India in the midst of a global food crisis
by Saurav Basu on 18 Oct 2009 3 Comments

More and more people across the world are going hungry. In the wake of the global recession, the UN says the number of hungry people have topped a billion. With world population likely to cross the 9 billion mark by 2050, the number of hungry will escalate. Growing hunger has dangerous socio-eco-political implications apart from morbid influences on health, especially in the developing world. As many as 60 countries faced food riots in 2007. The Indian subcontinent cumulatively has more hungry people than Sub Saharan Africa. This hunger can be exploited by proponents of inhuman terror-laden ideologies like Naxalism and Global Jihad.

India houses one-sixth of humankind, and will soon overtake China in terms of population; the situation here is grave as over 60% of the population is engaged in agriculture-related activities and the share of agriculture to national income is steadily decreasing. To attribute this to India’s rapidly rising services sector is not theoretically untrue; yet, this only conceals the obvious pauperization of the Indian peasantry. The number of agricultural labourers has increased from 20 to 27% between 1957 and 2001, while cultivators have registered a decline from 50% to 32% in the same period.

The optimism of the Green Revolution has been replaced with general despondency. The Green Revolution was never a pan-India phenomenon and benefitted a small section of farmers who could afford the high yield varieties of seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, and had the necessary water resources. The fantastic augmentation in yields obscured the increased support structure required to sustain this new intensive farming, and the long term intangible costs paid in terms of declining soil fertility and loss of biodiversity. Agriculture yields even in the Punjab are now declining.

The merciless exploitation of groundwater reserves thanks to mechanized pumps and politically motivated free electricity means water is being drained faster than its replenishment. Satellite-based estimates of groundwater depletion in India by NASA confirm a progressively severe reduction in groundwater in Northwestern India between 2002 and 2008. Further, the impending climate change and global warming are having a deleterious effect on Himalayan glaciers which are receding sharply. In future most North Indian rivers including the holy Ganges will transform into seasonal rivers, inadequate for both agricultural and daily human needs. The catastrophic consequences will be unimaginable.

Shockingly, 86,922 farmers committed suicide between 2001 and 2005. It was 17,060 in 2006, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (The Statesman, 12 Oct. 2009). The populist decision to waive off institutional credit to the tune of 60,000 crores by the UPA may have paid rich political dividends, but it was a colossal waste as farmer suicides continued unabated in suicide belts like Vidarbha.

The oppressive moneylender who charges exorbitant interest rates continues to flourish as poor farmers have little access to institutional credit, especially on unproductive loans (unrelated to agricultural pursuits). The loan waver scheme helped mostly the rich farmers who neither pay income tax, enjoy subsidies on fertilizer and free electricity and are largely unmoved by the plight of their poor brethren. Moreover, the loan waiver does not address the issue of eliminating future debt creation. At best it is a suicide speed breaker, not a solution against the vicious cycle of poverty -> loan -> inability to pay -> suicide.

All these facts belie the claim of Indian self sufficiency in food. More than 75% Indians subsist on less than Rs. 20 a day (Arjun Sengupta report). In Portfolios of the Poor (Princeton University Press, 2009), a group of top economists explain the misery of over 40% of the world population who subsist on less than $2 a day. India’s HDI is way down at 132.

Obviously, the myth of food self sufficiency was constructed by conformist public sector academicians who insist on a definition of poverty which emphasizes minimum level of living rather than a reasonable level of living. It is measured in terms of calories intake and does not take into account demands in clothing, shelter, healthcare and education. By all accounts, the Indian poverty line is nothing more than a starvation line. Also, per capita consumption of food is based on the pious assumption that all people irrespective of social class would consume similar quantities of food, ignoring the obvious fact that as people get relatively richer, they start consuming more proteins in their diet. This explains how per capita consumption of milk in India has risen since independence.

Most Indian economists have been largely unoriginal, always guided by Western models. They have never sought inspiration from their national heritage nor understood the spirit and aspirations of the people. The socialist Nehruvian Congress had the most dampening effect on the revitalization of Indian agriculture. The failure of cooperative farming, the penultimate stage to collectivization, thankfully failed in India, probably due to its social hierarchy. Yet the myth of uneconomic fragmented landholdings of India must be dispelled. In Cuba, simultaneous multi-cropping on small strips of land using labour intensive techniques have proved rewarding. 

