The sustainability of hunger

On 4 December 2002, India's finance minister, Jaswant Singh, presented his government's mid-term review in parliament, emphasising a need to boost private investment in agriculture to thereby encourage commodity exports. What he forgot to mention was that by taking this path India had decided to follow Argentina's model of economic growth, which in reality expands the profits of a few agribusiness enterprises at the cost of growing hunger, malnutrition and poverty.

Argentina, the world's fourth largest exporter of food, faces an unprecedented socio-economic crisis. As the vast, fertile country continues to increase exports of meat, wheat, corn and soya, a catastrophe has hit the underprivileged in the countryside. Hunger multiplies and images of stunted, emaciated children scandalise Argentines, whose country was long known as the grain store of the world.

Hunger also continues to grow in India, which has one-third of the world's estimated 860 million people who go to bed hungry, and that too in times of plenty. In fact, hunger and poverty have proved to be robustly sustainable. Amidst reports of gnawing hunger and starvation deaths in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa, India continues to make room for exporting surplus foodgrain. That an estimated 320 million people desperately need food despite the more than 60 million tonnes stocked in the open has failed to evoke any kind of political response.

Once perceived by neo-classical pundits as representing a glorious model of economic growth, an unprecedented humanitarian crisis now confronts Argentina. In India too, with the increased domination of market forces in the food sector, and reduced public policy intervention for food security, food prices have increased to impact on the mass population. Meanwhile, Jaswant Singh has promised to further cut subsidies and reduce the government's intervention in foodgrain procurement.

On the external front, Indian foodgrain exports have increased by 10 percent every year since 1991. Between April and August 2002, the export of wheat grew by 32 percent and that of rice by 75 percent, as compared to corresponding months in the previous year. Agriculture and allied products grew by an impressive 8.2 percent in the same period. However, other traditional exports such as plantation crops (tea and spices) and edible oils face international competition as imports grow with the lowering of import duties and the removal of quantitative restrictions. Instead of imposing duties that minimise the impact of cheap imports, the government has provided INR five billion to bail out the plantation sector. In other words, while small producers are driven out by cheaper imports, major producers have their losses written-off.

Full of hunger
While people die of hunger, the government sits atop a mountain of foodgrains. In 2001, starvation deaths were reported in over 13 states, even while the storage facilities of the Food Corporation of India were full of grain, some of it rotting and rat-infested. When export markets could not be found for this surplus, a proposal was even made to dump it into the sea to create storage space for the next crop. In 2002, reports of hunger and starvation deaths regularly poured in from Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, two of the country's progressive and economically fast-growing states.

A November 2002 report that appeared in The Guardian quotes the Centre for Child Nutrition Studies, which advises the World Health Organisation, as saying that 20 percent of children in Argentina are suffering from malnutrition. Dr Oscar Hillal, the deputy director of the children's hospital in the province of Tucuman, said, "This is not Africa, this is Argentina, where there are 50 million cattle and 39 million people – but where we have a government which is totally out of touch with the people's needs".

Reports filed from Argentina tell of widespread malnutrition throughout the country. The national charity Red Solidaria reported that in 2002 an average 60 children a month were being taken to hospital with severe malnutrition, and 400 were being treated as outpatients. Five non-governmental organisations from Tucuman province recently filed a legal suit against Tucuman's governor Julio Miranda for 'wilful neglect' of the children who have died of malnutrition in his province, where 64 percent of people live in extreme poverty. They accused him of diverting national funding for social programmes into 'clientelism and corruption'.

In April 2001, public interest litigation was initiated by NGOs in the Supreme Court of India asking that the state be made responsible for preventing scarcity and to immediately provide relief when scarcity arises: in essence, the petition focuses on every citizen's fundamental right to food. A bench comprising Justice BN Kripal and KG Balakrishnan directed the government to "devise a scheme where no person goes hungry when the granaries are full and lots [is] being wasted due to non-availability of storage space". In response to the attorney general's plea that devising such a scheme would require at least two weeks, the court allocated an appropriate timeframe. It has also sought affidavits from the state governments of Orissa, Rajasthan, Chattisgarh, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh detailing their response to the situation of scarcity amidst plenty.

A year and a half later, starvation deaths were reported from Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, even while exports of wheat and rice had grown. Malnutrition continues to multiply, more so among children and women. And a day after prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee's mid-November announcement that 1.3 million tonnes of foodgrain costing INR 15 billion had been distributed in the country under various drought relief programmes, a damning survey conducted in Madhya Pradesh, in central India, found 6785 children in 43 blocks of Shivpuri district severely malnourished – an average of 160 per block. Yet, all that the prime minister did was to call an all-party meeting to discuss the drought and hunger crisis.

Elsewhere, it is the same story of desperation and apathy, of people left to fend for themselves in the face of drought and desperate to get out in search of menial jobs. Recently, when the Puri-Okha Express to Gujarat stopped in the Berhampur railway station, Orissa, The Indian Express reported that the platform erupted in chaos. More than a thousand young people, fighting to clamber on to leave Berhampur for Surat, Gujarat, were ready to kill or be killed for space in the two general compartments of the train. Many were ready to travel all the way to Surat or Bombay – across the breadth the country – hanging on the doorway. Those who could not board broke the train's windowpanes in frustration. This is not an atypical scenario, and many Indian railway stations present similarly desperate situations.

A sick society
Far away in Argentina, some 450,000 jobs have been lost since October 2001, leaving one in every five persons unemployed, and one in four destitute, and one in two living in poverty. Salaries have lost 70 percent of their value and the economy is shrinking at a rate of 14 percent, while inflation is running at 40 percent. While the prices of non-essential goods, such as clothes, have held steady, the price of wheat climbed by 166 percent in the first six months of 2002 alone.

The country's crisis has devastated its people. In April 2002, Norma Gonzalez, a desperate 59-year-old middle-class woman, tried to immolate herself in front of a bank teller. In Misiones province, which borders Tucuman in the north, nearly 50 child starvation deaths were reported in 2002. Media reports from throughout the country tell off the gruesome and the desperate: overturned trucks of cattle being slaughtered by mobs of slum-dwellers, infant starvation because mothers' breasts have gone dry, the descent into poverty of another 11,000 people each day, according to the government's own numbers.

For the political masters of both the countries, aided and abetted by a chosen breed of economists, agricultural exports remain the only path to speedy growth. Tonnes of paper have already been wasted on theories, reports and studies detailing the virtues of export-oriented growth that can help eradicate poverty and hunger. It is not therefore unusual to find economists like Jagdish Bhagwati and Meghnad Desai, living in liberalised economies and singing in chorus to the tunes of free trade. What they propose is withdrawing state support to agriculture as quickly as possible, leaving farmers at the mercy of market forces.

In an astonishingly honest admission, Argentina's production minister, Anibal Fernandez, attributed the starvation-related child deaths to "a sick society and a ruling class that are sons of bitches, all of them, myself included. If not, this would not be happening. It is a chronic and cumulative problem. It has been going on for many years and everyone has been turning a blind eye".

One wonders, how many of the heads of state of WTO-member countries will stand up to measure Argentina's Anibal Fernandez. Accepting the fault is the first step toward rectifying the policy blunders. Hoping against hope is what optimism is all about in the days of corporate control and market economy where the poor and hungry are nothing more than an unfortunate statistic that come in the way of development.

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Himal Southasian