. Independent India's first experiment with free market economy in foodgrains was, thus, unsuccessful.

Food policy being necessarily a dynamic concept, the 1947 Foodgrains Policy Commission was followed by a number of Commissions which examined the food policy from time-to-time. The Foodgrains Investigation Commission of 1949 again stressed self sufficiency. Foodgrains Procurement Commission (1950) stressed on maintaining a reasonable level of foodgrains prices to ensure adequate supplies to consumers. To further protect the consumers, it recommended rationing in all the towns with population of more than 50,000, informal rationing in other towns and some regulated supply of grains in rural areas. To carry out this, it recommended monopoly of foodgrains trade in the hands of the Government with procurement at primary markets and levy on the processors. One of the members, R.P. Noronha, gave a dissenting note in which he pleaded for reducing the Government's distribution commitments with sufficient proportion of total effective demand to be met at controlled prices to act as a brake on rise of prices, because according to him, "Democracy is essentially Government by consent and consent to stringent measures ran only be obtained in times of stress and for temporary periods. " He, thus, suggested a policy of via-media, neither total control nor complete free play of market forces. This has been, more or less, the bed-rock of food policy all these years.

A spell of decontrol was again attempted in May 1952, when foodgrain production jumped from 51.99 to 59.20 million tons. The rising trend in food production was maintained up to 1956-57 with production reaching a plateau of 66 to 69 million tons. However, there was a decline of more than 5.5 million tons in 1957-58, forcing the Government to set up the Foodgrains Enquiry Committee (1957) under the eminent economist Ashok Mehta. The Committee criticised total dismantling of food control mechanism as a hasty step, especially when no buffer stocks were built during the years of good production. It recommended maintenance of a buffer of 1.5 to 3 million tons. It also suggested control on foodgrains trading; some regulation of consumption; programmes to increase production but imports pending self-sufficiency; establishment of Price Stabilisation Board; setting up of a Foodgrains Stabilisation Board; setting up of a Foodgrains Stabilisation Organisation to undertake purchase and sale operations and constitution of a Central Food Advisory Council at the national level.

The next and a very important landmark was setting up of the Food Corporation of India (FCI) and the Agriculture Prices Commission in 1965. The former was to provide price support to farmers by purchasing quantities that could not fetch minimum support prices in the market, store the grains scientifically, move grains from surplus to deficit areas and make available gains to states to feed the public distribution system. The Agricultural Prices Commission (now known as the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP), a body on which farmers are also represented, was to advise the Government on price policy for agricultural commodities and evolve a balanced and integrated price structure in the perspective of the overall needs of the producers and the consumers. The Commission was, inter alia, to keep in view the need to provide incentives to producers for adopting technology for enhanced production; to ensure rational utilisation of land and other productive resources; to take account of the likely effect of the prices on the rest of the economy, broadly on the cost of living, level of wages, industrial cost etc. and to also keep in view the terms of trade between the agricultural sector and the nonagricultural sector.

These two vital instruments of food policy have come to stay since 1965 and have contributed greatly to the present day situation when India can take pride in having achieved self sufficiency in foodgrains and banished famines and starvations. To the extent the country acquired self sufficiency, the food security-at least at the national level, has also gone up dramatically but before we go on to that, it will be better to examine as to how this self sufficiency was dependent on the fluctuations in the agricultural production, which itself was very much influenced by the behaviour and quantum of the monsoon rains.

Fluctuations in Foodgrains Production & Food Policy

It is necessary to touch upon the fluctuations in foodgrains production at this juncture itself as these have greatly influenced the food policy. It has already been mentioned as to how a complete decontrol was attempted in 1947 and 1952 when he country had good harvest but how the control were reintroduced when production declined and prices started going up. Stabilization of production along with its increase, therefore, became important goals for Indian agriculture. It must also be appreciated at this juncture that great wisdom was displayed by policy-makers when they kept the agriculture in private sector, although time and again there were occasional pressures for bringing a large part of Indian agriculture under cooperative sector, if not in the public sector. Had the agriculture gone into public or cooperative sector, we could not have reached the comfortable situation as we have done presently.

