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More food, more hunger
On the other side of the world, in Argentina, the agonizing experience of starvation amidst plenty echoes India's continuing agricultural disaster.
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December 2002 - Finance Minister Jaswant Singh presented the mid-term review in Parliament, emphasizing the need to boost private investment in agriculture thereby encouraging commodity exports. Probably what he forgot to state was that India had decided to follow Argentina's model of economic growth, which in reality lines up the profits of a few agri-business enterprises at the cost of growing hunger, malnutrition and abject poverty.

Argentina, the world's fourth biggest exporter of food, faces an unprecedented socio-economic crisis. As the vast, fertile country continues to increase exports of meat, wheat, corn and soya this year, a catastrophe has hit the under-privileged in the countryside. As hunger multiplies, images of stunted, emaciated children have scandalised Argentina, long known as the grain store of the world. Likewise, hunger continues to grow in India, which alone has one-third of the world's estimated 860 million people who go to bed hungry, and that too in times of plenty. In fact, hunger and poverty have proved to be robustly sustainable. Amidst reports of gnawing hunger and starvation deaths in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa that hit the national headlines a few weeks back, India continues to make room for exporting surplus foodgrains. That an estimated 320 million people desperately need food, despite more than 60 million tones stocked in the open, has failed to evoke any political expediency.

Perceived by the neo-classic pundits as the glorious model of economic growth, an unprecedented humanitarian crisis confronts Argentina. In India too, with the increased domination of market forces in the food sector, and reduced public policy intervention for food security, food prices have increased. Jaswant Singh has promised to further cut down subsidies and reduce the government's intervention in foodgrain procurement. Already, India's Export-Import Policy of 2001-02 lays a major thrust on promotion of agricultural exports. Exports have increased by 10 per cent every year since 1991; they rose from Rs 29.7 billion in 1994 to Rs 76.7 billion in 1997.

Between April-August 2002, export of wheat grew by 32% and of rice by 75% compared to the corresponding months in the previous fiscal year. Agriculture and allied products grew by an impressive 8.22 per cent in the same period. However, other traditional export segments like plantation crops (tea and spices) and edible oils continue to be faced with growing imports with the lowering of the import duties and removal of quantitative restrictions. Instead of imposing duties that minimize the impact of cheap imports, the government has provided Rs 5000 million to bail out the plantation sector. While the small producers are driven out by cheaper imports, the major producers have their losses written-off.

While people die of hunger, the government sits atop a mountain of food grains. In 2001, starvation deaths were reported in over 13 states while the storage facilities of the Food Corporation of India (FCI) were full of grains, some of it rotting and rat-infested. There was a proposal to dump it in the sea, to make storage space for the next crop, when export markets could not be found for this surplus. In 2002, reports of hunger and starvation deaths have also regularly poured in from the country's progressive and economically fast-growing states - Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.

The Guardian (Nov 25, 2002) explains the dichotomy of economic growth in Argentina, quoting the Centre for Child Nutrition Studies, which advises the World Health Organisation, as saying that 20 per cent of children in the Latin American country are suffering from malnutrition. Dr Oscar Hillal, the deputy director of the children's hospital in Tucuman, said: "This is not Africa, this is Argentina, where there are 50 million cattle and 39 million people - but where we have a government which is totally out of touch with the people's needs."

Some of the children pictured in northeastern Tucuman province had bloated stomachs, blotchy skin and dry hair associated with severe protein deficiency. The national charity Red Solidaria said that 60 children a month were being taken to hospital with severe malnutrition, and 400 were being treated as outpatients. Five non-government organisations from Tucuman recently filed a legal suit against Tucuman's governor Julio Miranda for "wilful neglect" of the children who have died of malnutrition in his province, where 64% of people live in extreme poverty. They accused him of diverting national funding for social programmes into "clientelism and corruption".

