The recent developments regarding the international trade of Indian wheat has sparked a debate about India’s export policies. Besides the economics of the export ban move and India’s foreign policy, the public health perspective should also influence decisions regarding the trading and distribution of agricultural products. The remarkable study Hunger and Malaria Epidemic in Colonial Punjab by Shiela Zurbrigg provides us with evidence that fluctuation in prices of foodgrains can occur due to changes in climatic conditions. International prices have a direct impact on food availability. It affects the household economy and even impacts the spread of diseases, which can lead to epidemics as well.
British epidemiologist Thomas McKeown argued that nutrition and environment play a significant role in determining the health of the individual and society. The fundamental difference between food security and nutrition security is that food policy not only focuses on meeting nutritional needs but also cares about healthy and diversified diets. Apart from this, food that is easily affordable and available in a timely manner strengthens the immune system of the body.
India ranks 101 on the Global Hunger Index (GHI) among 116 countries. NFHS-4 data shows that every fifth child under the age of five in India is wasted, and 7.5% of children in this category are severely wasted. Covid-19 has further reduced the immunity of people. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report 2018 stated that India houses 195.9 million of the 821 million undernourished people globally, accounting for approximately 24% of the world’s hungry. The prevalence of undernourishment in India is 14.8%, higher than both the global and Asian average.
Shiela Zurbrigg attempted to link malaria deaths with the rising foodgrain prices in 24 districts in the plains of colonial Punjab from 1868 to 1940. Zurbrigg used the variables of malaria deaths, foodgrain prices, wage rates for landless labourers and rainfall patterns. She argued that the higher prices of the foodgrains hurt the landless labour class that couldn’t afford it, which led to higher malaria mortality rates. The unseasonal rains, floods and droughts in these areas of Punjab aggressively decreased wheat production in the region. Due to this, the landless labourers had to face the problem of hunger and acute starvation. Since the farm labourers were given a particular share of crop production as their income, they started getting less or no claim.
In the wake of the global commercialisation of agriculture, the functioning of the Karachi seaport, expansion of the railway network in north-west India, and the need for Indian wheat in the western countries altogether increased prices in the international market. And this had a ripple effect on the Indian markets too, leading to a rise in the price of foodgrains here. Among all the sections of society, the farm labourers were most vulnerable in this situation. The taxation policy of the British Raj also affected the landless labourers. This led them to accumulate debt and they were compelled to reduce their expenditure on foodgrains. Ultimately, this resulted in them facing acute starvation, which made them more susceptible to malaria.
In the current scenario, the Ukraine-Russia war initially encouraged India to sell its wheat in the international market at higher prices. The prime minister also made big promises of ‘feeding the world’. While making these commitments, the government did not take the situation of domestic food security into consideration.
Private traders took advantage of this and purchased wheat at a much higher price than state-declared prices, i.e., MSP, which is `2,015 per quintal. The critical point here is that since the private traders were offering higher prices, farmers did not sell their wheat to government agencies like the Food Corporation of India; instead, they pledged it to private players who were offering around `2,500 per quintal. Meanwhile, the rates of Indian wheat were increasing in the international market.
The rates of wheat atta have witnessed a rapid increase of 9.15%. In a nation where around 40 crore people live below the poverty line, more than 50% of its population is being provided subsidised food. It is hard for that section to purchase the food at even a slightly higher price. On a disappointing note, when the inflation rates are at their highest level, some economists are suggesting that the government should provide cash in place of delivering food under the Public Distribution System (PDS). This ignores the fundamental question of how the poor will purchase the food at higher prices.
Since the Green Revolution, state incentives have forced Punjab farmers to grow rice on most of their land. Before this development, Punjab farmers grew multiple crops, including millets, cereals, oilseeds, sugarcane and vegetables. Besides the lack of diversification in farms, the Punjab population also lacks diversity on the plate. Rice has never been a staple food of Punjab, and the irony is that the rice crop covers the largest fertile area in Punjab. Earlier, the landless labourers were dependent on the farmers for their food. Hence, the idea of ‘Gram Swaraj’ got diluted when landless labourers got dependent on the markets. Rice alone couldn’t strengthen the immune system, making a person more prone to diseases.
The government should give bonuses to all those farmers who have sold their wheat or are yet to sell it. This bonus amount should follow the international prices. It will not only help the farmers but will also the government in the long run. If the government fails to procure the wheat now, private players will sell it to the government and public at much higher prices.
Above all, nutrition and food security is essential to prevent disease outbreaks. There should be sufficient food stocks with the government, which is possible through state procurement.
Harinder Happy and Shivam Mogha
PhD scholars at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi