Thursday, April 1, 2010

Structure of Food Crisis in Rural India

It is generally believed that since cultivation is undertaken in rural areas, the rural households do not face food stress and food price increase is not any issue. Surely, food production is a rural phenomenon but since upto one half of rural households are either land less or hold small and unproductive land, such households are subjected to sever food shortages. During the visits to rural areas in three states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka, it was possible to find out the barest minimum amount of income needed for a typical family to ensure food consumption (the kind of food which is normally consumed in rural areas) and meet other expenditures on minimum needs. This amount works out to be Rs. 31, 600 per annum; but a large number of rural households are unable to earn this sum, and there is a shortage ranging from Rs. 7,400 in MP, 6,400 in UP and 4,300 in Karnataka. The shortfall of Rs. 7,400 for a family of 5 members, for example, in MP is despite income accruing to the family from agriculture of Rs. 5,600, from wages of Rs. 7,500, sale of agricultural by products worth Rs. 2,000, from cattle Rs. 4,000, a total of 4,220 subsidy / cash transfers received from a number of public programs such as PDS, NREGA, ICDS, MMD and pension schemes, and also Rs.900 on average received in remittances. The multiplicity in source of income itself is a strategy to ensure adequate income receipts but the cost of living even rural areas is higher for over one third of households, if not more.

We also measured food eaten by all the family members a day before the date of visit to the households. Overall all the daily consumption of cereal per person is estimated to be 540 gm in urban and 462 gm in rural areas. As expected individuals in the working ages of 15-49 years large amounts with the exception of urban areas in UP and MP where those aged 50 + consume largest quantities. In urban areas, older men and women consume 219 grams of vegetable per capita and in rural areas all adults consume just about 162 grams. Although milk consumption is relatively high in urban areas, and amongst the older ages the amount consumed is a meagerly 75-85 ml and the average is around 55 ml in rural areas. It is only in Karnataka we found that children less than 14 year old are give relatively larger amounts of milk compared to adults which is encouraging. Further, we found that adult males who consume more, but female children consume relatively more than the boys is all states. There is no differential in consumption of food items amongst men and women in the working age group. However, again female children are found to consume more vegetables compared to the boys. It is only in case of milk that boys have better consumption compared with girls, and this can also be a reason for relatively lower intake of cereals and vegetables amongst boys.

Food Consumption a day previous to interview
by place of residence and age of individual

State All cereals (gm) All Vegetables (gm) Milk (ml)
0 to 14 15 to 49 50 + 0 to 14 15 to 49 50 + 0 to 14 15 to 49 50 +
All 347 493 462 117 163 162 61 53 71
UP 335 478 477 103 144 153 63 40 67
MP 376 587 548 111 159 151 55 56 77
Karnataka 310 396 392 155 188 178 71 64 71
All 314 487 540 137 190 219 85 75 77
UP 367 562 750 124 163 166 56 67 86
MP 373 580 635 135 176 209 60 78 78
Karnataka 292 420 407 158 218 261 98 55 55
Delhi 260 460 458 132 184 194 111 105 127
Source: Author’s estimates - food quantities are measured from 559 deprived households of UP, MP, Karnataka and Delhi
during September to November 2009.

In the following we narrate typologies which help in explaining behavioral differentials and other characteristics of residents with respect of response to food price increase. Broadly, people’s responses can be differentiated based on ‘perceptions’, ‘opportunities’, idiosyncratic shocks’, ‘social networks’ and ‘safety nets’ one experiences with.

Perception: The way quality of life is understood differ considerably between rural and urban areas, reflecting the exposure to the level of modernization, for example in urban areas which broadly vary according to size of town, and intensity and quality of public infrastructure and governance. Rural life style is sedentary and the one anchored upon contentment with limited demands if any. Such behavioral variation is both a virtue and a curse. ‘Virtue’ to the extent that it makes their limited life style manageable and perceptible desire to lead a content life; where as a ‘Curse’ when households are unable to benchmark or even understand the mechanisms to improve standard of life at a minimum or comfortable level as recognized by modern standards; for example minimum levels of schooling, basic levels of nutrition, health and hygienic conditions, housing and so on. Therefore, the food price response differs considerably as to variation in food habits and extent to which communities and households depend upon non-local markets to access culturally appropriate food products when not self-produced.

