Persistent in folly

Rice and wheat fetch a secure price and subsidies on farm inputs. Coarse grains have no place in the public distribution system, although their value in the international market is rising

Published: Tuesday 15 May 2001

Persistent in folly

G lobal trade in coarse grains in 1995 was to the magnitude of about 132 metric tonnes (mt) and is projected to rise to 175 mt by 2005. About 80-85 per cent of this export originates from industrialised countries, where coarse grains are cultivated for animal feed. In Japan, an ngo is working on promoting millets as heath food (see box: Revival of millets in Japan ). Amazingly, Asian countries are likely to be the major importers by 2005, points out 'Vision 2020', a perspective plan prepared by the National Research Centre for Sorghum in Hyderabad. If present trends continue, India's growth rate will be negative among the top 10 producers of coarse grains (see table: India: against the grain ). In their estimation of foodgrain requirement for the next ten years, India's policymakers don't see an important role for coarse cereals. In the ninth and tenth Five Year Plans, rice has been accorded 42 per cent of the total cropped area and wheat nearly 35 per cent, while coarse grains get only 14 per cent.

The trap
The government has hardly even looked beyond its system of remunerative minimum support price and the public distribution system. In 1976-77, rice and coarse cereals had same price, a situation that continued till 1981-82. Thereafter, rice has a higher minimum support price. The announcement of minimum support price for coarse cereals is more of a ritual than a market intervention to ensure remunerative price for farmers. This is evident from the foodgrain stocks held by Union and state governments. Earlier, a small stock of coarse grains was held. That has disappeared 1995 onwards.

India's pds , possibly the largest programme in the world to provide subsidised food, concentrates only on rice and wheat. The Food Corporation of India ( fci ) procures foodgrain for the 'central pool' at prices fixed by the Union government. The foodrain procured are released by fci through pds at the issue price, again fixed by the Union government. The 'central issue price is less than fci 's economic cost and the difference between the two is reimbursed to fci by the Union government as consumer subsidy. This has created a food surplus of rice and wheat -- on February 1, 2001, there was 22.4 million tonnes of rice in the government stocks and 15.4 million tonnes the same time last year, according to reports of the Comproller and Auditor General of India. On November 1, 2000, the rice stock was 200 per cent above the government's minimum buffer stock requirement of 6.5 million tonnes. But the high export price of rice at Rs 6,750 per tonne is much higher than what the Thai and the Vietnamese governments offer. So, there are no takers for Indian rice in the international market (apart from basmati rice, that is). Even so, there are people who wait for adequate food -- an irony that is lost on nobody.

While pds ensures a regular market and a steady price for rice and wheat farmers, already supported by subsidies on irrigation and fertilisers and adequate crop insurance, coarse grains have no assured irrigation, no fertiliser subsidy (they mostly rely on farmyard manure), and insurance firms do not provide cover for these crops, abandoning them to hostile market forces. Cheap rice and wheat from the pds leads people who have traditionally relied on coarse grains to begin eating rice and wheat. A bounty crop of coarse grains leaves the farmer fearful of a drop in market prices. The farmers in rainfed drylands are forced to abandon their farms. They have no choice but to flock in city slums in search of employment. The Green Revolution, no matter how useful at the time it was launched, has failed to address these concerns.

Time for a Rainbow Revolution
Among those calling upon Indian farmers to diversify is Norman Borlaug, eminent agricultural scientist who is dubbed the father of the Green Revolution. On a visit to Delhi in March 2001, he was asked how Indian wheat could be made more competitive in the international market. "Finding market for Indian wheat would be difficult as most industrialised countries which produce the cereal, such as the us , Canada and France, give huge subsidies. For the Indian government to give domestic subsidies to match international sops would be burdensome and unviable. The best way would be for Indian farmers to diversify," said the 87-year-old veteran, asking Indian farmers to diversify part of the rice/wheat acreage to more oilseeds, pulses and maize. C Gopalan, president of Nutrition Foundation of India, New Delhi, says the Green Revolution increased the production of only staple cereals like rice and wheat, but this is hardly enough for a nation faced with the challenges of competitive world. Even the White Revolution, which made India the biggest producer of milk, failed to tackle malnutrition because it cannot ensure that the right micronutrients reach the mother and child at the right time. "What India needs is a Rainbow Revolution," says Kamla Krishnaswamy of the National Institute of Nutrition, referring to the drop in production of coarse grains and pulses.

There is no doubt that coarse grains make good environmental and social sense. Their low productivity is more than compensated by their adaptability, early maturation and assured harvests. Given the fact that the exchequer incurs large expenses on subsidising food supply each year, coarse grains provide cheaper alternatives for regional food security and nutrition of the poorest of poor. It is absolutely essential to provide policy support to these crops. These cereals would prove invaluable to address the increasing demand for not only food, feed and fodder without a severe cost on the ecology. Industrial products based on these crops can provide the right impetus to make these crops more competitive. It is time rice and wheat compete with coarse grains in a level-playing field. The winners of this competition will be India's poor and vulnerable millions, who have been forced to forsake their pride in their traditional grains. The byproducts will be adequate food for the stomach, adequate nutrition for the body, better management of natural resources and real food security.

India: against the grain
Global production of coarse grains and projections show that India would be the only coarse grain producing country with a negative rate of growth
Countries Production (million tonnes) Average growth rate (%)
  1995 2000 2005* 1989-05
Developed countries 401.11 426.38 469.38 2
USA 262.66 273.44 290.26 1.7
Canada 27.35 31.11 41.17 3.6
EEC-10 85.71 92.53 102.33 1.9
Rest of Europe 16.46 19.62 24.57 3.4
East Europe &
Russian federation
184.89 20.647 229.56 2.2
Developing countries 347.81 375.12 404.77 2
China 110.59 119.08 127.76 2.1
India 29.76 29.44 29.45 -0.4
Thailand 5.54 6.12 6.66 2.7
America (Mexico and South) 78.57 86.13 93.65 3.2
East Africa 68.18 73.2 78.32 1.5
World 933.81 1,200.13 1,314.35 2

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