GRAIN OF TRUTH - Only industrialization can solve Bengal's food problems

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By Abhirup Sarkar The author is professor of economics at the Indian Statistical Institute, Calcutta
  • Published 25.10.07

Ration shops are burning all over West Bengal. They are being attacked, looted and put on fire by groups of angry, disgruntled citizens, who seem to have decided that they have had enough. The upsurge has already exacted its toll and a few lives have been lost. Some have died in police firing. Others, comprising fair-price shopowners, who were unable to bear the fines and humiliation inflicted upon them by people’s courts, have committed suicide. One might see signs of a spontaneous revolt against the ruling Left in the string of riots or might detect the opposition marshalling its strength before the all-important panchayat polls next year. One might even smell Maoist provocation behind the sedition. But however political the riots might look on the surface, it is impossible to deny that without extreme economic hardship the people of rural Bengal, who have shown a traditionally high level of endurance, would not have resorted to such extreme measures. How acute are the hardships? What are the reasons behind them?

The problem essentially is one of hunger and starvation. Cityfolk, like you and I, can afford to ignore the public distribution system simply because we get to eat more than we need to and our well-fed urban existence does not depend upon rationed provisions of rice and sugar obtained from fair price shops. But for those who do not have the means to buy food from the open market, the PDS seems to be the only hope. Unfortunately, in our country the number of such people is far from insignificant, more so in the villages than in the cities. Of course, starvation alone cannot cause food riots; there must be a sense of deprivation prevailing among the agitators. We have to understand both the magnitude of starvation and the depth of the widespread perception of injustice. In short, we have to understand hunger and deprivation as perceived by the hungry.

In February 2007, the National Sample Survey had come out with a report on perceived inadequacy of food consumption in Indian households. Perception played a role in determining food inadequacy at two different levels. First, an NSS investigator, after visiting a sample household, formed a perception as to whether the household got adequate food or not. If the household was perceived to have enough food, the investigation about the household would end there. If not, that is, if the investigator was unsure about the food status of the household, the investigation would proceed further. At the second stage, the head of the household was asked whether he perceived his family getting enough food throughout the year or not. On the basis of the answer, the household was included in one of the three categories: (a) households having adequate food throughout the year, (b) households having inadequate food during some months of the year, and (c) households having inadequate food throughout the year. The findings of the NSS report are summarized in the first two columns of the table above.

Of the seventeen states considered in the table, West Bengal has the highest percentage of households (10.6 per cent) not getting enough to eat during some months of the year. The second is Orissa, with 4.8 per cent. Seasonal starvation in the other states is way below and even the commonly-thought backward states like Bihar (2.0 per cent) or Jharkhand (0.6 per cent) fare well compared to West Bengal. In the category of households remaining hungry throughout the year, Assam tops the list with 3.6 per cent, with West Bengal and Orissa jointly occupying the second position, each having 1.3 per cent starving rural households during all months of the year. The detailed NSS report further reveals that seasonal starvation in rural West Bengal peaks during the months of February and March and is highest among agricultural labourers (23.3 per cent) and non-agricultural workers (8.9 per cent). The figures are embarrassing, to say the least, for the state of West Bengal. They also clearly tell us why food riots should break out in West Bengal rather than anywhere else.

What are the reasons behind this dreadful episode? A possible explanation is the lack of food availability. One might wonder if West Bengal’s miseries are largely due to low levels of per capita production of foodgrain in the state or owing to some other factor. To check this we have looked at the figures of total production of foodgrain in 2003 in each state (as published by the Reserve Bank of India) and divided them by the population of the respective states (given by the 2001 Census of India). The resultant per capita foodgrain production figures are reported in the last column of the table.

Two conclusions immediately follow. First, a careful reader going through the columns of the table will observe that there is not much correlation between starvation and per capita food production. There are low foodgrain-producing states like Gujarat and Karnataka with low levels of starvation, there are relatively high foodgrain-producing states like Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh with some starvation and there are high foodgrain-producing states with almost no starvation like Punjab and Haryana. Second, food production per capita in West Bengal is not very low, about 550 grams per day per person, which is enough to feed the entire population if the foodgrain was equally distributed.

The problem, therefore, is not of production but of distribution. The problem is also of a lack of purchasing power. Distribution of foodgrain in rural Bengal has a pyramidal structure with a handful of very large traders sitting at the top and controlling the entire trade. These traders have strong party connections. Their subordinates, that is, the merchants belonging to the lower layers of trade, are the ones responsible for stealing the PDS supplies. Apart from selling the supplies at the higher market price, the practice has the additional advantage of creating artificial demand in the open market, which benefits the traders. No wonder, the network of traders is also responsible for actively opposing any modernization of retail trade and entry of big capital for that would threaten their monopoly privileges. To solve the problem of inadequacy of food supply in West Bengal it is, therefore, necessary to free the rural economy from the unholy control of monopoly traders and bring in competition. This may be done by allowing big capital in retail business.

Clearly, modernizing the trade in foodgrain cannot solve all the problems. Especially, it cannot solve the problems of those who do not have work and income for a significant part of the year. Indeed, a significant part of the foodgrain produced in the state is leaving its boundaries because the people within do not have enough money to buy food. So a longer-run remedy would be to create purchasing power within the state. This can be achieved only by promoting industrialization on a very large scale.