The farm crisis: why have over one lakh farmers killed themselves in the past decade? Parliament lecture, 2007 by Sainath

070906 Sainath Parlimentary lecture Farm Crisis

Speaker’s Lecture Series: Parliament House, Sept. 6, 2007
The farm crisis: why have over one lakh farmers killed themselves in the past decade?
P. Sainath
Rural Affairs Editor, The Hindu
We, as a nation, are in the worst agrarian crisis in four decades. It is impossible to cover such a large issue in full. So I am going to be dealing with it in fragments today. I would like to stress that the crisis is so deep, so advanced that: firstly, no State, nobody, is exempt from this and it is not to be seen as the crisis of one State or one Government or one Party. It is a national crisis and we need to respond to it as such. It is a huge thing. In that crisis, the suicides are merely, however tragic, just a symptom and not the disease. They are a consequence, not the process.

Farm suicides rise in Maharashtra, State still leads the list



It accounted for well over a fifth of the total of 14,027 deaths in 2011


With a figure of at least 14,027 in 2011, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), the total number of farm suicides since 1995 has touched 2,70, 940. The State of Maharashtra shows a rise in numbers yet again, logging 3,337 against 3,141 farmers’ suicides the previous year (and 2,872 in 2009). This, despite heavy massaging of data at the State level for years now, even re-defining of the term “farmer” itself. And despite an orchestrated (and expensive) campaign in the media and other forums by governments and major seed corporations to show that their efforts had made things a lot better. Maharashtra remains the worst single State for farm suicides for over a decade now.
The total number of farmers who have taken their own lives in Maharashtra since 1995 is closing in on 54,000. Of these 33,752 have occurred in nine years since 2003, at an annual average of 3,750. The figure for 1995-2002 was 20,066 at an average of 2,508. Significantly, the rise is occurring even as the farm population is shrinking a fact broadly true across the country. And more so in Maharashtra which has been urbanising more rapidly than most. The rising-suicides-shrinking-population equation suggests a major intensification of the pressures on the community. A better understanding of that, though, awaits the new farm population figures of the 2011 Census — not expected for many months from now. At present both national and State-wise farm suicide ratios (the number of farmers committing suicide per 100,000 farmers) are based on very outdated 2001 Census numbers.
Big five States
The 2011 total gets dicey with Chhattisgarh’s posting a figure of zero farm suicides. A zero figure should be great news. Except that Chhattisgarh had 7,777 farm suicides in the preceding five years, including 1,126 in 2010. It has been amongst the very worst States for such deaths for several years. The share of the worst (Big 5) states (Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh) as a percentage of total farm suicides, is now around 64 per cent. Even with Chhattisgarh showing a ‘zero’ figure, that is not much lower than the preceding five-year average for the Big 5 of close to 66 per cent. It could be that Chhattisgarh’s figures have simply not made it to the NCRB in time. Otherwise, it means that the State is in fact a late entrant to the numbers massage parlour. Others have been doing it for years. Maharashtra since 2007, following the Prime Minister’s visit to Vidarbha. Union Minister for Agriculture Sharad Pawar has strictly avoided using NCRB farm data in Parliament since 2008 because the data are unpleasant. (The union government however quotes the NCRB for all other categories). Now, governments are deep into fiddling the data that goes from the States to the NCRB.
With the Big 5 also staring drought in the face, what numbers the coming season will throw up is most worrying. Within Maharashtra, Vidarbha and Marathwada have already been under great stress (which in turn pushes officials to step up data fiddles). If the numbers are re-calculated using the annual average of Chhattisgarh in the past five years, the national total of farm suicides for 2011 would be 15,582. And the share of the Big 5 (at 10,524) would be nearly 68 per cent. That’s higher than the five-year average for those States, too. In 1995, the first time the NCRB tabulated farm suicide data, the Big 5 accounted for 56.04 per cent of all farm suicides.
In 2011, five States showed increases of over 50 farm suicides compared to 2010. These included Gujarat (55), Haryana (87), Madhya Pradesh (89), Tamil Nadu (82). Maharashtra alone showed a rise of 196. Nine States showed declines exceeding 50 farm suicides, of which Karnataka (485) and Andhra Pradesh (319) and West Bengal (186) claimed the biggest falls. That, of course, after Chhattisgarh, which claimed a decline of 1,126, with its zero farm suicides figure in 2011.

