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Now that the Twelfth Plan has begun, who will feed the towns?

During the course of the Eleventh Five Year Plan (2007-12) the salient features of the sweeping change being quietly implemented in India's agriculture and food structure became easier to distinguish. Many of these changes have been prefaced by the central government and its agencies pointing grimly to a farm sector that is under-performing in terms of its growth rate and which they emphasised is wanting for private sector investment.

 Although elsewhere in Asia, Africa and South America the relation between food commodity trading and speculation, and continued high local food prices has been a contentious subject, India from one Plan period to the next has decided to pursue a talismanic 4% per year growth rate, attaching to this objective the idea of 'inclusion'. The relationships between how capital is employed in the food and agriculture sector, what in fact happens to agricultural produce during its journey to urban shops, and the reasons for the steady rise of agri-commodity futures indices in India are still only irregularly researched.

 Profiting from speculation in food staples - and protecting the household from the effects of hoarding - is behaviour that is the subject of legislation from 1955 when the Essential Commodities Act came into force, and also from 1980 with the Prevention of Black Marketing & Maintenance of Supply of Essential Commodities Act. The recent changes in agriculture and food however, employ many simultaneous mechanisms and meth

How will the structures that govern food consumption and the systems that administer agriculture behave under the provisions of the Twelfth Plan? We find some indicators in the Approach Paper to the Plan. Among them is the matter of the diversion of agricultural land to non-cultivation uses, by which such land is either built upon for residential, commercial or industrial use, or goes fallow, by design or neglect, as a result of contagious urban sprawl which renders crop cultivation difficult and unremunerative.

 On this matter the Approach Paper has made the admission that over the past decade there has been a decline in net sown area of approximately 2 million hectares, although the document's authors have explained neither the causes for the decline, nor drawn a connection between this and the concurrent rapid pace of urbanisation in India. The Approach Paper has rather attempted to underplay the implications of this 2 million hectare decline by stating that this number is only 0.6 per cent of the total net sown area.

 To the contrary, demand for land is set to increase substantially with the near doubling or India's urban population and quadrupling of per capita urban incomes that we expect over the next 20 years. In a study that has often been cited by central ministries and industry alike, the McKinsey Global Institute estimated that an incremental 11 million hectares of land may be necessary to meet urban demand4. This is based on an estimate that demand for urban land in 2007 was 7.5 million hectares and would rise, under current patterns of land-use planning described as "poor and characteristic" or as "urban sprawl", to 18.6 million hectares in 2030.

 This indicates a direct annual demand for land on which to build which may average, for the duration of the Twelfth Plan period (2012-17), about 0.5 million hectares annually. These estimates come out of a study of urban demand for land under municipal and city corporation systems of administration in which it is assumed that land records are available and transparent, and that transfers are both legal and in accordance with planning and zoning regulations. In practice, the land demand for a Tier 2 city with a current population of 1.5 million (for example Agra, Nashik, Patna, Salem or Varanasi) whose population may be expected to grow (for the 2011-2020 decade) by 20% will be shaped by the provision of new infrastructure - such as roads and highways, new townships around new industrial and service zones, and the accumulation of speculative land banks - which is likely to substantially raise the 0.5 million hectare/year estimate.

 Even under the directions of the Eleventh Five Year Plan, and discounting the policy-related changes brought in over the last 18 months, are the food needs of more urban centres - and still-expanding urban agglomerations - being met without affecting food access in rural districts? There is no reliable baseline to use which can answer such a query. The deficiencies in the current system of both area and yield estimation under the 'Timely Reporting System' (necessary to issue, among other bulletins, the four advance estimates each year) have scarcely been recognised, let alone dealt with in any meaningful way.

 The deterioration of the system of maintaining village land use and crop records - the basic source of primary data - is responsible. It has been pointed out that village-level revenue staff are overburdened with a variety of tasks; thus the maintenance of accurate and complete agricultural data is given a low priority. State aggregates of crop production are still, in the absence of satellite-based assessments that can be publicly and independently verified (or "ground truthed"), best guesses. Thus, the impact of the demands of urban centres - amplified by the allied sectors of food processing, food retail and agricultural logistics - on the populations of producing districts is still under-researched.

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