Food crisis & famine

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               In the first week of April `08, the influential US magazine Time noted:– “ .. the headlines of the past month suggest that skyrocketing food prices are threatening the stability of a growing number of governments around the world.”  The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Jean Ziegler offered among the bleakest prognoses for the continuing crisis -- “We are heading for a very long period of rioting, conflicts and waves of uncontrollable regional instability marked by the despair of the most vulnerable populations,”
he told the French daily Liberation. But the issue of inherent threat to the lives of the vulnerable section from a broader perspective of food crisis and poverty is being neglected and an opportunist approach has been taken on price rise issue by various quarters of India with an eye on forthcoming parliament election. One must  not forget that the estimate,  prior to the recent abnormal price hike,  reveals that the total number of food insecure people who are malnourished or lacking critical nutrients is probably closer to 3 billion—about half of humanity. The severity of this situation is made clear by the United Nations estimate of over a year ago that approximately 18,000 children die daily as a direct or indirect consequence of malnutrition.
In the past weeks, we have witnessed the fall of Haiti Government due to the clashes between rebellious Haiti people and the UN occupation forces, protest of some twenty thousand  textile workers of Bangladesh on the street demanding food security and wage hike, continuous two days long demonstration of workers in North Kairo of Egypt, the spread of outburst of people’s anger to Cambodia, Ivory Coast, Bolivia, Peru, Mexico, Indonesia, Philipines, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Thailand, Yemen, Ethiopia and the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa. IMF managing director Strauss Kahn warned that governments “will see what they have done totally destroyed and their legitimacy facing the population destroyed also.” He added “So it’s not only a humanitarian question. It is not only an economic question. It is also a democratic question. Those kind of questions sometimes end into war.”
Will the people’s anger explodes into the royal streets of India? The cold wave passes through the spines of ruling class parties with the mere thought of this possibility. The election is round the corner. Lot of fanfare as election gimmick is being created by providing a cosmetic relief of loan waiver of Rupees sixty thousand crore for the crores of farmers, when more than the similar amount of tax-exemption has been provided to few corporate owners. On the other hand, about one lakh and fifty thousand farmers have committed suicide till date since 1999 due to their indebtedness to the private moneylenders who provide loan with high interest as usurer capital. Variations of moneylenders have come to play a nodal and entrenched part of the village socio-politics and economics. In the post  Banking sector reform period, during 1992-93, small borrowal accounts (Rs 25,000 and below) went down from 62.55 million in March 1992 to only 38.73 million by March 2005, according to the Bank Statistical Returns report of RBI. According to P Sainath, Magsaysay Award-winning writer on rural issues --  “although the small and marginal farmer has a good repayment record on crop loans, the percentage of such loans has been nose-diving as a part of overall banking loans.”
The November 2007 NCEUS report by the Arjun Sengupta panel on financing unorganised enterprises asserts that between 1972 and 1983, there were 21.2 million additional bank loan accounts in the aggregate nursed by the scheduled commercial banks, of which 19.8 million, or 93.1%, were the accounts with a credit limit of Rs 10,000 or less. The trend of focusing on small borrowal accounts continued for another decade. Between March 1992 and March 2001, however, there has been an absolute decline of 13.5 million in the aggregate bank loan accounts. This has happened entirely because of a larger decline of 25.3 million accounts for the redefined small borrowal accounts of Rs 25,000 or less. Even the basic infrastructure of a bank has been denied to the small loanee. In recent years, the number of commercial bank branches in rural areas declined from 35,134 in March 1991 to 30,572 in March 2006, in an apparent reversal of the trend in extending bank facilities that began in the early 1970s after the nationalisation of major private commercial banks. The percentage of bank debt by farmers in most states apart from Kerala is way below (27%) the percentage of debt to money lenders.
On the other hand, due to the reduction of subsidy and subsequent price-hike of essential commodities in PDS and due to the  declining purchasing power of the people, the lift of food stuffs from FCI godown has reduced. The food stuffs in FCI godown has stockpiled and as a result due to the increased expenditure of storage servicing, the incurred loss of FCI has also increased. Instead of supplying the food to famine-stricken people of India, these stock of food stuffs especially rice and wheat has been exported at throw-away prices. Per capita availability of food materials has reduced to 42.5 grams/day in 2002-03 from 48.5 grams/day in 1992.(source : Utsa Pattanaik). The food-stock has got drastically reduced at present from a record high stock six years back. In December 2002, New York Times article had a story with the following headline “ Poor in India starve as surplus Wheat Rots.” As a Wall Street Journal headline put it in June 2004 “ Want Amid Plenty, An Indian Paradox : Bumper harvest and Rising Hunger. At present, the Government of India imports with double the price of minimum support price offered to Indian farmers for procuring food materials. Sixty percent of agricultural land has yet not been covered with irrigation facility. There was a time when 65% of GDP was earned from agriculture and now it has come down to 18%. The agricultural growth rate was mere 2.6%, when overall growth rate was 8.5% in 2006-07. The total cultivated land has declined to 108 million hectares in 2003 from 131 million hectares in 1960. Due to the Government policy of formation of SEZ and apathetic attitude towards agricultural production, the agricultural land is fast declining. As per 55th NSS survey report, rate of growth of employment generation was 2.7% all India average and 2.4% in rural areas in 1983-84 and during 1994-2000 these figure has come down to 1.07% and 0.6% respectively and these rates are fast declining. The growth of permanent job has become almost nil and at present reached to negative figure. The official figure shows that the unemployment rate is fast increasing, though a large number of people do not come under the purview of Government survey in the present scenario of gloom and despair in the job market. Due to the unbalanced economic growth, food intake of shining India has increased and the calorie intake of rural India is decreasing since 1991 and has already reached to all time low. The daily income of 80% of Indian people is below 2 dollar and amongst them the daily income of 30% is below 1 US dollar. That means that 80% of people cannot afford to consume the food required for the minimum subsistence level of 2400 calorie for rural people and 2100 for urban people. In this scenario of fast declining purchasing power, a little increase in food price may lead crores of people to starvation. However, the economic and agricultural policy the Indian Government is pursuing, will itself cause food crisis and famine due to lack of production and unemployment, even if the market price is low compared to the present surge in market price. FAO reported that in between March 2007 and March 2008, corn price in world market has increased by 31%, rice 74%, Soya 87%, Wheat 130%. Situation is grimmer than the Bengal famine of 1943. But this time the situation will not allow any  new generation of writer to repeat Manik Bondopadhya’s revelation -- "Dying in hordes, they still didn’t snatch the food to eat. You know why, Babu?”