Reaping gold through cotton, and newsprint: P. SAINATH

http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/article3401466.ece?homepage=true

A facsimile of The Times of India’s August 28, 2011 page with the ‘marketing feature’ on Bt Cotton.

A facsimile of The Times of India’s August 28, 2011 page with the ‘marketing feature’ on Bt Cotton.

The same full page appeared twice in three years, the first time as news, the second time as an advertisement

“Not a single person from the two villages has committed suicide.”

Three and a half years ago, at a time when the controversy over the use of genetically modified seeds was raging across India, a newspaper story painted a heartening picture of the technology’s success. “There are no suicides here and people are prospering on agriculture. The switchover from the conventional cotton to Bollgard or Bt Cotton here has led to a social and economic transformation in the villages [of Bhambraja and Antargaon] in the past three-four years.” (Times of India, October 31, 2008).

So heartening was this account that nine months ago, the same story was run again in the same newspaper, word for word. (Times of India, August 28, 2011). Never mind that the villagers themselves had a different story to tell.

“There have been 14 suicides in our village,” a crowd of agitated farmers in Bhambraja told shocked members of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture in March this year. “Most of them after Bt came here.” The Hinduwas able to verify nine that had occurred between 2003 and 2009. Activist groups count five more since then. All after 2002, the year the TOI story says farmers here switched to Bt. Prospering on agriculture? The villagers told the visibly shaken MPs: “Sir, lots of land is lying fallow. Many have lost faith in farming.” Some have shifted to soybean where “at least the losses are less.”

Over a hundred people, including landed farmers, have migrated from this ‘model farming village’ showcasing Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech’s Bt Cotton. “Many more will leave because agriculture is dying,” Suresh Ramdas Bhondre had predicted during our first visit to Bhambraja last September.

The 2008 full-page panegyric in the TOI on Monsanto’s Bt Cotton rose from the dead soon after the government failed to introduce the Biotech Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill in Parliament in August 2011. The failure to table the Bill — crucial to the future profits of the agri-biotech industry — sparked frenzied lobbying to have it brought in soon. The full-page, titled Reaping Gold through Bt Cotton on August 28 was followed by a flurry of advertisements from Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech (India) Ltd., in the TOI (and some other papers), starting the very next day. These appeared on August 29, 30, 31, September 1 and 3. The Bill finally wasn’t introduced either in the monsoon or winter session — though listed for business in both — with Parliament bogged down in other issues. Somebody did reap gold, though, with newsprint if not with Bt Cotton.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture appeared unimpressed by the ad barrage, which also seemed timed for the committee’s deliberations on allowing genetically modified food crops. Disturbed by reports of mounting farm suicides and acute distress in Vidarbha, committee members, who belong to different parties, decided to visit the region.

Bhambraja, touted as a model for Mahyco-Monsanto’s miracle Bt, was an obvious destination for the committee headed by veteran parliamentarian Basudeb Acharia. Another was Maregaon-Soneburdi. But the MPs struck no gold in either village. Only distress arising from the miracle’s collapse and a raft of other, government failures.

The issues (and the claims made by the TOI in its stories) have come alive yet again with the debate sparked off by the completion of 10 years of Bt cotton in India in 2012. The “Reaping Gold through Bt Cotton” that appeared on August 28 last year, presented itself as “A consumer connect initiative.” In other words, a paid-for advertisement. The bylines, however, were those of professional reporters and photographers of the Times of India. More oddly, the story-turned-ad had already appeared, word-for-word, in the Times of India, Nagpur on October 31, 2008. The repetition was noticed and ridiculed by critics. The August 28, 2011 version itself acknowledged this unedited ‘reprint’ lightly. What appeared in 2008, though, was not marked as an advertisement. What both versions do acknowledge is: “The trip to Yavatmal was arranged by Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech.”

The company refers to the 2008 feature as “a full-page news report” filed by the TOI. “The 2008 coverage was a result of the media visit and was based on the editorial discretion of the journalists involved. We only arranged transport to-and-from the fields,” a Mahyco Monsanto Biotech India spokesperson told The Hindu last week. “The 2011 report was an unedited reprint of the 2008 coverage as a marketing feature.” The 2008 “full-page news report” appeared in the Nagpur edition. The 2011 “marketing feature” appeared in multiple editions (which you can click to online under ‘special reports’) but not in Nagpur, where it would surely have caused astonishment.

