By Shatakshi Singh*
While food security has been a matter of national policy focus in South Asian countries for some time, factors such as climate change merit an urgency to understand the issue as a regional-level concern. Within this context, three topics are germane.
The Idea of a South Asian Food Bank
In 2007, a common food bank to hold food grain reserves was operationalised under the aegis of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) . However, the SAARC food bank has been unable to function optimally due to certain inherent weaknesses.
SAARC’s inherent vulnerabilities have resulted in a state-of-affairs where regional consensus-building for cooperative mechanisms to ensure food security has been deficient. The blueprint of the SAARC Food Bank, too, is structurally flawed given how it places a considerably disproportionate burden on India. In the initial years, India’s food grain contribution towards the SAARC food bank’s capacity stock of 23.2 million tonnes, stood at 15.32 million tonnes.
However, although India’s initial pledge was to contribute substantially to the reserve, in the years ahead, the disproportion in contributions could potentially lead to friction given how the agriculture and food security landscape is changing rapidly due to climate change. It may be useful to consider a collective food grain reserve for South Asia, facilitated by adapting other successful, comparative models, such as that of the Economic Community of West African States. Addressing issues of accessibility and wastage could supplement the effort.
Collaborative Activities and Mutual Learning in Agricultural Research
Based on the development of sophisticated national agricultural research systems in South Asian countries, it has been argued that they stand to gain from knowledge-sharing and collaborative research efforts for enhanced food security. The relevance of undertaking knowledge exchange activities in this sphere is apparent given the presence of contiguous agro-ecological tracks across South Asian territorial boundaries. The Punjab region, which spans the Indian and Pakistani landscape, and the Tarai region, which spans Indian and Nepalese territories, are some prime examples.
The predominance of wheat and rice in cropping patterns across South Asia provides impetus to such an endeavour. General coordination of research initiatives could translate to lower costs and efficiency for those involved. According to a report released by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), among South Asian countries, India spends the most on agricultural research and development. Additionally, India is already offering agro-technology and equipment to Myanmar, and has been doing capacity building activities in this sphere by establishing an agricultural research centre in the country. As such, India is also well-positioned to gain from following the Israeli model of exporting agricultural technology and expertise, given the advances made by the country in biotechnology, plant genetics, etc.
Cooperating in a technical field could also help contribute to regional integration. Since agriculture is central to ensuring domestic food security, regional research collaborations aimed at increasing agricultural productivity has the potential to facilitate a more holistic realisation of food security.
Sustainable Use of Water Resources
As a densely populated, resource-hungry region, the sustainable use of water resources, particularly transboundary rivers, is a significant area for collaborative action since it is directly responsible for crop health, and by extension, food security.
However, with respect to river water-sharing, most of the water catchment occurs in India, which often finds itself as a middle riparian. India’s trans-boundary river water policies impact four countries: Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan. With the groundwater supply in India predicted to drop below demand by 2030, the dependence on freshwater resources will increase. Climate change risks will further compound the negative impact of water shortage on agricultural output given the aggregate demand for water in irrigation practices. Resultantly, working towards the sustainable management of domestic and transboundary water resources is crucial for overcoming future challenges to food security in the region.
At present, in accordance with the recalibration of its policy priorities, India is redirecting its efforts towards revitalising the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), whose members include Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal, and Bhutan. Given this sub-region’s geographic diversity including in climatic conditions, cropping patterns etc, fresh approaches to ensure food security merit exploration. The need of the hour is a responsive cross-border mechanism that systematically addresses the concern by building bilateral and sub-regional consensus towards food security, as a step towards regional consensus.
*Shatakshi Singh is a Research Intern at IPCS’ Centre for Internal and Regional Security.