Sunday, September 24, 2000,
Chandigarh, India


E D I T O R I A L   P A G E


Problems of plenty hurt farmers’ interest

India’s food policy needs a rethink
by T.V. Lakshminarayan
FROM being a nation facing shortage of food to becoming one with overflowing stocks of foodgrain, India is confronted with a problem of plenty at the turn of the century. The growth in annual foodgrain production from 51 million tonnes of the early fiftie-s to 206 million at present has indeed made food management a gargantuan task.

Grain drain: laissez faire is not a magic wand
by Baljit Singh
HE climb-down by Union Minister for Food and Civil Supplies Shanta Kumar on the purchase of paddy from farmers and advancement of the purchase date to September 21 has stemmed rural unrest for the time being. But this paving over of the cracks has merely rolled over what is possibly the most serious crisis hanging over Indian agriculture since the famines of the sixties to an even more critical period.


India quits Sierra Leone
September 23, 2000
Vajpayee's U.S. Yatra
September 22, 2000
Beyond Malleswari’s
September 21, 2000
Pakistan under attack!
September 20, 2000
Not by disinvestment alone
September 19, 2000
Better Indo-US relations
September 18, 2000
South scrambles for share in IT cake
September 17, 2000
Finance Commission report
September 16, 2000
Revolution in military affairs
September 15, 2000
A Revolution at the crossroads
September 14, 2000
His master’s choice
September 13, 2000

Walk away from heart attack
By Dr (Prof) H.S. Wasir
HE World Health Organisation (WHO) and the World Heart Federation have decided to observe September 24 as World Heart Day to focus on public awareness and active involvement of people at the global level to contain and control the increasing death and disability from heart attacks.


Capitol Hill — the Amritsar connection
HE US Congress has been passing a series of pro-India legislations during the past two years. Whether it be a resolution congratulating India and Premier Vajpayee’s Government or condemnation of Pakistan for Kargil, they have been passed with an overwhelming majority.



Problems of plenty hurt farmers’ interest
India’s food policy needs a rethink

by T.V. Lakshminarayan

FROM being a nation facing shortage of food to becoming one with overflowing stocks of foodgrain, India is confronted with a problem of plenty at the turn of the century. The growth in annual foodgrain production from 51 million tonnes of the early fiftie-s to 206 million at present has indeed made food management a gargantuan task.

The coming years are not going to make it any easier for the planners if the New National Agriculture Policy is any indication. It aims to attain over the next two decades a growth rate in excess of 4 per cent per annum in the agriculture sector. An ambitious target, though, the very thought of handling such vast stocks of foodgrain is giving jitters to the staff in the Ministry of Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution (formerly known as the Ministry of Food and Consumer Affairs). This department takes care of the food management policy that includes procurement of foodgrains; their storage, movement, public distribution; and the maintenance of buffer stocks. The related aspects of this policy are procurement and issue prices of foodgrains, quality control, imports and exports.

As on July 1, 2000, stocks of rice and wheat in the central pool exceeded the buffer requirements in the previous year by 44.90 lakh tonnes and 134 lakh tonnes respectively. As on that date there was 144.90 lakh tonnes of rice against the required buffer norms of 100 lakh tonnes. The kharif procurement would add to the stocks before the year-end.

The government claims that the cost of handling this grain is around Rs 3,000 per tonne. Since large quantities of these grains are stocked in the open, in poor conditions, leading to deterioration and wastage, the actual cost could be much more. A telltale sign of this mammoth problem can be seen in Punjab, the granary of the nation. The central procurement agency, the Food Corporation of India, and other state procurement agencies have no storage space in the state. Open fields, school buildings, godowns, unused roads, for that matter, any vacant space you name, are filled with hundreds of thousands of gunny bags containing rice and wheat. Some of the stocks are as old as three years and rotting. But the procurement agencies are helpless. They simply don’t know what to do, where to sell. Their dilemma has posed several questions about the food policy of the country. “We cannot continue like this for ever,” says the Minister for Public Distribution, Mr Shanta Kumar. He feels that only radical changes in policy can help India tide over this problem of plenty in the future.