So the same full-page appeared twice in three years, the first time as news, the second time as an advertisement. The first time done by the staff reporter and photographer of a newspaper. The second time exhumed by the advertising department. The first time as a story trip ‘arranged by Mahyco-Monsanto.’ The second time as an advertisement arranged by Mahyco-Monsanto. The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

The company spokesperson claimed high standards of transparency in that “…we insisted that the publication add the source and dateline as follows: ‘This is a reprint of a story from the Times of India, Nagpur edition, October 31, 2008.’ But the spokesperson’s e-mail reply to The Hindu‘s questions is silent on the timing of the advertisements. “In 2011, we conducted a communications initiative for a limited duration aimed at raising awareness on the role of cotton seeds and plant biotechnologies in agriculture.” Though The Hindu raised the query, there is no mention of why the ads were run during the Parliament session when the BRAI Bill was to have come up, but didn’t.

But there’s more. Some of the glowing photographs accompanying the TOI coverage of the Bt miracle were not taken in Bhambraja or Antargaon, villagers allege. “This picture is not from Bhambraja, though the people in it are” says farmer Babanrao Gawande from that village.

Phantom miracle

The Times of India story had a champion educated farmer in Nandu Raut who is also an LIC agent. His earnings shot up with the Bt miracle. “I made about Rs.2 lakhs the previous year,” Nandu Raut told me last September. “About Rs.1.6 lakh came from the LIC policies I sold.” In short, he earned from selling LIC policies four times what he earned from farming. He has seven and a half acres and a four-member family.

But the TOI story has him earning “Rs.20,000 more per acre (emphasis added) due to savings in pesticide.” Since he grew cotton on four acres, that was a “saving” of Rs. 80,000 “on pesticide.” Quite a feat. As many in Bhambraja say angrily: “Show us one farmer here earning Rs.20,000 per acre at all, let alone that much more per acre.” A data sheet from a village-wide survey signed by Mr. Raut (in The Hindu‘s possession) also tells a very different story on his earnings.

The ridicule that Bhambraja and Maregaon farmers pour on the Bt ‘miracle’ gains credence from the Union Agriculture Minister’s figures. “Vidarbha produces about 1.2 quintals [cotton lint] per hectare on average,” Sharad Pawar told Parliament on December 19, 2011. That is a shockingly low figure. Twice that figure would still be low. The farmer sells his crop as raw cotton. One-hundred kg of raw cotton gives 35 kg of lint and 65 kg of cotton seed (of which up to two kg is lost in ginning). And Mr. Pawar’s figure translates to just 3.5 quintals of raw cotton per hectare. Or merely 1.4 quintals per acre. Mr. Pawar also assumed farmers were getting a high price of Rs.4,200 per quintal. He conceded that this was close to “the cost of cultivation… and that is why I think such a serious situation is developing there.” If Mr. Pawar’s figure was right, it means Nandu Raut’s gross income could not have exceeded Rs.5,900 per acre. Deduct his input costs — of which 1.5 packets of seed alone accounts for around Rs.1,400 — and he’s left with almost nothing. Yet, the TOI has him earning “Rs.20,000 more per acre.”

Asked if they stood by these extraordinary claims, the Mahyco-Monsanto spokesperson said, “We stand by the quotes of our MMB India colleague, as published in the news report.” Ironically, that single-paragraph quote, in the full-page-news story-turned-ad, makes no mention of the Rs.20,000-plus per acre earnings or any other figure. It merely speaks of Bt creating “increased income of cotton growers…” and of growth in Bt acreage. It does not mention per acre yields. And says nothing about zero suicides in the two villages. So the company carefully avoids direct endorsement of the TOI’s claims, but uses them in a marketing feature where they are the main points.

The MMB spokesperson’s position on these claims is that “the journalists spoke directly with farmers on their personal experiences during the visits, resulting in various news reports, including the farmer quotes.”

The born-again story-turned-ad also has Nandu Raut reaping yields of “about 20 quintals per acre with Bollgard II,” nearly 14 times the Agriculture Minister’s average of 1.4 quintals per acre. Mr. Pawar felt that Vidarbha’s rainfed irrigation led to low yields, as cotton needs “two to three waterings.” He was silent on why Maharashtra, ruled by an NCP-Congress alliance, promotes Bt Cotton in almost entirely rainfed regions. The Maharashtra State Seed Corporation (Mahabeej) distributes the very seeds the State’s Agriculture Commissioner found to be unsuited for rainfed regions seven years ago. Going by the TOI, Nandu is rolling in cash. Going by the Minister, he barely stays afloat.

Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech’s ad barrage the same week in 2011 drew other fire. Following a complaint, one of the ads (also appearing in another Delhi newspaper) claiming huge monetary benefits to Indian farmers landed before the Advertising Standards Council of India. ASCI “concluded that the claims made in the advertisement and cited in the complaint, were not substantiated.” The MMB spokesperson said the company “took cognizance of the points made by ASCI and revised the advertisement promptly…. ASCI has, on record, acknowledged MMB India’s modification of the advertisement…”

We met Nandu again as the Standing Committee MPs left his village in March. “If you ask me today,” he said, “I would say don’t use Bt here, in unirrigated places like this. Things are now bad.” He had not raised a word during the meeting with the MPs, saying he had arrived too late to do so.

“We have thrown away the moneylender. No one needs him anymore,” The Times of India news report-turned-ad quotes farmer Mangoo Chavan as saying. That’s in Antargaon, the other village the newspaper found to be basking in Bt-induced prosperity. A study of the 365 farm households in Bhambraja and the nearly 150 in Antargaon by the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti (VJAS) shows otherwise. “Almost all farmers with bank accounts are in critical default and 60 per cent of farmers are also in debt to private moneylenders,” says VJAS chief Kishor Tiwari.

The Maharashtra government tried hard to divert the MPs away from the ‘model village’ of Bhambraja (and Maregaon) to places where the government felt in control. However, Committee Chairperson Basudeb Acharia and his colleagues stood firm. Encouraged by the MPs visit, people in both places spoke their minds and hearts. Maharashtra’s record of over 50,000 farm suicides between 1995 and 2010 is the worst in the country as the data of the National Crime Records Bureau show. And Vidarbha has long led the State in such deaths. Yet, the farmers also spoke of vast, policy-linked issues driving agrarian distress here.

None of the farmers reduced the issue of the suicides or the crisis to being only the outcome of Bt Cotton. But they punctured many myths about its miracles, costs and ‘savings.’ Some of their comments came as news to the MPs. And not as paid news or a marketing feature, either.

English Translation of P. Sainath on ‘Farmers Suicides and Way Forward’ during the Round Table in Hyderabad

Students of XIMB, Bhubaneswar Mr. Borra Srinivisa Rao, Adithya and Suma have done a wonderful job of transcripting and translating P. Sainath’s speech into English

120108 Sainath
ramoo

How the Maharashtra Ended Famine

http://www.counterpunch.org/sainath08272010.html

By P. SAINATH

Maybe the government, the National Advisory Council (NAC) and other assorted enthusiasts of the Food Security Bill can learn from Maharashtra about moving towards ending hunger altogether.

In 1963, the government of Maharashtra  (population in 2010 over 100 million) ended famine forever in the State. It did this without adding a morsel to anyone’s diet. It did so simply by passing an Act in the Legislature that deleted the word ‘famine’ from all laws of the State. No kidding. This was called ‘The Maharashtra Deletion Of The Term “Famine” Act, 1963” (and was dug up after decades by an independent researcher from Bangalore.)

The basis for this? Let the Act explain itself. It asserts that “there is now no scope for famine conditions to develop.” Why so? Because “the agricultural situation in the State is constantly watched by the State government.” And “relief measures as warranted by the situation are provided as soon as signs of scarcity conditions are apparent.” Goodbye Famine.

The next paragraph says the term ‘famine’ “has now become obsolete, and requires therefore to be deleted” (emphasis added) from “other laws on the subject in their application to the State.” It decrees that “for the words ‘famine or acute scarcity’ the word ‘scarcity’ shall be substituted,” in all laws of the State. Lucky Maharashtra — it can’t ever have acute scarcity either.
By slaying famine and acute scarcity on paper, a government kills its own responsibility towards citizens, mainly poor and hungry ones, in times of crisis. Its burden becomes less. It can concentrate (especially in Maharashtra) on boosting the Indian Premier League and its billionaires.

This approach essentially defines a problem out of existence. You can’t fight famine — so abolish it. It’s a proud tradition the State still hews to. Can’t stop farmers’ suicides, so redefine who a farmer is. Then redefine what a suicide is. Maharashtra has done both. Why not have a law banning the word ‘farmer’ or ‘suicide’ or both? Solves an annoying problem in a State that has seen, in official count, over 44,000 farm suicides since 1995.

