Friday, February 11, 2011
Lack of Attention to Farming Is Catching Up With India
Farmers plant onions in Jalgaon, India. Even with India’s farming still dependent on manual labor and the vicissitudes of nature, demand for food has risen.
BAMNOD, India — The 50-year-old farmer knew from experience that his onion crop was doomed when torrential rains pounded his fields throughout September, a month when the Indian monsoon normally peters out. For lack of modern agricultural systems in this part of rural India, his land does not have adequate drainage trenches, and he has no safe, dry place to store onions. The farmer lost 70 percent of his onion crop on his five-acre farm here, about 70 miles north of the western city of Aurangabad.
His misfortune, and that of many other farmers here, is a grim reminder of a persistent fact: India, despite its ambitions as an emerging economic giant, still struggles to feed its 1.1 billion people.
Four decades after the Green Revolution seemed to be solving India’s food problems, nearly half of Indian children age 5 or younger are malnourished. And soaring food prices, a problem around the world, are especially acute in India.
Globally, floods in Australia and drought in China have helped send food prices everywhere soaring — on fears the world will see a repeat of shortages in 2007 and 2008 that caused food riots in some poor countries, including Egypt.
While India’s agricultural problems are part of this bigger global puzzle, in many ways India’s food challenges are more entrenched and systemic than those faced elsewhere.
Western investors may take eager note of India’s economic growth rate of nearly 9 percent a year. But that statistic rings hollow in India’s vast rural areas. Agriculture employs more than half the population, but it accounts for only 15 percent of the economy — and it has grown an average of only about 3 percent in recent years.
Critics say Indian policy makers have failed to follow up on the country’s investments in agricultural technology of the 1960s and ’70s, as they focused on more glamorous, urban industries like information technology, financial services and construction.
There is no agribusiness of the type known in the United States, with highly mechanized farms growing thousands of acres of food crops, because Indian laws and customs bar corporations from farming land directly for food crops. The laws also make it difficult to assemble large land holdings.
Yet even as India’s farming still depends on manual labor and the age-old vicissitudes of nature, demand for food has continued to rise — because of a growing population and rising incomes, especially in the middle and upper classes. As a result, India is importing ever greater amounts of some staples like beans and lentils (up 157 percent from 2004 to 2009) and cooking oil (up 68 percent in the same period).
Food prices are rising faster in India than in almost any other major economy — and faster than they did during the 2007-8 surge.
In December 2010, India’s food prices jumped 13.7 from the year earlier, while inflation for all commodities, heavily weighted by the food number, stood at 8.4 percent.
A snapshot number released in mid-January showed Indian food prices rising even faster — more than 17 percent over the same period in 2009 — as the cost of onions, fruit, eggs, milk and other commodities rose.
Food inflation hits especially hard here because Indians — most of whom live on less than $2 a day — spend a bigger portion of their disposable incomes on food than people in other big, developing economies like China and Brazil.
“This is the worst form of taxation on the poorest of the poor,” said Ashok Gulati, Asia director for the International Food Policy Research Institute.
Indian government officials have scrambled to make up the shortage of vegetables like onions by importing them. These short-term efforts have helped; onions are now available at 20 rupees a kilo (about 20 cents a pound) in Mumbai, down more than 70 percent from their recent highs.
But experts say the widening gap between agriculture’s anemic supply and the rising demand for food calls for fundamental changes in farming policies.
During the Green Revolution the government invested heavily in rural agriculture, with an emphasis on hybrid seeds, fertilizers and irrigation canals.
By VIKAS BAJAJ International Herald Tribune