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12 August 2012

The Politics of Food and the hungry Indians

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By K P Prabhakaran Nair

In 1948, when the United Nations adopted the “Right to Food” covenant, and subsequently India became a signatory to this, none expected that the government of free India, after almost three-quarters of a century from being a signatory to this very important covenant, will play with politics of food and hunger. A food crisis is staring at India, prices of all food items are escalating, the poor and vulnerable are most hit, while New Delhi is playing politics with a Food Security Bill that has been in Parliament for more than one year without objective discussion.

On 28 May, the “World Hunger Day” came and passed, without anyone noticing in India its vital significance for our hungry millions. For millions of Indians everyday is “Hunger Day”. Let those of us who overeat and waste so much of food on occasions like marriage remind ourselves how callous our attitude is towards food.

The solution for hunger lies in the proper distribution of the mountains of grains stocked in the godowns of the Food Corporation of India (FCI), and not in bringing technology, as the Prime Minister avers when talking of genetically modified crops. If this government cannot prevent the huge stocks from rotting, which has already begun to happen with the onset of the monsoon because most of the grain stocks are in open FCI godowns without proper storage, by distributing food grain adequately and equitably, other questions remain pure rhetoric. The Supreme Court is on record to have passed strictures on New Delhi in this context more than a year ago, but nothing happened on the ground. The poor and vulnerable still sleep on empty stomachs.

Whenever issues of deprivation and hunger and social security are raised, the government deliberately diverts the attention of the public and talks of the declining Sensex, the falling rupee, growth rates (GDP) and balanced budgets. What significance are these to the vast millions of illiterate Indians, who cannot even spell their names, leave alone read a newspaper, but are struggling to get a square meal each day and have to sleep on a hungry stomach? Is there a worse shame than this in “free” India?

Most uninformed readers of news blame the demands of the marginalized millions in pulling down a “shining” India. Why can’t we pay attention to the poor and needy at home – the biggest enemy within India – the hunger of the millions? India has totally failed by not addressing the unpardonable sin of letting bumper crops and huge dumps of stored grain in FCI godowns to rot, when millions of Indians battle each day for some food.

The Word Food Summit in 1996 defined food as “access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life”. The Global Hunger Index released by the International Food Policy Research Institute ranks India 66th among 88 most vulnerable countries. Ironically, farmers who put food on our plates are the ones to go hungry. A principal reason for this is that New Delhi has continued with a policy of subsidizing manufacturing and service sectors, while neglecting the core sector, agriculture.

Telling lies with statistics

According to the Planning Commission’s contentious Tendulkar Committee Report, calorie consumption is calculated at 1776 calories per person per day for urban areas, while it is 1999 for rural rears. However, the Indian Council for Medical Research puts the figures at 2100 calories and 2400 calories respectively. What does this show? It shows that poor people living in rural areas need more calories because of their strenuous life style, working hard in crop fields and other activities which are energy depleting.

Having already restricted the supply of subsidized food grains to the Below Poverty Line category (BPL) figures from 37.2 per cent in 2004-05 to 29.8 per cent in 2009-10, the government in one stroke of the pen absolved itself of the most important responsibility of providing food grains at affordable prices to those who, by medical standards, need more nutrition. Yet, if one examines the “Hungama” report of 2012, we find that 42 per cent children are malnourished. The future of India is in these children, yet, they are so poorly nourished and most of them live in rural areas or urban slums.

The mantra now is that the country cannot feed its hungry millions unless there is “High Tech Corporate Agriculture” – the need to open up our agriculture for multinationals within and outside India. A look at the figures of production in India belies this. During the last three years, without whole-scale corporate agriculture, India broke records in food production during 2009-10, 2010-11 and 2011-12.

The country produced approximately 240 million tons of food grains and 17 million tons of pulses in 2011-12, which is more than sufficient to feed the entire population of the country adequately. But, what is happening on the ground – so much food is being wasted in FCI godowns and instead of using it to feed humans, the government is feeding rats! And now, New Delhi is talking of exports. What is the logic in all this?

Technology or Political Will?

Facts and figures of food production proclaim a surplus, despite accusations that the agriculture sector pulls down growth. Hence, the government has been making hunger and low production the reasons to push a series of techno-fix solutions. It is part of a mindset that sees the solution in Northern style (US and Europe) agro-business corporations.

It is in this context that there is a strong lobby pleading for GM crops, which is supposed to “banish hunger”. Look critically at what happened in the so-called high input “green revolution phase” in Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh. The costs to the land and water table, and dependent relationship on financiers and agro companies, were never factored in. The costs to the environment such as degraded soils, dried aquifers, vanished bio-diversity due to monoculture of rice and wheat, and salt-inundated ground water making it no more potable, are all pushed to the side!

The “Land Grant Pattern”, an American model, which the country’s agricultural messiahs in the mid-1960s had wholeheartedly embraced, resulted in enhanced food production for some years. But, propagated across the country, this model spelt rapid depletion of the natural capital for farming – soil, water and bio diversity. It also resulted in indebted farmers, leading to mass suicides, the most tragic example being the Vidarbha cotton farmers. 

It is so very surprising and inexplicable that a set of market economy policy makers, with a commitment to cost-benefit ratio, should be so callous as to ignore the basic capital - which is the land - that has been abused beyond repair. The emergence of diseases due to unbridled use of pesticides and herbicides in agriculture, such as cancer, is an added worry. Go to Gurdaspur district in Punjab and you would understand.

The Emerging Threat from Bt crops

Attempts to flood the country with genetically modified crops – around 71 currently at different stages of development – pose the most potent threat to Indian agriculture. Far from alleviating poverty, this will only aggravate the conditions of the marginal and poor farmers, as has been experienced with the cotton farmers of Vidarbha district in Maharashtra, where the spate of suicides continues. Bankruptcy arising from indebtedness due to high input costs, of seeds primarily (a packet of Bt cotton seeds costs as much as five times that of the desi variety), but this will fatten the coffers of multinational seed companies. 

Increasing production is not the only route to eradicate hunger in an unequal society. Debates around the National Food Security Bill clearly demonstrate the lack of strong political will to address the core question of hunger in India. Food security is not just about the Public Distribution System (PDS). It is much larger in scope. Policy makers are reluctant to grant universal entitlement of food to eradicate hunger.

India is and will continue to be primarily an agriculture-based economy. The idea of “moving” farmers away from agriculture is suicidal. The lessons learnt from the wrong policies surrounding the so-called green revolution seem not to have sunk deep enough into the Indian psyche.

In Punjab, the “cradle” of the green revolution, farmers shifted to intensive mono-crops – rice and wheat – and stopped cultivating diverse and subsistence crops, undermining their own basic food security. If we take the “hunger day” seriously, every Indian who feeds more than twice a day, wasting food and critiquing food entitlements, should feel contrite and join the campaign for universal entitlements, through the PDS.

The Indian government (politicians in power implied) must move from public podium platitudes to serious action. Undistributed grains in FCI godowns must be immediately moved to starving people through PDS and increased universal allocations under the proposed Right to Food Bill. Can we afford to wait for the monsoon session of Parliament [begins today, 8 August] while food mountains in the open soak in the rains in FCI godowns and rot, while poor farmers struggle to find enough cash to buy inputs for their next kharif crops?

The situation calls for very urgent action. We cannot afford to wait while the vulnerable start to perish. Do we want an African tragedy to unfold here in India on the food front?
Will the Prime Minster wake up please and salvage the millions of hungry Indians? What is he waiting for?

[K P Prabhakaran Nair is a Kerala based international agricultural scientist; his email is drkppnair@gmail.com]

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