Main ingredients of food policy: Procurement of foodgrains is one of the central pillars of the food policy of the government. It serves two purposes. One, of providing a remunerative price to the farmers, thereby avoiding chances of distress sale of foodgrains at prices below the support prices fixed by the government, and also enthusing them to increase production. Two, it enables the government to build up public stocks of grains, which are vital to the food management policy, including maintenance of the Public Distribution System. Procurement operations are carried out by the Food Corporation of India in association with the state governments and their agencies. The procurement prices are based on the support price declared by the government, which, in popular parlance is known as the minimum support price. The producers have the option to sell their produce to the FCI or state agencies at the support prices or in the open market, as is advantageous to them. No targets, as such, are fixed for the procurement of foodgrains and the government is obliged to buy whatever is offered to it.

The origin of the present food policy can be traced to the earlier years of Independence when the country witnessed a severe scarcity of foodgrains and their import was inevitable to feed the millions. By pursuing a policy of price support to foodgrains, the farmers of the country were encouraged to produce more. The policy has enabled the country to become more or less self sufficient in foodgrains.

Scheme of decentralised procurement of foodgrains: The concentration of procurement of foodgrains in a few states led to several problems with regard to levy of taxes, storage and also transportation of foodgrains to different consuming centres, resulting in transit losses, etc. As the major food deficit states are located in the North East and the South, the transportation of foodgrains from Punjab and Haryana to these distant states has put enormous pressure on rail traffic, besides raising the cost and also causing losses on account of transit, storage and pilferage. To overcome these problems it was considered necessary to decentralise the procurement process by dispersing the procurement centres to different parts of the country and encouraging local procurement to the maximum extent. Under this scheme, procurement of rice started in West Bengal during the kharif marketing season, 1997-98. Thereafter, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh followed suit.

Revision of central issue price of wheat and rice: It is necessary to increase the central issue prices (CIP) of rice and wheat from time to time to neutralise the increase in the minimum support price (MSP) of paddy and wheat. Any increase in the MSP results in an increase in the procurement cost to the FCI. The increase, if not passed on to the consumers, inflates the food subsidy bill of the government. The MSP of wheat and paddy have been raised on several occasions during the past years. Also, incentive bonuses over and above the MSP of wheat have been allowed twice in the past four years without a corresponding increase in CIP of wheat and rice, compelling the government to bear a huge subsidy. The CIP of wheat and rice were last revised in 1994, and then readjusted on June 1, 1997, with the inception of the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS). With a view to neutralising the financial burden consequent upon the hike in the MSP and to contain the food subsidy budget at a manageable level, the CIP of wheat and rice were revised with effect from January 29, 1999. However, considering the wide spread objections to the raising of CIP, the government decided to roll back the same for the Below Poverty Line (BPL) families to the levels existing before January 29, 1999. The CIP of wheat for Above Poverty Line families was further revised from Rs 650 per quintal to Rs 682 per quintal with effect from April 1, 1999. It has now been decided that from the financial year 2000-2001, the quantity of rice or wheat issued to BPL families would be raised from 10 kg to 20 kg and the CIP would be fixed at 50 per cent of the economic cost. The Above Poverty Line families would have to pay 100 per cent of the cost for these foodgrains.

Open Market Sale Scheme (Domestic): Open sale of wheat and rice is another mechanism undertaken by the government through the FCI to exercise moderate influence on the open market prices of the commodities. It helps in releasing much-needed storage space for the ensuing procurement season for paddy/rice/wheat; in reducing the carrying cost of stocks held by the FCI; in sobering the open market prices of wheat in the coming lean season; and in reducing, to some extent, the food subsidy bill.

Policy decisions pertaining to foodgrain trade

Movement restrictions on foodgrain: As on date, the entire country is treated as a single food zone for free movement of foodgrain. There are no restrictions on inter-state or intra-state movement of foodgrain except in the case of Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Jammu and Kashmir. These states have retained certain restrictions on inter-state movement of paddy/rice, in order to maximise procurement or to prevent smuggling across the international border areas.

Buffer stocking policy: A buffer stock of foodgrains is necessary not only to impart inter-seasonal stability to foodgrain supply and prices, but also to ensure food security and meet emergent situations arising out of unexpected crop failure, natural disasters, etc. As per the present buffer stocking policy, certain minimum stock of foodgrains is to be maintained by the FCI/state agencies in the central pool on the first day of each quarter. The policy is reviewed from time to time, normally after every five years.

Export and import policy for foodgrains: The EXIM policy in respect of various commodities, including foodgrains, is made by the Ministry of Commerce in consultation with the ministries and departments concerned. Accordingly, the EXIM policy in respect of foodgrains is finalised in consultation with the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution.

