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Import of Wheat Raises Concern About India's Food Security

India is importing wheat as grain prices escalate and its stockpiles diminish. Anjana Pasricha reports from New Delhi, the imports have raised concern about declining agricultural productivity in the country.

Worries about an impending wheat shortage eased recently, after the government closed deals to buy 2.2 million tons of wheat from international suppliers.

India has also allowed private companies to import wheat and sugar, and halted the export of lentils. The government normally imports grains only through state-owned companies.

The government hopes these steps will help reverse a dramatic rise in the price of food products, including wheat, sugar, lentils and vegetables.

But galloping prices are not the only worry. The wheat imports are the first in six years, and are being seen as a sign that India's self-sufficiency in food is in jeopardy.

D.H. Pai Panandiker is an economist at the RPG Foundation, a New Delhi research organization. He says falling agricultural productivity in the last decade has raised fears that India will no longer be able to grow enough food to meet the needs of its billion-plus population.

"In the past six years there has hardly been any improvement in agricultural production," Panandiker says. "The buffer stock, which was created out of the surplus agricultural production that we had earlier…was 64 million tons in 2002. That buffer stock has come down to nearly 18 million tons. So both the stock as well as the production have come down very drastically."

The situation was dramatically different three decades ago. In the 1970's, high-yielding varieties of grain helped usher in a "Green Revolution." Production of staple foods multiplied, making it possible for food production to stay ahead of population growth. India's agriculture was hailed as a success story.

The ample harvests also allowed the government to maintain a large cushion of food grains to keep prices in check, and make sure that wheat and rice are available to the country's poor though a public distribution system at affordable prices.

But experts say that over the last decade, the situation has gradually been reversed, because the government has neglected agriculture.

Hafiz Pasha, assistant secretary-general of the U.N. Development Program, sees dangers ahead for poor people if large countries like India become food importers.

"If import levels continue to rise - say, in food grains - world food prices could start rising, and that will have all kinds of adverse implications, both for the urban poor as well as the landless," Pasha says. "So the first concern is one of food security…. The first thing we need to do is to ensure that public investment once again begins to focus on agriculture."

Experts are calling on the government to improve irrigation systems, distribute higher-quality seeds, and provide more credit to farmers to revive agriculture.