Sunday, April 13, 2008

Money Couldn't Buy Me Food...

Resurgent India has suddenly gone defensive. Is the euphoria with India's booming economy fading? Were we oozing confidence based on hollow growth numbers? At the Indian store today, they had no Nirapara kuthari to make kanji(porridge) that I suddenly had a craving for and the owner gravely tells me all non-basmatic rice exports from India have been banned following soaring rice prices. Is this the India that until a few months back proudly watched its stock exchanges break record after record? Will banning exports provide a short-term solution to inflation in India and the impending food crisis? Will Chidambaram's farmer friendly budget help in the long term? A country which serves notice on the world with Tata buying Jaguar should have nowhere to hide and deserves a round of booing for this shameless economic restriction. I had the money but I didn't get the rice I wanted to buy. I couldn't care less about exports but what if this inflation is a precursor to crippling food scarcity within the country? And my stuck-up, lazy self decided I needed to write on this.

Some years back, dad told me of the food scarcity in the '60s in the context of the influential Church in Kerala. His family had money, land and the cash crop of our times, rubber, but there was no food. They could atleast depend on tapioca, livestock, etc. Many people didn't have even that. The Church stepped in and became a public distribution system with contributions from abroad. They also earned goodwill and managed to convert many people in Kerala to Christianity. I asked my mom today what the food scarcity of the 60's meant to her family. They were paddy cultivators and grew most of the vegetables they needed. She also had an almost similar answer but her reply also highlighted a glaring irony, very relevant to today's times. They also subsisted on tapioca and everything else they raised because the rice they harvested yielded good prices in the market, so they consumed less of it! If there was a food scarcity today, what can people fall back on. Can money buy a commodity for which production and supply can't meet the demand? What will people have, to fall back on now that we are strangers to the soil, now that every inch of earth is fertile ground for production activities of modern man, save what its best suited for?

The food crisis has been building up over time and aggravated by the unbalanced growth India has been witnessing. From real estate eating up farmland in Hyderabad, Tata's auto-manufacturing company in Singur, the farm unions in Kuttanad, the uneconomical again thanks-to-globalization cotton crops in Vidarbha the challenges faced by agriculture in every part of India is different and at the same time has its origins in our apathy to recognize the importance of a healthy agricultural system. That our politicians have the solution to the food crisis in Kerala and intends to do something about this is obvious from this statement by the Food Minister, C.Divakaran. Why doesn't the honorable minister say that we depend for the milk, chicken and eggs on a state that blows hot and cold each time on the Mullaperiyar issue every time the demand for a new dam is raised!

At the junction closest to my house in Trivandrum, I was met this time by a crowd, a multitude of strange faces. People who were not residents or workers in the area until a few years before. These were not the elegantly dressed employees of the technopark, who find the locality a perfect place to live in and commute to work from. I despaired at this mini-Chandni Chowk my surroundings was becoming, I didn't know where those tired faces came from. Today I wonder if these are people who left their villages for a less-taxing, more yielding life in the cities? Gandhiji famously said "the soul of India lives in its villages". Was he not pepping up the farmer with that statement, was he making a long-run prophesy for the best future of the Indian state, or was he mourning the impending death of village life, and losing its charms to the superficial magnetism that city life had. For long, we have been worrying about the harmful effect on our cities caused by rural migration. Only a few like P.Sainath have the vision to direct our attention to the villages, the livelihood that these people turn their backs on and the reasons behind that.

A friend recently returned from a study tour to China and talked of farmer anger at officialdom which frequently uproots them from their land and plants them in factories amidst a sea of disciplined uniformed robotic men and women whose lives are as monotonous as the machines they assemble. Are we not doing something similar to the Indian farmer? We need to give back to the farmer his pride of place in society, otherwise we should soon be ready to grow on our backyards, frontyards and on every bit of soil we can find - the tapioca, poultry, cows and vegetables we badly need for our nourishment. Yes, this is a situation that will come to reality in our lifetimes, atleast in Kerala - make no mistake, like the professional beggars on our streets, an epithet - The Rich Beggar's Country - is waiting for us. We will have pockets flush with money, but stomachs as light as Somalians. Then we will surely learn our lesson - we will learn the dignity of labour and agriculture.

P.S - I dedicate this post to a friend who once tried/still tries too hard to change my thinking. He believed I had a human core which he could influence. His ideas were/are too militant for my "ghar ki safai me haath kaun gandha karein" middle-class moorings but I find myself beginning to share his thoughts. A quote in the film Kingdom of Heaven resonates within me all these years since I first heard it - "What man is a man who does not make the world better?" I know what man I am - I am a gold-digger who seems to have lost the lust for gold. What man are you?