Need for change to face the problem of plenty: The Minister for Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution, Mr Shanta Kumar, has been at the forefront of demands for a change in the existing food policy so that it becomes sustainable in the long run. To begin with, he has suggested that the periodic increase in the minimum support price for foodgrains should be done away with. From being a minimum support price, it has come to be the maximum support price. Mr Shanta Kumar wants that the minimum support price should become an instrument for market intervention rather than as a guaranteed buying mechanism for the farmer’s produce. He feels there is a need to rationalise the minimum support price for agricultural commodities and they need to be directed towards those crops that are being imported now. Oilseeds, for one, come in this category.

However, the tendency has been to give the maximum support price for rice and wheat as a result of which the main growing states like Punjab and Haryana have been concentrating on these crops. This trend was welcome during the Green Revolution, but with the decentralisation of farming activities, and increased imports, states far away from the North are not totally dependent on Punjab and Haryana for their rice, the staple food in the South, East and the North-East. As a result, the government is finding it difficult to offload stocks from Punjab and Haryana and the problem of plenty is getting worse.

The minister has demanded that the procurement mode of rice in Punjab be changed and it should be only through the levy route. His efforts have been thwarted so far as the Punjab Government, being a partner of the coalition government at the Centre, manages to have its way on procurement policy over which the farming community is sensitive. According to officials in the Department of Food, policy decisions are based more on political necessities than economic practicalities.

Mr Shanta Kumar has also drawn support from the Expenditure Reforms Commission, which, too, has suggested that the MSP be frozen at present levels.

Punjab’s stand: Being the granary of the country, Punjab has a major say in the food policy. In fact, policies that affect Punjab affect the whole country. State Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal feels that there are serious bottlenecks in the process of smooth and timely paddy procurement in Punjab.

The Punjab Government is expecting an arrival of 120 lakh tonnes in the mandis this season. It has assigned 40 per cent procurement share to the Food Corporation of India while the rest shall be procured by state procurement agencies. The state government feels that the Centre has overlooked the viewpoint of the foodgrain producing states like Punjab, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh while giving their recommendations on kharif procurement specifications. The maximum permissible moisture content of paddy at the time of procurement, which was earlier reduced to 18 per cent, has been further reduced to 16 per cent despite serious protests from the Punjab Government. With harvester combine operations and the prevailing climatic conditions, it is impossible to adhere to such a specification.

Further, the Centre has concluded in favour of reducing the maximum limit of broken grains in parboiled rice from 16 per cent to 14 per cent without any commensurate increase in the out-turn ratio. The specifications on damaged and slightly damaged grains have also been made more stringent. The Punjab Government feels that when the previous paddy crops could not be successfully milled into rice as per existing specifications, how could there be scope for making the specifications even more stringent. Punjab has also been raising the issue of higher MSP for rice and wheat in the interest of the growers.

Problems of coping with such states: Muscle flexing by such influential agrarian states is the root cause of the present problems, feel experts on food policy. The fact of the case, according to the Food Department, is that unlike other rice producing states like Andhra Pradesh, Punjab even today contributes only 20 per cent of rice through the mill levy route. As per the levy orders in Punjab, 75 per cent of milled rice is handed over by the rice-millers to the Food Corporation of India at a fixed rate.

Procurement of paddy in Punjab is undertaken through a network of 1162 regulated mandis where the farmers get the MSP for their produce. Since most of the paddy is sold in the mandis, it is not possible for the millers and traders to purchase paddy below the MSP. As far as the farmer is concerned, whether the procurement is through the paddy purchase route or the miller levy route, there will be no implication on the MSP he would receive for his produce as announced by the government.

Since acceptance of rice for the central pool through the levy route has its inherent advantages with regard to quality, it is felt that staggered acceptance of rice should be encouraged. Apart from the advantage in terms of quality, past experience has also shown that the long storage involved in the paddy procurement has led to allegations of corruption, stock discrepancies and losses.

Radical ideas: Apart from the need to make influential crop growing states toe the Centre’s line, the Ministry of Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution has suggested certain radical ideas to get over the problem of plenty. To begin with, Mr Shanta Kumar has suggested that the government target the destitute for supply of free grain. Secondly, excess stocks could be used for “food for work” in developmental activities initiated by Members of Parliament under the MP’s Local Area Development Scheme. Analysts have, however, pointed out that the plan suffers from several flaws. For one, how does one identify the poorest of the poor in the below-poverty-line segment? How will the government deliver small quantities of foodgrain to this section of people?

