1. The Black Sea Grain Initiative
Who facilitated the deal between Russia and Ukraine? How has it helped global food chain supplies? Did it have a role in reducing inflation and foodgrain
Russia has re-joined the Black Sea Grain deal. “The Russian Federation believes that the guarantees it has received currently appear sufficient, and resumes the implementation of the agreement,” the Russian Defence Ministry stated. It added that the mediation of the UN and Turkey had secured the continued cooperation.
The Black Sea Grain deal endeavours to tackle escalating food prices emanating from supply chain disruptions because of Russia’s actions in the world’s ‘breadbasket’. Ukraine is among the largest exporters of wheat, maize, rapeseed, sunflower seeds and sunflower oil, globally.
As per the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, approximately 10.1 million tonnes of grains have been shipped since the initiative commenced. The deal has also been credited for having made a “huge difference” to the global cost of living crisis.
The story so far:
In a move that allayed concerns about yet another disruption to global food supply chains, Russia last week re-joined the Black Sea Grain deal. The reversal came a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that Moscow would suspend, but not end, its involvement in the deal. “The Russian Federation believes that the guarantees it has received currently appear sufficient, and resumes the implementation of the agreement,” news agency Associated Press quoted the Russian Defence Ministry as saying. It added that the mediation of the United Nations and Turkey had secured the continued cooperation.
What is the Black Sea Grain Initiative?
The Black Sea Grain deal endeavours to tackle escalating food prices emanating from supply chain disruptions because of Russia’s actions in the world’s ‘breadbasket’. The deal, brokered by the UN and Turkey, was signed in Istanbul on July 22 this year. Initially stipulated for a period of 120 days, with an option to extend or terminate after November, the deal was to provide for a safe maritime humanitarian corridor for Ukrainian exports (particularly for food grains) from three of its key ports, namely, Chornomorsk, Odesa and Yuzhny/Pivdennyi. The central idea was to calm markets by ensuring an adequate supply of grains, thereby limiting food price inflation.
Ukraine is among the largest exporters of wheat, maize, rapeseed, sunflower seeds and sunflower oil, globally. Its access to the deep-sea ports in the Black Sea enables it to directly approach Russia and Europe along with grain importers from West Asia and North Africa. Russia’s actions in the East European country had disturbed this route which earlier used to ship 75% of its agricultural exports — precisely what the initiative sought to address.
Why is it important?
As per the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, approximately 10.1 million tonnes of grains have been shipped since the initiative commenced. The UN Food and Agricultural Organisation’s (FAO) Food Price Index, which assesses the monthly change in international prices of a basket of food commodities, fell for the sixth consecutive month in a row during the September assessment period. It was earlier inferred that the supply situation in markets was seen to be easing, with potential for further price drops. People hoarding the grain in the hope of selling it for a sizeable profit owing to the supply crunch were obligated to sell. The initiative has also been credited for having made a “huge difference” to the global cost of living crisis.
About 44% of the shipments, which include corn, wheat, rapeseed, and sunflower oil among others, reached high-income countries (including Spain, Netherlands and Italy among others), 28% reached low and lower-middle-income countries (Egypt, Iran, Sudan and Kenya among others) and 27% reached upper-middle income countries (China and Bulgaria among others).
As pointed out by several observers, notwithstanding its reach, the initiative alone cannot address global hunger; it can only avert the chances of the global food crisis spiralling further, especially when the region is yet to scale prior year levels.
What would have happened if the deal was suspended?
In a nutshell, the deal’s suspension was expected to re-introduce the price pressures on foodgrains, especially that of wheat, with inventories being at historical lows. It could have particularly impacted countries in West Asia and Africa such as Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Sudan and Yemen which have benefitted from the resumption and are particularly dependent on Russian and Ukrainian exports.
Joseph Glauber and David Laborde, senior Fellows at the International Food Policy and Research Institute (IFPRI), had observed, “Not only are those countries more dependent on Ukraine as a supplier of wheat and other grains, they tend to buy more during the winter to supplement their own harvests, which are largely consumed by the end of the year.” Thus, according to them, the suspension could have spurred food insecurity as well as potentially exacerbated political tensions.
As for domestic challenges, the researchers observe that storage facilities in Ukraine are already at capacity even as farmers turn to harvest the crops planted in spring. This, combined with restricted export opportunities, would have implied lower prices for farmers even as shortfalls spur prices globally.