This is an Act in a State with a gosh-awful record in food production for years. That includes a 24 per cent fall in 2008-09. A rich State that has seen far more child hunger deaths than many poorer ones. A State that added greatly to its hungry with 2 million people losing their jobs between 2005-06 and 2007-08. That’s over 1800 each day — and that’s before the global meltdown of September 2008, according to the State’s own economic survey.
The 1963 Act casts its shadow to this day. By legal definition, we cannot have a serious crisis in Maharashtra. So when there is one, we respond to it on a much lower scale than needed. No matter how deadly the crisis, relief work will never be up to the mark because it is not required by law to be so.
The Union government and the NAC can learn from this. Why not just abolish the word ‘hunger’ by law? Replace it, maybe, with ‘a mild craving for calories’ (mild, not ‘acute,’). Or words to that effect. End of hunger. We’ve started down that road. The NAC’s idea of ‘universal PDS (public distribution systems)  in 150 districts” is similar. It re-defines the word ‘universal.’ Death by definition has been routine for decades in India — consider the poverty line debates, for instance.

Meanwhile, say the ‘experts,’ the millions of tonnes of grain rotting in open yards present a “golden opportunity” for India to export this in bulk “and seize on the high prevailing global prices of grain.” That is also what the government hopes to do. Its affidavit in response to a slap from the Supreme Court speaks of liquidating the excess stocks by open market sale (read exports).

Leave aside for a moment the appalling insensitivity of exporting grain when there are, as the Supreme Court says, many “admittedly starving people” at home. Just look at the logic of it. You have a gigantic pile up of grain. You have these admittedly starving people. You say the production is not enough to go for a universal system in PDS — even while boasting we have so much grain, we can cash in on high global prices. Remember that the government has bragged of “recording the highest ever production of about 235 million tonnes of food grains in 2008-09 …” So much so that we cannot store half of it and it is rotting.

Who will you export it to? Are there good global prices for rotting grain? Grain that even when in best condition was not of superior quality? What you will do is flog it at rock bottom prices to traders who know you won’t consider any other option — like letting the hungry eat it — and can knock your prices through the floor. And then the traders can export it as cattle feed — like India has done before in this very decade. About the only thing Iran and Iraq could agree on in 30 years was that the grain exported to them from India was unfit for human consumption. Both rejected shipments early this decade. But there are always, never fear, European cattle. Talk of sacred cows — these will be subsidizhed by some of the hungriest humans on the planet.
The government knows this is how it will end up — and is not at all averse to that happening. Apart from the juicy avenues of corruption it presents to many connected to the Food Ministry and the trader lobbies linked to them, it makes “sound economic sense” in their worldview. One in which the hungry count for little. The National Democratic Alliance did the same thing in 2001-03 and paid the price for it in 2004. The United Progressive Alliance feels confident the elections are far off. And there are no pesky Leftists to restrain them in this innings. This is the time to ram through ‘hard decisions.’
Meanwhile, even as we talk of ‘exportable surpluses,’ we look around for ways to make up our production shortfall. Indian companies are buying land in parts of Africa to grow foodgrain. This finds approval with the Working Group on Agricultural Production set up by the Prime Minister and chaired by Haryana Chief Minister B.S. Hooda. Its report says “We should seriously consider these options for at least 2 million tonnes of pulses and 5 million tonnes of edible oil for 15-20 years.”

Indeed, the Hooda report wants us to spread our net further. It says “Indian companies can be encouraged to buy lands in countries like Canada, Myanmar, Australia and Argentina for producing pulses under long-term supply contracts to Indian canalizing agencies.” (Thereby eyeing four continents besides Africa). So even as we convert more and more food crop land to cash crop or to non-farm use at home, Indian companies (doubtless with handsome government support) will buy land and grow grain in poorer countries (which is where it will mainly happen). Why? So we can create worse food crises in even poorer nations? But what if the locals get restless? They might resent the food they hunger for being shipped to India? No worries. What are we building a Blue Water Navy for, anyway?

A dismal debate all around. Yet, in the next few weeks, the government, the NAC, Parliament, and the judiciary will all be called upon to take major decisions, even vital steps, on the food security of the Indian people. They might want to remember that there is existing legislation to draw from, legislation far superior to and of a very different kidney from the “Maharashtra Deletion of the Term ‘Famine’ Act, 1963.” That is, the Directive Principles of State Policy — that give us the vision and soul of the Indian Constitution.
Of course, the moment we speak of the Directive Principles, up pops the point: “but these are not enforceable!” Yet, the very line of the Constitution which says they are not enforceable goes on to say they are “fundamental in the governance of the country and it shall be the duty of the state to apply these principles in making laws.” How the state — and others — perform their duties will be on display in the next fortnight.

