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The Rediff Interview/Raj Patel, author, Stuffed and Starved
'India has the highest number of hungry people on earth'
May 26, 2008
In the current times of a global food crisis and rising prices of basics like wheat and rice, the poorest are already hit the hardest. India with the highest number of hungry people and malnutrition has serious concerns because food inflation will continue to be a long-term problem.
Raj Patel, 35, in his book Stuffed and Starved, writes about a global situation where there are one billion overweight people, while 850 million live in hunger, and about the millions who are fighting back. The book has found greater relevance in the context of the current food crisis.
A visiting scholar at the Institute of African Studies in Berkeley, he is an academic, writer, activist and journalist, who was recently asked to testify before the United States House of Representatives Financial Services Committee in Washington, DC, on a report in which he critiqued the World Bank promoting food trade at the expense of small farmers.
Born in London to parents of Indian origin from Kenya and Fiji, Patel went to Oxford and the London School of Economics and has also worked in South Africa for two years.
In an interesting and informative e-mailed interview with Archana Masih, he spoke about what has gone wrong with the global food system and why millions are going hungry.
You have said that 'today, when we produce more food than ever before, more than one in 10 people on earth are hungry.' Could you explain how the world has arrived at such a situation?
India is the poster child for this. As the historian Mike Davis notes, before the British arrived in India, there was a famine once every 120 years -- after the British arrived, the figure was once every four years. The reason? The British imposed 'free markets' in food, which meant that they were able to pay more for Indian grain, and thus causing grain to be exported to Britain while, at the very same time and as a consequence of the very same policies, Indians starved.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, many governments have been forced into similar policies, through World Bank 'structural adjustment programmes' and the like, being told all the while that competing on a level playing field will improve the economy.
But, of course, the playing field isn't level, particularly in agriculture. The US and EU (European Union) subsidise their agricultural giants to the tune of billions of dollars a year, while forcing neoliberal doctrine down the throats of developing countries.
Of course, not all governments require coercion. In South Africa, Brazil and India, the poison was self-administered. Or, rather, the policies that cut off the poorest people at the knees were the ones administered by the elites who will never have to worry about where their next meal is coming from.
When did the first signs of this problem appear and what have been the main causes that have led to this situation today where we are seeing food riots and paucity of food?
Whether in imperial Rome or in today's subjugated Haiti, people take to the streets both to demand food, but also to demand a government that will listen to them. The food protests in Haiti, for instance, are demands for rice and for the restitution of Aristide.
In Egypt, there are demands for wheat, and for the legalisation of the Muslim Brotherhoods. And so on. What the food riots around the world today betoken is a failure both of the market, and of democracy.
Of course, it is those who spend the majority of their income on food. Policies need to combat the vicious indifference of the market. That means serious redistribution of wealth from rich to poor.
India, of course, has both -- the highest number of hungry people on earth, and the highest number of billionaires in the Forbes top ten billionaires list. This is no accident. The policies that have permitted the one outcome have facilitated the other.
Policies should also include not a mothballing of the Public Distribution System but its extension and rehabilitation -- it is criminal, for instance, that one of the preconditions for access to subsidised food is a permanent address. Government purchasing of grain, and grain stores, are also an important policy for protecting against the vagaries of the market.
By 1986, the then US secretary of Agriculture, John Block, was able to say at the beginning of the Uruguay Round of Negotiations of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade that: '(the) idea that developing countries should feed themselves is an anachronism from a bygone era. They could better ensure their food security by relying on US agricultural products, which are available, in most cases, at much lower cost.' We can date the current international food regime from the rise of this kind of policy mindset.
Meanwhile, the question about agricultural investment shouldn't surprise anyone. The level of public investment in agriculture has been falling for decades. In Africa, this was done under the assumption that the private sector would step in and fill the gap of the 'inefficient' public sector. The consequence, however, was that the invisible hand was nowhere to be seen. No private investment at all. Just a stagnating agricultural sector.
Yet, as Utsa Patnaik's work shows, food grain availability for India's poorest is now approaching levels that haven't been seen since the British left. This has everything, sadly, to do with the rapacity of India's elites.Photograph: Jan Sturmann