We are blessed with the good news that the Boro paddy harvest this season has hit the all-time high to stand at 19.6 million tonnes. The total food-grain supply has presumably surpassed 35 million tonnes. This has happened on the heels of serious food shortage following two consecutive floods causing huge crop damage and imports. Analysts argue that this has been possible due to the relatively remunerative price of paddy. Reportedly, Bangladesh now has a food surplus of about 3.0 million tonnes alongside gruesome price hike of staples. We are also aware that the government has imposed import duty on rice in the wake of large volumes of imports. One should however be cautious in drawing the conclusion that people at large would remain stomach-full as there is no shortage of food in the market.
More often than not, we tend to confuse between access to and availability of food. One is mistakenly taken to represent the other, particularly by the politicians in their attempt to win popular votes. Perhaps, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen was the first to point out this mismatch.
Intuition tells us that more harvests mean less hunger. In other words, increased supply of food is an answer to food insecurity. In the context of food availability and famine, the Nobel Laureate draws on George Bernard Shaw's 'Man and Superman' to drive home the point that sometimes abundance of food may go with hunger. Food security should not be seen from the angle of only mechanical balance of food and population. The most important dimension is the command that a person has over certain required bundle of food - be it from own production (e.g. farmer), or buying from the market (e.g. labourer and service holders). It must be remembered that even with augmented supply in the market, people may go without food if they are unable to purchase food, or face a reduced capacity to buy food from the market. There may be many reasons behind such incapacity including lack of income or opportunities to buy products in the market. On the other hand, a shortage of food availability in the domestic market may not always fuel famine if there are opportunities for imports or shared distribution. Entitlement matters the most is what Irish insights tend to tell us: " In this sense it can be reasonably claimed that the Irish did not simply die for lack of food, but because they largely lacked the funds to purchase food, which was present in abundance in the Kingdom as a whole, but which was not sufficiently available to them."
The entitlement of a household depends on a number of factors. First, it hinges on the command of the household on assets that have market value or can be exchanged in the market to purchase food (endowments). The bundle of assets can be diverse, but the most important asset of human society is the labour force or labour power that generates income to buy food. This way, labour, land and other assets enable households to raise their respective entitlements. Second, the degree of access to food by a household depends on production possibility and its utilisation. More land does not necessarily mean more food, unless backed by appropriate technologies, knowledge and efficiency that expand the production possibility frontier to increase food supply for food security. Finally, the access to food also depends on exchange conditions, such as the price at which exchange of goods and services take place through transactions, or it depends on the rate at which wage rate rises against food items.
It may be mentioned here that during any economic crisis, one group of people can be hit harder than others. For example, during the 1943 Bengal famine, the exchange rates between food and non-food items changed radically overnight, and especially (other than wage-food price ratio) the relative price of fish and food swung sharply in favour of fish. At that time, the Bangali fishermen faced maximum hardship. Of course fish is also a kind of food, but high-quality food had to be exchanged in the market to buy cheaper low calorie food (rice) for their survival. "The equilibrium of survival is sustained by this exchange, but a sudden fall in the relative price of fish vis-à-vis rice can devastate this equilibrium." Likewise, crisis of the barber class could be compounded for two reasons: (a) decline in the demand following a postponement of hair-cut by the distressed people; and (b) a sharp fall in the price of haircutting. This class lagged behind in terms of the relative price of the service when, in 1943, the exchange rate of haircut and food fell by 70-80 percent in some districts.
From then on, the ferocity of famine has faded away. The reasons for denying Malthusian doomsday are nor far to seek: the advent of modern technology in agriculture, expansion of communication networks, falling population growth rate and various income generating activities implemented by the government and the private sector. More importantly, the governments have learnt that increased entitlement through employment generation is the ultimate answer to food insecurity. Thus abundance of food would be meaningful only if purchasing power is transferred to the people; otherwise poverty may remain alongside plenty. So the solution lies in bumper harvest plus well-knit demand and supply management.
Abdul Bayes is a former Professor of Economics at Jahangirnaagr University.
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