2. Editorial-1: The age of minimalism in India-Pakistan ties
India-Pakistan relations have entered an age of minimalism, counter-intuitive as it might seem. There is very little bilateral contact today, even fewer expectations of a bilateral breakthrough, and hardly any warmth in the relationship. And yet, there is a certain ‘cold peace’ between the traditional rivals — on the Line of Control, inside Kashmir and in the verbal exchanges between the two sides. The usual melodrama that surrounds India-Pakistan relations is only seen today when their national sides play each other during cricket tournaments. This is certainly new and a tad refreshing. But will it last?
India-Pakistan relations of the kind we have been used to over several decades now — characterised by intense engagement, high value terror attacks, Indian responses, a breakdown of talks, and eventual resumption of talks; rinse and repeat — may well be a thing of the past. Today, there is no political will for any grand relationship, grand gestures or grand outreach. The bilateral contact is tactical, business-like and unemotional. It is ironic that for a political party that was initially Pakistan-obsessed and used Pakistan for domestic political purposes, Pakistan occupies little space in the foreign policy agenda of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) today.
What it entails
The BJP government in New Delhi began with the standard package of engaging Pakistan. There was the invitation extended to Nawaz Sharif (the then Pakistan Prime Minister) for Narendra Modi’s inaugural function in New Delhi (May 2014), which Mr. Sharif attended, followed by Mr. Modi’s surprise visit to Lahore (December 2015), and the discreet meetings between the two National Security Advisers (NSA). In January 2016, even when the Pathankot airbase was attacked by a Pakistan-based terrorist organisation, New Delhi hoped that things would get better. But it was not to be. The September 2016 terror attack in Uri, which led to the ‘Surgical Strikes’ by India, practically froze the relationship. The February 2019 terror attack in Pulwama, and the BJP government’s decisions made in August 2019 on Kashmir put the relationship in deep freeze.
Over time, New Delhi appears to have realised that it requires too much time, commitment and effort to make peace with Pakistan — and little guarantee that it will succeed despite all that. This historical and experiential learning about the ‘futility’ of pursuing a normal relationship with its western neighbour has led to this current phase of minimalism. As a result, India-Pakistan relations today have been reduced to a backchannel conversation between the Indian NSA and the Pakistan Army establishment.
The rationale and methodology
There are at least five reasons why the present age of minimalism has come to characterise India-Pakistan relations.
For one, the relationship is the history of missed opportunities, failed attempts at conflict resolution, political inability to resolve conflicts due to the dual power centre in Pakistan, and the lack of political will on either side. These disappointments have led to a recognition in New Delhi, that making comprehensive peace with Pakistan is a fool’s errand. Second, there is a recognition on both sides that for all the talk about conflict resolution, there is no easy way to resolve their complicated conflicts and that, going forward, bilateral conflict resolution may get harder due to rising populism fuelled by online hate. Third, New Delhi also realises that the traditional logic in India that it should first settle its conflicts with Pakistan and then move on to addressing the bigger challenges may take New Delhi nowhere for, after all, none of the key bilateral conflicts between them has been resolved since the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960. Four, there is also a certain confidence in New Delhi today that it does not need to talk to Pakistan to ensure peace inside Kashmir. This growing confidence in New Delhi about its capability to defend Kashmir against Pakistani aggression or from terror attacks, and the belief in deterrence by punishment will further moderate India’s desire to have elaborate conflict resolution exercises with Pakistan. Finally, both sides today are preoccupied with other geopolitical challenges — Pakistan with the Taliban-led Afghanistan, and India with an aggressive China on its borders — thereby keeping them busy elsewhere than with each other.
The age of minimalism in India-Pakistan relations is characterised by several noticeable features. For one, the interlocutors on either side (more so on the Indian side) appear to have adopted a clinical approach to dealing with the other side: discuss and deal with only those issues that need urgent attention. The second feature is the unmissable focus on conflict management, with little focus on conflict resolution.
Kashmir, for instance, is discussed in the context of the modalities for sustaining the ceasefire agreement, and not the historical political conflict over Kashmir. But given that the current engagement is decidedly for tactical purposes, larger political issues are kept outside of its purview. The third important aspect of this minimalist approach is that it has so far served as a useful platform for clarifying red lines, expectation management, and achieving limited but clear outcomes. The 2021 February ceasefire agreement is one such outcome, and relative reduction in violence in Kashmir is another.
