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Food security in peril

Print edition : May 27, 2000 T+T-

Orissa is officially not among the drought-affected States of the country, but food security in the State is threatened as agricultural activity is yet to recover from the effects of the cyclone of October 1999.

V. SRIDHAR Photographs: Ashoke Chakravarthy

Ghar nein, dih nein, bada nein, kam nein, dhanda nein, po nein, jhi nein, khai bake nein, gulgula hauchhe, mari jauche agyana

(No house, no homestead land, no agricultural land, no work, no vocation, no son, no daughter, no food to eat, in a miserable state, I am dying, Sir!)

THE fatalistic despair of this folk song in the Kalahandi dialect from a repeatedly drought-battered part of a poor State could now just as well describe the plight of all Orissa. Speaking the language of agro-meteorologists, State government officials d eclare that "there is no significant deviation from the normal long-term trend in rainfall". The rainfall data indeed justifies their claim that the State is not affected by a drought. It is another matter that already-deep wells have gone dry in large p arts of the perennially drought-ravaged Kalahandi-Bolangir-Koraput (KBK) districts.

The media have reported acute water shortages in and around Titlagarh and other areas in the KBK districts. Prisoners in Titlagarh jail, forced to remain without drinking water for more than two days, asked to be killed rather than be kept in prison. But in some sense this year is not very different from any other in these parts of Orissa. What is different this year from any other in a long time is the fact that agricultural activity in the main grain-producing coastal districts has not yet recovered f rom the devastating cyclone last year. Food security is thus is jeopardy in the entire State.

The mood is sombre in the coastal villages. Six months after the most severe cyclone to hit the area since the 18th century, tall coconut trees stand like skeletons on stilts along coastal Orissa. This is not a drought-prone region. It is, in fact, the r ice bowl of Orissa, overturned by the "super cyclone".

Food security is in peril as Orissa staggers from a phase of "emergency relief" to one of rehabilitation and reconstruction. Food availability has been a fundamental issue in the short term. But the resumption of agricultural activity, with some semblanc e of normalcy, is the key to the recovery in the medium and long term. The evidence on the ground appears to show that this is happening at a painfully slow pace. Allegations of corruption have imparted another twist to the sad tale. The Tehsildar's offi ce at Rajnagar in Kendrapara district was empty when this correspondent visited the office. The previous occupant had been suspended after allegations of swindling relief funds.

In Padmapur village in Ersama block of Jagatsinghpur district, the worst affected area in the cyclone, a marginal peasant shows samples from the two bags of rice that he has. The rice in one bag, dark brown in colour, was recovered from the debris of his home after the cyclone. The other bag contains the rice that the family has bought from the Public Distribution System (PDS), the last supplies which reached the family in the beginning of April.

Stretched to the limit, the total of two quintals of rice will meet the five-member family's requirements for barely 50 days. The next harvest, at the end of the kharif crop to be sown in a few weeks if all goes well, will be available only by the end of the year. To make matters worse, the fishing that he used to do to supplement his unstable income from agriculture, has not been possible since the cyclone. Not a single boat in the village survived the fury of the tidal waves that hammered this small v illage. The sea advanced several kilometres inland, flooding it. At least 1,500 people found safety in the cyclone shelter in the village, constructed just a few months earlier.

Small and marginal farmers such as the one in Padmapur face a period of grim uncertainty in the period up to the end of kharif 2000, until when no grain will flow from the peasants' fields into their homes. The kharif crop which yields 90 per cent of the rice output in Orissa (the main grain crop in the State) is about to be sown. This crop will be harvested only by the end of the year.

Orissa is one of the poorest States in the Indian Union. According to the last State government estimate made in 1997, two-thirds of the population was below the poverty line. Academics at the Nabakrushna Choudhury Centre for Development Studies in Bhuba neswar said that the proportion of those below the poverty line would have increased to at least three-fourths after the cyclone. The widespread destruction of assets and the collapse of agriculture after the cyclone has resulted in a severe compression of employment and incomes, particularly among poor households.

Sanjib Chandra Hota, Secretary in the Department of Agriculture, said, "The rabi yield has been exceptionally good". He also said that there was "no moisture stress" and that rainfall was "at least not worse than last year" in the State. The rabi, he say s, is expected to yield 5.45 lakh tonnes of rice, about 10 per cent higher than last year. The last kharif, which was a disaster, yielded 42.75 lakh tonnes, a drop of about 6.25 lakh tonnes below the rice output in 1998-99. However, when compared to the kharif production in 1997-98, the drop was almost 15 lakh tonnes. The immensity of the drop is evident from the fact that the last kharif rice crop was almost at the same level as 35 years ago, in 1964-65.

The 14 districts affected most by the cyclone constitute the major paddy-growing areas. (The worst-affected districts are Jagatsinghpur, Kendrapara, Puri, Khurda, Bhadrak and Balasore, Cuttack, Jajpur, Dhenkanal, Keonjhar, Ganjam, Gajapati, Mayurbhanj an d Nayagada.) According to United Nations agencies working in Orissa, nearly 19 million people in these districts, about half the population of the State, were affected by the cyclone. More than three lakh cattle perished. There is a severe shortage of dr aught power for ploughing before the impending sowing of the kharif crop. Milk production has declined. Poultry farming has been devastated. A person working with a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in the Ersama area told Frontline that small a nd marginal farmers who owned just a few birds to supplement their income have lost them all.

The cyclone brought down a substantial proportion of the coconut trees along the coast, seriously eroding incomes. Betel vines, a major source of income in Jagatsinghpur district, have disappeared. The cashew crop in Puri and Jagatsinghpur districts have been destroyed. Saroj Kumar Jha, the U.N. Inter-Sectoral Team Leader, said that the people have suffered a "multifaceted loss resulting in a devastating decline in their purchasing power".

