There is a great diversity in the inequality of social, cultural, political, demographic and economic facets of the vast structure of Indian society. Manifestations of many of the various indivious modes of inequality, innate in this society, often make us appear to be a queerly ‘hierarchical breed’ of people. But, what may be regarded as inequality, perhaps finds its nadir in the stark differentials that exist in the varying levels of success to economic resources. Population—‘the basic constituent of a nation—and food—the fundamental means of survival—depict a miserable account of inequality when considered in absolute terms. On an average, from the several estimates of the supply and demand for food-grains, since the inception of the five year plans, there has been a greater availability of food grains compared to the demand for it.
This is in spite of the fact that between 1951 to 1971 the population has increased by about 51.8 per cent. Except during the period of the Third (1961-66) and Fourth (1969-74) Five Year Plans, owing to adverse weather conditions, drought and fall in the increase of per capita income supply has exceeded demand for foodgrains in the remaining five year plans. In the Fifth (1974-79) Five Year Plan, the Government even made provisions to add an adequate buffer stock. This ironical situation of demand for foodgrains being less than the supply, while hunger and insecurity is plentiful, needs a deeper inquiry into the pattern of demand for foodgrains, a pertinent point in this context.
Recently, it has been vehemently argued that in a poverty-stricken country like India, the emphasis on absolute poverty or hunger prevailing in certain pockets of the population should be stressed, rather than the relative inequality of consumption.
Regional plans in India, have failed since they were, earlier, integrated in the macro-level national plans. The main cause of such failures is alleged to be the missing link between the micro-level regional plans within the frame-work of the national macro-level plan. From a pragmatic standpoint, ‘district’ as a regional unit fulfils most of the conditions for regional planning. The district, therefore, should be treated as a unit of analysis and policy-planning in the absence of more ‘fine-grained’ data at the taluka, village or even at the level of individual household plot. Such micro-level planning would be more responsive to the needs and problems of the region, which would thereby receive commensurate action and attention.
Investigations in the field of inter-connections between population, food and land inequalities have, hitherto, attracted little attention. This is so from the point of view of area-planning. The importance of the question lies in the fact that four-fifths of our population constitutes the rural sector and depends upon agriculture for its livelihood. A wide majority of them subsist on very meagre levels of income arising out of the exploitative pattern of land-ownership and tenure. A majority of our population, thus, lives at subsistence level and below it. A literature-survey on this subject produces only a sketchy outline of this gigantic problem. None of the studies undertaken so far, approach the problem in its geographical dimensions—a necessary condition to identify pockets of starvation and prosperity with regard to consumption of foodgrains. With India’s geographical expanse, the underlying questions of inter-regional economic inequality demand to be considered, bearing in mind the enormous regional imbalances which are detrimental to the very process of growth.
The ‘atlas of hunger’, as portrayed by the present authors, makes one reflect on the question: Is India over-populated or is it perceived as such due to the incompetence in keeping pace with the availability of the basic means of existence food? In other words, are there inequalities in agricultural productivity, and in turn, in agricultural inputs, investments, land-holdings and other related variables? Or, is it that the abundance of food still leaves India a hunger-ridden as ever because of the unequal income levels and thereby unequal levels of purchasing power? There are some fundamental queries which require serious thought and research, both from the angle of policy-making and that of development.
With certain reservations, arising from the paucity of appropriate data, the present study is a pioneering work especially when viewed from the empirical perspective. In fact, the work may be regarded as a colossal data-bank on the subject, and almost the first of its kind, since it also reflects on policy-making. As the authors point out:
… paradoxically, enough, in India, areas of high agricultural productivity and zones of malnutrition exist side by side. So it is a matter of high importance to investigate the geography of hunger in and insecurity in India, especially in relation to regional variation in agricultural productivity and concentration of land-ownership, agricultural inputs and investments.
