India exports food while millions starve

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Profits before people … while 320 million of its people go hungry every night, India has become the world’s largest rice exporter, and is considering exporting ‘excess’ wheat as well.

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by Devinder Sharma

Devinder Sharma is an award-winning Indian journalist, writer, and researcher who specializes in food and trade policy. These two articles, first published in his blog, Ground Reality, explode the myth that hunger in India is caused by overpopulation or inadequate food production.  


[Ground Reality, December 23, 2011] 

It’s a paradox of plenty. At a time when India ranks 67th among 81 countries in the 2011 Global Hunger Index prepared by the International Food Policy Research Institute, mountains of grain continue to rot in godowns while more recently, irate farmers spilled tonnes of potatoes on the streets in Punjab. A few months ago, it was tomato farmers in Jharkhand, and then it was the turn of onion growers in Rajasthan. And if you think this is a recent phenomenon, you are mistaken. I have seen this happening for nearly 25 years now across the country at regular intervals.

Disgusting, isn’t it? Well, the visuals of food rotting speak volumes of the criminal apathy, neglect and callousness with which we, as a nation, have failed to address the shameful scourge of hunger. For a country that has the dubious distinction of having the largest population of hungry in the world — close to 320 million — and with 42 percent of children officially clubbed as malnourished, the spectacle of massive quantities of food being allowed to go waste is an unpardonable crime. What is still worse is that hunger proliferates in a country that claims to be the world’s largest democracy.

For nearly five years, procurement has hovered at 50-60 million tonnes. Someone had worked it out that if we keep a bag of grain over another, and stack 60 million tonnes in a vertical row, we could actually walk to the moon and back. With so much of surplus grain, and with unmanageable quantities of fruits and vegetables rotting by the roadside, there is no justification for growing hunger. At the same time, it is baffling to find staple food being exported while the population of the hungry and malnourished continues to multiply. No wonder, hunger continues to keep pace with economic growth.

Over the years, farming has become a big gamble. It is not only the worrisome vagaries of weather that more often than not plays havoc, farmers are also faced with a strange phenomenon — produce and perish. Take the case of Suryabhagwan, a farmer in the East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh. This year, he voluntarily announced that he would rather work as a ‘coolie’ than undertake paddy cultivation. Already under heavy debt and knowing that another season of paddy cultivation will only add to his indebtedness, his call for a ‘crop holiday’ soon reverberated. Within weeks, the idea spread like wildfire, with the result that now more than 1 lakh hectares in the two irrigated districts of East and West Godavari lie barren.

AP is a paddy growing area. While production has been steadily on an upswing over the years, adequate market infrastructure for procurement has not been created. The result is that despite a very high production capacity, there is little space for storage. This is not only true of AP or for that matter Punjab and Haryana, the country’s food bowl, but extends to the whole country. The tragedy manifested after the initial years of the Green Revolution, when food became abundantly available. The focus then shifted away from agriculture. With public sector investment drastically falling over the past few decades, agriculture was left at the mercy of the rain gods. Protecting every single grain of food produced to feed the growing population of deprived sections never became a national priority.

While production increased, the accompanying market and storage infrastructure were not created. India does not even have the capacity to handle and absorb an excess production of 5 percent, whether it is of wheat, potato or cotton. Whatever the policymakers may say, the neglect of agriculture was deliberate. It is essentially designed to open up agriculture to private investment. Farmers have been the victims of a bigger and hidden design to push them out of agriculture. The more they produce, the more they suffer. Produce and perish, and thereby make way for corporate agriculture.



[Ground Reality, May 26, 2012] At a time when the total food stocks are likely to swell to a record 75 million tonnes by June 1, out of which nearly 25 million tonnes of the stocks will be piled up in the open for lack of storage space, the demand for allowing exports is already growing. Ministry of Commerce has already started an exercise to know how much quantity of wheat can be allowed for exports.

It is a strange paradox of plenty. While on the one hand India is overladen with mounting food stocks, on the other nearly 320 million people go to bed hungry. The number of hungry and malnourished in India almost equals the entire population of America. When it comes to malnutrition, several studies have pointed out that nearly 50 per cent of children are malnourished. India fares worst than even sub-Saharan Africa. According to the 2011 Global Hunger Index India ranks 67 among 81 countries, sliding below Rwanda.

With the per capita availability of foodgrains – including cereals and pulses – sliding to 441 grams per day in 2010, from a high of 480 grams in 1991 when the economic reforms began, it is quite evident that the extent of hunger is growing. Although an impression is being given that as incomes are seeing a rising trend, more people have shifted from cereals to nutritious foods like eggs, meat and fruits. This is however not correct. According to a 2010 report of the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), the consumption of cereals as well as nutritious foods like fruits, milk and eggs too is falling in urban and rural areas.

Continuously rising food inflation over the past several years has certainly widened the gap between the haves and have nots. Experts agree that for a large section of the population, buying two square meals a day is now becoming more difficult. In other words, hunger is becoming more acute. More and more people are going to bed hungry. I therefore don’t understand the logic of exporting food at a time when millions are living in hunger.

The mounting food surplus is essentially because the poor and needy are unable to buy foodgrains even at below the poverty line prices. Ironically, while the poor live in hunger, India is contemplating exports. In 2011-12, with India’s rice exports touching 7 million tonnes, it has emerged as the biggest exporter of rice in the world. Opening up the export of wheat (it is banned at present) India will certainly join the ranks of the major food exporters, and in the process earn some foreign exchange. But the bigger question remains as to who will feed the hungry living within the country?

There can be nothing more criminal for any hungry nation to export its staple food. It is the primary responsibility of the government, as enshrined in the Directive Principles, to ensure that every citizen is well-fed. Unfortunately what is not being realised is the declining fall in per capita availability of foodgrains matches the availability at the time of Bengal famine in 1943. Isn’t it sad that even after 70 years of Bengal famine, we still live in the shadow of hunger and starvation? How can any sensible nation therefore justify food exports?

Food management essentially means distributing the available foodgrains among the poor and hungry. Export of staple foods therefore must be immediately stopped, and all out efforts have to be made to take the foodgrains to the doors of the hungry millions. This is the primary responsibility of every government.