Then And Now

Of Food and Security

Santosh Rana

When I was working in 1969 among the poor peasantry in the border region between Belpahari (in West Medinipur) and Chakulia of Bihar, I witnessed severe shortage of foodstuffs, particularly that of rice. I can distinctly recall that I got rice once a day for about fifteen days in a month. It was not that the rural poor ate enough but kept us half-starved. Their conditions were the same. Driven by hunger, they used to eat boiled mahua fruits, kend fruits and forest-grown oals (turnips). The third type of food article required a long process of washing and drying before it could be made eatable. One kilogram of ordinary rice was mixed with two kilograms of oal-made rice and then cooked. A family could subsist on it for the whole of a day—it ate this stuff twice daily. Sometimes mahua flowers were dried and cooked with tamarind seeds. On many occasions this was the only eatable that the people got in order to quench their hunger. This picture was more or less typical of the food situation in the entire Jangalmahal region. After the harvesting of the paddy crop in November-December, the village people could get rice till mid-January. Then the creditors would come to take away the surplus paddy from the household as the repayment of the paddy loans. Since mid-March, the food crisis again appeared. As the rainy season started, the poor peasants and agricultural labourers began to take paddy loans from their creditors in order to survive in the face of the hard labour of tilling and sowing.

There were some fertile tracts of land on the two sides of the Subarnarekha, Dulong and Kangsabati rivers. The big landowners were mostly Utkal brahmins. Besides there were some moneylenders belonging to the intermediate castes. The sharecroppers who tilled the land of big landowners had to work on these landowners' own farms free of charges and the interests on paddy loans were more than seventy percent—forty kilograms of borrowed paddy had to be repaid by seventy kilograms. The wages of agricultural labourres were 1.5 kilograms of paddy per man and 1 kilogram of paddy per woman. In cases of sharecropping, the owner's share was 15% of the harvested crop. Even after deducting his expenses, it was not less than 50%. Besides, the tribute of labour services was there. In total, the situation of food security was pitiable enough.

The picture, it should be kept in mind, was not much different in other areas where the fertility of land and the output of crops were better. This pathetic situation was the product of ruthless exploitation. There was another side to the story. The agricultural labourers and poor sharecroppers of Jangalmahal were from the adivasis (santal, munda, mahali etc) or low-born Hindus (mahato, bagal, tanti, kumbhakar etc). They lacked material wealth (land and capital) as well as education. Besides, the political and cultural domination of the brahminical system kept them in a state of perpetual suppression. This suppression, it is needless to suggest, did not always take the form of bodily violence. The brahminical philosophy could instill into them the doctrine of karmaphal i.e. that the present sufferings are due to the deeds of an earlier birth, and hence it was the duty of the low-born to serve the brahmins and gods sincerely. This brahminical ideology and violence complemented each other in continuing the process of extra-economic coercion.

What is the situation now? There is an opinion that the situation is basically the same even after four decades. It is true that in various backward regions (e.g in the tea gardens and rural areas of north Bengal) the situation faced by one section of the population is extremely bad. Reports of starvation deaths from some areas have shaken the conscience of well-meaning persons. Besides, malnutrition is a widespread phenomenon. Yet the overall situation is very much unlike that of the seventies. As far as my own experience about the villages that I lived in 1969-71 and often have occasions to visit in the present period is concerned, now the poor fellows, who had to remain content with a meal of rice once in two days, can now afford to have rice twice daily. Other ingredients like lentils or vegetables; are grossly inadequate in quantity, but rice is there.

This new situation is the result of a number of changes in the productive forces as well as production relations. For example, productivity per acre has multiplied about four times. The introduction of double-cropping in a considerable number of holdings, had been an added factor in the increase of output. The wages of agricultural labourers too have increased. In the 1970s, male labourers received two kilograms and the female labourers one kilogram of paddy as their daily wage. In the movement for wage rise in Jangalmahal in 1978, the general demand was for a daily wage of three kilograms of paddy irrespective of men and women. The struggle for realization of this demand took the form of violent clashes in areas. Right now, the daily wage of agricultural labourers in the entire Jhargram sub-division is at least Rs 100 or more. Compared with the 1970s it is three times higher. Subtracting the value of fertilizers, seeds and pesticides from the total value of the product, it can be found that labourers now get one half of the value added.

This change in the wage rates is related with some other changes. One is the distribution of vested land and recording of bargadars. Here too the bargadar, who tills the land, gets at least one half of the value added after deducting the expenses of cultivation. In many cases, the plot received by the landless peasant is not large enough to provide them with sustenance for the whole of the year. He cultivates his tiny plot intensively, and gets the wherewithal for sustaining himself and his family for a part of the year. This increases his bargaining power in the labour market. Further, besides farm labour, various other work opportunities have grown up in the countryside, e.g driving vans, cycle-rickshaws and auto-rickshaws, driving tractors, brick-building, lifting sand from river-beds, house-building, making wooden furniture, manufacturing ice-creams etc.