Irrigation canals have been breached. The government claims they have been repaired. However, Abdullah Hannan Khan, a marginal peasant in Mahajanpur, a village near Cuttack, told Frontline that the water in the canal reached his field too late and there was too little of it to meet the needs of his paddy crop. He expected that about half of his crop, due to be harvested in a few days, will be damaged. In some parts of the State, as in Kendrapara district, the soil has become saline because of mas sive inundation of sea water during the cyclone and floods. Here, well irrigation is not a viable option because of the salinity, explained villagers of Rajnagar block in the district. They complained that villages at the tail-end of the canal systems su ffered because the canals were not repaired early enough.

Officials admit that shortage of seeds for the kharif season is a problem. Agriculture Secretary Sanjib Hota told Frontline that the government plans to distribute 1.69 lakh quintals of seeds at subsidised rates to farmers in the 14 worst-affected districts. The government, he said, will incur an expenditure of Rs.11 crores on this.

However, R.K. Sarangi, coordinator of the Orissa Disaster Mitigation Mission (ODMM), a platform for nearly 50 NGOs working in Orissa in the aftermath of the cyclone, is sceptical of this. "The government's effort," he said, "has come late and will do too little to address the problem." He observed that the supply of this quantum of seeds by the government would meet only 10 per cent of the farmers' requirements in the 14 districts. In normal years farmers reserve a part of their produce as seeds for the next crop. Sarangi said that after the cyclone there is a shortage of quality seeds. He says that the ODMM has organised farmers to make their own arrangements to procure seeds from other areas of the State and from other States.

In late April the government announced a sharp increase in the issue price of rice supplied through the PDS from Rs.4 a kg to Rs.6.50. Rice being the staple food in the State, this is widely seen as a negative step in the face of a developing crisis in t he food security situation (see box). The PDS, even by the government's own statements, will play a crucial role in ensuring food security. Several officials told Frontline that the State has been promised generous financial assistance from the Ce ntre; the ruling Biju Janata Dal is part of the National Democratic Alliance at the Centre. However, they say that the government cannot shoulder the burden of a bigger food subsidy. Critics of the government feel that a rollback would not be consistent with the Union government's keenness not to convey the impression of being a "soft State".

The State government plans to induce a shift away from the paddy crop in the dry areas. K.B. Varma, State Agricultural Production Commissioner, told Frontline that paddy yields in the highlands were very low compared to coastal Orissa. He sees a " need to bring about a change in the cropping pattern in the State, particularly in western Orissa and in the KBK districts." As a result of this long-term policy, crops such as cotton, oilseeds and other commercial crops are projected to replace paddy. H owever, there is apprehension that the replacement of food crops with commercial crops will lead to greater instability in agriculture and livelihoods. There is concern that food security in western Orissa could worsen if such a step is taken. Critics of the government point to the instability in the cotton and tobacco crops in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, and the incidence of suicides among farmers growing these cash crops in the two States.

Although speedy delivery of relief to the cyclone-affected areas has been generally appreciated, there has been criticism about the slow pace of rehabilitation. Observers say that the government failed to get its act together. A senior government officia l admitted that the food-for-work programme has hardly gotten off the ground in the areas devastated by the cyclone, floods and saline inundation. This official said that Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, concerned about the tardy progress of government pro grammes, called a high-level meeting of officials on May 7.

In this context, an international food aid worker told Frontline that the Union government has failed to utilise the enormous quantity of food stocks at its command for building infrastructure projects for rural communities. "Instead," he said, "t he government has chosen to hike the prices of foodgrains distributed through the PDS at a time when the people are devastated."

The emerging food security crisis was discussed at a workshop organised by the U.N. on May 1-2 in Bhubaneswar. Although no food shortages were expected to develop at the macro level in the State, it was projected that there will be a food deficit in Jaga tsinghpur, Kendrapara, Jajpur, Puri, Khurda and Cuttack districts. It observed that "food security will be a major concern for about one million people living in the most vulnerable blocks". However, independent calculations, based on the State governmen t's estimates of poverty levels, shows that about 4.7 million people out of a total population of 8.3 million in these five districts are below the poverty line. The number of people below the poverty line in just these five districts accounts for about 13 per cent of the State's population.

Sarangi, using norms devised by the Indian Council for Medical Research, claims that Orissa is heading for a serious food security problem. He estimates that there would be a deficit of 9.8 million tonnes of foodgrains in the 14 worst-affected districts between July and November 2000, roughly the period corresponding to the duration of the kharif season. He estimates that half the people affected by this shortage may be landless and sharecropper households in these areas.

Significantly, Sarangi expects that between December 2000 and June 2001, the period after the kharif, the deficit is likely to widen to 10.8 lakh tonnes. Asked how he expects the deficit to widen in the period after the kharif harvest, he said: "The lack of adequate quality and quantum of seeds, the "rigidities" in the supply of credit to small and marginal farmers, the serious lack of bullock power will result in 5 lakh hectares remaining fallow in the kharif season."

Signs of distress are already evident. In villages like Gupti and Okhlipal villages, in Rajnagar block of Kendrapara district, younger men have started migrating. People in these dry and unirrigated villages told Frontline that menfolk have migrat ed to Mumbai, Surat, Delhi, Bangalore and other cities in search of jobs. They complained that the migrants have been cheated by the contractors and paid only Rs.50 for a day's work - just as much as they would earn if they had worked on local relief wor k projects. U.N. workers also report a noticeable increase in the incidence of low birth-weight babies in several parts of the State. Sarangi warns that as a result of the distress the incidence of child labour may increase significantly.