The British colonial regime had pushed 1943 Bengal into famine. Exploitation of Indian peasantry through production for export and  damaging indigenous production for making super profit, had made the food security system vulnerable and uncertain. Above all, the British, with   narrow   imperialist  interest to face war situation and cruel policy of 1942 “ Rice Denial Scheme”, had masterminded to lead the landless and poor peasant of Bengal to starvation death by not supplying the food for famine-stricken people. Let us examine the situation of present food crisis under the similar imperialist economy in a different perspective.
In the post independent period, two diametrically opposite paths were open for us. Either to follow the path of tightening the grip of imperialist capital on  Indian agriculture or to follow the path of self reliant agricultural economy through radical land reform, releasing the  zeal and vigour of the peasantry keeping faith on their creativity and wisdom, development of quality of the indigenous seed varieties, introducing scientific knowledge to develop indigenous methods through close interaction between scientific workers and peasantries. To score sentimental gains and to dissuade the peasantry from revolutionary struggles, land ceiling legislation was enacted at the beginning and sometime superficial land reform programme was also initiated to hoodwink the people. But overall thrust was always in the direction of dependency on imperialist capital, and the green revolution in the sixties was a major step in this direction. Control of the market of agricultural inputs like seeds, fertilizers, equipments by the transnational capital was supported by the government through huge import subsidy. For opposing the imperialist design, Dr. Richharia was retired prematurely from his post of director of the Central Rice Research Institute in 1967, due to the over enthusiasm of Indian ruling class to follow imperialist dependent agricultural policy. Later as the director of Madhya Pradesh Rice Research Institute, Dr. Richharia prepared a concrete action plan for increasing production of rice in India when he was requested to do so by the then Indian Prime Minister office in 1983. But that plan was also shelved unheeded.
Export led growth model (giving priority on producing commodities to export for earning necessary foreign exchange to import machineries) which was put in vogue in the seventies, was emphasized with renewed vigour in the eighties through structural adjustment programme. The quantitative restriction, trade barrier etc all are being gradually dismantled at the behest of the dictates of  WTO. The commodity prices were made dependent on the international market mechanism through complete integration with the world market. The priority was given to cash crop production. As a result, Indian crop diversity as well as the production in agriculture and small scale industries are deliberately led to destruction. Food production is also hampered due to the worldwide emphasis on production of biofuel. On the other hand, due to the compulsion of reducing Government expenditure to minimize fiscal and budget deficit in consonance with the fiscal responsibility and budget management act framed at the behest of World Bank and IMF, all sorts of subsidy in agriculture are being gradually withdrawn. Even rationing system for food security is on the verge of collapse. Due to the withdrawal of all sorts of government regulation for food security, uncertainty in international food market has earned the evil reputation. The US subprime crisis and overall crisis situation of world capitalist economy has shrinked the profitable destination of capital. So the finance capital is also being invested in futures-trading of food commodities and thus influencing the market price of food. On the other hand, due to the dismal production scenario in agriculture, unemployment rate is rising leaps and bounds, the number of  retrenched  workers are much more than the new job opportunities in IT sector. The factories are getting closed one after another, casualisation and contractualisation of workers are going on with full swing due to automation and policy of labour contraction. As a result, the purchasing power of 85% of people in  India is decreasing with a differential effect on social pyramid of caste-community hierarchy, those at the bottommost part of the pyramid are getting effected most.
The rise of oil and food price in the international market have made Indian  ruling class and Government jittery. They are trying to contain the price hike through export curbs and reducing money supply. But these steps may be boomeranged to them due to the overall growth model which is being pursued unquestioningly and unsparingly. So the temporary and piecemeal steps being taken by the Government are not enough to evade the bleakest picture of largescale starvation which might be the reminiscent of forgotten holocaust of 1943 Bengal.
However, NREG act has been passed with a view to increase the income and purchasing power of rural people. But the budgetary allotment for this is only a meager 1% of GDP and moreover the administration which is responsible to implement this scheme is bent on foiling this scheme in connivance with the political touts through rampant corruption. In this circumstances, paradigm shift in our official thinking is urgently needed. A radical inward looking economic policy and self-reliant agricultural policy need to be  framed. Land reform, universal PDS with ration for all, agricultural loan with easy terms, internal marketing facility with nationwide network of selling centers for cultivators,  rise of Government procurement price of food cereals, more asset generation by creating more labour-days and thereby increasing the purchasing power of rural India, establishment of the people’s control on the administration and empowering the people through democratic restructuring of the state, are the few issues need to be addressed with renewed vigour and unleashing people’s activism. People has already become restive with protest and resistance. Indian ruling class is very much perturbed to face the people’s wrath especially at a time when election is round the corner and is busy to find  the safety-valve for people’s accumulated anger.  
(written on Aprin/08 by Arup Baisya : baisya_arup@ rediffmail.com

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