It might not sound like much, but ration card holders in Jammu and Kashmir will now get 7 kilograms of rice per head instead of 5 kg from the public distribution system (PDS). This is much less than the 35 kg per card that was the norm laid down earlier. The additional 2 kg food grains per head will be provided to a family of up to six members from 1 April and will be funded by the state government.
The enhanced rations were the result of restiveness in the Valley against the provisions of the National Food Security Act (NFSA). On 22 March, a complete shutdown was observed in parts of downtown Srinagar against the legislation. Shops and other business establishments remained shuttered. Angry citizens erected barricades on the roads, affecting vehicular movement. Protestors chanted anti-NFSA and anti-government slogans.
Venting anger against NFSA has become a regular feature of life in the Valley ever since the late chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed decided to implement the central law in December 2015. In doing so, Mufti went against the predominant public opinion in the state, particularly in the Valley, where rice is the staple food.
However, Mufti had little option. The Centre, annoyed by several missed deadlines for the implementation of NFSA, had warned that the states which fail to implement the legislation by the end of 2015 would have to lift PDS grain at minimum support prices (MSPS) far higher than the current rates.
Under the NFSA, the Centre is offering rice, wheat and coarse cereals at 3, 2 and 1 per kg respectively to states. The states are required to distribute these at the same rates to households having ration card. Under the Act, each person of a family with a ration card is entitled to 5 kg subsidised rice against the earlier 35 kg per card.
The angry public reaction took even People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which runs the state in alliance with the BJP, by surprise. In a matter of days, protests of increasing intensity swept through Valley. The unrest began in Srinagar and radiated out to other urban centres and further afield into rural Kashmir, including areas close to the Line of Control (LoC). One such area was Tangdhar. The people there actually tried to march towards LoC. It was only after the intervention by the army and senior government officials that the villagers deferred their protest.
Similarly, in Charar-e-Sharif area of the Budgam district, angry protesters burnt their ration cards. In Baramulla town, furious citizens asked the government to allow them to fetch rice from Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, if the government was not in a position to provide them the full quota of rice through ration stores.
Kashmir is known for endemic separatist protests and frequent stone-throwing over issues related to the state’s unsettled status between India and Pakistan, but there are fewer instances of public restiveness over administrative issues.
So what is it with NFSA that has the Valley up in arms? The answer is that rice is the staple food of Valley and the land under cultivation is shrinking by the day.
In 1981, land under paddy was 1,66,000 hectares but the official figures put it at 1,41,350 ha in 2015, reduction of a massive 24,650 ha. The depletion has been more marked over the past decade. Since 2012 alone, around 16,650 ha have been lost, averaging a loss of 228 kanal (the local measure of land) a day.
While this alarming rate of diminution in paddy threatens an end to the rice production in the next few decades, the decline in food grain output is deepening food insecurity in the state. And it is this insecurity which observers in Kashmir identify as the reason behind the ongoing protests.
Says Nisar Ali, a former member of the J&K Finance Commission, says Kashmir is now heavily dependent on the import of rice and the other food grains. Ali lists a range of factors for the unenviable status of Kashmir agriculture. The reckless conversion of farmland into built-up area, official neglect, decreasing irrigation potential and the resulting conversion of rice fields into apple orchards has depleted the food grain production.
Jammu and Kashmir Economic Survey report 2014-15 attests to this fact: the estimated percentage contribution of Agriculture and allied sector to State Gross Domestic Product (SGDP) has gone down to 17.49 percent against, the corresponding share of 28.06 percent in 2004-05 at constant prices. Food grain deficit which in 1950-51 was 32 percent has now shot up to 81.50 percent.
As it is, very little of Kashmir’s hilly terrain lends itself to agriculture. Only 2.22 lakh sq km is under agriculture.
Kashmir agriculture is thus precariously placed. The situation now is such that even as J&K’s food grain production is reported at 4.53 lakh mt, the state imports about 40 percent of food grain and 20 percent of vegetables to meet its requirements.
In 2015 alone, according to a detailed state government report, submitted to the federal government, there has been a monthly shortfall of 10817 MT in food grains, comprising rice, wheat and sugar, coming under the public distribution system in the Kashmir Valley.
The gap between demand and supply in Jammu and Kashmir is increasing at a faster rate than the increase in the production level, the report stated.
Similarly, J&K gets rations under pds for around 20 lakh families, while the requirement as per 2011 census has shot up to 24 lakh families.
“There is, as a result, a huge deficiency of the food in the state,” says Nisar Ali. “And logically when you now drastically reduce the monthly ration entitlement from pds , it will trigger unrest.”
But while enhancing the PDS quota is urgent under the circumstances, this is not the answer to the Valley’s prevailing food crisis. And for that the Valley will need to get its agriculture right. In 2012, J&K High Court passed directions against the conversion of agricultural land following a Public Interest Litigation by a non- government organisation. The court directed all deputy commissioners to ensure the Jammu and Kashmir Agrarian Act and the Jammu and Kashmir Land Revenue Act are enforced to stop the conversion. But the law continues to be violated with impunity.
“Surveys reveal that we are losing more than 200 kanal a day of agricultural land,” says Professor Nazir Masoodi, a former Dean Faculty of Forestry Sher-i-Kashmir University of Agriculture Sciences. “Our agricultural redemption lies in saving what is left and enhancing the output by using the modern agricultural practices and the quality seeds,” he says.