Sumitra Behera is one of the teeming millions languishing in the countryside. An unknown Indian, somehow surviving against all odds, she recently figured in the news column when she decided to sell her one-month-old baby for a mere Rs 10.
It didn't shock the nation. No one was outraged, none of the newspapers decided to comment editorially on what was clearly a national disgrace. Not even one distinguished Member of Parliament, including those who swear by one-third reservation for women, stood up to draw the nation's attention to this shame. The media were busy gloating over the 'feel good' factor, a pointer to the historic peak of US $100 billion in foreign exchange reserves. There was jubilation all around, with the corporate leaders leading the cheer.
Meanwhile, news reports said that in the month of December 2003, three other families grappling with hunger in Angul, Puri and Keonjhar in Orissa had reportedly sold their children. Sale of children and body organs is not restricted to western Orissa or for that matter to neighbouring Jharkhand and Bihar. West Bengal is the largest supplier of girls, Andhra Pradesh is the next. The rest of the country is no better. You just have to peel off the media façade.
Look at Madhya Pradesh, for instance. A few months earlier, by the time, Jai Lal, a landless agricultural worker of Bandali village, in Sheopur district, returned to share the good news with his wife - that he finally managed to get a petty job with a shopkeeper - she had succumbed to hunger. A week later, graves were dug for his two children, both unable to continue with the prolonged fight against hunger.
Call it by any name, acute hunger and malnutrition forces unlucky parents to either sell off their children or to silently dig graves for them. Those who survive, undergo the ordeal of being sex workers, they are also exploited as labourers, drug peddlers and for their organs. Despite all talk and programmes, hunger has withstood the best and worst of times, only to emerge as robustly sustainable.
Only a month before, in November 2003, 7.5 million people had applied for a mere 38,000 vacancies in the Indian Railways. Thousands of those who applied for the post of 'gang man', one of the lowly jobs in the railways, were post-graduates and had even done their management degrees. The number of applicants had in fact exceeded the total population of Switzerland, was twice the population of Ireland, and was certainly a third more than the populations of Norway, Finland and New Zealand. The numbers say it all. After 56 dead in the riots that followed, and the 38,000 who eventually got the employment, more than 7.45 million of those who were applicants, are still waiting for a job.
No wonder, the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) are excited at the rising foreign exchange reserves. They surely have enough reasons to 'feel good'. For the rest of the country, there is hardly anything bright on the horizon.
The paradox of plenty - acute and widespread hunger amidst overflowing foodstocks - exists at a time when the country is poised towards a high-growth trajectory. At the beginning of the millennium - in 2001 - India boasted of a food surplus of 65 million tonnes while 320 million went to bed empty stomach. Strange are the ways of the political masters, that while the country incurred Rs 62,000 million to keep the foodgrains stacked in the open, it had no money to distribute it to the needy. Mainline economists in fact suggested food exports as a viable way out. Some parliamentarians even talked of throwing the food into the sea to make way for the next harvest.
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. With every passing year, India has been sinking deeper into a quagmire of deprivation and despair.
At the national level, more than 135 million people have no access to basic health facilities; 226 million lack access to safe drinking water; about half of India's adult population is illiterate; and about 70 per cent of its population lacks basic sanitation facilities. We have the world's largest population of diseased and disabled. Their number continues to multiply. With nearly 52 per cent of the population earning less than two dollar a day, the economic models of growth have only succeeded to extend the poverty line to bring in every year a sizeable percentage of the population within its deadly grip.
It is widely accepted that one of the surest ways to remove poverty is to make agriculture more profitable, and of course productive. With nearly 70 per cent of the country's population directly or indirectly involved with farming, agriculture should have received the top priority in policy planning. Instead, all efforts are directed at depriving agriculture of its due share thereby aiming at further marginalisation of farming communities. At a time when agricultural subsidies are being gradually withdrawn under pressure from the World Bank/IMF, the government is also toying with the idea of dismantling food procurement system so as to push the gullible farmers to face the vagaries of the markets.
The minimum support price that is provided for a select number of staple crops is therefore being projected to have reached the 'maximum' limits as a result of which agricultural commodities are priced out in the international market. The support price for wheat and rice has therefore been frozen at the last year's level. The statutory minimum price for sugarcane, linked to a certain percentage of sugar recovery, too is being lowered so that the powerful sugar industry can have more profits.
There is no economic rationale for freezing the farm support prices. The government has been misled to believe that the higher procurement prices are the culprit when it comes to farm commodity exports. The international prices for agricultural commodities are low because of the huge agricultural subsidies that North America, European Union and for that matter the other OECD countries provide to its agriculture. The more the subsidies, more is the price slump in the international market. Artificially low global prices therefore are not the real criteria to measure the competitiveness of Indian agriculture produce.
The competitiveness of Indian agriculture has to be seen in the context of its cost of cultivation. This too is being wrongly measured, comparing with the subsidised prices that western farmers are being given. The flaw is clearly evident. Let us work out the cost of producing one kilo of wheat in North America with that of in India. Even with the huge farm size that North America is known for, the cost of production is several times more than what the Indian farmer on an average has. There is therefore no justification in depriving the Indian farmers of their legitimate source of income. Not paying the farmers a higher price does have a negative impact on the rural economy, which does get transferred as more food insecurity.
In reality, the government has been seeking refuge under the garb of increasing fiscal deficit so as to deprive the farmers a higher crop price. Last year, the Ministry of Agriculture had proposed a hike of Rs 30 per quintal increase for wheat price. The Finance Ministry had turned down the proposal saying that the price hike will bring an additional burden of Rs 3000 million on the state exchequer. Ironically, fiscal deficit has never been the consideration when the government doles out massive funds for the telecom industry, the IT industry or the new sunrise industry - biotechnology.
Agriculture, the mainstay of the Indian economy, is the most neglected. Neglecting agriculture has resulted in increased joblessness and thereby more food insecurity. The negative terms of trade against agriculture have to be turned around if the country is keen to emerge from the hunger and poverty trap. It is time the 600 million farmers too begin to 'feel good', and the resulting domino effect will be electrifying.