Feed India, the world

Ashok Gulati        Print Edition: Jan 9, 2011

Sometime between 2030 and 2035, India is likely to be the most populous nation on this planet with a population of 1.6 billion, leaving behind China. Researchers are also projecting that the overall rate of growth of the Indian economy is likely to remain high (8-10 per cent), and may even cross China's growth rate as early as 2013 because of the "demographic dividend" that India is likely to reap as well as the "animal spirit" of its private sector that has been unleashed by the economic reforms.

With rising incomes, Indians are going to demand more food, especially the 400-million-plus who have been living on less than $1.25 (Rs 56) a day. The moot question, therefore, for an agriculture policy planner is: will India be able to produce enough food to feed its increasing mouths or will it become one of the largest importers of food in the world, say, by 2020 or 2030?

Before one attempts to project the future, it may be good to peep into the past to get an idea of how Indian policymakers have behaved with respect to basic food availability. It is well known that India was a large importer of food (basically wheat) under the PL 480 food aid programme extended by the United States during the 1960s. It had its political repercussions, as a result of which India set a high priority on self-sufficiency in basic staples like rice and wheat. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Green Revolution was ushered in to tide over that crisis. During the 1970s and 1980s, Operation Flood performed a similar feat in milk, and today India is the largest producer of milk in the world (about 110 million tonnes a year).

Overall, the food production index in India has been growing much faster than the population index, especially since the early 1980s, and that gap has been widening for the last couple of decades, indicating an increasing availability of food in the country. The problem has perhaps been more in the distribution (or economic access) than in the overall availability of food.

Within the food basket, one needs to note that consumption patterns are diversifying with rising incomes. Cereals are only one component, and their share has been going down over time in the consumption basket. But in policy debates, cereals (rice and wheat) still dominate and remain the focus of food security concerns. Between 2000-01 and 2009-10, India exported (net) 53 million tonnes of cereals. This is besides the fact that during much of this period, India also had grain (rice and wheat) stocks much higher than the buffer stock norms. So, India has been not only meeting its effective demand for basic staples but also producing some surplus to export and build its buffer stocks.

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