Need for a long-term policy: Instead of going in for such knee-jerk reactions, the time has come for the government to rework the strategy for ensuring food security for the country in the wake of the sustained improvement in agriculture and foodgrain self-sufficiency. Cost-effective management in procurement, buffer-stocking and pricing are the need of the hour. Studies have shown that interests of farmers can be better taken care of through greater investments, public and private, in agriculture and rural infrastructure, removal of remaining controls and restrictions on the movement of commodities and other distortions which depress the terms of trade with manufactures.

The government is talking about breaking the Food Corporation of India into three smaller, efficient and profit-driven entities. Downsizing of the organisation has also been suggested.

Instead of reducing stocks through distributing free grain to the poor, suggestions have been made that the government auction foodgrains in the open market and also promote exports. Barter trade and commodity loans to friendly countries have also been recommended.

Involvement of private traders in the food management is another suggestion. According to one expert, the government should think of limiting its role to the minimum, say stocking only 10 million tonnes as buffer. The rest should be managed by the private sector. Major involvement of private sector in food management would be a great step forward.

Elimination of obsolete laws in keeping with the changed situation has to be thought of. Private traders should be allowed to buy directly from the farmers to eliminate middlemen. Futures market in grains, especially wheat and rice, should be introduced.

National storage policy: With storage of grains becoming a major problem, the government has now embarked on drafting a national storage policy. The policy would aim at reducing the enormous post-harvest losses occurring in foodgrains both at farm and commercial level. Upgrade and modernisation of the infrastructure for storing, handling and transporting foodgrain is the need of the hour. The storage policy should be based on continued and sustained efforts and resources of the public and private sectors, both domestic and foreign, to build and operate infrastructure for bulk grain handling, storage and transportation of foodgrain. The government is also considering to accord bulk storage and handling operations the status of infrastructure and improve the legal framework to create a more investment-friendly environment in the sector.

The policy would provide suitable incentives for the development of appropriate storage structures at the farm level, where substantial quantity of the produce is retained for food, feed and seed purposes.Top


Grain drain: laissez faire is not a magic wand
by Baljit Singh

THE climb-down by Union Minister for Food and Civil Supplies Shanta Kumar on the purchase of paddy from farmers and advancement of the purchase date to September 21 has stemmed rural unrest for the time being. But this paving over of the cracks has merely rolled over what is possibly the most serious crisis hanging over Indian agriculture since the famines of the sixties to an even more critical period.

Now it will explode along with the lifting of quantity restrictions (QRs) on imports in April 2001, a double whammy that has the potential to derail Budget 2002 and even new millennium India.

So what exactly is the crisis? Though odds and ends of it surface in the news columns of papers each day the crisis is only peripherally about the delay in lifting of wheat stocks or whether the FCI should buy 40 per cent paddy/ rice from September 15 or 21, with 16 or 18 per cent moisture. For all of these are mere facets—the problem is with the Indian model of agriculture itself. A model that was born in the food shortages of the sixties when a nation lacking the resources to buy grain from abroad had to ask for food-aid—for those old enough to remember them, the ship to mouth PL-480 years.

In response to the recurrent shortages and the need to distribute food aid the state had put in place a fledgling food delivery system, the beginning of the public distribution system during the war years.

Spurred by the food crisis and the urgency to increase the production of food it also set up a purchase mechanism, the pivot of which was an assured market and an assured support price that would be announced before the start of each sowing season.

Fortuitously, these shortages coincided with the Green Revolution in farm research, the development of wonder strains of wheat in the laboratories of Mexico and rice in the Philippines. Since both laboratories were in the public domain — part of UN-funded international efforts — the fruits of their labour were available to rich and poor nations alike, including India, a crucial staging ground in the global fight against hunger.

In the India of the late sixties these combination of factors were melded in the Grow More Food Campaign, and agriculture finally looked set to take off. Nevertheless, it would be a long haul, with a single failed monsoon bringing back ration queues and hoarder-led shortages. In fact it was not until the mid-eighties that India would talk comfortably about grain surpluses, even hint at exporting grains in a good year— within limits of course, as public memory of the shortages was still vivid.

