In India, a country that meets 99.9 percent of its net availability of food through domestic production, and even exports food grain, some districts, in the state of Orissa, have become chronically prone to famine. Officially, of course ‘famine’ is a loaded term in a country that touts the claim that “no one dies of starvation any longer”. Unofficially, it is clear that people die every year in Orissa because of food deficit.
Located on the eastern coast of India, Orissa has a population of 36.7 million, of which 47.2 percent lives beneath what is known as the ‘poverty line’. This line used to be configured with reference to calorie intake (now, the international standard is income, judged by the measure of one dollar per day). In India, ‘below poverty line’ (BPL) still often refers to populations consuming less than 2100 calories a day in urban areas and 2400 calories a day in rural areas. As per this standard, the rural poverty ratio for Orissa, at 48 percent is the higher than all other states in India. The government’s human development index for Orissa reflects this dismal scenario, with a value of 0.404 (where the best is 0.638) and a rank of 11 out of the 15 states for which these indices were prepared.
Chronic hunger and malnutrition are inextricably linked with the polity and socio-economic rubric of Orissa. That these are assumed to be a consequence of recurring drought derives from the fact that agriculture provides direct and indirect employment to about 64 percent of the workforce and contributes 28.5 percent of the Net State Domestic Product. Of the 6.4 million hectares that is cultivated, only 35 percent is served by irrigation facilities, the rest being rain-fed.
Rice, cultivated during the summer season – ie between June and September (known in most of South Asia as the kharief season) grows on 4.2 million hectares – only one-third of which is irrigated. The state receives 80 percent of its rainfall in the monsoon months between June and September. Drought, thus, is a characteristic of the paddy season.
The contiguous patch of the districts of Bolangir, Nuapada, Kalahandi and Kandhamal in western and central Orissa has been identified as a chronic drought-prone zone. Anticipated crop-loss during the drought in 2002 in neighbouring districts such as Rayagada was as high as 85.2 percent, in Ganjam 91.1 percent and in Gajapati 92.6 percent.
While shortfall in of food production may have to do with natural factors, the human misery that results from food shortage has much to do with social, economic and political factors that the state has so far been unable to sufficiently address. Rain plays a significant part in hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers, but not necessarily in the “drought-prone zone” of Orissa, where whether it has rained or not, a large number of people are not able to procure the fruits of the soil for consumption.
Doing right, going wrong
Orissa being particularly prone to natural disasters including drought and cyclones, the state administration has evolved a set of codes that enable the government to respond to distress. The Orissa Relief Code (ORC) establishes that the antecedent responsibility to deal with drought lies with the state. It codifies procedures to guide administrative implementation of relief. Identifying the state government as ‘lifeguard’ in times of drought, the ORC holds the State Board of Revenue responsible for coordinating relief administration. It also recommends the involvement of people’s representatives in planning and development of relief-response programmes. The code also emphasises the need to maintain continuity between short-term relief measures and longer-term welfare and development policy. For example, food-for-work schemes that provide employment and food in the event of drought should be programmed so that they contribute to the creation and/or improvement of community assets and infrastructure. Further, the code calls for provision of institutional credit and agricultural support to affected families.
However, the ORC, relying on an outdated food-shortage definition of famine and linking it to drought, does not recognise the possibility of famine in Orissa. Thus, according to it, famine is a “state of extreme paucity of food due to complete failure of crops consecutively for more than one year and acute distress to animals and birds on account thereof”. Given that the Indian state has provisioned the speedy transfer of food from surplus to deficit areas and has facilitated improvement in the food production, the ORC asserts that “[w]ith the development of quick transport and communication facilities and with improvements in the food production situation in the country, the conditions of famine could not be said to appear on any local failure of rains. Hence at present the question of declaration of any area as ‘Famine-affected’ does not arise”.
That famine is not simply a function of drought, constraint in production or even deficits in supply has been increasingly recognised, following the work of economist Amartya Sen’s. In his 1981 Poverty and Famine: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, Sen linked famines to entitlements, debunking the notions that famines were caused by food shortage. Subsequently, famine has been convincingly related not to entitlements but to accessibility – the access to food as determined by economic, political and social relations. Now, typically, food security determinants are classified as those pertaining to adequacy of food availability, stability of food supply and access to food. Of these, the United Nations recognises that “the most important aspect of food security is household access to food”. Stability of household access presupposes enhanced access due to realisation of entitlements.
