Grain of truth

India's public distribution system promotes rice and wheat. These water-intensive crops require more inputs and are less nutritious as compared to grains like millets that have sustained India for millennia. These blind policies are preparing the country for an era of food and water scarcity

Published: Tuesday 15 May 2001

Grain of truth

-- That they are called coarse grains summarises their present status in Indian society. Go anywhere in the country, and you will see a marked inferiority accorded to 'coarse' grains including millets, barley and sorghum. Someone who eats these grains, as against the 'fine' cereals rice and wheat, is considered poor. The production figures speak volumes. As the country goes about claiming record food production of 202.54 million tonnes during 1998-99, this increase is visible only in a few crops, mainly rice and wheat. The overproduction of rice has already led to problems. This became evident towards the end of 2000, when the Food Corporation of India refused to procure rice from farmers in Punjab. The media widely covered the plight of the Punjab farmers, but missed out on the root of the problem. The quality of rice was not up to the mark, which, scientists say, is a result of growing rice in areas where rice isn't the traditional crop (see box: Punjab's honeymoon with paddy ).

India's food security as well as the nutritional security of its population precariously depends on rice and wheat. Self-sufficiency in food fails to cover the concerns of large populations in concentrated pockets -- people living in harsh and difficult terrain, in arid, semiarid and hilly areas without enough water to cultivate rice and wheat. Particularly vulnerable are tribal people. Coarse grains have played a crucial role in providing sustenance in these areas. The shift to rice/wheat-based food has abandoned them to chronic food and nutrition insecurity. In rural India -- especially the vast stretches of dryland belts stretching across the Deccan plateau, northern Karnataka, Marathwada, the deserts of Rajasthan and the tribal areas in central India -- coarse cereals have been the mainstay of agriculture, diet and cultural systems (see box: Second coarse ). Farming of these crops extends to 65 per cent of the rainfed agricultural land, where the concentration of the rural poor is heavy.

Most drylands are characterised by physical, socio-economic and technical constraints. Coarse grains are well adapted to these harsh conditions. But lack of marketing avenues of these crops has led to their rapid decline. Government policy and its public distribution system ( pds ) blindly push water-intensive crops, especially rice, in regions where natural resources like water are already under severe pressure. Dryland agriculture has seldom faced such a crisis. The people of these regions are facing a double whammy. Their health is being undermined and their long association with livestock is in a sorry state -- residues of traditional crops provided sufficient fodder for the animals. The short-stalk, high-yielding varieties fail to provide adequate nourishment for livestock.

"Nutritional security is in a very bad shape in our country. Every third child is under weight. There are two types of hunger in our country. You can see open hunger, but hidden hunger, which is due to micro nutrient deficiency, is not visible from the outside. Both are serious in our country," says M S Swaminathan, eminent agricultural scientist and the force behind India's Green Revolution. "In the past hundreds of crops were responsible for the food and health security of Indians. Their classification as millets and coarse grains during the British Raj proved disastrous. These are highly nutritious grains, which are rich in iron, calcium and other vitamins. I believe the government should change the nomenclature of these grains to nutritious grains," suggests Swaminathan. It is clear that Indian administration has taken over from where the British left, nursing this 'caste system' among foodgrains. Decline and fall of coarse grains
Estimates point out that to meet the needs of the increasing population, production levels in rainfed areas have to double, says P V Satheesh, director of the Deccan Development Society, a non-governmental organisation ( ngo ) based in Hyderabad. "This will create problems when the suggested measures start becoming worse than the disease itself, for example, the proposed interventions relating to technology, inputs and infrastructural support, which in plain English translates to supply of more chemical fertilisers, pesticides and mechanisation of agriculture. In short, a new Green Revolution in the rainfed areas. Obviously, very few lessons have been learnt from the past," says Satheesh. His ngo has developed an informal public distribution system based on coarse grains (see box: PDS: a new avatar ).

India has the fifth largest area under coarse grains after the us , China, Brazil and the Russian federation, according to 'Coarse cereals: changing scenario and research and development strategies', a paper prepared by a group of reputed scientists led by B S Dhillon, former assistant director general (foodgrain and fodder crops), Indian Council of Agricultural Research. In the 1996-1998 biennium, coarse grains were grown in 31.6 million hectares (mha) in the country, and production was 32.7 million tonnes. This was 17 per cent of the total foodgrain production. Moreover, the trend in growth rate is against coarse grains. Satheesh points out that for every further increase of 100 tonnes in India's foodgrain production, rice and wheat make up for 91 tonnes, coarse cereals for 5.5 tonnes, and pulses chip in with 3.5 tonnes. The cropped area, total production and per hectare yield of coarse grains increased gradually during the 1950s and 1960s, peaked in 1966-71, and declined thereafter (see graph: Coarse cereals: losing ground ) .

"The income and consumption pattern of the poor is changing," says J G Ryan, former director of the International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics ( icrisat ) in Patancheru, Andhra Pradesh. "For instance, in India, shares of sorghum and millets in the budgets of the poor had fallen by 68 per cent in rural areas and by 51 per cent in urban areas between the early 1970s and early 1990s. The shift was away from coarse grains to wheat, paddy and oilseeds." A drop of 50 per cent in the cultivated area of sorghum, little millet and finger millet has come about just in the past decade. It was in the 1980s that the pds became a 'welfare instrument' to provide essential items at nearly half the market price, point out Laveesh Bhandari and Amaraesh Dubey of the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies, New Delhi.

Slow productivity growth and low prices have reduced the competitiveness of coarse cereals in the market, resulting in crop substitution. Successive governments have allowed the area under coarse grains to shrink through the agricultural financing policies. Neither crop loans nor crop insurance are available for these crops. These can't benefit from government subsidies on inputs. Second, the promised minimum support price of coarse grains was more often than not denied to farmers due to government non-intervention. Third, government doesn't come to the rescue of the coarse grain farmer when the crop is badly damaged by unfavourable weather or when there is a glut in production, while crops like rice, wheat, cotton and tobacco are provided this protection.

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