February 27, 2024

Food Insecurity in South Asia: A National Security Implication for India

Food is a strategic commodity that will be exploited by nations who are rich in agro produce.
Keywords: Food, Asia, Security, Energy, Ukraine, South Asia, Financial, Disruption, Supply Chains, Export, Starvation, Pandemic
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Introduction

The covid-19 pandemic disrupted supply chains and created a scarcity of essential services and goods including food, medicines and energy. Since then, inflation is soaring at an unprecedented scale and it has reached a stage of criticality. When the world was trying to tackle the pandemic’s effects on the economy, the war between Russia and Ukraine war sent the global community in another man-made disaster that seriously jeopardised energy security, food security and accentuated the financial recession. In 36 countries, food inflation is at 15% or higher, causing major problems for poor families which spend upwards of 50% of their income on food. Sixty percent of low-income countries are at a high risk of or are already in debt distress, up from 30% in 2015. Fuel prices are at a seven-year high. South Asia is food deficient and energy deficient; thus, the impact of pandemic and war is more pronounced, putting millions of people at the risk of starvation. Most of the third-world countries were keeping afloat with the support of international aid and loans from global financial institutes. Countries like, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal, Afghanistan and to some extent even Bangladesh are staring at the economic recession and food insecurity. The only country in South Asia that has a food surplus and remains financially stable is India.

Since India is surrounded by countries with grim economic and food security conditions, it may create internal security challenges if an exodus is triggered by extreme global events such as drought and continued disruptions in supply chains. Large populations from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Rohingya and even Pakistan may try to force entry into India if disruptions in food supply chains continue, thus triggering another crisis that could create instability in Indian border states.

Food Security: A Major Challenge in South Asia

The biggest challenge to the global community today is food security to prevent starvation. 30% of the wheat, barley and maize supply was coming from Russia and Ukraine and this has partly halted due to war and subsequent sanctions. 400 million people worldwide rely on Ukrainian food supplies. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization projects that up to 181 million people in 41 countries could face a food crisis or a sharp rise in starvation rates this year. Wheat has already become a strategic commodity and wheat exporting nations are holding back their stocks because of fear of food shortage and price escalation in domestic markets. As a result, there is limited availability of wheat, barley and maize elsewhere. Even if it is available the cost is unaffordable especially when countries are reeling under the economic meltdown. The latest data from the International Food Policy Research Institute’s food trade policy tracker show that, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, 23 countries have imposed export restrictions on food.

Bangladesh with 166 million people is likely to face a food shortage in the near future. A study found that above 67% of households are mild-to-moderate food insecure while 23% experience severe food insecurity. Bangladesh imported 6.6 million tons of food grains in the just-ended 2020-21 financial year, hitting a three-year record. To feed its burgeoning population Bangladesh is spending $5.79 billion on rice, wheat, fertilizer and vegetable imports. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Bangladesh is expected to import 7.5 million MT of wheat and 2.3 million MT of corn in 2022-23. The big question is how will Bangladesh make up for this deficiency? There is a cause for worry and the distressed population will look for greener pastures to avert starvation. That should be a cause of worry for the external and internal security agencies of India; how to tackle the situation if an exodus starts from Bangladesh?

Sri Lanka has witnessed a financial meltdown and has been declared economically bankrupt. No foreign exchange is available even for food, medicines and fuel purchases. The island nation imports about 22% of the caloric consumption of an average Sri Lankan household. Moreover, Sri Lanka does not produce wheat and lentils. Thus, the nation is dependent upon imports to meet domestic requirements. Sri Lanka imports approximately 6,00,000 metric tonnes of rice to compensate for the domestic production deficit. The lack of foreign exchange has hit power generation hard since approximately 50% relies on the import of petroleum and coal. With the current state of the economy, Sri Lanka has no money to even import petrol for day-to-day functioning of transport services, as a result, entire industrial complexes have come to a grinding halt and even education centers have been shut down. Thus, there is a risk of Sri Lankan refugees flooding the South Indian States again.

As Nepal failed to raise the domestic production of food grains, as a result, it became a net food importer in recent decades. Economists have warned that a breakdown in the supply chain results in a year of hyperinflation—when prices increase rapidly and go out of control.[1] The world is careening toward a food crisis and its effect is also visible in Nepal. With the economy in free fall and exports dropping drastically the economic situation is not likely to improve in the near future. Nepal is on the verge of an economic meltdown which will affect food security. Between Nepal and India, there is no visa requirement so Nepalese can move to India free.

