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'India has the highest number of hungry people on earth'

Raj Patel
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May 26, 2008
As chances of a petrol price hike had people rushing to fill up their car fuel tanks over the weekend, there was further bad news on another front. Food prices, according to a latest report, will remain high for a decade to come.

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?

The way we distribute food is not according to need, but according to the market. As a result, those who are able to afford food get to eat, while those who don't -- starve. This is the inevitable consequence of a world of poverty and markets in food.

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.

Why have we failed? And more importantly, why have governments allowed this situation to arise where we have over 100 million people who are being deprived of something as basic as the right to food?

To be fair, many governments have been forced into these kinds of policies. The introduction of markets in grain wasn't willingly chosen by India in the 19th century.

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?

As I say, the origins of markets in food are to be found in colonialism and imperialism. But it's important to be clear what food riots are. *Every* food riot that has happened in human history is both a demand for food, but a demand that government be accountable.

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.

You have criticised the World Bank for promoting food trade at the expense of small farmers, while critics say protectionism will cripple the free market, inhibiting its ability to correct itself. What agricultural support policies do you think should be in place to have -- like you say -- a 'buffer between the price shocks and the bellies of the poorest people on earth?'

When people talk about 'the free market correcting itself', they usually mean an equilibration of supply and demand. But consider just how crazy that is when applied to food. Are we asking people to demand less food so that the market be allowed to correct? And if so, who is it that is being asked?

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.

What are the main reasons that India is producing less and importing more? Is it primarily because farmers have been lured into lucrative cash crops? When did this cycle begin?

It is a series of policies, beginning with imperial British ones, but continuing today with India's neoliberal rural policies (ones that cannot be hidden behind the fig leaf of debt forgiveness, as the government has recently discovered).

You blame organisations like the World Bank and WTO for encouraging farmers to sow lucrative cash crops like soy and corn. Could you elaborate the reasons for this? How much blame for the present crisis rests with them?

The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, has put it like this: 'We're living through the consequences of twenty years of mistakes.' I'd date it to about 1980, when Thatcher and Reagan cemented the monetarist revolution in economic policy.

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.

Dr M S Swaminathan, the father of India's Green Revolution, says though India's economic reforms unleashed the creativity of its entrepreneurs, there has been reduced investment in irrigation and rural infrastructure. Why do you think this divide has occurred?

I'm not sure M S Swaminathan has it right. Certainly, economic reforms allowed some sort of creativity, but look at India's billionaires. Are they there because they are creative and self-inventive? Or because they were the inheritors of monopolies which they have used the current market reforms to expand?

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.

Where has India gone wrong and what can be done to correct the situation, especially when India has the largest number of people with malnutrition?

Arundhati Roy has it right, I think, when she talks about the secession of India's elites from the rest of the population. It would have been unthinkable fifty years ago for the levels of malnutrition we see today to be allowed to flourish.

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
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