It is only in the fitness of things that the winner of the “2018 World Food Prize”, Dr David Nabarro, should hold repeat Food Systems Dialogues (FSDs) in New Delhi for collectively making food systems work because India, for all its socio-economic achievements, including poverty alleviation and innumerable technological feats, has 194.4 million undernourished people (14.5 per cent of the population). Nothing can cover up the ignominy of these numbers that encompass 51.4 per cent of women in the reproductive age between 15 and 49; 37.9 per cent children aged under five who are stunted; and 20.8 per cent suffering from wasting, amongst other worrisome facets.
Curiously, the country has little problem doubling foodgrain production but cannot provide its hungry access to sufficient and affordable food. Worse, the hungry include its many small food producers. The first (year 2018) workshop – held under Dr Navarro’s leadership and under the aegis of a farmer-led nongovernment organization, the Bharat Krishak Samaj – produced some uncomplicated thoughts on the convoluted food and agriculture regime in the country. These stemmed from the sorry reality that the policy regime was inefficiently focused on achieving food security in terms of quantity produced without focusing on reaching food to everyone. The first workshop suggested a shift in policy making from using food security as the primary objective to seeing well-functioning food systems as the desirable outcome.
Admittedly, it is politically dangerous to question the validity of MSPs, even though they are not available to the bulk of farmers and produce. Designed to protect the producer from hurtful market price fluctuations, they can only serve those farmers who produce a surplus, which excludes at least 40 per cent of the farming households that consume whatever they can produce. Indeed, even for the surplus farmer, the beneficial effect of the MSP depends on global and domestic market prices. Should international prices be lower than Indian MSPs, the farmer is just as much in trouble, which is why there is the need for strategies to obviate stockpiling of unsold food inventory and to take a leaf out of China’s book.
There are other measures such as farmer-focused infrastructure or collectivisation that have to pressed harder to empower very small and indigent farmers to become serious group players. Fortunately, this idea has found favour with the government and should help in enhancing farmer group agency, leading to stronger bargaining power both in the market and in their dialogues with the authorities. It is equally critical to leverage technology to support farmer livelihoods, based not on models being used overseas but to encourage time-tested practices that have been successful in the Indian context. Yet, not even the ubiquitous cell phone is being adequately pressed into action as an extension service provider.