Equity and distribution concerns of the government in India are addressed by taking recourse to promoting “rapid growth of agriculture” as stated in the 2000 government document, ‘The National Agriculture Policy’. While the national agricultural policy (NAP) does outline some frameworks for consolidation and redistribution of land, tenancy reforms and entitling landless labourers to usufruct of trees and pastures, it does not spell out how the growths achieved in Indian agriculture be made more broad-based.
Since independence in 1947, India has made significant progress in food production and attaining food security. As per government figures, from 45.3 in 1950-51, incidence of poverty as reflected in the percentage of the population living below the poverty line, the poverty rate declined to 26 percent in 1999-2000. Recurring droughts and famine that ravaged the countryside till the middle of the last century have become far more sporadic, as well as their impact limited. In a large part, this is owed to the concerted effort to introduce technological innovations to agriculture in the 1960s, during what is known as the ‘green revolution’. But, for all the great strides that the country has taken, India is still unable to control widespread malnutrition. 88 percent of all pregnant women aged 15-49 are anaemic (data from1975-91). 33 percent of all infants are of low-birth weight (1990). The maternal mortality rate per 100,000 live births is 440 (1997), the under-five mortality rate is 111 (1996), and the infant mortality rate per 1000 live births is 73 (1996).
The experience of many Indian districts and communities, including those of western and central Orissa, has been that food availability does not always translate into access. Here, while drought does exacerbate conditions of famine, it is not a prerequisite for famine. Obviously, the ORC, preoccupied as it is with measuring drought in terms of rainfall data and extent of crop-loss, fails to capture the daily scourge that stalks communities in western and central Orissa. Similarly, the primary concern of the NAP is promoting growth for exports. Thus, there is little in either policy instrument that offers scope for making a sustainable impact on food security and tackling famine that is not induced by drought.
Problem of plenty
Amartya Sen and the economist Jean Dreze, in the co-authored Hunger and Public Action (1989), distinguish two contrasting strategies to enable improvements in what they call the ‘quality of life’ of poor people: one, the strategy of growth-mediated security that promotes economic growth and translates expansion of private incomes to public support; and two, the strategy of support-led security, as resulting directly from public support in employment provision, health and education care. India’s elaborate public distribution system (PDS) is one such attempt at direct public support to eliminate hunger.
Public distribution is one of the four forms of intervention by the Indian government in the food grain market, the other three being public procurement, storage and buffer stock operations and legal controls on hoarding. In her work, Weakening Welfare: Distribution of Food in India, agricultural economist, Madhura Swaminathan, has highlighted the objectives of the PDS as rationing during scarcity, price-stability, check on private trade, and welfare of the poor by providing basic food to the vulnerable at reasonable prices. Thus, the PDS is a rationing mechanism that entitles households to specified quantities of selected commodities at subsidised prices.
The six essential commodities that are supplied nationally are rice, wheat, sugar, edible oils, kerosene and coal. Rationing was introduced in Bombay in 1939. It was abolished on the recommendation of the Second Foodgrain Policy Committee in 1947 but reintroduced with the onset of ‘planning’ in 1947. While there was a decline in public distribution through most of the 1950s, it is important to note that till 1970, the quantity of grain procured was less than what was distributed through the PDS. (This implies the dependence of PDS on imports of food grain, primarily under the US Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act 1954, as amended, better known as the PL- 480 regime.) The end of the 1970s, however, saw the growth of comfortable buffer stocks, providing the basis for large-scale expansion of the PDS and also food-for-work type employment/welfare programmes. The PDS continues to be the most flexible instrument for moderating short-term effects of supply or production shortfalls, given the vagaries that still characterise Indian agriculture.
Swaminathan also highlights some of the key characteristics of the PDS since the country embarked upon structural adjustment in the early 1990s. With the revamp, the targeted PDS (TPDS) was introduced in 1996, which places emphasis is on specific areas, with preference to population in ‘difficult areas’. The objectives of the TPDS are improving access of income-poor consumers to the PDS, increasing the range of commodities supplied by fair-price shops (FPS – retail outlets under the PDS), and providing selected commodities at prices lower than in the general PDS.
Targeting has also drawn a distinction between BPL and above poverty line (APL) consumers, while a separate system for those in economic transition between the categories is being envisaged. For the BPL category, prices are fixed at a percentage of the economic cost (the sum of the acquisition and the distribution costs) accruing to the Food Corporation of India (FCI), while prices for the APL category are fixed at par with the economic cost. While, the issue price of rice and wheat for the BPL category remained constant till 1999-2000, after which it was increased, the issue price of rice and wheat for the APL category increased till 2000-01, after which it registered a sharp decline.