The First Five Year Plan, launched in 1951, gave highest priority to Agriculture and even though the investment priority shifted to industries in the Second, the foundation laid by the First Plan continued to be the guiding spirit for planning and implementation of agricultural development programmes in India. The first Prime Minister of India, Jawahar Lal Nehru, was convinced that there was no contradiction in pursuing development of both agriculture and industry. "Ever since the demand for the development of modern industry arose in India, we have been told that India is preeminently an agricultural country and it is in her interest to stick to agriculture. Industrial development may upset the balance and prove harmful to her main business-agriculture. The solicitude that British industrialists and economist has shown for the Indian peasant is very gratifying... As if any Indian with an iota of intelligence could forget the peasants. The Indian peasant is our main focus and it is on his progress that India's progress depends. But crisis in agriculture, grave as it is, is interlinked with crisis in industry, out of which it arose. The two cannot be disconnected and dealt with separately, and it is essential for the disproportion between the two to be remedied." (Nehru, 1946). The results of such pragmatism are there to be seen today in both agricultural & industrial sectors.

When India embarked on the path of planned economic development in 1951-52, the total foodgrain production was just 51 million tonnes. Within four decades or so, it is estimated to have reached 180 million tonnes in 1993-94. The growth rate of foodgrains production in the long term period 1949-50 to 1991-92 was 2.7% per annum, which was somewhat higher than the population growth rate of 2.1% per annum during the same period. It may be argued that growth rate of GDP originating in Agriculture could have been even more, especially against the background of many countries in Asia, notably China and Indonesia, having been able to register much higher growth rates. It, therefore, appears that whereas Indian agriculture did make a quantum jump between 195152 and 1967-68 with foodgrain production going up from 51 to 95 million tonnes, the growth in the next two decades was not as impressive as made by some other Countries. The production stagnated between 95 and 108 million tonnes during the next 7 years but recorded another quantum jump in 1975-76, when it went up to 121 million tons. For next 12 years, it hovered between 121 and 140 Metric tons. Post-1988 period again witnessed a jump from 140 million tonnes in 1988 to almost 170 million tons in 1989, a massive increase of 40 million tonnes or 21% in just one year. The tempo could not again be maintained and while the production hovered around the level of 176 million tons achieved in 1988-89 for next two years, it dropped to only 168.4 million tonnes in 1991-92, a substantial decline of nine million tonnes as compared to the previous year, forcing the Government to tie up import of three million tonnes of wheat, the imports being resorted to after a gap of four years. However, this import was just 1.8 percent of the net production of foodgrains in that year and the country had no difficulty in buying it by making cash down payment in US $. The agricultural production again revived in 1992-93 and reached a healthy 180 million tonnes. There is a likelihood of a small decline in 1993-94 with expected production likely to be 179.1 million tons (Economic Survey 1993-94 p).

As was mentioned earlier, food insecurity is essentially caused either by production or price fluctuations. It is a matter of concern that Indian agriculture is still prone to substantial fluctuations. What is borne out from the above, is that only a small abnormality in the quantum and spread of monsoon rains can still create substantial ups and downs in the agricultural production in India. Such fluctuations can be observed even during the last six year period, starting from 1988-89, when the country is seen to be enjoying average monsoon rains for these six years in a row. The challenge, therefore, is stabilising production and solution lies in expanding irrigation and making optimum use of existing irrigation resources.

With the fluctuations in production and buffers being only small fraction of total production, the per capita availability also correspondingly fluctuates as can be seen from the table below:



(in million tonnes)


Net Production

Net Imports

Change in
Govt. Stocks

Net availability

Per Capita
availability per annum
(in Kg.)


































- 1.6






- 4.6






- 2.7











- 0.6

- 4.3






- 3.5



Note : Net Production is Gross Production minus 12.5 for seed, food & wastage.

Source: Economic Survey, Govt. of India, 1993-94 1991-92.