This was also the decade when the country began to wake up to a downside to the Green Revolution, the realisation that the obsession with grains to the exclusion of other foods had seriously skewed the agricultural base itself. For a clearer understanding of this the case of Punjab and Haryana, the crucibles of the Green Revolution, is instructive.

In 1961, prior to the revolution, Punjab had 1.4 million hectares (less than 50 per cent of the sown area) under wheat with an average yield of 12.5 quintals a hectare and little by way of marketable surplus. By 1971, with the twin pillars of the Green Revolution and the price support mechanism still in their infancy, the acreage had already gone up over 50 per cent to 2.3 million hectares while average yield had almost doubled to 22.3 quintals a hectare. Over the next two decades the area under wheat would go up another 50 per cent to cross 3.3 million hectares while yield would nearly double to touch 40 quintals a hectare, by which time almost 90 per cent of the rabi crop was wheat.

Interestingly, while production almost tripled between the two decades peaking at 13.5 million tonnes in 1994, Punjab’s contribution to the central pool fell from a high of 75 per cent in 1971 to just over 50 per cent by 1994, suggesting the spread of the ‘grain revolution’ to other parts of the country.

While ‘wonder’ seeds (essentially pest-resistant hybrids) were the most touted aspects of the Green Revolution, its less noticed but crucial underpinnings were assured irrigation and chemical fertiliser. Thus between 1971-94 fertiliser use increased six fold while irrigation increased to cover fully 96 per cent of the sown area.

Ironically, the surge in assured irrigation meant that Punjab, not traditionally a rice-growing state, could now use this resource to harvest the other plank of the grain revolution, paddy. Between 1971 and 1994 the area under paddy increased almost six-fold from 0.39 million hectares to 2.26 million hectares and is still rising, while yields have doubled.

The bitter fruits of this success became manifest last year when Punjab ended up supplying 60 per cent of the total paddy bought by the central pool. Haryana made up most of the remainder. Yet 1999 was a normal monsoon year, with a better than average harvest in the rest of the country. So where did the remainder of the harvest vanish?

The nation would find out soon enough when a government, under pressure from food subsidies, chose that very year to impose an almost 50 per cent increase in the issue price of rice and wheat under the public distribution system. To discover that there were no buyers for its huge stock of Punjab/Haryana paddy.

It wasn’t as if the quality of rice on offer had got much worse than what it was in other years. Nor was the higher price under the PDS alone responsible, although it did play some role. The answer lay in the vanishing harvest of 1999.

As mentioned earlier unlike in rice-consuming states there is little demand for rice in Punjab and Haryana themselves. So local millers are reluctant to buy paddy directly from farmers to then sell a certain percentage ( 70 per cent) of it to the government as “levy rice” as is the practice in other states as there is no local market for the remaining 30 per cent rice. Because of this peculiarity state purchase agencies must directly buy paddy from farmers and get it milled by the millers.

This direct purchase combined with a shorter growing season means that Punjab/Haryana farmers begin selling paddy to the state in September/October, long before the other states millers even begin buying paddy in their markets to mill and sell as levy rice.

In 1999, a good year for the paddy crop, even before the Centre could begin buying levy rice from other states, its purchase target had been met. Nor, given the high differential between the purchase price of levy rice and the governments own sale price under the PDS, were the millers keen to hold the government to its levy quota. Not when this large differential allowed them to sell their better-quality rice in the local market at a tidy profit.

But the fallout of this laissez faire policy was that when the government tried to sell its rice at the new prices there were no buyers. In some states the lifting of rice from the PDS fell by as much as 75 per cent. (Nor was the picture for wheat happier. In fact within months of the announcement of the new price the government was forced to cut its open market price from Rs 900 to Rs 750 to Rs 650. Even at this price there are few buyers and the market price six months after the harvest is significantly lower than the government purchase price of 575.)

With their huge production base and no local demand for rice Punjab and Haryana’s major outlet has been the food purchase mechanism itself. This they have swamped to a point where days before the start of arrivals the central pool is holding 18 million tonnes of mostly last year’s paddy – a two year buffer stock. And in the next few weeks Punjab and Haryana are poised to release another 14 million tonnes on the purchase agencies.