Dealing with Rawalpindi
However, to my mind, the most important aspect of this minimalist approach is something else — New Delhi’s ability to shed its traditional hesitations about directly dealing with the Pakistani army establishment. India has traditionally been of the view that it would only engage with the political establishment in Islamabad (or whoever runs the show in Islamabad). This had a structural issue — attempts at conflict resolution by India with Pakistan did not always have the blessings of Rawalpindi, which occasionally torpedoed such attempts. The current arrangement, wherein there is little contact between New Delhi and Islamabad but between Rawalpindi and New Delhi, has not only corrected the structural problem in India-Pakistan relations, it also appears that the Pakistan Army takes this direct approach more seriously. To that extent, this is a win-win strategy. And yet, given that the current strategy of minimalist engagement with the Pakistani deep state is unlikely to be able to tackle the larger substantive political questions, the process may run into challenges over time or its tactical utility might eventually be exhausted. The single most handicap of this process is that it is ill-suited to deal with larger political questions.
3. Editorial-2: The frontliners of the first 1,000-day window of life
Addressing malnutrition is critical to laying a strong foundation for human development. Optimal maternal nutrition and infant and young child feeding are the most effective set of interventions in reducing child deaths and disease, preventing malnutrition, in determining cognitive development, and in eventually enabling adult life productivity. Specifically, the first 1,000 days of life, i.e., from conception to the first two years of a child’s life, are key as this phase presents a critical window of opportunity in ensuring optimal growth, development, child survival and lifelong health and nutrition. In fact, 80% of brain development takes place in the first 1,000 days of life.
To address the persistent high burden of malnutrition, India has been undertaking several policy and programmatic efforts which include the flagship programme, the Prime Minister’s Overarching Scheme for Holistic Nourishment (POSHAN) Abhiyaan (launched in April 2018) under the Ministry of Women and Child Development (MWCD). Its overarching goal is to improve nutritional outcomes by focusing on capacity building, improvement of service delivery, community mobilisation and participation, use of technology, and inter-ministerial/inter-departmental convergent planning and review. Additionally, there has been an enhanced focus on documentation of interventions coverage in the first 1,000 days, such as registration of pregnancies, antenatal checkup, and exclusive breastfeeding, as compared to the situation in 2015-16.
Evidence-based interventions are key
Evidence tells us that for bringing about change in nutrition outcomes, evidence-based interventions need to be delivered with high coverage, continuity (over the first 1,000 days of life and across delivery channels), intensity (multiple interactions), quality and equity. The health and nutrition status of women, including the weight and haemoglobin level, age at conception, and levels of multiple micronutrients during periconception period, are critical determinants for the child’s health.
The criticality of preconception care, i.e., care before pregnancy, is acknowledged. In 2018, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare worked with Maharashtra and UNICEF to introduce the first ever primary health-care innovation programme to promote the health of women during the preconception period, in the Peth and Sinnar blocks of Nashik district, Maharashtra. During the programme, which was completed in 27 months, it was seen that promoting the health of adolescent girls and women not only promotes the health of the newborn but also prevents low birth weight, preterm birth, and newborn deaths. Its success led to it being scaled across several districts in the State.
All such interventions are delivered to the last mile by the network of the frontline work force: Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs), Auxiliary Nurse-Midwives (ANMs) and Anganwadi Workers (AWWs), who play a key role in empowering the community on health planning and action. In many geographies, they are the only access point to basic nutrition and other health services. They are critical in promoting healthy practices, providing on-ground support, and improving awareness.
In Uttar Pradesh
For example, during the Poshan Pakhwdaa in March 2022, in a remote village in Uttar Pradesh, all families with children below two were able to overcome age-old fears and misconceptions and get their children weighed at the anganwadi centre after multiple and continuous efforts by the AWWs, supported by the lady supervisor. Mothers and other relatives such as grandmothers and also fathers were enlightened about the benefits of regular weight measurement. Men, especially fathers, also play a very important role in ensuring maternal and newborn health (MNH). They can influence behaviours and good practices around MNH within their households and communities. Studies show that mothers are 1.5 times more likely to receive prenatal care in the first trimester when fathers are involved during pregnancy.
Back to the story. The AWW and the lady supervisor found support in the panchayat pradhan who had organised a community-level meeting a day before the start of the Poshan Pakhwada. All the men, women, AWWs, ASHAs, schoolteachers and community elders were involved to generate awareness on the benefits of weight measurement, early detection of undernourished children and ensure the weighing of all eligible young children.
Similarly, lady supervisors of a block in Unnao district (Uttar Pradesh) have ensured that AWWs have not only received growth monitoring devices but also been trained to measure and record body weight accurately. Community mobilisation meetings to ensure coverage of all eligible children were also organised.
