Thursday, 27 September 2007

Hunger Stalks Rising India

Hunger Stalks Rising India

It makes for poignant reading. At a time when newspapers are agog with reports of billions of dollars of foreign investment flowing in, and the daily projections of an unprecedented growth rate that will eclipse poverty, the cries of a 12-year-old Jabila in the Kalahandi belt of Orissa lies buried in the resulting din and euphoria.

In the first week of September, within a matter of five days, first her younger brother died from hunger related ailment, and the very next day her father succumbed to hunger. Unable to buy grains, he had been living on green leaves for the past few days. No sooner had the pyre cooled, Sonai, her mother too died unable to cope with hunger. Jabila now sits in front of her hut, empty-eyed and perhaps waiting for her turn.

This is not an isolated case. Writing in the web magazine Neeraj says that as many as 20 people in the Telnagi hamlet in Rampur in Kalahandi have died from hunger or hunger-related ailment. Talk to any villager and he starts counting the names on his fingers. Parshuram Ray of the New Delhi-based Centre for Environment and Food Security says that over 500 hunger deaths have occurred in Raigada, Kashipur, Kalahandi, and Koraput regions of western Orissa in the past few months.

Orissa is not the only state, which continues to downplay growing hunger and malnutrition and at the same time adopt lopsided polices in the name of development. The situation in Chhatisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh in the cow belt is no better. Hunger stalks the entire northern parts of the country (and for that matter in the rest of the country but not as glaring as in north). The only cover up being that the respective governments continue to either ignore or deny or ward them as deaths from diseases like cholera and malaria.

An estimated 320 million people are languishing in hunger. My understanding is that this is an understatement. If the projections of National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector are correct, 836 million people are somehow surviving on less than Rs 20 or less than half-a-dollar a day. With Rs 20, it is not possible to manage two square meals a day. The number of hungry therefore is 836 million – almost equal to the 852 million hungry that the UN Millennium Development Goals (and the FAO) wrongly computes as the number of people living in hunger throughout world.

Shocking reports of hunger deaths pour in at a time when the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution estimates that 53.3 per cent of wheat and 39 per cent of rice worth Rs 31,500-crore (Rs 315,000 milion) that was meant for distribution to the poorest of the poor has been siphoned off in the past three years. For the past three decades, despite numerous studies and reports, the pilferage from the Public Distribution Scheme remains colossal. This is not a crime but treason.

Although the per capita availability of food has climbed down to a level that existed at the time of the Great Bengal Famine in 1943, the nation seems unperturbed. The need to make PDS effective has remained outside the gamut of political expediency.

Knowing that the food meant for the poor is not reaching them, and undeterred by reports of hunger and malnutrition that continue to pour in, the Department of Food and Public Distribution under the same Ministry is now planning another brave act. It plans to double the price of foodgrains meant for the mid-day meal programme for school children. In simple words, the Department is making it difficult for the states to provide mid-day meals for 12-crore (120 million) children. After all, resource crunch will ensure that the Ministry of Human Resources is unable to shell out in future Rs 12000-per metric tonne as against Rs 5,650 at present.

In a country where 5000 children die every day from malnutrition or its related ailments, and 46 per cent of children under the age of 3 years suffer from acute malnutrition, the importance of further expanding mid-day meal programme needs no emphasis. But by making it beyond the reach of the official machinery, the Ministry of Human Resources may now find it difficult to run the existing programme what to think of expanding it to reach additional 3-crore (30 million) children.

The paradox of plenty – acute and widespread hunger amidst abundant foodstocks – exists at a time when the country is poised towards a high-growth trajectory. Policy makers, planners and economists have been telling us that even if poverty increases in the short term, this is a price that has to be paid for long-term stability and growth. In other words, Jabila needs to accept that her parents paid for the growth the country is witnessing!

It is primarily for this reason that we feel satisfied at the National Rural Employment Guarantee programme that provides 100 days employment for the poor and vulnerable. We know that 100 days wages cannot keep the poor alive and kicking for the rest of the year. And yet, none of those who form part of the growing tribe of intellectuals are even willing to raise their voice against this glaring human inequality. After all, if we in the urban centres cannot survive if paid only for 100 days in a year how do we expect the poor to survive?

No wonder, even with the largest number of hungry in the world, hunger and starvation no longer evokes compassion and reaction. News of hunger and starvation no longer adorns the front pages of newspapers. Hunger is, in reality, a non-issue. It is something that we must despise, something that we must close our eyes to. So how does it matter if the PDS doesn’t work or the mid-day meal programme is eventually scrapped for want of adequate funds?

What we don’t realise is that an empty stomach cannot wait. With the passage of time it will lead to social upheavals and the repercussions can be more damaging to the society at large. What I fail to fathom is the growing indifference of the elite, the intelligentsia and the policy-makers and planners towards hunger and deprivation. What a tragedy.

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Cat Among Pigeons - US Farm Bill 2007

US Farm Bill 2007 :
Cat among pigeons

As a child I had always wondered as to why pigeons shut its eyes when it sees a cat. After all, how naïve or stupid depending on how you perceive the act, can the pigeons be to think that a visible threat to its life, which is as sure as death, can be simply warded-off by keeping eyes wide shut.

