Friday, November 28, 2008


K P Prabhakaran NairFirst Published : 27 Nov 2008 12:43:00 AM ISTLast Updated : 28 Nov 2008 01:13:58 AM ISTIn the seventeenth century France, with a raging famine, when the poor were getting restive, the Empress of France advised the poor to eat cake instead of bread. The result? France burned and the Empress paid dear for her inconsiderate folly with her life. India might not burn, because, hunger is spreading, but there is a growing groundswell of resentment among the poor and hungry, while our netas seem to be content only with their speeches on the podium.

First we were told that the country is self-sufficient in food, especially in wheat. The agricultural messiahs, as usual, promptly added their usual supportive bit. Soon Minister of Agriculture Sharad Pawar imported close to two million tonnes of wheat at an exorbitant price. This was two years ago. And then the agricultural messiahs came up with another ploy. They said the country produced enough and more, only the poor have no purchasing power.

The question: If indeed India is producing enough, why does not food come cheap? In rice eating Kerala a kilogram of low-grade rice costs Rs 23. Atta doesn’t sell at less than Rs 20-30 a kilo in the open market, branded one costs even more. About cooking oil and pulses the protein supplement of the poor the less said the better. Look at China. For a comparable population of 1.3 billion, the country harvested more than 550 million tonnes of cereals last year. Ours for a one billion plus population at 220 million tonnes pales in comparison. So, neither the “self- sufficiency” nor the “lack of purchasing power” ploy will wash any more.

The country simply is unable to produce enough to meet the needs of its burgeoning population. Post-reform period, foodgrain production plummeted to 1.6 per cent per annum, while population growth at 1.9 per cent per annum now, has already set in motion the “Malthusian Phenomenon” of population growth outstripping growth in food production.

The agricultural fraternity must wake up from its somnolent state, lest a hungry India turn out to be an angry India.

The latest “Economic Outlook for 2007- 08” put out by the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister, under the stewardship of former RBI Governor Rangarajan, puts India in very poor light compared to China on the farm front and buttresses its argument by noting that the “traditional excuses” for India’s “sub-standard performance in the farm sector” are not only “tired”, but, “inadequate”.

Coming from the knowledgeable babus, this must be a devastating indictment of India’s performance on the farm front in the so-called “reform” period.

But, the most distressing document is the very recent “India State Hunger Index”, put out by the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute.

Look at some of the startling observations: Punjab, the traditional front-runner in farming, has a hunger level below Vietnam and Honduras, which already are placed low in global ranking. Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Bihar, are at the top place in the India State Hunger Index.

“When Indian states are compared to countries in the 2008 Global Hunger Index, Madhya Pradesh ranks between the war and famine ravaged Ethiopia and Chad” notes the report. In fact “India’s rate of child malnutrition is higher than in famine ravaged Sub-Saharan Africa” adds the report. Chadha, member of the PM’s Economic Advisory Council, who released the report, has this to say: “Figuring in the 88 hungry countries list itself is shameful for the country. Policymakers have to think about it. High GDP growth is not sufficient. Inclusive growth is necessary”. The country has a poor record of distribution of wealth, he added. More and more Indian billionaires are getting into the Forbes list.

Never mind, the poor and hungry can always be thrown to the wolves.

India, which scored 66th place in the Global Hunger list of 88 countries, does not have a single state in the “low hunger” or “moderate hunger” categories.

Twelve states, including Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and West Bengal are in the “alarming category”, with Madhya Pradesh falling in the “extremely alarming” category. Punjab, Kerala and Haryana, are in the “serious category”.

According to the report, underweight children accounted for the greatest contribution to the state Index for almost all states, followed by calorie intake. It is very important to remember that today’s young generation will be tomorrow’s work force. What can India expect from such an emaciated work force? The Millennium Development Goals (MDG) targets to reduce world hunger by 50 per cent by 2015. That is just six years away. Given the lacklustre hunger eradication programmes, can India ever hope to achieve this, when more than a fifth of its population — more than 200 million — the largest in the world, is already hungry? It is in this connection that the “Right to Food” 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights to food that has been passed by the UN, which needs to be critically examined. Article 25 of the Declaration maintains “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food… and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age and other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control”.

In 1966, the UN General Assembly adopted the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which further formalises the right to food as a basic human right. Article 11 of the Covenant further endorsed Article 25 of the 1948 Declaration cited above.

By 1989, as many as 85 states, including India, had signed the Covenant. Yet, more than half a century after adopting the original Declaration, and after three world food summits, and a so-called green revolution that was touted as filling our granaries, India hosts the highest number of hungry in the world. Is anything more shameful than this?

The author is an agricultural scientist


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