Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Knock on the door

There is a knock on the Door. It is becoming shriller and shriller.  In the beginning, we pretended as if the door itself did not exist.  Then we behaved as if we did not hear the knock.  Now neither is possible. Even the stone deaf can hear the repeated knocks.

Assurances of weathermen, repeated regularly at irregular intervals, have not succeeded in bringing a reasonable monsoon to our country.  Of course, we know weathermen are not responsible for the arrival or failure of monsoon.  We are already in the middle of August and sowing operations have not yet started in the vast areas of South India and large part of Western India.  Wisdom is slowly dawning on us that the sowing will indeed be missed this year.  And the harvest that was to follow. At this time of the year, preparations would have been underway for harvesting crops like Potato, Groundnut, Raagi and Jowar.  Hundred of trucks laden with fresh Potato should have clogged the highways from Hassan in Karnataka to Subzi Mandi in Delhi's Azadpur. Estimates are now made that the food production which reached 252 million tons last year may be around 250 million tons this year. The estimates are made before factoring the full effect of monsoon failure. Economists have the freedom to revise the estimates later on to 220 to 230 million tons. Talking of economists, we knew of two types earlier; the good and the bad. The good ones were those whose predictions and estimates failed due to genuine reasons. The bad ones were those whose predictions and estimates failed without any reason. Then there was the third type, though not recognized as such, whose estimates and predictions defied every logic or we were neither able to understand their predictions and estimates nor appreciate their subsequent failure.  Now the classifications of economists are made at a different level. They are classified as Government Economists and Private Economists!  One breed who are paid to toe the official line like "His Masters Voice".  The private ones (who failed to secure such jobs?) who perforce differ from the Government Economists as a matter of principle.

The present generation has not seen or heard of famine. As a nine year old boy, during the famine of 1963, I remember accompanying my father, bags in my hand and money in his pocket, visiting every single shop in the town for some rice or wheat or any flour.  All shop keepers were personally known to my father and he knew very well that each one of them had stored grain in their shops and houses. But they waited for a better day to sell.  A better day when the prices would definitely be higher than that day.  After three hours of intense search, we were able to get one kilogram of boiled rice. We were not used to eating boiled rice.  My mother made some curry with extra home grown vegetables and chillies to enable me and my siblings have a late lunch of boiled rice, for the first time in our lives.

That was the time after Indo-China war.  Prices would slightly come down when the news of ships carrying PL 480 wheat products were to arrive in Madras (now known as Chennai) harbor. For those youngsters who have not heard of PL 480, its full form is "Public Law 480", an American law that permitted funding by which US food could be used for overseas aid programs under what was called "Food for Peace" program.  The suji (semolina or rava) and palm oil arriving in these ships were distributed to various schools for the mid-day meal program. Some of it found its way to black marketing shops. Famine of 1963 was  the last official famine, perhaps.  There have been famines in parts of the country later as well but they are not true famines as they are actually not recognized as famines.  Just like a dead person is not accepted as dead since there is no "Death Certificate" issued by a competent authority.

Thanks to the "Green Revolution", credited to the group of scientists led by Professor M S Swaminathan, which peaked in the late sixties and early seventies, our dependence on import of food grains gradually decreased and we became self-sufficient. High yielding and genetically modified wheat pioneered by Dr Norman Borlaug were used for agricultural production.  Today genetically modified food grains are frowned upon, but we have lived on them for fifty years!  More and more areas have been brought under irrigation.  Chemical fertilizers have been used in never before quantities.  Even food grains were exported on many occasions. There were celebrations when the food production crossed 200 million tons in the 1990s.  We have now crossed 250 million tons mark, despite of vast areas of agricultural lands being eaten away by land sharks for real estate purposes and non-agricultural uses.