Opportunities: Large variations are noticed in terms of opportunities that the communities and households have not only for earning income but also to interact with markets. Rudimentary nature of local labor market often sustained based one exchange labor and non-monetized considerations at least in rural areas is causing labor mobility which can be characterized as migrant labor. One finds a considerable economic prosperity amongst households having at least one member as a labor migrant, but often one finds the whole families migrating out for short periods of 4-8 months, but also for much longer time periods. Most of the households in the urban periphery are migrants from rural out backs, and it appears they are pushed out of rural life both by expectations as well as economic stress, while some are able to capitalize upon their skills and education, most have fallen deeper in to poverty trap due to confrontation with urban monetized and somewhat standardized life and their inability to meet those expectations. What is clearly evident is a complex urban sociology and economy which in some places provides for a living and for a few others opportunities do not exist. Such situations are highly local but it would be possible to profile urban living standards through further research which is not common in the context of south Asia, especially India. Generally the poor both in rural and urban areas are afraid of market dependence to ensure supply of cereals and other basic food products.

Amongst the poorer rural households, average land holding is very low so is the land productivity; further they own few productive assets and lack irrigation. Over and above the drought caused during July-August 2009 have made all of such households vulnerable to food stress. The SC-families have smaller land holdings and land owned is of lower productivity which in fact was allotted by government agencies under different schemes. The net (of seeds) yield of the main crops of paddy and wheat was found to be around 6 quintals per acre, but due to draught paddy got damaged. The local wage work opportunities are far too low and wage rates range between Rs. 50 and Rs. 60/- per day of work.

Idiosyncratic Shocks: Households with deep food stress do have highly specified situations which differ as per the household situations, for example inability to sustain livestock due to sheer poverty, or inaccessibility to common property resource such as grazing lands or even lack of a member who can take care of cattle and so on. Female headed households do face difficulty in undertaking cultivation and therefore lease out land with low home grown food access which increase vulnerability. In both rural and urban areas ill-health causes extreme degree of idiosyncratic shocks causing conditions of food deficit and malnutrition. Strict adherence to cultural values in case of marriage, birth and death related ceremonies can push households into penury and in many cases irreversible thus exposing such households for extreme food stress.

Social Networks: Informal social networks are some of the most durable extensions of India family values which provide considerable amounts of safety nets. Rural areas across India are in advantageous situations where social networks do work in support to sustain food smoothening; but the situation in the urban peripheries is different due to unclear linkages, rather a breakdown of social networks. Lack of social environment in towns can be attributed to peripheral societies build upon migration often from rural areas. But another fact which accentuates the urban-anonymity and lack of networks is the fact that households in specified urban localities face situations which are equally stressful thus making social networks redundant. Such differential social typologies are crucial for withstanding extreme food related stress in India.

Safety nets: Often it is argued that since urban areas by definition have higher concentration of social, economic and market institutions the urban households do not require targeted safety nets. We do find that the rural areas have a relatively better coverage of safety nets of various kinds although; the efficacy and utilization vary between villages and also different types of households. But one finds absence of such safety net schemes in urban locales. On the other hand urban areas do have concentration of both social and physical infrastructure managed both by the public and private initiatives; but the poor living in fringes in towns and cities have limited access to them due to lack of their integration into the urban system. Often such families do not hold for example PDS cards, nor will they be listed as eligible beneficiaries for social protection schemes due to unclear domiciliary conditions. Such a situation was clearly noticeable in case of Delhi, but also in other larger towns/cities such as Kanpur in UP and Kolar in Karnataka.

Any reform in the public polices in India are affected not so much as to what and why but HOW to identify the right household, group of households, villages and communities. The above profiling of the poor will help policy makers to devise better methodologies for targeting the poverty alleviation programs.

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