With structural adjustment, clearly, the principle of universal coverage has been abandoned. Entitlements of food grain have been reduced. And, there has also been an increase in food prices that reflects reduction in implicit food subsidies. In the early 1990s,for instance, the cumulative increase in the price of food grain sold through PDS was higher than corresponding increase in other general price indices.
A third characteristic is a decline in the quantity distributed. Food grain allocation fell from 20.8 million tonnes in 1991 to 14 million tonnes in 1994. That this has coincided with an increase in stocks of food grain at the national level is ironic. The food grain stock has been increasing since January 1998, and grew rapidly after January 1999. While the minimum buffer stock norm was 16.8 million tonnes till January 2002, in that month, the actual stock was 58 million tonnes. Certain supply-side and demand-side factors contribute to this problem of plenty. On the supply side, the Minimum Support Price (MSP), a policy instrument to prevent farmers from resorting to distress sale, has maintained a steady increase for both wheat and paddy, given the critical role of the rural landed classes in the electoral process. On the demand side, the primary reason for the increasing stocks is poor ‘offtake’ under the TPDS of grains from the government.
The targeting of the PDS at specific consumers, lowering the quantity allocated to a household, and increasing the prices, has played havoc with the system, so that now even though food grain allocations to the states have remained more or less constant after 1994, the offtake for both wheat and rice has registered a steady decline. In 2000-01, the offtake in the case of wheat fell to 32 percent of the allocated quantity, compared with 86 percent in 1991-92. Similarly, the offtake in the case of rice fell to 48 percent in 2000-01 from 90 percent in 1991-92.
In view of both public outrage and fiscal considerations, the Supreme Court of India issued a significant interim order on 28 November 2001 directing state governments to implement eight food-related schemes sponsored by the central government effectively. This included schemes focussing on old age pension, family benefits in the event of the death of the head, maternal health, school-feeding programmes, and direct food provisioning free for the aged destitute (the Annapurna scheme) and at subsidised prices for other poor households (the Antyodaya Anna Yojana and the TPDS for BPL households).
Antyodaya was introduced to provide food security to the poorest of the poor. The selection of families for this scheme is done by the gram sabha, a unit of village level government. Antyodaya cardholders are entitled to 25 kgs of grains each month at the price of INR two per kg for wheat and INR three per kg for rice. The Annapurna scheme, introduced in 2000 to provide food security to elderly citizens who have no income of their own and no one to take care of them, entitles beneficiaries to 10 kgs of food grains (rice or wheat) per month. The beneficiaries are to be identified by the gram panchayat – an elected body, which is the institution for self-governance in the village. As per the court’s directions, all state governments were required to make these schemes effective by 1 January 2002.
A comparison of micro-level data from each of these three schemes enables a better understanding as to which demand and supply side factors predominate in the public distribution system, and how the system fails the ‘targeted’ poor, as it has been doing in parts of Orissa.
Micro-deficits and macro-surplus
As in other parts of India, public distribution in Orissa functions through the network of procurement agents, millers and FPS. Commodities are ‘allocated’ from the FCI’s central pool to each district by the state Civil Supplies Department. They are then ‘lifted’ by contractors employed by the para-statal Civil Supplies Corporation and transported to ‘storage points’, to be further sold on wholesale basis to FPS that are retail outlets at the local level.
Studies in the districts of Kandhamal and Rayagada reflect the problems with associating famine exclusively with drought, as the ORC continues to do even as people continue to die of hunger-related diseases. In Kandhamal, which has a population of 647,912 and 118,544 ration cards in circulation and 257 FPS, the offtake of Antyodaya rice was almost always lesser than allotment between April and August 2002. The only exception was the month of May for rural BPL households. A reverse trend may be observed in regard to Annapurna rice, which is free, where only in June and August, the offtake was less than lifting. Rayagada, which has a population of 823,019 and 186,605 ration cards in circulation under different schemes, is serviced by 168 FPS (including urban cooperatives and private persons). There too only in the case of Antyodaya rice (in May and June) was the offtake less than the amount lifted. Annapurna allotments for the months of May and June were not received by the district administration.
In the case of sugar, the offtake of levy sugar in Rayagada was less than 10 percent of allotment, indicating extremely poor demand by communities for the same. In Kandhamal, the demand for levy sugar was higher, with the offtake being over 50 percent of the allotment in May 2002. Similarly, the offtake of kerosene is consistently less than lifting, with only one exception in Kandhamal in August 2002.