If the present rate of lifting of grain is maintained over the next few months and the wheat bought by state agencies in April, 2001 is of the same quantum as last year then over the next seven months the country could end up with a stock of over 60 million tonnes of grain (against the present 42 million tonnes) the holding cost of which would exceed Rs 18,000 crore per year. Similar sums are spent on importing traditional oilseeds and pulses that the grain revolution ousted from north India’s agricultural basket.

And this is merely the financial cost of the grain revolution. The damage caused by water-logging of large tracts of the state and desertification of other parts because of the canals and tubewells dug to support the new agricultural regime and the lodging and poisoning of the land brought on by the hunger for fertiliser and pesticide of this vast experiment in monoculture is not even quantifiable.

Faced with this bitter reality the Union Government’s approach, manifest in the run up to the paddy season, is “we made this Frankenstein we can unmake it by the singular stratagem of throwing away the magic wand of a price support mechanism. No state support, no grainy Frankenstein.”

Alas, if life were magic and Ministers didn’t have to fight elections. For the reality is that the price support mechanism, flaws and all, is the backbone of the state purchase mechanism. A pre-determined price is why farmers haul their grain to purchase centres several hours away. Without it there is little reason for farmers to parade his grain with indeterminate consequence before a stuffy official.

But the farmer would still have to sell his grain, wouldn’t he? argue the laissez faire lobby, and the market would determine a competitive price. The government would get grain at market price, incur zero holding cost, and the farmer would get market rates – irrefutable economic logic.

Irrefutable hypothesis. In practice what happens is that given their unequal bargaining power a middlemen-official cartel will first beat down the prices, then create an artificial scarcity to compel the government to buy at high rates, even as obliging bureaucrats shake their heads and jingle their pockets in despair.

Those who think this scenario is far-fetched need only recall the spurt in flour prices of 1998-99, when despite a good harvest the country imported some 2 lakh tonnes of wheat from October, 1998.

But wouldn’t cheap imports keep a lid on prices? Unfortunately no. In fact due to the relatively long lag time the country can end up with the worst of both worlds, as happened in 1998. The bulk of the wheat contracted from Australia in October 1998 began arriving in January-February, 1999, depressing demand on the eve of the new harvest.

Still, dismantling the price support system would at least move the farmers away from the destructive wheat-rice cycle, the reformers would argue. Probably, but to what. Farmers are no fools. If they persisted with the wheat-rice cycle despite diminishing returns in the nineties (while the cost of inputs has risen rapidly the increase in support price has been lower than inflation and the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices has even argued for a two-year freeze), it was because the returns from other crops were uncertain. For although there is a price support mechanism for some other crops the prices fixed are uneconomic and, due to the lack of active intervention in the market, even these are not available in case of a glut.

Again, investments in agriculture have been made with the wheat-rice cycle in mind and they are not always transmutable across crops. Thus irrigation, for instance, has only minimal relevance in pulses and many oilseeds, the logical substitute for paddy. Similarly, cropping patterns have affected soil structure and even local weather patterns foreclosing a return to several traditional crops such as groundnut and cotton in many parts.

Given these labyrinth of problems what is the way out? I don’t pretend to have the answers, but it is a way the state and farmers together will have to find. What is certain though is that a unilateral crashing through the walls by a feisty state in an impatient rush to get out is the way to disaster. Top


Today is World Heart Day
Walk away from heart attack
By Dr (Prof) H.S. Wasir

THE World Health Organisation (WHO) and the World Heart Federation have decided to observe September 24 as World Heart Day to focus on public awareness and active involvement of people at the global level to contain and control the increasing death and disability from heart attacks. The epidemic of heart attacks is no longer the disease of the affluent and the developed world but is equally prevalent in the less privileged nations due to the rapid changes occurring in the lifestyles of their people. The living habits which have adversely affected heart health are (1) lack of physical exercise; (2) wrong eating habits, including consuming more of refined carbohydrates (sucrose) and dairy products (whole milk, candy, creams etc) and less of complex carbohydrates and high fibre diets such as tubers, roots, legume, whole fruits and coarse whole grain; (3) smoking; and (4) increasing lack of interpersonal tolerance and ability to cope with the usual stressful situations in daily life.