These stories of change from Uttar Pradesh that have been driven by frontline workers and their supervisors resonate with the joint efforts of AWWs and ASHA workers in a remote village bordering Nepal, who ensure the regular weighing of each child every month to detect deficiencies in early growth.
The momentum for strengthening the nutrition system focuses on regular skilling, supportive supervision and motivation of frontline workers to deliver contextualised, focused and quality nutrition and health services. These along with data-driven reviews must be prioritised and sustained at the programme level. Because of their deeper understanding on the issues and needs at the grassroots level, their contribution to community health is much more. It is crucial to empower our frontline workers who are driving change at the last mile.
4. Editorial-3: Economics, exclusion
Use of sole income criterion for quotas is questionable, but it should be made to work in a non-exclusionary way
On the face of it, a new kind of reservation in education and jobs solely based on income or economic criteria was destined to face several constitutional hurdles. However, given that the special provision in favour of ‘Economically Weaker Sections’ (EWS) among those who are not eligible for community-based quotas meant for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes, was introduced through an amendment to the Constitution, only a demonstration that the new quota violated the basic structure of the Constitution would have succeeded in dislodging it. By a majority of three to two, the Supreme Court of India has ruled that the amendment does not violate the basic structure. In the process, the Court has recorded a major paradigm shift in its conception of what constitutes valid affirmative action. For the first time, it has upheld a kind of reservation that specifically excludes those from the three existing categories of beneficiaries and is extended solely on the basis of economic criteria. When in Indra Sawhney (1992), a nine-judge Bench upheld OBC reservation, but favoured exclusion of advanced sections of the beneficiary communities from its purview, it introduced a form of economic criteria for the first time. However, the criteria were used to exclude individuals, while the groups continued to be eligible for reservation. At the same time, the Court struck down a provision for 10% reservation for economically backward sections introduced by the Congress regime, on the ground that the Constitution does not provide for reservation solely based on economic criteria.
The logic behind this scheme of affirmative action was that reservation is a tool of reparation for groups excluded from mainstream avenues of advancement due to caste discrimination, while it should not become a benefit or reward for individual members of the same groups who may have made reasonable progress. This logic was wholly inverted in 2019 when the BJP-led regime amended the Constitution to provide reservation solely on economic criteria to sections other than those enjoying reservation under the categories of SCs, STs and OBCs. The resort to economic or income criterion as the sole marker for identifying a beneficiary is obviously unsustainable from the point of view of equality of opportunity. All five judges agree that the introduction of an economic criterion does not violate the Constitution. However, Justice S. Ravindra Bhat, with Chief Justice of India U.U. Lalit, concurring, has correctly found that the exclusion of groups that already enjoy reservation from accessing this new form of affirmative action violates the equality norm, which is a basic feature of the Constitution.
The Constitution Amendment came with considerable political legitimacy as very few members voted against it. The Court could not have lightly struck it down. The majority acknowledges Parliament’s power to create a new set of criteria and a new target for affirmative action. Their opinions whole-heartedly endorse the exclusion of communities that benefit from existing reservation norms, contending that such exclusion is necessary to achieve the intended object of emancipating economically weaker sections and, if they are included, it may undermine the entire idea of providing such reservation. This approach is clearly flawed because this creates a vertical reservation scheme based on economic weakness, a factor that could be applicable to all communities, but consciously excludes a large segment. There was some merit in the argument that reservation cannot be used as a poverty alleviation measure, and that a collective remedy meant to be compensatory discrimination in favour of historically deprived classes cannot be converted into a scheme to identify individuals based on their low-income levels and confer the same benefit. The existing income criterion of ₹8 lakh a year has already been questioned by the Court in a separate case, as it is liable to result in excessive coverage of socially advanced classes. When those exempted from filing I-T returns are only those with taxable income below ₹2.5 lakh, it makes no sense to extend the reservation benefits to sections earning upto ₹8 lakh. Also, the majority view that the 50% ceiling is applicable only to caste-based quotas and not for EWS reservation is constitutionally unsustainable, as it is a vertical compartment that is carved out of the open competition segment.