In a developing country of ‘legume culture’ where a good portion of the population lives under the poverty line, standard nutritional values have no meaning. It is food (in terms of calories) per se which matters in a subsistence level situation, rather than per capita protein-consumption. Mitra and Mukherji have worked out a detailed analysis pertaining to the productivity of nine major foodgrain crops; relation of the various factors which may be broadly assigned to ‘agricultural mechanization’ and those relating to the ‘human capital’. On the basis of this analysis they identify the pockets of different levels of productivity and the proportions of population living therein. Their conclusions, however tentative it may be are that agricultural growths are dependent on ‘human effort’ and ‘natural endowment’ while mechanization of agriculture, i.e., chemical fertilizers, investments, etc., go into high productivity but low agricultural growth regions. Moreover, while productivity has increased, approximately 40 per cent of our population continue to live under the poverty-line due to the distressingly low income elasticity of demand for foodgrains. The buffer stock procured by the Government to meet conditions of scarcity arising from possible natural calamities is not used as a ‘buffer’ against these calamities but is a resultant of the’ incapability of the deprived to obtain foodgrains required for their minimum nourishment. The authors suggest that this problem can be met, firstly, by the ‘food-for-work’ scheme being lifted from its ‘below market’, ‘semi-starvation-wages-in-kind’ to a ‘full-wage-in-kind’ programme. And, second, by making subsidized foodgrains available through a more comprehensive public distribution system. Such observations call for the attention of the planners because the level of ‘efficiency and performance (of such districts) is undoubtedly poorer than in the … more-than-average-productivity districts (which) will demand redoubled attention and reinforcement of effort. It is here, that the battle for the absorption of net population growth in future will be crucial and difficult’.
The level of malnutrition existing in different regions of the country have been skillfully captured by the authors even within the highly restricted exercise carried out by them, to demarcate the regions of surplus and deficit food supplies. However, a very serious drawback, more crucial than those cited in the book, is the non-differentiation between the total production, marketable surplus and marketed surplus. The difference between the demand for foodgrains (in terms of an estimated minimum amount of grammes required for a daily diet excluding oil, vegetables, etc. standardized for all age-sex biological groups) and the amount of foodgrains produced, is the representative measure adopted by the authors. But the demand for foodgrains, in terms of a weight-measure, may be quite misleading a farmer producing a certain amount of foodgrains may be selling his product without holding back the stock for his own requirement and ,thus inflating the surplus produce. This problem may have been partly resolved if the estimate of the standardized daily requirement obtained in terms of the weight-measure is converted to an equivalent money-value. Such a measure would then take care of the actual need of an individual since this would provide a composite index of consumption. The methodology followed for quantifying the poor hectare production of foodgrains, in terms of money-value, may also be applied here to estimate the amount of daily consumption in terms of money-value. The significant impact of this exercise is further lost as it ignores an important factor that all foodgrains cannot be equalized in terms of their consumption-value.
The authors, further, endeavour to show that the skewness of distribution of land-ownership is responsible for malnutrition in India. At the root of this situation is paucity of income and, therefore, of purchasing power leading to low levels of consumption. This deprivation arises out of the exploitative conditions of land-ownership, tenure and wages. Their observations are that high inequality of land-ownership corresponds to very high agricultural productivity, while low inequalities emerge at the low productivity levels. Mixed inequalities, however, appear at other levels of agricultural productivity. This is because large landholdings yield high agricultural productivity levels when subjected to a higher rate of mechanization and inputs. Such a situation encourages the anti-land reform movement and perpetuates an un-egalitarian situation. This aspect is highlighted when data is sifted, whereby the gross aggregated data are ungrouped from productivity level to that pertaining to the district level data. Analysis at the district level distinctly brings out the contours of malnutrition in India. The authors have, thus, also focused attention on the methodology which when incorrectly used can be aptly used to conceal the reality of a situation. They also question the validity of Gini’s coefficient for measuring concentration of landownership.
They further point out that a ceiling of six hectares of wet land will have no ‘ apparent effect but land reform will bear a meaning of the type envisaged in this study only when it is brought down to two or three hectares per cultivating household. ‘But mere redistribution of land will not be enough, although that is a must for establishing an atmosphere of hope and faith, justice and credibility …. Effective steps towards corporate and cooperative management in every conceivable way will be inescapable, if land reforms are to be accompanied by concurrent rise in productivity and rate of growth’.
Another pertinent point which the authors make is that internal migration in India, with respect to agricultural activities, is an imperative feature owing to the complex hierarchical stratifications in rural society. Agricultural mechanization resists long-term migrants while human effort and traditional methods of agriculture attract them, but productivity still remains at a lower level in these areas. Policy-decisions are strongly required in such areas so as to avoid conditions that would lead to a situation detrimental to better agricultural prospects.
The effects of new institutions of agriculture such as the Green Revolution, credit services, developmental programmes for small and marginal farmers, etc. upon agricultural productivity and its management and also upon land-ownership patterns are not yet fully understood. On the whole, the book is a good appraisal on the subject. The crux of the study is to regionalize areas of hunger and insecurity, analyzed on the basis of district as a unit of analysis and thereby demarcating areas demanding policy decisions and even institutional overhauling. The work also points to shortcomings of the available data in India. This paucity of data hinders any deep analysis in the field. Finally, it may be mentioned that the study has drawn the attention of the Planning Commission and few would’ question the relevance of the issues raised within.
Meera Basu is a Research Scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.