India Keeps Homegrown Rice to Feed Its Hungry Millions

Paroma Basu in New Delhi
for National Geographic News
July 15, 2008
Part 12 of a special series that explores the local faces of the world's worst food crisis in decades.

The continuing surge in global food prices is throwing India into a vexing dilemma: how to cement its status as a rising economic superpower while providing for its millions of underfed citizens.

According to the World Food Program, the country is home to 350 million malnourished people—almost half the world's hungry—which puts particular pressure on the fast-developing country to reign in food prices.

The country's public food distribution scheme—the largest food aid program in the world—has so far managed to keep tensions from spiraling out of control despite a 30 percent increase in rice prices in recent months.

(Related video: "World Food in Crisis.")

The Food Corporation of India (FCI), a wing of the public distribution ministry, last year provided almost 38 million tons of subsidized rice and wheat to hundreds of millions of people living below or near India's poverty line of around 30 U.S. cents a day.

Subsidized rice prices have remained constant at around 6 rupees (about 15 cents) a kilogram for the past four years despite a 20 percent rise last year in procurement costs, said Alok Sinha, FCI's chair and managing director.

Keeping Rice at Home

One of the steps India has taken to keep prices in check has been an export ban on all rice except the luxury variety basmati.

Though observers have leveled criticism at such restrictions for exacerbating global prices, proponents say it is important for India to tend to its own needs before sharing its agricultural bounty.

Local merchants have had mixed reactions.

"As a farmer, I want my paddy to sell for the highest price, so exports are good," said Sanjay Pal, an organic rice farmer in India's eastern agricultural state of West Bengal. "But when I am a consumer buying rice grains in the market, I want those same prices to be as low as possible."

Pal says he is compensating for the price crunch for now by milling his rice himself, using a process that was practiced in farmers' homes for centuries before modernization.

Subhash Chandra, a rice vendor in New Delhi's bustling Malviya Nagar Market, added that despite the government efforts, rice prices have increased enough to halve his sales.

"The rice exports were damaging our market, because rice traders were getting good prices from exporters, and so they stopped coming around to us," Chandra said. "But now they will have to come crawling back."

Bad Weather Threat

The Indian government maintains that its rice reserves are sufficient to meet current demand, but global trends are highlighting the increasing challenges Asian countries face in feeding their growing populations.

A spate of recent natural disasters in South Asia, for example, underscores the critical need for vulnerable nations to maintain adequate food reserves.

Bangladesh is facing its worst food shortage in decades after more than 1.4 million acres (550,000 hectares) of coastal paddy crops were decimated by Cyclone Sidr in November. Economic tensions are also high in Sri Lanka, where unprecedented March floods wiped out more than 37,000 acres (15,000 hectares) of paddy crops.

And untimely thunderstorms and showers in early April threatened to damage wheat, rice, fruit, and vegetable crops in India.

Ultimately the effects were minimal, but experts say the outcome could have been disastrous if such unfavorable weather had struck the northern state of Punjab, which produces more than a third of India's rice crop.

(Related: "Australia's Long Drought Withering Wheat, Rice Supplies" [May 29, 2008].)

Ramesh Chand, an economist at the National Center for Agricultural Economics and Policy Research in New Delhi, pointed out that a severe 2001 drought in India compromised food supplies and sent prices jumping even in the absence of many of the current factors like swelling fuel prices.

"India has been able to insulate itself to some extent from the kind of food crisis that several countries are facing, but we cannot be complacent and need to ensure that our food production grows," Chand said.

Spoiled Rotten

Others say India's hungry have been ill-served by the country's food markets and aid distribution schemes.

According to a recent government report, FCI is riddled with serious problems and an "incoherent" method for identifying the poor.

On average, the report says, 39 percent of rice and 53 percent of wheat gets diverted into open markets or smuggled and sold abroad.

Earlier this month agricultural authorities also warned that every year almost 20 million tons of rice, wheat, and lentils—almost 10 percent of total production—are lost every year to rats and birds or rot in substandard storage facilities.

"We had the best crops we could expect this year, so there is no apparent reason why prices should go up," said food policy analyst Devender Sharma, chair of the Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security.

"The only reason is because of an overdependence on the market. Everyone knows traders and middlemen are hoarding the rice, but there is no policy to bring this practice to its knees."

Plight of the Poor

An example of this is playing out in rural parts of the northeastern state of Mizoram, where people are coping with near-famine conditions after a once-in-five-decades bamboo flowering event attracted rodents that decimated paddy crops.

Mizoram's plight did not dent India's markets, because the state's farmers grow only enough rice to feed themselves.

But Mizoram is now facing the worst of India's infrastructure and administrative problems, said Mrinal Gohain, a regional manager for the India branch of the international nonprofit group ActionAid, which has distributed emergency food supplies to about a hundred villages seriously affected by the famine.

"Rice allocations have been going down, and even where food is available, people don't have the money to buy it," he said. "With aspirations of becoming the world's next superpower, it shouldn't be that difficult for India to provide free food to people in serious hunger."

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