India has a problem with its food supply: overabundance. Only a decade ago, India was a country of food shortages, saddled with costly grain imports.
Now, as the current harvest season reaches its peak, it is clear that the country is producing more than it knows how to handle.
For the past several years, India has hailed successes in food production as nothing short of an agricultural miracle. From 50 million tons in the 1950s, the output for 1985-86 is estimated to reach 160 million tons -- after two years of record harvests.
Today's food surpluses, however, are causing such problems as higher storage costs, losses through spillage and spoiling, and troublesome food subsidies for Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's government.
``The government has to change its policy from one of procurement and overburdened subsidies to one of disposal,'' says a Western economist.
Foreign and local agricultural specialists also say that the agricultural successes are qualified by India's galloping population growth and unpredictable weather patterns, which narrow the margin between surpluses and shortages.
In short, the food surpluses may very well be misleading, or at best temporary.
It appears that a complex mix of problems, such as lack of comprehensive planning, inefficient management of the food grain economy, poor infrastructure and delivery of inputs, has slowed down efforts to raise income levels of the rural poor.
For one, much of the success has been confined to rice and wheat. India continues to import other cereals and edible oils to meet shortfalls.
Initial progress in food production was sparked by the green revolution in the 1960s, with the introduction of new high-yield, disease-resistant varieties of wheat and rice. More recent breakthroughs were made possible by large public investments in expanding irrigated land and improved agricultural extension and research services for farmers -- and of course, favorable weather conditions.
India's thrust has been to ``spread the basic support services to [encourage] farmers to change from the traditional agricultural systems to modern technology,'' says a Western agricultural specialist.
However, the benefits are unevenly distributed throughout the country's vast acreages. Despite the achievements in food production, roughly 40 percent of India's 750 million people live below the poverty line -- defined by the government at about $80 per capita.
``The green revolution has had a fundamental impact on food production, but not half as wide an impact on the rural poor who should receive income benefits as had been hoped at the time,'' says a Western economist.
In the northern state of Punjab, which has a long-established irrigation network, yields are generally twice as much as anywhere else. Its infrastructure for production, marketing, and distribution are far more advanced than in other states.
Many parts of eastern, southern, and central India have been relatively untouched by technological improvements. Farmers have less access to aids like fertilizers or seeds, or they pay more to get them. In many of these areas there is a need for better water control.
Says Dr. Rajendra Prasad, head of the agronomy division at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in New Delhi: ``If all the necessary inputs [such as fertilizer] are brought into poorer states like West Bengal in the east, they can certainly produce more, though perhaps never equal to, Punjab.''
But many of the states are simply unable to match Punjab's success without the supporting infrastructure. ``It's a question of putting in the right government,'' Dr. Prasad adds.
Experts say the solution is to develop crop varieties suitable to specific areas, then provide better technology, improve delivery of inputs, and expand credit distribution. So far, a coordinated program for all these areas has yet to be carried out on any meaningful scale.
Mr. Gandhi's government is trying to correct regional imbalances. The recently approved seventh five-year plan emphasizes more investments for undeveloped areas. But experts say more needs to be done to improve planning strategies and overall management.
Even under the present seventh plan, ``there are no concrete steps spelled out for correcting these regional imbalances,'' says Kampta Prasad, professor of economics and rural development at the New Delhi-based Indian Institute of Public Administration.
``More now is needed in terms of food management -- from production to consumption,'' says a Western economist.
The Food Corporation of India, the main government-procurement agency, is facing difficulties buying more grain from farmers because of limited storage capacity. By mid-1986, buffer stocks are expected to reach 36 million tons.
According to a recent study by the Rome-based Food and Agricultural Organization, India has the capacity to feed 2,621 million people by the turn of the century, 2.5 times the estimated population of 1,036.6 million, if irrigation targets are met and land is managed properly.
However, to achieve this target, Gandhi's government ultimately has to work even harder at more equitable distribution of agricultural gains. GRAPH: India's agricultural production (in millions of tons)
rice wheat pulses total
1971 42.3 23.8 11.8 108.4
1981 53.6 36.31 10.6 129.6
1982 53.25 37.45 11.51 133.3
1983 47.1 42.79 11.86 151
1984 59.7 45.15 12.65 151.5
1985 60 45 13.0 151.5
Target for 1986-1990 Source: Government of India