Stagnating farm output coupled with dwindling international supplies could be plunging India into a serious food crisis, experts fear.
The crisis has been building up for some time - Indian farmers seem to have hit a dead end as their foodgrain yields are no longer going up. Grain output has been stagnating for over a decade, and now there's a growing gap between supply and demand.
"Yes, we have a problem,'' admits Abhijit Sen, economist and Planning Commission member, "and it can be starkly put in the following way: roughly around 2004-05, our per capita foodgrain production was back to the 1970s level."
The figures tell a stark story. In 1979, at the height of the Green Revolution euphoria, per capita availability of cereals and pulses had gone up to 476.5 grams per day. The corresponding figure in 2006 was 444.5 grams per day, according to provisional government statistics.
In 2005, it was still lower at 422 grams. In the case of pulses, per capita net availability today is almost half of what it was five decades ago - 32.5 grams per day in 2006 compared with 60.7 grams per day in 1951.
Since the mid-1990s, the output has hovered around 415 million tonne. "In the eight years between 1996 and 2004, when agriculture was growing at a low 2%, there was, in fact, zero growth in foodgrains," says Sen.
The alarm bells should have rung earlier but the record buffer stocks between 2001 and 2003 led to complacency. Such were the stocks then that if the foodgrain bags had been stacked up, they would have reached the moon.
"There was a feeling that our food problem had been solved. What remained to be done was just efficient distribution and poverty alleviation. With foreign exchange at a high, there were voices saying that importing food is fine, we should import from wherever food is being grown efficiently," recalls agricultural scientist M S Swaminathan, better known as the father of the Green Revolution of the 1960s.
But before policymakers realized what was happening, fortunes reversed as weather failed, first in 2003 and again in 2005. By the second crop failure, the stocks had dipped below the buffer level and have remained there since, reports the Times of India
With agencies like World Bank predicting that the international shortages will last at least two to three years, the food crisis is perhaps here to stay.
"Last year, India wanted to import around five million tonnes of wheat, but couldn't get more than three million tonnes because there isn't any surplus wheat going around in the world market," says food analyst Devender Sharma.
On Friday, responding to growing rice prices, India sought to stall exports by raising the minimum export price to $1,000/tonne and simultaneously reduced import duties to zero.
But there's little hope of cheap rice coming in, with major producers like Thailand and Vietnam too clamping down on their rice exports. Rice prices, meanwhile, have almost doubled in the past three months.
"The era of cheap food is over," notes Sharma grimly. "As the current situation shows, there is no alternative to self-sufficiency in agriculture."