Cereal diplomacy | Indian express
There was a time when the United States used food aid as a powerful diplomatic tool to contain the hunger-induced discontent that it feared could spark communist revolutions in underdeveloped countries. Successive administrations after World War II made the Food for Peace program, better known as PL-480, a cornerstone of US foreign aid. India alone imported nearly 24 million tonnes (mt) of wheat under PL-480 in 1964-66. The United States even supplied some 9.1 tonnes of subsidized wheat and corn to the Soviet Union in 1973, the ideological significance of which has not been lost on anyone. For the United States, food shipments, on concessional terms or outright subsidy, served both as a bulwark against communism and as a means of relieving its massive agricultural surpluses. John F Kennedy estimated it cost 20 cents a year to store a bushel of wheat and 38 cents to ship the same grain to India. Exporting the grain for free was therefore cheaper than storing it beyond two years.
The same opportunity – what Kennedy called “to turn our great agricultural abundance into a blessing, for ourselves and for the whole world” – presents itself, albeit in a more modest way, to India today. At 90.41 mt on September 1, the country’s public stocks of wheat and rice were the highest on record on that date, with new arrivals of paddy from October only adding to it. In addition, the accumulation of stocks has taken place, despite a record withdrawal of 93 tonnes of cereals and more from the central pool in 2020-2021, much of which was distributed free / almost free after the pandemic. With government agencies having purchased more than 103 tonnes last year, the quantities entering the Food Corporation of India warehouses are far greater than those leaving. The “cost of ownership” – interest, storage and other expenses – of the excess cushion has been estimated at Rs 5,589 per tonne for 2021-2022. Obviously, there is an economic and diplomatic sense in giving or exchanging this surplus grain abroad. And what better way to do it than in our immediate neighborhood?
Afghanistan is now facing an acute food crisis resulting from a combination of prolonged drought, regime change and associated instability. Sri Lanka is also struggling with food shortages, exacerbated by dwindling foreign exchange reserves. What prevents India from offering, say, 2 tonnes of wheat to Afghanistan as humanitarian aid and a tonne of rice to Sri Lanka for a payment in local currency similar to that of the PL- 480? Wheat can only be consumed or, at worst, diverted for animal feed. So there should be no moral qualms, therefore, in providing it even to a regime that India cannot recognize. Grain diplomacy – a simple message that no one in South Asia will starve while we’re here – can be symbolic of New India: an India that cares and matters to the world.