The under-utilisation of allotments, as reflected in the offtake being less than lifting, is a manifestation of a number of trends. On the one hand, erratic and irregular provisioning due to the inadequate management of the supply chain implies that grain does not reach retail/distribution outlets at the community level in the first place. The case of Annapurna allotments in Rayagada is a case in point. On the other hand, even if distribution outlets are fully stocked, there are other constraints. This area being sparsely inhabited, communities are located at quite a distance from one another, and often from FPS. The undulating and hilly terrain adds to the time and effort of covering the distance to a FPS. Added to that are considerations of the cost of transportation (whether on foot or on automobile). Rayagada’s district administration formally admits of poor demand for levy sugar by BPL families in the district. This is due to two reasons. First, the zonal sugar depot is located in the adjacent district’s headquarter, at Jeypore, over 50 kms from Rayagada town, making it difficult for Rayagada’s poor to travel. Second, and as a consequence of the first, storage agents are reluctant to lift the sugar and transport it to Rayagada, which adversely affects supply. Where individuals (whether men or women) do manage to travel these distances, it is at the loss up to one day’s wages. Social and economic affordability is most crucial to determining community-level access to food.
Besides, there are other structural factors of that hamper the process. ‘Ration’ at the retail centre is available for only a few days in a given month, and information about which days it will be does not always get around. While caste is not as pervasive in the western Orissa context as it is the coastal plains, hierarchies based on other ascribed status, such as kinship and tribal affiliation determine settlement patterns. Information is radiated outwards to the periphery and therefore awareness is inversely related to distance from the core. Thus, by the time information reaches households at the peripheries, the stock at the outlet is usually sold out. Further, even if households have information, and can easily access an outlet, many do not command adequate fluid cash to purchase commodities at one single time.
A survey of the occupational classification of the main workforce reveals that agricultural labourers (defined as those who are employed on farms other than their own) comprise a relatively high percentage of the population: nearly 46 percent in Rayagada and over 36 percent in Kandhamal, compared to 35 percent for all Orissa. Disaggregating data for rural areas, this figure is even higher – 49.8 percent for Rayagada and 37.5 percent for Kandhamal. Considering that both districts have tribal majorities, it is tempting to link landlessness in the majority of tribal households with exploitation by elites – mostly dikkus (non-tribal settlers), but sometimes superior tribal clans as well. Landless households have no option but to work as wage labourers on the lands of their more prosperous co-villagers. Moreover, females outnumber males in both districts, thereby occupying a significant space in labour markets. In both these districts, where the sex ratio is skewed in favour of women, women workers outnumber their male counterparts as agricultural labourers, though the reverse is true in the overall employment scenario. As feminist political activist Brinda Karat points out, it may also be anticipated that because of gender-discriminatory minimum wage stipulations, they earn less than their male counterparts. Tellingly, work participation ratios for dalit and tribal women are higher than for other women in Orissa, as they are for all of India.
The purchasing power of households (determined by income) is a critical determinant of the offtake being adequate or otherwise. Incomes in western and central Orissa are adversely affected by a number of factors: patterns of landholding being one such. In Kalahandi district, over 50 percent of all workers are employed mainly as agricultural labourers. Here, communities hazard that 20 percent of the population controls 80 percent of the land. There has been only sluggish progress towards industrialisation, which had the potential to absorb landless households (even if the socio-economic benefits of such industrialisation may be uncertain).
Land record transactions in Kalahandi indicate a concentration of low-lying and hence better-irrigated (behal) land with large landowners; public land encroachment, again by the larger landowners; provision of credit by local sahukars (moneylenders) conditional to mortgage of land and labour; and seasonal constraints on productive capacity all contribute to low income generation in the district. The influence wielded by feudal elements based in Bhawanipatna, capital of the erstwhile princely State of Kalahandi and currently its district headquarters may be gauged from their success in thwarting the laying of rail tracks through their ‘fortress’. Both literally and metaphorically, Bhawanipatna was kept insulated from development practice and ideology in spite of its location on the Raipur-Vishakapatnam highway. Development projects such as the Upper Indravati dam-construction project have not guaranteed sustainable employment options, and real wages continue to be low due to both supply factors and continuing patron-client relations. These ‘extended entitlements’, referring to informal advantages enjoyed or claimed by certain groups or individuals in society or households, and legitimised by society, often infringe on the legal entitlements of others.
Even the impact of modernisation has been dubious. With the green revolution popularising the long grain variety of rice, and market linkages making the profit-motive paramount, agricultural production in western, central and southern Orissa has turned away from traditional pulses, oilseeds, millets and citka (a hardy variety of rice). These are more resistant to drought, as was made evident in the 2001 drought in Bolangir district, but have poor prospects in the market. As a consequence, vulnerable households find it difficult to not only make the investments that paddy needs, but are also unable to cope with crop-loss when it occurs.
