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Food insecurity? Indians 'hungrier' than they have been in half a century post-Covid-19


Counterview Desk

The virtual Janta Parliament, a civil society sponsored programme, has ended after listening to representatives from several opposition parties, including D Raja (CPI), Sitaram Yechury (CPI-M), K Raju and Kodikunnil Suresh (Congress), Manoj Jha (Rashtriya Janta Dal), Sanjay Singh (Aam Aadmi Party), and others, all of whom agreed on the need for a common minimum programme of action in the backdrop the Government of India using the pandemic situation into an opportunity to push its pro-corporate agenda.
In her closing remarks, civil rights leader Medha Patkar urged MPs to take up people’s issues in Parliament, assuring them that civil society would rally around them in solidarity, stressing on the need to move from “virtual” to “actual” on issues such as education, food, the controversial Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification and the criminal law amendment.
The online session, held under the banner of Jan Sarokar, was adjourned after 43 hours of discussions with around 250 speakers, over a hundred resolutions, over a thousand voting participants and engaging with over one lakh people on social media. A document, “People’s Policy for Post-Covid-19 Times”, containing action programme on different issues, including agriculture, labour, education, health, caste, food security, judicial accountability, environment, and civil rights, was adopted.

Excerpt from the section of agriculture:

So awful is the situation for farming that even fears of Covid-19 and curfews have not deterred farmers from coming out onto the streets in protest. In Maharashtra, for instance, the prices farmers receive for cow milk have plummeted to Rs 17 a litre (less than the cost of a litre of bottled water) from Rs 30 a litre pre-lockdown. In the cities, consumers still pay Rs. 48 a litre (sometimes more). Farmers have been emptying hundreds of litres of milk on the streets in protest.
This protest unfolds against the canvas of the Central government clearing the import of 1 million tonnes of milk powder – which would so obviously lead to complete ruin for milk farmers across the country. The government’s decision to import milk and milk products from the USA is in exchange for the export of generic medicines to that country.
The impact of Covid-19 has come about on Indian agriculture when it was already reeling from the effects of the neoliberal economic policies, resulting in falling farm incomes and stagnant wage rates. The unplanned lockdown, which came at the time of the rabi harvests, resulted in disruptions and losses to farmers as well as agricultural workers.
For many, their crops lay rotting in the field because there was no labour available to conduct the harvest. For others, who managed to complete the harvest, there was no transportation available to reach their agents or markets.
Agriculture confronted both demand as well as supply side constraints. States which rely on migrant agricultural labourers for harvesting and mandi operations suffered shortage. As a result there was slowing down of the processes. The procurement of food grains in the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) mandis saw a huge decline.
Data shows that in the first phase of the lockdown there was a 94 per cent decline in procurement of food grain as compared to the same period last year. Perishable commodities like fruits and vegetables suffered the greatest losses due to lack of storage facilities. Poultry farmers and milk producers were at the receiving end of crashing prices. As a result farmers are faced with a cash constraint situation for the upcoming season for investing in either farming or other livelihood activities and lack of access to institutional sources of credit.
However, the government in response, instead of providing immediate relief to farmers, is seeing this as an opportune moment to infuse large scale reforms with a view towards greater privatisation. In this period of pandemic when all forms of democratic deliberations are stalled, the Central government has decided to bring in crucial ordinances which have deep ramifications for the country’s agricultural toiling masses. 
Farmers are faced with a cash constraint situation for the upcoming season for investing in either farming or other livelihood activities
Overriding the Constitutional prerogatives of several state governments and the Central government have announced three upcoming ordinances related to agricultural marketing and commerce. These provide the Central government sweeping powers to annul all state specific related legislations. Three crucial amendments: 
(i) The Farming Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Ordinance 2020 
(ii) The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Ordinance 2020 
(iii) The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Ordinance 2020.
Distressed farmers emptying milk cans as prices fall
These legislations have negative implications for farmers’ incomes. The ordinances, by deregularising agricultural markets, reduces the ambit of APMCs and provides private players a free run for purchasing farmers’ produce without assuring MSPs.
Similarly, the proposed amendment to the Essential Commodities Act (ECA) will open the floodgates for hoarding of essential commodities, and threaten food security of the country. Further, the ulterior motive of such an amendment is to attract foreign direct investment (FDI) and private investment into agricultural supply chains, storage infrastructure, processing industries.
Furthermore, the proposals to amend the Electricity Act and its clause to scrap cross subsidy will increase the burden of irrigation costs for small and marginal peasants as this will lead to a multi-fold rise in tariff rates.
Additionally, the Central government plans to privatise coalfields and auction them to private players. Many of these identified coal fields across nine coal producing states of the country are located in forested areas which are ecologically sensitive. Concerns of displacement of tribal communities living here and their loss of farm lands have been raised by the Bhumi Adhikar Andolon.
Pradhans of many of the gram panchayats have also written to the PM against the move. This has led to building a joint worker-peasant resistance against privatisation of coal fields. These reforms fail to look at the existing inequalities of the Indian countryside or provide any economic or social security.
The Covid-19 period has heightened food and nutrition insecurity -- around the start of July, it was estimated that food grain buffer stock was around 91 million tons -- in the very period that Indians have been hungrier than they have been in half a century. This exposes the intention of the Government -- to shore up market prices rather than moderate them.
Moreover, with National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) halted in several states, farmers are unable to meet their livelihood needs. Women farmers have also taken a severe hit socially and economically. Several reports from across the country report an increased lack of access to social security entitlements such as ration, pension, government schemes, etc. Reports also indicate an increase in violence against women and in many states more and more women are being put out of work due to reverse migration.
In the post-Covid-19 period agrarian distress and inequalities related to capitalist development have intensified. The linked concerns of the migrant workers and the workers at large are also not unrelated to the agrarian situation. The plight of the returning migrants from the cities, and increasing unemployment has had a direct impact on rural household incomes as most of the workforce is made of migrant workers moving from the villages to the cities, as a result of the increasing agrarian distress.
A huge proportion of farms in India are dependent on such remittances to meet the costs of running the farm. At harvest time, those migrant members might get a share of the produce. With the lockdown not only did remittances collapse, millions of those migrants began returning home – putting further pressure on food expenses of already bankrupted households. The reliance of small and marginal peasants on non-farm employments has become greater.

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