India: World Bank & Govt policies enrich agri-corporations at expense of food sovereignty & security Print E-mail

 | Wednesday May 12th, 2010

India Shining or India Starving?

By Vandana Shiva

India became independent soon after the Great Bengal Famine that claimed two million lives. An independent and free India reclaimed her food sovereignty and food security.

The Harijan, a newspaper published by Mahatma Gandhi and banned from 1942 to 1946, was full of articles written by Gandhi during 1946-1947 on how to deal with food scarcity politically, and by Mira Behn, Kumarappa and Pyarelal on how to grow more food using internal resources. On June 10, 1947, referring to the food problem at a prayer meeting, Gandhi said: “The first lesson we must learn is of self-help and self-reliance. If we assimilate this lesson, we shall at once free ourselves from disastrous dependence upon foreign countries and ultimate bankruptcy. This is not said in arrogance but as a matter of fact. We are not a small place... We are a subcontinent, a nation of nearly 400 millions. We are a country of mighty rivers and a rich variety of agricultural land with inexhaustible cattle-wealth. That our cattle give much less milk than we need is entirely our own fault. Our cattle-wealth is any day capable of giving us all the milk we need. Our country, if it had not been neglected during the past few centuries, should not today only be providing herself with sufficient food, but also be playing a useful role in supplying the outside world with much-needed foodstuffs of which the late war has unfortunately left practically the whole world in want. This does not exclude India”.

Recognising that the crisis in agriculture was related to a breakdown of nature’s processes, India’s first agriculture minister, K.M. Munshi, worked out a detailed strategy on rebuilding and regenerating the ecological base of productivity in agriculture, with the recognition that the diversity of India’s soils, crops and climates had to be taken into account. The need to plan from the bottom, to consider every individual village and sometimes every individual field was considered essential for the programme called “land transformation”. At a seminar on September 27, 1951, Munshi told the state directors of agricultural extension: “Study the life’s cycle in the village under your charge in both its aspects ­ hydrological and nutritional. Find out where the cycle has been disturbed and estimate the steps necessary for restoring it. Work out the village in four of its aspects: existing conditions; steps necessary for completing the hydrological cycle; steps necessary to complete the nutritional cycle, and a complete picture of the village when the cycle is restored; and have faith in yourself and the programme. Nothing is too mean and nothing too difficult for the man who believes that the restoration of the life’s cycle is not only essential for freedom and happiness of India but is essential for her very existence”.

THE FOOD system is broken once again. Per capita consumption has dropped from 177 cal/day to 150 cal/day. And it has been broken deliberately through the Structural Adjustment Policies of the World Bank, part of the trade liberalisation rules of the World Trade Organisation. It is also being continuously broken by the obsession of the government to turn seed, food and land into marketable commodities so that corporate profits grow, even though farmers commit suicide and children starve. Two lakh farmers have committed suicide in India since 1997. Farmers’ suicides are triggered by debt, and the debt trap is created by a corporate-driven agriculture that maximises corporate profits by pushing non-renewable seeds and agri-chemicals on impoverished and innocent farmers. Every fourth Indian is hungry today, according to United Nations data. India has beaten Sub-Saharan Africa as the capital of hunger: One million children die every year as a result of under-nutrition and hunger; 61 million children are stunted; 25 million are wasted; 42 per cent of the world’s underweight children are now in India.

Tinkering with fragments of the broken chain will not fix it. The food chain begins with the natural capital of soil, water and seed. The second link is the work of hardworking small, marginal farmers and landless peasants, most of whom are women. The final link is eating.

The first link has been broken by ecological degradation and corporate hijack of seed, land and water. When peasants lose access to land, seed and water, they lose access to food. Increase in hunger is a direct consequence.

The second link that has been broken is the capacity of the farmer, the food producer, to produce food. Rising costs of production, falling farm prices, and the destruction of food procurement by dismantling the public distribution system (PDS) creates debt. Since farmers are the backbone of India’s food security and food sovereignty, breaking the farmers’ back is breaking the nation’s food security. There can be no food security in a deepening agrarian crisis.

The third link in the food chain is people’s entitlement and right to food. The combination of rising food prices, decreasing production of pulses and nutritious millets has reduced the access of the poor to adequate food and nutrition. Hunger and malnutrition are its inevitable consequences.

And while millions of our fellow citizens starve, the government fiddles with poverty figures ­ 37 per cent in the Tendulkar Committee Report, 50 per cent in the Saxena Report, 77 per cent in the Unorganised Sector Report. This is a deliberate attempt to avoid addressing the rootcause of hunger and poverty. Poverty is a consequence, not a cause. But instead of addressing the food crisis, the government is addressing a fragment of the consequences of the crisis.

In the context of the food and nutrition crisis, the proposed National Food Security Act (NFSA) is a mere fig leaf. It is inadequate because it ignores the first two links in the food chain, and reduces the scope of existing schemes for the poor and vulnerable. For example, the NFSA offers only 25 kgs of grain, instead of the 35 kgs per family per month fixed by the Supreme Court. The Indian Council of Medical Research fixes the caloric norms at 2,400 Kcal in rural areas and 2,100 Kcal in urban areas. The Tendulkar Committee, which is now the Planning Commission’s official basis, fixes average calorie consumption at 1,776 Kcal in urban areas and 1,999 Kcal for rural areas. Through juggling figures the hungry become well fed, the poor become non-poor.

Food security demands a universal PDS that serves both the poor farmers and the poor eaters by ensuring fair prices throughout the food chain. Instead the government is committed to ever-narrowing “targeting” because it is committed to handing over agriculture to global agri-business, and handling over so-called food security schemes to companies like Sodexo who will collect our tax money to distribute food coupons to the poor, who will in turn use the food coupons to increase the profits of MNCs.

As small farmers are displaced by agri-businesses, the destruction of natural capital will increase, further weakening the first link in the food chain. The agrarian crisis facing two-thirds of rural India will deepen. For a country as large, as poor, as hungry as India, food sovereignty and self-reliance in food production is not a luxury, it is a food security imperative.

- Dr Vandana Shiva is the executive director of the Navdanya Trust