India: As the Economy Grows, So Does Hunger

August 12, 2008
IPS - Inter Press Service

By Anuradha Mittal

OAKLAND, Aug 12 2008 (IPS) - Blaming high food prices on rising demand in fast-developing countries like China and India deflects scrutiny from structural causes – like the liberalisation of agricultural markets – and suggests incorrectly that market-friendly reforms have uplifted the poor and underprivileged, writes Anuradha Mittal, Executive Director of the Oakland Institute, a policy think tank working to increase public participation and to promote fair debate on critical social, economic, and environmental issues. In this analysis, the author writes that a closer examination of India disproves the latter assertion. In India the total number of the poor and vulnerable increased from 732 million to 836 million between 1993/1994 and 2004/2005. In an effort to move towards market-driven production of agricultural goods, India is shifting from coarse grains to high-value commodities for export and systematically pulling away from the long-respected post-Independence statute requiring self-reliance in agriculture. Consequently, there has been a considerable decline in the rate of growth of production, productivity, and the quantity of land planted and irrigated for the major crops. India\’s hunger and poverty amidst plenty is emblematic of hunger worldwide, which is the result of decades of neglect of agriculture in poor countries and ill-advised policies from the international financial institutions. Promoting agricultural development in poor nations would bolster their food self-sufficiency and help alleviate poverty.

However, presenting the crisis in terms of an imbalance between demand and supply, and hand picking the countries responsible for it, is a convenient oversimplification. On one hand, it deflects scrutiny from structural causes of the crisis, such as the liberalisation of agricultural markets which has wreaked havoc on the agricultural base of the developing countries. On the other, it helps generate the perception that market-friendly reforms have contributed positively to the uplifting of the poor and underprivileged. A closer examination of India reveals that this in not the case.

The World Food Programme estimates that about 350 million Indians are food insecure, making India home to nearly 50 percent of the world’s hungry. More than half of the children under five are moderately or severely malnourished, or suffer from stunting. Instead of increased consumption, the Economic Survey of India 2007- 2008, reports a decline in the consumption of cereals and pulses (the main source of protein for the poor) between 1990/91 and 2005/06.