Another important factor is the increase of literacy, which has enabled young men to go to distant places like Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, Surat etc in search of jobs. The imperfectly run NREGP has also made an impact. The introduction of the mid-day meal programme has raised the level of attendance at primary schools, although many of such students drop out at class seven or eight. Had they not got admitted in schools, they would have entered the labour market at extremely low wages. Now the entry of boys under fourteen into the labour market has gone down significantly, and labour at low wages is not as plentiful as it was three decades ago. Finally, the successive panchayet elections and the importance of the votes of the poor have lessened the sense of inferiority and enhanced the self-respect among the subalterns. Moreover middle class, although small, has grown from among the ranks of these subalterns, who can draft applications, go to police stations and banks and become candidates at the panchayet polls. All these changes have definitely loosened the shackles of the old repressive production relations. One manifestation of this is the almost complete end of the system of bonded labour, under which the labourer remains tied with his master for at least one full year

The Food Security Bill
From the foregoing, one can draw the conclusion that land reforms and the deliverance of dalits from bondage are necessary steps for food security. But those who have ruled the country for the last six decades have not treated this subject with the importance that it deserves. Recently, although there has been a lot of talks about food security, the question of land reforms has not been discussed at all. There have been some land reforms in states like Jammu and Kashmir, West Bengal and Kerala, and these reforms have yielded good results. But work in this direction in these states too has remained incomplete. In other states the progress is minimal. In order to ensure food security under these circumstances, the Central Government is trying to pass a bill. In this bill, about 65% of the households are to be supplied with 35 kilograms of food grains per household every month at subsidized prices (maize and millet Re I per kg, wheat Rs 2 per kg, rice Rs 3 per kg). There should be no doubt that implementation of this bill will increase food security of the poor. Already some state governments (e.g. Tamilnadu, Kerala and Tripura) have introduced such programme. The distribution system of Tamilnadu is meant for entire population of the state. It means that all of the people are getting the benefits of cheap foodstuffs. In the proposed central bill the system is not, however, meant for all. Many questions have cropped up. For example, it is often found that when the government distributes something at subsidized cost, one section of those who are really needy is left out and the benefits are grabbed by those who have the right political connections. A look at the BPL lists in different states makes this point amply clear. The central government's instruction is to keep the number of persons on such lists within a prescribed limit. Again, it is found that the poorest persons are left out and those with right connections appropriate the benefits. The central government's bill would certainly allow, according to local situations, the entry of undesirable persons and some really distressed persons would be deprived. To obviate this difficulty, the proposed distribution system should be made universal. Of course, some (roughly around 15% of the total population) who have enough capacity to purchase enough foodgrains from the market would benefit. This would necessitate some extra expenditure on the part of the government, but there seems to be no alternative to a universal public distribution system.

In order to make this system universal, the Government of India may have to spend about Rs 150 billion per year. This amount may appear to be colossal, but this expenditure is necessary for ensuring the food security of the entire nation.

The second important point is that only the supply of food grains is not enough to ensure food security. For nutritional requirements human beings have to consume protein and vegetables also. For the majority of the population, even pulses and vegetables are scarce. Hence the supply of food grains must be accompanied by a rise in the purchasing power of the masses. So, it is not possible to solve the problem of food security only by supplying food grains. Possibly a proper solution is not the aim of the Central Government, which is now badly shaken by various financial scams and economic crises. In this situation, the food security bill has come as a publicity stunt on the eve of the Lok Sabha polls.

The bill has been severely opposed from some quarters, particularly by the corporate lobby. Their argument is that the expenditure on this programme is only a waste of money and it will harm the economy. The real truth is that the corporate tycoons covet a system that would make people exclusively reliant on the market for everything they need, e.g. food, clothing, education, healthcare, housing etc and in which the state would only act as the gendarme of big capital. It is precisely for this reason that they oppose the mid-day meal programme, the NRGEP and universal primary education, and recommend the abolition of the public health care system.

Unless the control of producers over the system of production and distribution is established, the basic problem of food security cannot be solved.

Hence a number of democratic reforms including radical land reforms, end of the system of caste and identity-based suppression and abolition of male-female discrimination etc are essential. At the same time, the political system has to be reconstituted so that the state takes the prime responsibility for food, education, healthcare and employment of citizens. The toiling people have struggled for long for the creation of such a society, and they have to continue this struggle.

Vol. 46, No. 30, Feb 2 - 8, 2014

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