Indian farmers who for centuries made India self sufficient in food were dubbed ignorant, backward and religious Hindus, and foreign farming ideologies copy-lifted and thrust upon them. In this process, the Indian farmer lost his self confidence and self reliance. The farmer, who could pay up to half of his produce as tax to exploitative monarchs like the Khaljis, today cannot produce enough to cover his debts.

Several economists consider India’s cattle livestock useless and only fit to be eaten. Such misleading assertions are based on dangerous delusions since old cattle in India subsist more on waste food and are not properly fed. They can survive under trying conditions. Fuel and manure from cowdung are also critical for the small farmer.

Globalization and Westernization have compounded the world’s food problem. In developing countries, traditional diets which are balanced are being replaced by fast food based calorie-rich diets which cause health hazards like obesity, cardiovascular diseases, and other complications. Mexico is facing a growing obesity problem thanks to junk food. India is no exception with its growing malnourishment. Contrary to popular perception, malnourishment includes both undernourishment and over-nourishment. So while it is true that every fourth newborn in India is underweight (< 2.5 kg), obesity too has reached epidemic proportions, affecting 5% of the population.

The ultimate malady afflicting third world economies is their infatuation with driving exports and import substitution. The best quality foods are exported to richer Western nations like UK (which imports 40% of its food needs) in return for foreign exchange, even as millions starve. Vandana Shiva says every time India exports lettuce to London, it carries with it a water footprint. In other words, India exports vegetables while the West exports drought.

Fish from African countries like Senegal overfeed Europeans rather than their own poverty stricken and undernourished people. In a brilliant BBC documentary series ‘The Future of Food’, George Alagiah travelled to Kenya and found that large fertile farmlands are hired or bought by European corporations and Oil rich Middle Eastern nations to grow perfect farm produce for their nations and ensure their food security. The deception of developed nations who committed $22 billion for global food security as claimed by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may be understood in the light of these selfish motivations.

While food trade is not bad, the skewed trade relationship means manufactured industrial goods are disproportionately higher in monetary value than their constitutive raw materials supplied by poor countries. Similarly, processed food is priced higher than agricultural raw materials. This derisive application of the diamond water paradox of Adam Smith means any industrial development in the Third World is subject to underfeeding its extant populations. Perhaps the solution lies in the anti-Industrial model of Gandhi, especially for small nations whose crying need is food rather than industry. Industrialization cannot be a global mantra.

The cultural infatuation with meat eating is straining the world. Europeans and Americans consume more meat than the per capita world average, a luxury, not a necessity. One kg of meat requires a minimum ten kg of food-grain to produce - an ecologically unsustainable ethic. Hindu India with its culture of vegetarianism has a message for the world. It is a tragedy that Buddhists across the world have forgotten their vegetarian traditions, especially Japan, which is addicted to endangered whale meat.

Today we are in the midst of a global food crisis. With shrinking agricultural land thanks to SEZ diversions, groundwater resources, unreliable monsoons, receding glaciers, the Indian agriculture scenario looks dismal. Evidence suggests we are reaching a saturation point in agriculture, even as the Indian population refuses to stabilize. Per capita availability of food is unlikely to rise if present trends continue.

The situation demands absence of knee jerk reactions. India should resist becoming the testing ground for Genetically Modified crops. It must develop a political consensus on curbing population growth and desist from the politics of appeasement.

India’s large unskilled population is not a demographic dividend but a demographic disaster. Those who blame the Middle Class for not being committed to upliftment of the have-nots are hypocrites who forget that until two decades back, the Middle Class itself was subject to such inadequacies. Moreover, the ability to invest in their children’s future is an ability which is directly proportionate to socio-economic status. How could the government which spends as little as 10% GDP on combined health and education invest rapidly on large families remains a mathematical impossibility.

The author is an independent researcher

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