Thus, a condition of shortages amidst plenty continues to plague communities, which cannot command food surpluses, and are unable to realise their entitlements. In Kandhamal, in April and May the offtake of Annapurna rice (supplied free) was higher than allotments (which were nil), indicating that communities would certainly access commodities provided they had the opportunity, terrain and time notwithstanding. Of course, that will be difficult in instances where supply itself is affected, as in Rayagada. Meanwhile, certain communities continue to not have requisite purchasing power, even when products are ‘available’ at subsidised prices. The relatively high proportion of agricultural labourers in the main workforce in all these districts may be a significant factor here. Clearly though, the increase in the FCI’s buffer stocks has been unaccompanied by the empowering of the people to cash in their entitlements, resulting in declining offtakes, and contributing to the country’s already high buffer-stock and buffer carrying cost.
Relationships of security
The finance ministry’s Economic Survey recommends that the burden of subsidy on the central budget should be curtailed (something that Sen supports, arguing that the MSP have merely benefited rich farmers), and that the reduction in food subsidies be made for effective through targeting (this being typical of the adjustment package that is seen in Mexico, Sri Lanka, Jamaica, Zambia and Tunisia). High MSPs comprising between 45 percent and 75 percent of economic costs to the FCI contribute to fiscal deficit by inflating the food bill. As has been the experience, they are directly proportional to increased procurement, and large buffer stocks, which means high buffer-carrying costs. A high buffer-carrying cost has adverse implications for the fiscal scenario of the economy. Buffer carrying cost comprised 42 percent of total costs (economic cost plus buffer carrying cost) accruing to FCI in 2000-01 – an increase of 12 percent from 1991-92.
That said, food subsidy in India averages only 0.3 percent of GDP, and eliminating food subsidies will not substantially impact the fiscal deficit. Moreover, it still does not solve the problem of poverty-amidst-plenty, which has come to characterise not only western and central Orissa, but also areas in western and central India, such as Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, southern Uttar Pradesh, Chhatisgarh and Jharkhand. There may be some merit in the argument that the PDS is too narrow and static a perspective on poverty alleviation, that its contribution to poverty alleviation is an exaggeration considering that the Spearman’s rank correlation between PDS and poverty rankings across Indian states is very low. The argument also holds that being a supply-side measure, the PDS does not contribute to any real improvement of economic conditions. It is not a ‘safety net’ either, because no scheme for income-generation is associated with it.
At the same time, reviewing the resource-allocation regime to re-channel “available resources from support measures towards asset-formation in the rural sector”, as the NAP says, may not be the solution either. As the Food Insecurity Atlas maintains, “non-food factors also play an important role in causing food insecurity”. Therefore, we must look beyond constructed dichotomies between support-led and growth-mediated approaches, both of which are essentially state-managed. Obviously, ‘public action’ in the last two decades has not helped vulnerable households in Kalahandi where the proportion of agricultural labourers has increased from 41 percent in 1991 to 50.3 percent in 2001, and in relative as well as absolute terms, more people have inadequate purchasing power. It is high time that approaches sustained by local communities are encouraged. Some examples are the community ‘food and water security systems’, including grain banks managed by self-help groups, information empowerment by village-level institutions, and strategies of income generation.
The lack of food, the prevalence of starvation, hunger and near-famine conditions coinciding with food surpluses is a political-economic issue that requires political-economic analysis. Contrary to expectation, this is not something that local communities are incapable of. Already, struggles against bonded labour (for extended entitlements), and for appropriate wages (legal entitlement) have been waged, often successfully, both in western Orissa (Bolangir, bordering Kalahandi and Kandhamal on the northwest) and elsewhere in India. Such political struggle for economic rights may also be a struggle for dalits and tribals in districts such as Kandhamal and Rayagada of cultural identity, moulded in their image and mirroring their aspirations while harnessing egalitarian traditions with respect to class, caste and gender.
As demands are made for the ‘right to food’ and the ‘right to work’ to be incorporated as fundamental rights in the Indian constitution, the Indian state will need to craft appropriate programmes that address core ‘access’ issues in food (in)security. One way to do this is by supporting community-level initiatives and opening the space of negotiation and contest. At any rate, the ‘developmental’ state has responsibilities towards the ensuring the well-being of its citizens, including ensuring basic human dignity, which so far in western and central Orissa it has chronically failed at.