India: A Perspective on the Food Situation

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Science  09 May 1975:
Vol. 188, Issue 4188, pp. 541-549
DOI: 10.1126/science.188.4188.541


Four major points emerge from this brief survey of the evidence:

1) The food crisis in 1974 seems to have been largely a result of distributional factors. The per capita availability of food grains from all sources, including imports, although below 1971 and 1972 levels, was probably above the average for 1963 to 1973. Comparison of available food supplies with estimated caloric and protein requirements of the population indicates that, on average, enough food was available to meet minimal requirements, with a small margin to spare. Supplies obtained through the government procurement and distribution program were especially short since the program depends primarily on the winter harvest, which failed badly in 1974. Thus, urban areas and some pockets of rural areas were badly hit. The poorest third of the population, who receive 20 to 30 percent less food than the national average even in normal times, were severely affected by higher prices, and there is little doubt that a sizable fraction of the population received inadequate diets.

2) The food supply for 1975 depends heavily on the winter harvest. If this is good, as it promises to be, widespread starvation, but not hunger, should be averted. Since the main shortfall was in the summer crop, the nature of the distribution problem will be different and shortages may be spread more evenly over the population. Nevertheless, the situation seems to forebode considerable hardship for the poorer segments of the population.

3) Food requirements will continue to grow over the foreseeable future as a result of rising population and incomes. India's agricultural resources are still relatively poorly exploited. In the short run, output can probably be increased substantially by increased fertilizer use on traditional as well as new varieties. In the longer run, increased production can be obtained from more intensive cropping, expansion of surface and groundwater irrigation, improved water management, and improved cultural practices brought about by more active agricultural research and appropriate land and pricing policies. These measures will need buttressing by an expanded food storage program if extreme hardships due to periodic drought are to be avoided.

4) India's farmers have shown considerable willingness to innovate under favorable conditions. The rate of adoption of HYV's in the first few years after their introduction was impressive. The same was true for tubewells and fertilizers. Nevertheless, many of the easy gains may already have been made. Fragmentary information on the quality of irrigation indicates that the acreage sown to wheat and rice HYV's may be approaching an upper limit in many areas because of the requirements of these varieties for a high degree of water control. Further gains will require more aggressive and coordinated policies for agricultural development. A major change in development strategy may be required if scarcities and hardships such as those currently being experienced are to be avoided in the future, and some hard political decisions on land reform and consolidation may have to be made.

It is to be hoped that bold and imaginative agricultural policies will be followed, and that they will be accompanied by greater efforts to reduce population growth to manageable levels.