In 2008, when I was the Agriculture Secretary to the government of West Bengal, I was invited to speak at a meeting of the International Co-operative Alliance and the Gulf Cooperation Council in Abu Dhabi on the role of cooperatives in addressing food security issues. It bears noting that 2008 was the year of unprecedented inflation in food prices, especially for rice and oilseeds. In the course of preparing for the presentation, I started looking at the strategies being adopted by different nations to secure their food supplies. One was struck by the position China took with regard to outsourcing its supplies of soya — a critical element of their cattle feed — as well as by Saudi Arabia’s deal with the Fauji Foundation of Pakistan to cultivate premium wheat in some of the most fertile tracts in that country.
In any case, as my brief was to speak on the role of cooperatives, I dwelt on some interesting global collaborations: Consumer cooperatives in the Gulf with producer cooperatives like the National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation (NAFED) in India for a long-term strategic partnership. My interest in this subject had been sufficiently kindled.
Sporadic efforts didn’t go the long way
Two years later, I joined the Ministry of Agriculture as a Joint Secretary and was also holding the additional charge as the MD of NAFED. I felt that the NAFED, Indian Farmers Fertiliser Cooperative (IFFCO), Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) institutions, Export-Import (EXIM) Bank and our leading agribusiness organisations, including enterprising farmers, could join hands in taking up agriculture operations in countries of Central Asia, Latin America, and Africa where arable lands are aplenty.
While enterprising individuals did set up these operations, they were sporadic efforts and not connected to the food security concerns of India, especially with respect to pulses and oilseeds in which we were deficient and commodities like onions that witnessed wide price fluctuations. Moreover, if India could supplement the production of cereals and horticulture crops, it would help address issues of food security globally. Another concern was the need to replace the water-guzzling rice-wheat-rice cycle in Punjab and Haryana with high-value agriculture (HVA) and dairying without impacting the availability of food under the Public Distribution System (PDS). Somewhere along the line, there was also a feeling that unless we moved fast enough, China will take over the best possible options as they were moving quite aggressively on this front.
Then-Union Agriculture Secretary P.K. Basu asked me to prepare a presentation on this subject. When the ministry was convinced that it was indeed a step in the right direction, it decided to get a comprehensive view on the subject by engaging with the Indian Institute of Foreign Trade (IIFT) — a policy on this would require an assessment of trade practices, investment protocols, and an analysis of similar practices by other countries across the world. U.S. Bhatia, who had just relinquished his charge as India’s ambassador to the World Trade Organization (WTO), was chosen to be the lead author for the study. In his report, he said, “Given the increasing volatility in international prices of food crops in recent years, it is essential that we explore more stable international opportunities for meeting our food needs. Therefore, offshore agriculture investments emerge as a necessary concomitant to India’s policy framework for addressing food security. As only a small proportion of food production is internationally traded, a large country like India cannot depend on food imports to meet any shortages or deficits.”
“The Ministry of Agriculture will obviously need to play the nodal role in the initiative in coordination with relevant ministries/agencies like the MEA, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Reserve Bank of India, Exim Bank. Given the importance of the matter, the Ministry of Agriculture may consider establishing dedicated divisions for Africa and Latin America. These divisions will maintain data on land availability and their agro-climatic conditions and continuously monitor the developments in host country policies, particularly those relating to land acquisitions, seed laws, import of capital equipment, re-export policies etc. This would enable the ministry to develop a country-wise matrix with identified variables that would assess the opportunities, risks, and stability that would support potential Indian investors.”
India needs to step up
Contrary to the expectations of the Ministry of Agriculture, the report was frowned upon by the Ministry of Commerce, which felt that we were stepping into their domain of foreign trade and commercial relations. While the response from our ambassadors in these countries was positive, the MEA was quite reticent. Unlike the PMO of today, which takes a call when a policy document is submitted to it, the report met with ‘silence’ because the general feeling was that as the ministry was headed by Sharad Pawar, credit could not be shared with him. In an irony of sorts, the minister who opposed it most vehemently, Anand Sharma, has now parted ways with the Congress. In fact, after all the efforts, it did not cross the inter-ministerial consultations for discussions in the Union Cabinet.
One must, however, mention that then-deputy National Security Advisor Nehchal Sandhu saw merit in this study, and included me in one of the task forces, but that was it. After completing my tenure with the Centre, I reverted to West Bengal and could not follow up on this, except as an academic exercise at a few conferences.
Meanwhile, thanks to the push for the production of pulses under the 2007 National Food Security Mission, the competitive prices offered by the Commission on Agriculture Costs and Prices (CACP) and the enhanced and assured procurement by NAFED, the country has been able to address the shortage of pulses substantially. We now produce 275 of the 300 lakh metric tonnes (LMT) per annum, and the deficit is marginal. However, with respect to oilseeds, we import 140 LMT tonnes to supplement our domestic production of 110 LMT – the total demand being 250 LMT.
As India assumes the presidency of the G20, it will also be expected to provide leadership to global food security and price stabilisation regime for staples. If we could leverage our strengths in agricultural research, our competencies in project management skills, and our global supply chain in fertilisers and technical inputs, many of our enterprising farmers and agribusiness firms would just need a little nudge to transform the agriculture production ecosystem in countries with surplus water and land. It could be a win-win situation for the host country, India, and the world.
Perhaps, the time has come to resurrect the proposal in the Amrit Kal of India’s Independence.
Sanjeev Chopra is a former IAS officer and Festival Director of Valley of Words. Till recently, he was the Director of the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration. He tweets @ChopraSanjeev. Views are personal.
This article is part of the ‘State of the State‘ series that analyses policy, civil services, and governance in India.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)