It will be seen from the table that it is only during one year i.e. 1991 that the availability of foodgrains crossed the recommended nutritional norm of 182.5 Kg. per capita per annum. (cereals plus pulses intake for male sedentary worker). However, the very next year it slipped down to 173.9 kg; a level that was achieved way back in 1965. The population explosion has obviously been the villian. If the estimated foodgrains production of about 180 million tonnes in 1993 is confirmed in final estimates, the availability will again rise to around 180 Kg. FAO had estimated (1992) that the Index of food production in India (base 1979-78 = 100) did rise from 123 in 1987 to 147 in 1989 i.e. an increase of 9.7 per cent per year but only by 1.3 percent per annum in the period of next two years 1989-91. The per capita rise in the index has been an unsatisfactory -0.96 per cent in the entire four year period 1987-91.

Buffer Stock Policy

The availability picture is thus one characterised by sharp fluctuations and becomes an important element to be taken care of in India's food policy. It is, therefore, necessary to use a part of the bumper production of good years in the subsequent year(s) of lower production by creating buffer stocks during favourable years and using such stocks in the lean years. Buffer stocks also stabilise the intra-year availability, taking care of the lean months. There are some critics of buffer stocking policy of the Government of India, who argue that these involve huge costs, as also some inevitable damage to stored grains and, therefore, suggest imports, as and when required, as an alternative. Practical experience has, however, shown that imports can never provide that sort of the national food security for a big and populous country like India, which buffer stocks can. Most importantly, imports cannot be on the tap, as if imports of all the required quantities will materialise as and when one wishes. There is not only a lead time but in the absence of buffer stocks from which quantities can be immediately released in the market, speculative tendencies will not only have a field day in the domestic market but the country's bargaining power in the international market would be seriously eroded with the result that purchases may have to be made at high prices and on the sellers terms. The money required will be in foreign exchange whereas cost of buffer is at least in the domestic currency. Above all, why is it that a natural calamity like drought, flood a cyclone can still impair food security of the affected people very grievously in the developing countries but as observed by Jon Bennett "No one in USA starves when drought hits the mid West plains, for the country has mountains of stored grains. And why does Japan still wants to produce its own rice at great cost when it can buy any amount of rice any time. The moral is try and have your own food buffer. Finally, in the absence of buffer stocks, the nation is prone to be pressured economically as well as politically-the autonomy of the country may itself be in the danger of being impaired. (Jon Bennet, 1987) Buffer stocks provide food security to nation and also give it the required strength and pride at the global level. It has also been experienced that when India enters the international market for imports, which necessarily have to be substantial, the prices tend to harden. Further, the foodgrains, especially rice, in this part of the world also suffers a decline and even the availability goes down. During 1992, when India had to import, Australia, which is the cheapest and ideal source, indicated their inability to spare any quantities out of their 1991 harvest, which had also gone down by 20 to 25 percent due to poor rains.

The Challenge for the Indian Agriculture

The challenge for the Indian agriculture that lies ahead is to not only increase the agricultural production substantially but also to achieve stability in it. The increase in production has to be achieved by increasing the productivity since the cropped area has remained more or less static at around 120-130 million hectares during the last 25 years. Latest data is available for the year 199091, when the cropped area was reported to be 127.52 million hectares with per hectare yield for foodgrains being only 1382 kg. Serious attention will have to be given to rain fed crops especially coarse cereals, where new high yielding varieties will have to be developed. In fact a second Green Revolution for crops other than rice and wheat and for areas other than Punjab, Haryana & W. Uttar Pradesh needs to be ushered in. That the challenge has been accepted in the right spirit is clear from the goals set out both by the Planning Commission and the Ministry of Agriculture for the next fifteen years. Assuming growth rate of population at 2% per annum up to 1997 and 1.8% for the next 10 years, the rate of increase in the demand for foodgrains, after taking into consideration increase in demand on account of rise in incomes, can be assumed to be 2.6% up to 1997 and 2.4% between 1997 and 2007. Based on these assumptions, the Ministry of Agriculture has planned for a total production of 198 million tonnes by 1997 and 251 million tonnes by 2007 AD. This tallies more or less with the foodgrains requirement estimated in the Eight Five Year Plan document which has stated that "India will have an estimated 941 million people by 1997 AD. This will increase to 1102 million by 2007. With this population and given improvements in consumption levels associated with growth in incomes, the estimated foodgrains requirement for 1997 and 2007 will be around 208 million tonnes and 283 million tonnes respectively". These figures speak for themselves and the big challenge in the attainment of food security is obvious.

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