Will the courts say anything about the notion of shipping grain abroad when millions go hungry at home? Will the government say something other than ‘no’ to the needs of the hungry? Will the NAC rethink its stand on a universal PDS? Will Parliament accept fraudulent definitions of food security? Will anyone speak for the Directive Principles of State Policy and how policy must work towards strengthening them? It would, of course, be silly to expect a government of this sensitivity to care a fig for the Directive Principles. But perhaps we can hope that the Supreme Court does.

P. Sainath is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, where this piece appears, and is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought. He can be reached at: psainath@vsnl.com.

How the Maharashtra Ended Famine

By P. SAINATH

Maybe the government, the National Advisory Council (NAC) and other assorted enthusiasts of the Food Security Bill can learn from Maharashtra about moving towards ending hunger altogether.

In 1963, the government of Maharashtra  (population in 2010 over 100 million) ended famine forever in the State. It did this without adding a morsel to anyone’s diet. It did so simply by passing an Act in the Legislature that deleted the word ‘famine’ from all laws of the State. No kidding. This was called ‘The Maharashtra Deletion Of The Term “Famine” Act, 1963” (and was dug up after decades by an independent researcher from Bangalore.)

The basis for this? Let the Act explain itself. It asserts that “there is now no scope for famine conditions to develop.” Why so? Because “the agricultural situation in the State is constantly watched by the State government.” And “relief measures as warranted by the situation are provided as soon as signs of scarcity conditions are apparent.” Goodbye Famine.

The next paragraph says the term ‘famine’ “has now become obsolete, and requires therefore to be deleted” (emphasis added) from “other laws on the subject in their application to the State.” It decrees that “for the words ‘famine or acute scarcity’ the word ‘scarcity’ shall be substituted,” in all laws of the State. Lucky Maharashtra — it can’t ever have acute scarcity either.
By slaying famine and acute scarcity on paper, a government kills its own responsibility towards citizens, mainly poor and hungry ones, in times of crisis. Its burden becomes less. It can concentrate (especially in Maharashtra) on boosting the Indian Premier League and its billionaires.

This approach essentially defines a problem out of existence. You can’t fight famine — so abolish it. It’s a proud tradition the State still hews to. Can’t stop farmers’ suicides, so redefine who a farmer is. Then redefine what a suicide is. Maharashtra has done both. Why not have a law banning the word ‘farmer’ or ‘suicide’ or both? Solves an annoying problem in a State that has seen, in official count, over 44,000 farm suicides since 1995.

This is an Act in a State with a gosh-awful record in food production for years. That includes a 24 per cent fall in 2008-09. A rich State that has seen far more child hunger deaths than many poorer ones. A State that added greatly to its hungry with 2 million people losing their jobs between 2005-06 and 2007-08. That’s over 1800 each day — and that’s before the global meltdown of September 2008, according to the State’s own economic survey.
The 1963 Act casts its shadow to this day. By legal definition, we cannot have a serious crisis in Maharashtra. So when there is one, we respond to it on a much lower scale than needed. No matter how deadly the crisis, relief work will never be up to the mark because it is not required by law to be so.
The Union government and the NAC can learn from this. Why not just abolish the word ‘hunger’ by law? Replace it, maybe, with ‘a mild craving for calories’ (mild, not ‘acute,’). Or words to that effect. End of hunger. We’ve started down that road. The NAC’s idea of ‘universal PDS (public distribution systems)  in 150 districts” is similar. It re-defines the word ‘universal.’ Death by definition has been routine for decades in India — consider the poverty line debates, for instance.

Meanwhile, say the ‘experts,’ the millions of tonnes of grain rotting in open yards present a “golden opportunity” for India to export this in bulk “and seize on the high prevailing global prices of grain.” That is also what the government hopes to do. Its affidavit in response to a slap from the Supreme Court speaks of liquidating the excess stocks by open market sale (read exports).