Along with a balanced diet, physical exercise has a major role in achieving a long and healthy life in general and prevention of heart attacks in particular. There are several studies showing that physically active populations have higher longevity than the sedentary or physically inactive. The famous Harvard alumni study showed that when medical students were followed for 20 years, those who continued to remain physically active had longer life span than those who turned to sedentary living. According to the ayurvedic texts: “By physical activity one gets lightness in the body capacity to work, firmness, tolerance of difficulties, diminution of impurity and stimulation of metabolism. It should be done in moderation” The review of modern medical literature sums up the role of physical activity in health as “Regular physical exercise adds not only years to life but also life to years”.

The positive role of physical exercise in the preventive and cure of heart disease also dates back to centuries. William Heberden, who was the first physician to give the classical definition of angina in the 18th century, described the relief of chest pain in a coronary patient in 1772. He wrote in his book Commentaries on the History and Cure of Diseases: “I know one (patient) who set himself a task of sawing wood for half an hour every day and was nearly cured”.

It is the experience of many modern day physicians that some patients of angina (chest pain or discomfort on physical or mental exertion or after meals) do get relief with regularly done physical exercise, mostly in the form of brisk walks of 3 to 4 km in one hour. One should not continue walking if the chest discomfort increases on walking, and must consult the cardiologist without delay. Strenuous physical exercise must be avoided by heart patients.

How does physical exercise help in preventing heart attack?

Atherosclerosis or narrowing of the coronary arteries that supply oxygen and nourishment to the heart is the basic underlying cause of heart attacks. Factors like overweight, high blood cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure, cigarette smoking, low HDL (high density lipoprotein — a cardioprotective or friendly cholesterol fraction) and mental stress are some of the risk factors that initiate and aggravate atherosclerosis and thus heart attacks. Physical exercise helps in modifying these risk factors to prevent heart attacks.

Modern research tells us that the beneficial effects of physical exercise are through: (a) increase in the life of certain types of proteins; (b) decrease in insulin resistance; (c) decrease in hyper insulinemia (excess insulin in the blood which is a luochemical risk factor for atherosclerosis); and (d) decrease in cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and increase in the friendly cholesterol HDL.

When translated into clinical benefits at individual and population levels, doing regular physical exercise will help in reducing the occurrence of heart attacks and optimum management with minimum use of drugs and devices for those who have suffered a heart attack, through the following beneficial effects:

(1) Control on body weight and avoiding obesity; (2) increase in exercise capacity and muscle power through training of muscles to extract more oxygen and work more efficiently at a given oxygen availability; (3) with regular exercise, the rate-pressure product (systolic) pressure X pulse rate) stays low and does not rise to undue levels during physical or mental strains, thus economising on the overall oxygen requirement of the heart; (4) there is an overall improvement in body chemistry through fall in blood sugar, cholesterol, triglycerides and rise in the heart friendly cholesterol HDL. Higher the HDL levels in blood, lower the chances of that person getting heart attack and physical exercise is the best means to increase blood levels of HDL; (5) physical exercise is an important non-drug measure to normalise blood pressure in those with mild hypertension and decrease the drug requirement in those with moderate and severe hypertension; (6) an overall feeling of wellbeing and mental relaxation is a unique advantage of regular physical exercise which partly comes through liberation of endorphins (morphine like subances) into blood circulation. This combination of physical and mental relaxation achieved through physical exercise is unparalleled by any drug or tonic.

What type of physical exercise and how much?

It is the isotonic (dynamic) exercise that is beneficial for the heart and not the isometric (static) exercise which should be avoided by heart patients. Weight lifting, carrying heavy suitcases while travelling, pushing a car are some of the examples of isometric exercises. Examples of the beneficial type of physical activity (dynamic exercise) are brisk walking, swimming, golf without power carts, badminton and tennis (doubles for those with old heart attacks but fully recovered — to be started only after physicians advice).

Walking is the best mode of doing regular physical exercise which requires no equipment, money, material or membership of a club! Thirty to 60 minutes of brisk walk even on alternate day has been proven to be equally beneficial. Stationary cycling or walking on a treadmill at home are the other alternatives. Some simple ways to have a walk every day are: (a) walking up through stairs instead of using a lift if going up to three or four floors or getting off the lift two or three floors before the destination and walking up the rest through stairs. Going up several floors in an overcrowded lift with limited fresh air to be shared by so many may also prove unhealthy. While coming down at least use stairs and avoid lift; (b) parking a little away from the work place and walking that healthy distance; and (c) the best time for brisk walks would be the early mornings before the traffic flow picks up and walking in the parks with thick plantation. Jogging on the roads with heavy traffic should be avoided as you will be inhaling air polluted with the toxins from vehicular exhaust such as dioxides of sulphur and nitrogen.

