Indian Food and the Great Hunger
Stealing the Harvest, Colonizing the Seed

Indian Food and the Great Hunger

by Vijay Prashad

On 1 April 1997, the Indian government reported that wheat stocks fell to 2.7 million tones, which is a millon tones below the norm. Given this crunch on the food supply, the government (or its permanent representative, the bureaucracy) has two options: (1) to import wheat and increase food prices to match the high price of wheat in the international market, or (2) to capitulate to the demands of the rich farmers of Punjab and Haryana who demand an additional bonus of 135 Rupees/quintal (above the minimum support price of 415 Rupees/quintal) and increase food prices to keep the fiscal deficit in hand. Why has the food crisis reemerged after an increase to 35.9 million tones (July 1995) from a mere 13.9 million tones (July 1992)?

The Reverend Thomas Malthus, who taught East Indian Companywallas at Haileybury College, offered an assessment in 1789 for such a scenario: he argued that the problems of food have everything to do with population. That is, since population growth, he argued, increased at a faster rate than the rate of food production, "gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world." Written at the time of the French Revolution, Malthus wanted to dampen the optimistic enthusiasm of his contemporaries, but tragically, his lyrical, but flawed analysis became the basis for the way many of us see the problem of food: as, essentially, a problem of population and not as a problem of allocation, of agricultural innovation, of science and of the process of planning.

The current problem of food has virtually nothing to do with population growth. At the November 1996 World Food Summit in Rome, Cuba's President Fidel Castro offered some useful pointers towards a more substantial assessment of the food crisis in India. First, Castro noted that hunger is the "inseparable companion of the poor," who are "the offspring of the unequal distribution of wealth and the injustices of the world." Those 312 million Indians studied so compassionately by P. Sainath in his award-winning Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories from India's Poorest Districts (New Delhi: Penguin, 1996) are a testament to Castro's statement.

Approaching Earth Day (22 April), we might pay heed to Castro's question: "Why is it that $700 billion are invested every year in the military instead of investing a portion of those resources in fighting hunger, preventing the deterioration of the soils, the desertification and the deforestation of millions of hectares every year, the warming of the atmosphere and the greenhouse effect that increases the number of hurricanes, the scarcity and excess of rain, the destruction of the ozone layer and other natural phenomenon which negatively affect food production and man's life on Earth?" The vast expenditure on 'conventional arms' by exploited states is a greater condemnation of their populations than the travesty which leads the peasantry to have more children so that the family will have more hands on the fields to ensure survival.

But the real point made by Castro that facilitates an analysis of India's current food crisis is this: "It is capitalism," he stated in a flurry, "neoliberalism, the laws of a wild market, the external debt, underdevelopment and the unequal terms of reference that are killing so many people in the world." In the Indian case, for instance, the deceleration of the growth rate of foodgrains since 1990-91 comes as a result of a shift of acreage from foodgrains (notably coarse grains) to export-oriented crops (such as sunflowers and soyabeans) and to non-agricultural use (luxury housing, real estate and amusement parks) as well as a decline in capital formation in agriculture and irrigation (under the aegis of the state). These changes came under express advice from the IMF, which Che Guevara called the 'watchdog of the dollar.' From 1947 to 1991, the Indian state was able to arrest and partially reverse the decline in the availability of foodgrains; in the present crisis, the government appears to want to squander this achievement.

In his celebrated Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith wrote that "Food not only constitutes the principal part of the riches of the world, but it is the abundance of food which gives the principal part of their value to many other sorts of riches." Those who claim to be his disciples, fail to heed him, for those who champion the unfettered market give no concern for the necessity of a stable food supply and for an increase in the caloric intake of the masses. The only way to do so, is to democratize decision-making in the countryside through the panchayat or local government scheme (at the level of planning as is demonstrated recently in Kerala and West Bengal) and to allow the peasantry to take the lead in saying no to Malthus and to Famine. The IMF/WB and their neo-liberal allies in beleagured states such as India are only capable of such thoughts as offered by their patron saint, F. A. Hayek, who wrote that ideas of justice are an "adaptation to our ignorance" and that those who pursue justice "chase a mirage." In other words, make the best of a bad mess. The dismissal of justice, for the peasantry, is tantamount to genocide. As Castro noted in Rome, "the bells that are presently tolling for those starving to death every day will tomorrow be tolling for all mankind if it did not want, or did not know, or if it could not be sufficiently wise, to save itself."

Vijay Prashad
Assistant Professor, International Studies
214 McCook, Trinity College, Hartford, CT. 06106.

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