Leave aside for a moment the appalling insensitivity of exporting grain when there are, as the Supreme Court says, many “admittedly starving people” at home. Just look at the logic of it. You have a gigantic pile up of grain. You have these admittedly starving people. You say the production is not enough to go for a universal system in PDS — even while boasting we have so much grain, we can cash in on high global prices. Remember that the government has bragged of “recording the highest ever production of about 235 million tonnes of food grains in 2008-09 …” So much so that we cannot store half of it and it is rotting.

Who will you export it to? Are there good global prices for rotting grain? Grain that even when in best condition was not of superior quality? What you will do is flog it at rock bottom prices to traders who know you won’t consider any other option — like letting the hungry eat it — and can knock your prices through the floor. And then the traders can export it as cattle feed — like India has done before in this very decade. About the only thing Iran and Iraq could agree on in 30 years was that the grain exported to them from India was unfit for human consumption. Both rejected shipments early this decade. But there are always, never fear, European cattle. Talk of sacred cows — these will be subsidizhed by some of the hungriest humans on the planet.
The government knows this is how it will end up — and is not at all averse to that happening. Apart from the juicy avenues of corruption it presents to many connected to the Food Ministry and the trader lobbies linked to them, it makes “sound economic sense” in their worldview. One in which the hungry count for little. The National Democratic Alliance did the same thing in 2001-03 and paid the price for it in 2004. The United Progressive Alliance feels confident the elections are far off. And there are no pesky Leftists to restrain them in this innings. This is the time to ram through ‘hard decisions.’
Meanwhile, even as we talk of ‘exportable surpluses,’ we look around for ways to make up our production shortfall. Indian companies are buying land in parts of Africa to grow foodgrain. This finds approval with the Working Group on Agricultural Production set up by the Prime Minister and chaired by Haryana Chief Minister B.S. Hooda. Its report says “We should seriously consider these options for at least 2 million tonnes of pulses and 5 million tonnes of edible oil for 15-20 years.”

Indeed, the Hooda report wants us to spread our net further. It says “Indian companies can be encouraged to buy lands in countries like Canada, Myanmar, Australia and Argentina for producing pulses under long-term supply contracts to Indian canalizing agencies.” (Thereby eyeing four continents besides Africa). So even as we convert more and more food crop land to cash crop or to non-farm use at home, Indian companies (doubtless with handsome government support) will buy land and grow grain in poorer countries (which is where it will mainly happen). Why? So we can create worse food crises in even poorer nations? But what if the locals get restless? They might resent the food they hunger for being shipped to India? No worries. What are we building a Blue Water Navy for, anyway?

A dismal debate all around. Yet, in the next few weeks, the government, the NAC, Parliament, and the judiciary will all be called upon to take major decisions, even vital steps, on the food security of the Indian people. They might want to remember that there is existing legislation to draw from, legislation far superior to and of a very different kidney from the “Maharashtra Deletion of the Term ‘Famine’ Act, 1963.” That is, the Directive Principles of State Policy — that give us the vision and soul of the Indian Constitution.
Of course, the moment we speak of the Directive Principles, up pops the point: “but these are not enforceable!” Yet, the very line of the Constitution which says they are not enforceable goes on to say they are “fundamental in the governance of the country and it shall be the duty of the state to apply these principles in making laws.” How the state — and others — perform their duties will be on display in the next fortnight.

Will the courts say anything about the notion of shipping grain abroad when millions go hungry at home? Will the government say something other than ‘no’ to the needs of the hungry? Will the NAC rethink its stand on a universal PDS? Will Parliament accept fraudulent definitions of food security? Will anyone speak for the Directive Principles of State Policy and how policy must work towards strengthening them? It would, of course, be silly to expect a government of this sensitivity to care a fig for the Directive Principles. But perhaps we can hope that the Supreme Court does.

P. Sainath is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, where this piece appears, and is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought.He can be reached at: psainath@vsnl.com.

How to feed your billionaires

P. Sainath

http://beta.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/article399250.ece

BIG BET: Kings XI Punjab team’s co-owner Preity Zinta gestures to Mumbai Indians’ owners Mukesh Ambani and his wife Neeta Ambani after a match at the PCA Stadium in Mohali on April 09. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar
BIG BET: Kings XI Punjab team’s co-owner Preity Zinta gestures to Mumbai Indians’ owners Mukesh Ambani and his wife Neeta Ambani after a match at the PCA Stadium in Mohali on April 09. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar
Freebies for the IPL — at a time of savage food subsidy cuts for the poor — benefit four men who make the Forbes Billionaire List of 2010 and a few other, mere multi-millionaires.