We are told that nearly a third of all food grains produced is lost due to wastage.  It looks as though we have perfected the art of wasting food grains and food items much better than the science of their production!  Food grains are wasted at every stage; be it harvesting, transporting, storing or distributing.  Rats and mice have a first right on the grains produced.  Food grains rotting in the godowns of Gujarat is the latest news item. Storage levels in dams have dropped to record low levels.  Added to that water tables have dropped all over the country.  Bore-wells with a depth of even 500 meters have gone dry.  We are not the ones to be deterred; we are digging deeper and deeper.  And continue to use fresh water for washing our newer and bigger cars.

We are not alone in this mess.  We have excellent company elsewhere also.  Untimely rains in sugar producing Brazil have reduced cane cultivation levels.  Dry conditions in Russia's wheat belt has reduced wheat production there turning the surplus zone into a deficit one.  Historic mid-west drought in USA has made economists predict reduction of corn yield there from 146 bushels per acre to 123 bushels per acre. 65% of USA is said to be under drought conditions. The resulting forecast of 15% reduction in production made the prices of food grains on the Chicago Commodity Exchange increase to an all time high level.  Global food prices are expected to shoot up from 6 to 10% and may even worsen.  We know what it means to the price levels in India.

Software and IT services have already taken a hit and the earnings from their exports is expected to dip this year.  Exports from our country have touched 300 billion dollars last year, but it is feared to be lower this year.  Imports increased last year even more to reach 485 billion dollars and have not abated at all.  Oil is consumed as if tomorrow does not exist.  Car makers are advertising of a drive to Madakeri just to have a cup of tea or coffee.  We may not be able to import food grains for two reasons; firstly we do not have the foreign exchange to afford it and secondly traditionally grain rich countries may not have the commodities to export from their countries as they themselves face a deficit.  Our policy makers and politicians are too busy in their ivory towers due to other pre-occupations.  There is no shortage of food items for them in resorts and five star hotels. Many of them are extremely busy in shuttling between their homes, offices, courts and jails.  The remaining are busy trying to cover their tracks so that they can avoid this kind of shuttling.

Let us enjoy the lunch today.  We can not be sure of such sumptuous lunch a few days later.  Ghosts and horrors of Bengal famine of 1943 or even 1770 are knocking on our doors.  Knocks are becoming shriller and shriller now.   


  1. Very thought provoking article. I saw a documentary where they showed food wastage in the US. A perfectly fine tomato is thrown away just because it had one black spot on it. Thrown away right at the source where it's harvested - without a chance even being given for it to be sold at a lower price just because it doesn't look perfecte! At least they could send them to soup kitchens. I am guilty of this behavior as well as a consumer but going forward we can try to be conscious of the choices we make in the grocery stores. The knocks are indeed getting shriller ....

  2. very thoughtful and articulated written sir....enjoyed reading it

  3. very informative and probing type for this govt at center I 2wish many Indians get such articles at their pcs everyday to awaken them

  4. Very thoughtful and interesting article

  5. Dear Sir, I hope that you know how to colour the premonitions of the nearest future inspired by the cradle of past....

  6. very interesting the article takes us to 1963 where me too struggled to get sugar soji with my father sitting in NGOs society till 9 30 night.

    Exactly we must take care

  7. Dear Sir, Your piece reminded me of an old story written by none other than R K Narayan in one of his most cherished works, Malgudi Days.A pick pocket, somewhere in the Malgudi had a lavish life.He was so expert in his profession that never in his life he was caught.No one in the town knew who's the person stealing from the pocket of others. Even his neighbours didn't know his real profession. One day his wife who was pregnant, told him that she don't want to give birth to child of a pick pocket. She said that she wont feed her child with the stolen money and asked the man to leave this profession or leave her.He realized his mistake and went back to return the purse he had stolen the other day. He went to return the purse but could not enter the premises of the office where the person (owner of the purse) worked so waited outside for the owner to come. As the person came out he rushed towards him in order to return him his belongings,but as he was handing over the purse to its owner, a police man saw him and he was arrested.

  8. Hats off to you for beautifully putting General Knowledge factor so impotrant to know in a story form. keep it up.I am moved by the real story.
    Venkatesh Murth