I gave up as I grew. But now I realise that the educated elite, especially if they happen to be macro-economists or trade negotiators are a step ahead of pigeons. The only difference being that while pigeons meet a gory end, whereas the trade negotiators and economists are clever enough to escape by ensuring that the axe falls on the poor and marginalized.

No wonder, as the trade negotiators from 150 member countries of World Trade Organisation (WTO) assemble at Geneva to resume negotiations, I am told the ‘mood’ seems to be upbeat and ‘just right’. There are enough indications that developing country negotiators will brush aside all threats to agriculture and industrial sector and instead join the rich and industrialised countries to sing paeans of virtues in favour of what is known to be an unequal and unjust multilateral trade regime.

It sure is an unequal world. Giving a damn to the outcome of the ongoing multilateral negotiations, the United States has thrown yet another protective ring around its heavily fortified agriculture. Knowing that the developing country negotiators are weak-kneed and lack the courage to even raise their voice, the House of Representatives has passed the US Farm Bill 2007. This prompted the House Agriculture Chair Colin Peterson to say: “I want to write a Farm Bill that’s good for (American) agriculture.
If somebody wants to sue us (at the WTO), we’ve got a lot of lawyers in Washington.

Although the notorious Bill awaits clearance from the US Senate, it means that over the next five years the American farmers will receive a federal support of US $ 286 billion. Irrespective of the volatility of the global markets, and the advantages of ‘free market’ economy that the macro-economists in the developing world never feel tired of reiterating, the US farmers have preferred to rely on government support.
While the US is forcing the developing world to turn its agriculture ‘competitive’ by removing all safety nets for farmers, it does exactly the opposite at home.

Let me make it clear. The ‘comparative advantage’ in agriculture that the US flaunts about is actually because of subsidies.
Remove the subsidies and American agriculture falls flat. It is because of these heavy subsidies that farmers in the suicide-belt of Vidharba in Maharashtra or cotton farmers in western Africa are priced out. And despite the outrage against monumental cotton subsidies, for instance, the US has made no effort to make even a nominal cut under the proposed Farm Bill 2007.

Traditionally, the US farmers have survived all these years on government support. Under the Farm Bill 2002 (which expires on Sept 30, 2007), the US government had till March 2007 spent US $ 271 billion. Which means that in just 10 years – between 2002 and 2012 – US agriculture will receive approximately US $ 557 billion.
This is more than the total gain of US $ 539 billion that was anticipated for the 110 developing country members from full trade liberalisation in agriculture at the beginning of the WTO negotiations. It is however another matter that the total gain for developing country agriculture is now estimated at a paltry US $ 6.7 billion.

It is not as if the US farmers were dependent upon free trade earlier. Since 1933, Farm Programmes have been in place. It was, however, the US Farm Bill 1996 that was expected to bring about a structural change. It actually required most farm subsidies to be phased out by 2001. By bringing in the concept of ‘decoupled’ farm payments, which meant that farm payments were de-linked from production, the expectation was to rectify a historical mistake. “Decoupling” however resulted in price collapse thereby bringing in “emergency” payments. Call it ‘counter-cyclic’ payments it has now become a permanent feature of the farm policy.

And that reminds me what a former World Bank Chief Economist Nicholas Stern, while travelling through India, denounced subsidies paid by rich countries to their farmers as "sin ...on a very big scale" but warned India against any attempts to resist opening its markets. “Developing countries must remove their trade barriers regardless of what is happening in the developed countries.”

Much of the government support is for six primary commodities : corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton, rice and grain sorghum. In addition, the 2007 Farm Bill provides US $ 1.1 billion for vegetables. For biofuels, the subsidy support will heighten investment by 600 per cent.
To give a boost to organic cultivation, the Bill provides US $ 5 million as cost-sharing component with 17 states to bring in organic certification. It will help defray the cost of certification for farmers to the tune of 75 per cent, to a maximum of $ 750. Subsidy provisions also exist under the conservation programmes for not growing anything.

And yet, the real beneficiaries of the US government support are not the family farms. Much of the support goes to increase the profits of agribusiness majors like ConAgra, Cargill, ADM and Tyson. Among the beneficiaries are big landowners farmers, including Ted Turner and David Rockefeller. It is primarily the agribusiness corporations that have gained the maximum since the US Farm Bill 1996. The Farm Bill results in over-production of the six major crops resulting in price slumps, which makes it easier for the food corporations to dump the commodities in world markets .

The Institute for Agricultural Trade and Policy has estimated that dumping of wheat has increased from an average of 27 per cent per year before Farm Bill 1996 to 37 per cent after that; soybean from 2 to 11.8 per cent; maize from 6.8 to 19.2 per cent; cotton from 29.4 to 48.4 per cent and rice from 13.5 to 19.2 per cent in the consecutive period. Cheaper imports in developing countries pushes small farmers out of production thereby accentuating unemployment and hunger.