Food famine ahead in Kerala

via Pioneer News Service | Kochi published on April 13, 2008

While the politicians of the State, including those in the CPI(M)-led LDF Government, are unwillingly admitting that there are problems on the food front, what they hide is the fact that Kerala is running into a food famine. Not even a single grain of rice is left in the warehouses of wholesalers in three of the four chief markets in the State, while those in the fourth and the largest, Kozhikode, will run out of stocks in three days.

“What will happen after that is anybody’s guess. Whatever rice remains with the retailers and a few wholesalers would cost anything they quote and the situation would worsen with each passing day then… unless a good consignment comes from Andhra Pradesh, which under the present circumstances seems unlikely,” said a former official in the State Planning Board.

The former official said Kerala was running into a famine. “Food scarcity was there in Kerala in the past also, but there was money then. But in today’s condition, this balance also will fail as price of each and every commodity is soaring. There will be no rice available and there will be no money left with the common man to buy it at sources where it can be bought unless rice comes from elsewhere,” he said.

This situation did not arise abruptly but there were ample indications, he said. Even Planning Board Chairman Prabhat Patnaik had warned of this several months ago. “Indeed, restructuring of the agricultural front could not be done to meet the necessities of the present situation, but it is high time to think of it if Kerala has to survive in the future. We should stop pretending that we have pocket stuffed with money so that we can buy food from outside. Intelligent people with concern for the future of their people will not sell you food. This is what is happening in Andhra Pradesh,” he said.

Popular varieties of rice were selling in several remote villages of the State, especially in the high ranges, in the range of Rs 21-23 a kilo, while five months back the same rice had cost only Rs 13 a kilo. Sources in the Food Ministry agreed that a temporary crunch could not produce such devastating price rises. It was not just a matter of temporary scarcity but was a matter of utmost concern as the situation had been evolving through quite some time in the past, they said. “Anybody monitoring the food front would understand this. Nobody can escape the reality that we reached this stage gradually. We failed to take corrective measures at the right time despite serious warnings,” said a source in the Food Ministry.

He said the work of the higher-level officers presently was to search for likely sources of rice other than Andhra Pradesh, but the Minister and his party, or for that matter even the CPI(M), which feigned to have some good economists, had suggested constitution of a task force to think of alternate plans for the future. He agreed with the former Plan Board official that Patnaik was the only man who wanted to think on these lines, “but his own party will not accept his thoughts”.

Experts point out that Kerala’s sudden departure from its agrarian economy was the chief reason for the present crisis. There has been a steady shrinkage of area of rice cultivation and “this decline was totally out of proportion with the duration and acreage,” said the Food Ministry official. In 45 years, Kerala’s rice cultivation had shrunk by 63 per cent and the impact of this was heavy on our food security. In 2005-06, the total area under paddy stood at 2.76 lakh hectares as against 7.53 lakh hectares in 1961-62. This means the State witnessed a decrease of 63 per cent in paddy cultivation area over a period of 45 years.

A shrinkage of more alarming proportions could be seen in the production of rice as well. The total production of rice had stood at 6.3 lakh tons in 2005-06 compared to 13.39 lakh tons in 1981-82. This meant that over a period of 24 years, rice production had fallen by more than 50 per cent. With a domestic production of 6.3 lakh tons per year, Kerala was being forced to buy 24 tons of rice from outside.

“This is simply because we don’t have a food policy. We had a levy-procurement policy earlier even when we were losing paddy fields. But that could have been bearable because the levy was an alternate escape route. What a food-deficit State should do is to keep its reserves safe and eat bought food. Instead of this, we have been letting unscrupulous elements to plunder the rice we produce and live on bought rice. So when the crisis comes we have no fallback system,” said the official.

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