Once the idea of using economic criterion alone is accepted in principle, as has been done even by the dissenting opinion, it can only be argued that the benefit should have been modulated to maximise the beneficiaries. The objective of economic emancipation could have been better achieved if the income-based reservation had been thrown open to all sections of society. The fear that some sections may corner a large share of the reservation cake had earlier been partially addressed by the ‘creamy layer’ norm for backward classes, but it also meant that the well-off among them will have to compete in open competition. By introducing an income criterion and barring OBCs, besides SC/ST communities, from the EWS silo, there is a clear violation of equality in their eligibility to avail of a part of the open competition opportunities. The Government should consider both opening up the EWS quota to all communities and keeping the income criterion much lower than the ceiling, perhaps at the same level as the income tax slab, to identify the ‘creamy layer’ so that some poorer sections of communities, if they are crowded out on the OBC or SC/ST merit list, could still avail of some residual benefits under the EWS scheme.
5. Editorial-4: India’s G20 presidency and food security
Global and regional food security have been deliberated upon as one of the priority agendas of the G20 for many years now. The situation has worsened with growing conflicts, and spiralling climate crises marked by droughts, floods, cyclones, and economic downturns in the past few years.
In this context, India’s presidency of the G20 offers a historical opportunity for the country to share its successful journey in moving from a food-deficit nation to a food-surplus nation, and address the growing challenges of food security for creating resilient and equitable food systems.
In 2021, through the Matera Declaration, G20 ministers recognised that poverty alleviation, food security, and sustainable food systems are key to ending hunger. “The Matera Declaration reflects the Indian concern for the welfare of small & medium farmers, promoting local food cultures and recognising agri-diversity,” External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar tweeted in June 2021 from Rome. There are many reasons why India is well placed to champion these ideas and rally commitments, as it takes over the presidency of G20 for a year starting December 1, 2022.
Leading the conversation
India’s journey in the last 50 years provides learning on sustaining growth in foodgrain production and improving food systems. One of India’s greatest contributions to equity in food is the National Food Security Act, 2013, which anchors the targeted public distribution system, the mid-day meal scheme, and the Integrated Child Development Services. Today, India’s food safety nets collectively reach over a billion people.
Since Independence, India initiated policy measures, land reforms, public investments, institutional infrastructure, new regulatory systems, public support, and intervention in agri-markets and prices and agri-research and extension. The 1991-2015 period saw the diversification of agriculture with greater focus being given to the horticulture, dairy, animal husbandry, and fisheries sectors. The continued learning encompassed elements of nutritional health, food safety, sustainability, etc.
In the past three years, while responding to the pandemic, India has set a global example in alleviating hunger by bringing in the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Ann Yojana. Through the mechanism of purchases of cereals from farmers, the government was able to provide a swift and resilient response to the COVID-19 pandemic, avoid supply chain disruption and economic shock using its robust public distribution system, add new measures, and underline how critical food and social safety nets are to achieving the right to food and the dignity of its population.
International trade is crucial to ensure access to inputs, goods, and services to produce safe, nutritious, and affordable food. The Matera Declaration also emphasised keeping international food trade open and strengthening global, regional, and local diversified value chains for safe, fresh, and nutritious food, as well as promoting a science-based holistic One Health approach.
In the face of climate change and a sudden decline in wheat harvest and decline in rice production, India formally announced an export ban on wheat and rice. However, it maintained a flexible approach to help countries like Afghanistan with humanitarian aid and others such as Bangladesh, Egypt, Yemen with commercial supplies, in collaboration with the respective governments.
Five action points
There is also an opportunity to fast-track the processes and commitments that were started through the pioneering UN Food Systems Summit, held by the G20 leadership, for global food systems transformation to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. The summit created a mechanism focused on five identified action tracks: Ensure access to safe and nutritious food for all; shift to sustainable consumption patterns; boost nature-positive production; advance equitable livelihoods, and build resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks, and stress.
The war in Ukraine and the restriction on the export of wheat have shown how dependent nations are on a single source of global food supply. This vulnerability is linked with production being impacted by the changing weather, and disruption in the availability of inputs. It is important to note the vulnerability visible in foodgrain production and supply or in the availability with regards to exports will also raise the growing demand for India’s wheat and rice.
Over the decades, the Government of India has institutionalised buying grains from farmers and food stocks as strategic reserves for national food security. The minimum support price has encouraged farmers to produce, and protects them from financial fluctuations. This process has protected people, especially the most vulnerable and poor, during difficult times. Such measures, which are context-driven, are needed for managing the uncertainties that have become the new normal for ensuring food security for high-population countries and many other countries across the globe. There needs to be greater investment in agriculture; food safety nets for the poor and vulnerable; new ways of farming; and diversified livelihoods. We need to expand south-south cooperation to share experiences on food and agriculture production and make expanded efforts to share India’s experiences for countries in Africa and Asia.