The condition in Afghanistan and Pakistan is even worse. As per a UN report, millions of people are starving in Afghanistan as the country is facing a hunger emergency amid a deadly drought after years of devastating war. A staggering 95 per cent of Afghans are not getting enough to eat, with that number rising to almost 100 percent in female-headed households. As per The Economic Times report, Pakistan is in dire need of $36 billion to avert economic collapse. The country is also facing an acute shortage of food, fertilizer and fuel since there is no foreign currency with the country to import these essential commodities from international markets where the prices have already risen to an unprecedented level. Under such circumstances, displacement of the population cannot be ruled out.

Food Grains are now a Strategic Commodity

A strategic commodity is a commodity that is considered to be of utmost importance to the security and economy of a nation. Any disruption in the trading of these commodities could jeopardise the economy and national security. Food insecurity has the potential to create a situation of orderly chaos and anarchy even in a stable country. Sri Lanka is an example where the dearth of fuel, food and essential goods has created distress.

To maintain food security, India should be careful as far as land usage is concerned. Agriculture land cannot be recreated since agriculture is geographic, climatic and cultural centric. It is said that once the land is converted into industrial complexes it can never be altered to make it again suitable for agriculture. Thus, what the government is required to do at this stage is to identify food grain corridors and preserve them to feed not only their own population but become a net food exporter. India cannot commit the mistake of destroying the grain bowl with unplanned industrialisation, especially in a high-yield agricultural land. For insurance, the Udham Singh Nagar district is one of the most fertile lands for agriculture in Asia and it has been ravaged by unplanned industrialisation in Bazpur, Pantnagar, Haldwani and Rudrapur. Most of these industries in the districts are just packing plants for various industrial houses. Similarly, the Government must audit agricultural land in states like Punjab, Haryana, UP, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Andhra, Telangana, Maharashtra, and a few others and create grain, fruit and vegetable corridors. A national policy on the conversion of agricultural land for industry, housing and infrastructure development is needed before the land sharks swallow the food security of India. India must look at incentivising farmers to keep our plates full with food for current and future generations. Next, colonisation by foreign powers is likely caused by food insecurity across Asia and Africa.

Uncontrolled Flow of Refugees in India is a Possibility due to Food Insecurity

Displacement of the population is a possibility due to food insecurity and economic collapse in South Asian countries. There is a need for the government to put in place a plan to prevent the flow of refugees into India from Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and even from Pakistan. We must prepare contingency plans to ensure illegal migration does not take place. Government should make plans for additional deployment of forces should neighbouring countries fall prey to bankruptcy and famine. Illegal influx has its pitfalls since terrorists, criminals and undesirable elements use it to infiltrate India to achieve their subversive objectives. The land will be encroached, meagre resources will be shared with those who are not authorised and could lead to the prolonged onset of conflict within the society.

Let us look at why no refugees or IDPs cross over illegally into Saudi Arabia, China, or Russia? The reason is because the punishment is severe and the conditions of detention camps are dreadful. Whereas, illegal migration to India is easiest since food, medicines and shelter is guaranteed due to vote bank politics and compromised institutions under regional governments. Even getting certain essential documents for citizenship is also made easy by unscrupulous agents.

What is needed is a preparation of contingency plans to weed out or prevent the influx of refugees and illegal migrants. Need for digital mapping of all such suspects so that they cannot make Aadhar, Voter ID and Ration Cards. Creation of detention camps run by central agencies to prevent the escape of illegal migrants and plan subsequent deportation. The use of technology is desired to keep border areas under surveillance. The army and Navy must make plans for rapid deployment so that flows of illegal migrants can be prevented.  

Conclusion

Food insecurity is a reality and a large population will be driven to starvation due to manmade disasters and climate change. Food is no more a source of charity; it is now a strategic commodity that will be exploited by nations who are rich in agro produce. Displacement of the population is a foregone conclusion due to food scarcity, thus posing a new challenge to stable countries. To prevent instability and the uncontrolled influx of refugees, the government must put in place plans to deal with such extreme events. The use of technology and human intervention to prevent illegal migration is essential. The time has come when the entire population needs to be digitally mapped and illegal migrants weeded out.


 

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Brig Narender Kumar

Brig Narender Kumar, SM, VSM, is an Army veteran who writes extensively on defence and security related issues. He was earlier a Distinguished Fellow at the USI of India.

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