A year earlier, a case was filed by some NGOs in the Supreme Court in India asking for directions to ensure the fundamental right to food of every citizen. A Bench comprising Justice B N Kripal and Justice K G Balakrishnan had directed the government to "devise a scheme where no person goes hungry when the granaries are full and lots being wasted due to non-availability of storage space." To the Attorney General's plea that devising such a scheme would require at least two weeks, the Court had allowed for enough time frame. It has also sought affidavits from the State governments of Orissa, Rajasthan, Chattisgarh, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh detailing their response to meet the unprecedented situation of "scarcity among plenty".

A year and a half later starvation deaths were reported from Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, while the exports of wheat and rice had grown. Malnutrition continues to multiply, more so among children and women. And a day after Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee announced in mid-November that 1.3 million tonnes of foodgrains costing Rs 15,000 million have been distributed in the country under various drought relief programmes, a damming survey conducted in Madhya Pradesh found 6,785 children in 43 blocks of Shivpuri district severely malnourished - an average of 160 per block. Yet all that the prime minister did was to call for an all party meeting to discuss the crisis emerging from drought and hunger.

Elsewhere it is the same story of desperation and apathy. Of people fighting drought alone and desperate to get out in search of menial jobs. When the Puri-Okha Express pulled into the Berhampur Railway Station, the Indian Express reported a few weeks back, the platform erupted into chaos. More than a thousand youths, fighting to clamber on to leave Berhampur for Surat, were ready to kill or be killed for space in the two general compartments of the train. Some were ready to travel to Surat and Mumbai hanging near the doorway. Those who could not board broke the window panes of the express in frustration. Surendra Nayak of Phasi village in Kodola block of Ganjam district had spent Rs 272 from his precious savings of Rs 700 to buy a ticket for Surat. But in the melee, he could not get on and had to head back home to his village. Hardly 22 years of age, Surendra took the step to leave as his father is unable to earn and drought has rendered their land useless. With much difficulty he had arranged the Rs 700, of which Rs 300 was spent on the now wasted trip to Berhampur.

"Lack of employment has forced us to leave for Surat...apathy of the Railways and administration has shattered our hopes," he told Indian Express.

Far away in Argentina, some 450,000 jobs have been lost since October last year, leaving one in every five people unemployed, one in two living in poverty, and one in four destitute. Salaries have lost 70 per cent of their value and the economy is shrinking at a rate of 14 per cent, while inflation is running at 40%. In Tucuman province, as The Guardian reported, parents admitted to feeding their babies and infants with sugary green tea instead of milk or food, which they often cannot afford. "I hardly had any breast milk" said 24-year-old Roxana de Benedetti, whose five-year-old son Hector died three weeks ago in Villa La Carmela, a shanty town outside Tucuman, and whose six-month-old daughter Milagros, who weighs only 2.8 kg (just over 6 lbs), is in the children's hospital in Tucuman. "They told me I needed fortified milk powder, but it costs 10 pesos a box. Thank God they'll give it to her in there."

For the political masters of both countries, aided and abetted by the fast emerging class of economists, agricultural exports remain the only path to speedy growth. Reams of paper have already been wasted in theories, reports and studies detailing out the virtues of export-oriented growth that can help eradicate poverty and hunger. It isn't unusual to find economists like Jagdish Bhagwati, Lord Meghnad Desai and George Soros singing in chorus to the tunes of free trade and more liberalized economy, of leaving farmers at the mercy of market forces and withdrawing the state support to agriculture as quickly as possible. After all, what have they to lose? Not even their jobs.

In an astonishing and honest admission, Argentina's production minister, Anibal Fernandez attributed the child deaths to "a sick society and a ruling class that are sons of bitches, all of them, myself included. "If not, this would not be happening," he told The Guardian. "It is a chronic and cumulative problem. It has been going on for many years and everyone has been turning a blind eye." One wonders, how many of the Heads of State of the WTO member countries will stand up to measure Argentina's Anibal Fernandez. Accepting the fault is the first step towards resurrecting the policy blunders. Hoping against hope is what optimism is all about in these days of corporate control and market economy where poor and hungry are nothing more than unfortunate statistics in the way of development.

Devinder Sharma
December 2002

Devinder Sharma is a New Delhi-based food and trade policy analyst. Among his recent works include two books GATT to WTO: Seeds of Despair and In the Famine Trap