Coronavirus Outbreak: COVID-19 exposes lacunae in India's food security, system needs overhaul from production to last-mile delivery

One of the most critical challenges that the current coronavirus pandemic has underscored is India's ability of the food sector to effectively cope with crisis situations.

Shivani Singh April 23, 2020 10:29:36 IST
Coronavirus Outbreak: COVID-19 exposes lacunae in India's food security, system needs overhaul from production to last-mile delivery

Amid the mayhem and loss following the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus, the pandemic has graced the states with the option of hitting pause, putting things in perspective and introspecting its priorities in decision-making. The global coronavirus health crisis, inter alia, has exposed the systemic deficiencies in India’s food security systems and the tilted priorities between its defence and food sector. This can possibly inhibit the ability of the government to effectively deal with social crisis situations directly affecting millions of people.

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Representational image. Reuters

Overwhelming spending on defence

The guns versus butter is an all too familiar macroeconomic debate with a simple dilemma. What is the maximal and most efficient way in which an economy can divide its output between defence (guns) and civilian (butter) goods? This choice has proven to be all the more difficult for a developing country like India which is coming into her own with increasing regional and global presence.

Over the years, one can see a clear incremental shift towards a ‘guns’ economy, something that is reflected in the majority of the defence budgets. For example, India’s Union Budget of 2020-2021 allocated a total of Rs 4,71,378 crore to the defence sector out of a total outlay of Rs 30,42,230 crore. This accounts for 15.49 percent of the total government expenditure. In fact, the Ministry of Defence budget as a percentage of total government expenditure over the last decade has never been below 15 percent. The figures fit right in with India’s fourth position in the world on defence spending.

While some structural challenges remain within India’s defence sector including greater allotment to pay, allowances and defence pensions component and not enough emphasis on building infrastructure, research and development, the solution lies not in vying for an even bigger piece of the pie. Instead, a re-adjustment of funds from revenue to capital expenditure is required which would include streamlining efforts at “efficient procurement and building indigenous production capability”.

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Be that as it may, when compared to social sector investment, the allotment to defence security takes the cake. Moreover, under the current dispensation, the changing rhetoric towards the use of force (conventional or otherwise) is only indicative of a future increase in defence share.

Food security

Coming to the other side of the debate, one of the most critical challenges that the current coronavirus pandemic has underscored is the ability of the food sector to effectively cope with crisis situations. Agriculture is the backbone of the Indian economy which employs more than 50 percent of the workforce and contributes to 17-18 percent of the country’s GDP. However, this is also one sector that has been dealt with the tragic fate of being the most important and yet remains as the often ignored sector for the policymakers.

In a crisis like the country is facing currently, one of the biggest areas of concerns, after health, of course, is an uninterrupted supply of food to the citizens. The biggest component of food security is contingent upon agriculture, along with simultaneous advancements in rural development and public distribution systems. However, as far as the budget allocation of 2020-21 goes, the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmer’s Welfare was allocated Rs 1,42,762 crore which accounts for a mere 4.69 percent of the total estimated expenditure.

While the percentage of allocation to agriculture has steadily increased over the years in relative terms, it has not exceeded the 5 percent mark in the last decade as compared to investments in defence expenditure. Therefore, a token allotment of 4-5 percent of expenditure for a sector which contributes more than 17 percent to the country’s GDP is bound to face critical challenges that directly impact millions. While there are a plethora of challenges associated with agriculture in India, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted some critical issues areas that need an urgent address and hence more investment.

Challenges to food security under COVID-19

First, agriculture in India is highly labour-intensive. Farm labour would be currently required to harvest Rabi crops like wheat, mustard, lentil as well as to sow Kharif crops like rice, maize and cotton in the coming month of June. The lockdown and mass panic-migration of labour from Delhi and adjoining areas back to their hometowns can prove to be problematic.

Although the Central government has exempted most essential agricultural services from the lockdown guidelines, these exemptions are not uniformly implemented across states. The long-term solution is to move towards the mechanisation of farm activities which has been slow to come by. The level of mechanisation in India has only been about 40-45 percent, that too with major inconsistencies between north Indian states like Uttar Pradesh and Haryana and the northeastern states. Small land holding scattered across different regions unsuited for sophisticated and uniform mechanisation is also part of the problem.

Second, food security is contingent upon not only crop production, but also its last-mile delivery. Unfortunately, the pandemic and the consequent lockdown has put in jeopardy, the timely delivery of harvested crops to the mandis as well as timely transport of seeds for the Kharif crops to the farmers.

As a result, the farmers are dreading their perishable crops rotting away. To that end, there has been a greater push for electronic marketing platforms like e-NAM and the government has already taken favourable steps in that direction by allowing e-NAM to “bypass the mandi so that farmers can directly sell their produce from Farmer Producer Organisation (FPO)". However, in the absence of fully functional online mandis and technical equipment and expertise to the farmers, this will only have fragmented impact.

Third, it is important to realise that farmers are the frontline field-warriors who are braving the risk of the virus every day to put food on every citizen’s table. While crop insurance coverage against climate change impacts is covered under Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojna, it is equally imperative to provide health coverage to farmers as well, akin to the health insurance scheme for COVID-19 health workers.

Most of these efforts are conditional upon new and creative research solutions adaptable to changing times. However, the Department of Agricultural Research and Education (DARE) which is primarily responsible for R&D in agriculture accounts for an extremely modest 5.85 percent of the total agriculture budget.

COVID-19 provides India with a chance to introspect on food security

The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the fragile ecosystem of food security and the need for heavy investment in this sector that is desperately wanting. Considering the current retarded pace of the Indian rate of growth and the continuation of it in a post-COVID world, some critical choices lie ahead. Ensuring stable and resilient food security systems will be one of them. It is time that the government re-assesses its prioritisation of ‘guns’ over ‘butter’ in an agriculture-dependent economy like India.

The author is MPhil scholar, Disarmament Studies, JNU and researcher, Nuclear Security Programme, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.

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