The politics of food for the hungry

The politics of food for the hungry

Policymakers talk of food security but are reluctant to give universal entitlements to eradicate hunger

The 28th of May, marked as “World Hunger Day,” has come and gone but for Pannu Bai Bhil, every day is hunger day. How does someone dealing with chronic hunger view a day marking her plight? Let those of us who overeat at least take stock of a hungry India pitted against bumper crops, number crunching, technologies for profit, markets, and growth rates. The solution for hunger lies in proper distribution of grain, and not in bringing technology as the Prime Minster avers when talking of GM crops. If this government cannot prevent the huge stocks from rotting by distributing food grain adequately and equitably, other questions remain mere rhetoric.

Whenever issues of deprivation, hunger and social security are raised, the government deliberately talks of the declining Sensex, the rupee exchange, growth rates, and balanced budgets. Most innocent readers and viewers of news blame the demands of the marginalised for pulling down a rising India. Nationalist India will have to make a choice. Can we shift from fighting the ‘foreign hand’ to fight the biggest enemy within — the hunger of millions? India has not addressed the unpardonable sin of letting bumper crops and huge dumps of grain rot, when millions of Indians battle with endemic hunger and lack of access to food.

Since it is a global event, a quick overview of international standards would be useful. The World Food Summit (1996) defined food security as “access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.” The Global Hunger Index released by the International Food Policy Research Institute ranks India 66th among 88 vulnerable countries. Ironically farmers are amongst the millions who go hungry. A principal reason is that the economy has neglected agriculture, continuously discriminated against and exploited to subsidise the manufacturing and service sectors.

How to lie with statistics: The first method to downplay the issue is to crunch numbers, and reduce the statistics of hungry people. There are many contradictory reports and studies commissioned by the government. Conclusive figures vary. For example, according to the Planning Commission’s contentious Tendulkar Committee Report, calorie consumption is calculated at 1776 calories per person per day for urban areas, 1999 for rural areas. This is much below the ICMR (Indian Council of Medical Research) norms for the average person in India which is 2400 calories in rural areas and 2100 calories in urban areas. Having already restricted the supply of subsidised food grains to BPL families, the government brought down the BPL figures from 37.2 per cent in 2004-05 to 29.8 per cent in 2009-10. In one stroke, the government absolved itself of the responsibility of providing affordable food grain to those who, by medical standards, needed them. Yet while releasing the ‘Hungama’ report (2012), the Prime Minister was shocked to find 42 per cent of children malnourished, calling it a “national shame”.

The technology fix: “The country cannot feed its hungry millions, unless there is high tech Corporate agriculture!” According to the figures of the Ministry of Agriculture, in the last three years of 2009-10, 2010-2011 and 2011-12 food grain production broke records. The country produced approximately 240 million tonnes of cereals and 17 million tonnes of pulses last year. If this is procured and distributed efficiently, it should be enough to provide the stipulated calories for the entire population of the country. Instead, there is poor procurement, and potential wastage of millions of tonnes of food grain that will rot in railway yards, mandies, FCI godowns across the country. The population that will and has benefited most from this stark inability to deal with distribution are rats! Exporting food now, far from being a solution, will only aggravate hunger further.

Technology or political will: Facts and figures proclaim surplus despite accusations that the agriculture sector pulls down growth. But, the government has been making hunger and low production the reason to push a series of techno-fix solutions. It is part of a mindset that sees the solution in Northern style Agro-Business Corporations. The balance sheet of a technological solution can now be better measured in the cradles of the Green revolution — Punjab and Haryana — where the costs to the land and water table, and dependent relationship on the financiers and agro companies were never factored in. This model, propagated across the country, spelt rapid depletion of the natural capital for farming — soil, water and biodiversity. It also resulted in indebted farmers. It is inexplicable that a set of market economy policymakers, with a commitment to cost benefit analysis, should ignore depletion of basic capital — land that produces, and the (in)security of farmers in the market. There is also the wider national impact of these agrochemicals on health.

The latest addition to this treadmill of technologies being sold to farmers is Genetically Modified (GM) crops. It represents a paradigm shift in agriculture, with the potential to affect the consumers (food safety) and farmers (livelihood) security.

GM crops are controversial all over the world. Questions have been repeatedly raised against this technology being introduced in food and farming. When Bt Brinjal was introduced, it was the first GM food crop proposed for commercial cultivation. There was public opposition from all sections of society, including the fact that the bio-safety assessment on Bt Brinjal was not satisfactory. Jairam Ramesh, then Union Minister for Environment and Forests, concluded a series of public consultations on this contested policy, with a decision to enforce an indefinite moratorium on the proposal.

Alarm bells

In fact, the assessment of Bt cotton, the only commercially approved GM crop in the country, should ring alarm bells for policymakers obsessed with the idea of increased food production through GM technology. While the area under Bt cotton cultivation has certainly gone up over the last decade, data analysis shows productivity has not significantly increased, nor has pesticide use markedly decreased. In fact, cotton productivity has been on the decline in the last five years — a period when Bt cotton covered the majority of the cotton cultivated area in the country. Far from being a technological solution to rural poverty, Bt cotton has only increased the distress of those dependent on farming, and acutely so in the semi-arid cotton belt. Costs have increased due to the appearance of new pests and others developing Bt resistance, higher water and fertilizer requirements, and no major benefit in the output. The main beneficiaries of this transfer to Bt Cotton seem to be multinational seed companies like Monsanto which have profited through patents and royalty.

Attempts to flood agriculture with GM crops — around 71 at different stages of development in the pipeline — in fact pose a threat to long-term food security. The government seems unconcerned that this technology will further shift the control of agriculture to seed companies and corporate intermediaries. There is a growing body of science that points to the risk that GM food might pose to human health and environment. What insures us against the potential disaster to life and environment when side-effects emerge a few decades later?

While hasty techno-fixes to deal with the crisis in the farming community are afoot, malnutrition and genuine problems in the agricultural sector in the country fail to be seriously addressed. Farmers committing suicide are linked to the commercial pressures of tech dependent agriculture, along with the controls of companies, the market, and credit agencies. Increasing production is not the only solution to hunger in an unequal society. The debates around the National Food Security Bill reveal the lack of political intent to use food stocks to help remove malnutrition and address inequity. While talking of food security (a much larger right than just PDS), policymakers are reluctant to grant universal entitlements of even food grain to eradicate hunger.

India is, and will be, an agricultural economy. Communities dependent on farming have tremendously difficult jobs and very low incomes. In shifting to intensive mono cropping during the Green Revolution, farmers stopped cultivating diverse and subsistence crops, undermining their own basic food security. We need to ensure that people in agriculture lead economically secure lives. A rationally calculated Minimum Support Price is non-negotiable. Agricultural workers and farmers must have the purchasing power, for their own food security needs.

If we take “hunger day” seriously, every Indian who feeds more than twice a day, wasting food, and critiquing food entitlements, should feel contrite and join the campaign for a universal entitlement through the PDS. We should take a serious look at the politics of food, and not be taken in by potentially dangerous technological solutions like GM foods. The Indian government must move from platitudes to action. Undistributed grains must be moved immediately to people through the PDS and increased universal allocations under the proposed Right to Food Bill. Can we afford to wait for Parliament debates in the monsoon session as rains soak and rot open food stocks, and farmers struggle to find the money for inputs to sow their next crop?

(Aruna Roy is a social activist. Email: mkssrajasthan@gmail.com, arunaroy@gmail.com Neha Saigal is Sustainable Agriculture Campaigner, Greenpeace India)

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