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Farmer wages must be improved to prevent millions in India from malnutrition, former wounded army officer argues

A comprehensive study led by Colonel Divakaran Padma Kumar Pillay – a former Indian Army officer, severely wounded in counter insurgency operations – calls for an overhaul of food security systems in India, with improved farmer wages, a greater use of technology, and improved management, to help better feed the millions of Indian people suffering with malnutrition.

India is the largest producer of milk, and many grains, in the entire world. However, in a peer-reviewed article published in Strategic Analysis Divakaran and co-author Mr Manoj Kumar, Joint Secretary in Ministry of Agriculture, highlight how the current food systems are an unending work in progress for the gargantuan task of feeding India’s millions. They show it’s a system that requires constant improvements to ensure a future of better food security.

In the latest episode of Taylor & Francis’ podcast series How Researchers Changed The World, which marks the end of series one, Divakaran provides a passionate account of how returning from the Indian Army with a severe injury following “a burst of AK47 and a grenade that took a portion of my leg away” – an incident which left him fighting for his life miles from a hospital – meant he questioned the very purpose of defending his country in the first place.

Divakaran was decorated with Shaurya Chakra for gallantry beyond the call of duty. He retired from the army after 30 years of which 7 were in India’s National Security Council Secretariat. He believes that National Security should go beyond defending borders or ideology but should “essentially protect people’s security”. In his view, this means the right to food security among other equally important concerns like the environment, access to clean water, economics, and healthcare.

In the podcast, he explains how his 2019 study shows that the key to resolving food security in India is, initially, to better reward people working in agriculture – the largest employer in India – making them “feel important again”, not exploited, and enjoying a profit.

Attention must be given to ensure that farming continues to be supported in the face of threats like climate change and the failure of the monsoons. The present agricultural production situation may look comfortable, but coupled with a growing population, the situation could get more difficult in the future. Ceaseless efforts are, therefore, required to improve upon the food security in the country.”

Efforts to improve food security in India are being made at governmental level. The introduction of The National Food Security Act seeks to provide not only food and nutritional security to the beneficiaries, by ensuring access to adequate quantities of quality food at affordable prices, but also a life of dignity. The Minimum Support Price (MSP) is a government scheme supporting the farmers and removing the exploitative middle men. The Public Distribution System, through the distribution of essential food grains across the country at subsidized and affordable prices, has prevented famines successfully and achieved self-sufficiency in the production of cereals.

However, the issue has not been resolved as there are many weaknesses within the system, Divakaran argues.

As the MSP does not cover a large number of farmers, and also many important crops, adequately, it is also a weakness. It encourages the presence of middlemen who extract the farm produce at low prices, and sell it at much higher margins.

Also, while MSP has prevented starvation and famines through the supply of carbohydrates, it has not successfully overcome the issues of malnutrition and stunting. Despite the large and unprecedented buffer stocks, huge pockets of hunger and deprivation continue to exist.”

Whilst improved pay for agricultural workers is one aspect to resolve the issue, Divakaran states that going forwards improved and cheaper IT-based technology should be utilised for supply chain management and the control of retail operations at the ration shops.

This includes the use of beneficiary identification at the ration shops and software for the tracking of stock movements in order to prevent theft,” Divakaran states. “The availability of modern storage techniques like silos, as well as public private partnerships to construct new storage, are also opportunities.”


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