Before starting any physical exercise programmes for the first time, one must get fully evaluated by a cardiologist so as to avoid any harm being done by exercise if there is a serious underlying heart disease needing treatment.

The author is Chief Cardiologist and Medical Director, Batra Hospital & Medical Research Centre, New Delhi.Top


Capitol Hill — the Amritsar connection

THE US Congress has been passing a series of pro-India legislations during the past two years. Whether it be a resolution congratulating India and Premier Vajpayee’s Government or condemnation of Pakistan for Kargil, they have been passed with an overwhelming majority.

The reason, it is understood, is an Amritsar connection in Capitol Hill. The man responsible for the good relations with the US Congress is a young diplomat who hails from the city of the Golden Temple. The Indian Embassy’s First Secretary (Political), Taranjit Singh Sandhu, comes from the well known Samundri family. He is the grandson of famous freedom struggle martyr Sardar Teja Singh Samundri and son of Bishan Singh Samundri, the founder Vice-Chancellor of Guru Nank Dev University.

Sandhu’s finest hour in Washington came when during a meeting with the Prime Minister, Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee, Congressmen Gilman and Gejdenson paid compliments to the “very effective” role of Taranjit Sandhu on Capitol Hill. Sandhu has been picked up for a new assignment to Colombo and will be leaving Washington shortly at the end of his tenure. His wife, Reena Sandhu, an IFS officer, is the embassy’s Commercial Officer.

Rainbow Government

The multi-party coalition Government at the Centre has often been the subject of ridicule in Opposition circles. The Vajpayee-led Government need not take umbrage at it as this is turning out to be the trend in several countries.

The Foreign Trade Minister of Finland, Mr Kimmo Sasi, who was in the capital recently, disclosed that even his country has a coalition which spans the entire political spectrum. Well they don’t call it a “kichdi” Government. It is known by a more respectable name — a rainbow Government. With the BJP-led coalition already encompassing parties leaning to the right, the centre and the left of centre, it is only the absence of a Left party that is making it short of a rainbow.

BJP hunts for a Tamil leader

The demise of Power Minister P.R. Kumaramangalam has left the Bharatiya Janata Party without a member of Parliament in Tamil Nadu. Having spent considerable time and energy cultivating its vote base in south India, the BJP is looking out for a leader of stature in the region.

There has been talk about the party wooing former Union Minister P. Chidambaram to replace Kumaramangalam. Chidambaram has refused to comment on the developments but then he is not denying the reports either. One wonders what the Finance Minister, Mr Yashwant Sinha, has to say on this. It is a well known fact that Chidambaram and Sinha don’t see eye to eye and their background as Finance Ministers has often led to interesting slanging matches in Parliament in the past.

Religious publicity

It is not only the management gurus who emphasise publicity, religious leaders have turned to it too. Helping them in this is the public relations officials of various State Governments like Punjab, who are posted in Delhi. Their media-coordination efforts are born as much out of religious zeal as a spirit of service to their state’s diaspora.

Two announcements of big religious functions were made in the past week in which PR officials of Punjab and Himachal chipped in their bit. Baba Mann Singh, who rendered yeoman’s service during the Orissa cyclone, plans to mark the 300th anniversary celebrations of Guru Gaddi Divas of Shri Guru Granth Sahib and Parlok Gaman of Guru Gobind Singh with a grand function in Nanded from October 28 to November 11, 2000.

The all world Gayatri Pariwar announced that the Vibhuti Gyan Yagya, in which over a lakh people would participate, will be held at Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, Delhi, on October 8 from 4 pm to 8 pm. The Pariwar is also planning to set up a culture university.

Devi Lal divas

Apart from the national festivals and Haryana Divas, the INLD Government in Haryana has been utilising the birthday celebrations of its veteran leader, Mr Devi Lal, to announce welfare measures, particularly for the elderly. Strong mobilisation is being done by the party workers for this year’s rally on September 25 which, they say, would be one of the biggest to mark the 86th birthday of the former Deputy Prime Minister. The elderly, who have seen Mr Devi Lal double their pension in the past, can look forward to some more relief, party officials indicate.

(Contributed by T.V. Lakshminarayan, Prashant Sood and P.N. Andley)

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