Unknown said...

indeed, money won't be buying a lot of people a whole lot of anything in india..
will we ever be truly self sufficient in the production of food grains and vegetables and such in kerala?? and even if we do, will our government (either communist or congress) and their cohorts, the various mafias and unions and middlemen of our state (and country) ever allow an efficient and economical means of getting the food to the masses?? i doubt it..
also, dignity of labour?? in india?? i wish it were possible to remove the hypocrisy and prejudice inherent in indians, but i can't help but wonder whether a food crisis will serve to improve or actually worsen the social situation..
yours pessimistically,

Jiby said...

Jackson - No, kerala will never be self-reliant in agriculture but what we are moving towards is a disaster if scarcity affects the states which feed our mouths. If a food crisis doesn't change our attitudes then a famine sure will. I don't have a solution now, but will start digging up data in a few months.

Karthik said...

Jiby, the chief problem lies with the public distribution system .The Inidan govt. had contacted consultants like Mckinsey to give a detailed ereport on the present state of PDS and how to improve it. But I guess the reports are lying in the dustbin of the cubicle of some Cabinet Minister. I think streamlining the PDs will solve half the problems.

And, as regards Kerala, unless the trade union/labour problem stops nothing is going to work. I think before people from Kerala make fun of Tamilians they should realise if the trade from TN is closed shut, then there will hardly be any vegetables in Kerala.

Unknown said...

true jiby, i meant to say india, but the point is still moot.. as karthik says, a less bureaucratic and more pragmatic PDS approach is required to help solve this problem.. its quite disgusting to see an FDI godown with heaps and heaps of rotting foodgrains lying about due to lack of space in the silos to store them and the lack of sense to distribute them for free to the poor..
about changing indian attitudes and habits, i wish i could share your optimism.. (can it indeed be called optimism when we are talking about an impending famine?? or am i just apathetic??)

Nikhil Narayanan said...

Hope this is jus' a phase like the scarcity of the 60s and then the Green Revolution.
We have been hearing of a second Green Revolution and I feel something like that is needed immediately. Else, farmlands will be eaten up by real estate biggies. Like you mentioned, there seems to a direct relation to the Real Estate boom that India is going through and the rice prices.

In Kuttanad, where the government and their chamchas are not letting even the slightest bit of modernisation to come in.

Giving relief to farmers is not the final solution.And I am sure PC knows it better.It is jus a step.

We need to do something to focus on the flip side of a booming India.


jj said...

The worldwide food crisis, as a result of shortage of food supply points back to the importance of agriculture, which was conveniently ignored in the frenzy of development and globalization.

The cost of production is greater than the returns. This phenomenon plagues the agricultural sector in our country. Focus should be on increasing, agricultural productivity .
By banning export of commodities, the government efforts to meet the shortage is not going to materialize as long as the impeding forces of hoarding and speculation exist.

Nice post :). Dignity of labour and agriculture... very true.

Vinod/Kakka said...

If farming has to become better in Kerala, the government has to plan for more real urbanity, than in the sprawl that consumes Kerala now. We should have around 10 urban centers (most district HQs, except maybe Wayanad, Idukki and Pathanamthitta).
Kerala also needs to go in for wetland conservation. We have tried the "make laws and punish the guilty" approach in filling wetlands. That does not seem to work.
A better approach maybe to have a wetland bank, managed by an independent authority (Maybe the government).
Give builders a chance to build higher, by donating to the wetland bank. This assures a market rate for wetlands, and also for getting land without the government actually spending money doing it.
Do the same for getting some conservation, recreation and park land in urban areas.

Jiby said...

thank you guys for your invaluable feedback...i am learning a lot reading your thoughts. i really feel this issue is very critical and cannot be left at the government agencies door to be resolved in their own sweet time. after putting this post out here i realized there is a better way i can approach writing on this will get to work on that without no more procrastination.

Emmanuel said...

Superb read. The problem currently is a global phenomenon. Don't know how we are going to address it. And I heard that our claims of self sufficiency too is soon dying out. Adding to the woes, a lot lost in the unexpected summer showers. So even though I don't want to, but we are in the midst of a pessimistic time. Don't know what to hope for the future?

I was happy to see you mentioned P Sainath. He writes some wonderful articles in The Hindu about rural India, which we comfortably forget or we don't want to think about.

Great piece of writing. Actually thanks for writing something special. :)

Rajesh said...

Hi Jiby,

Food shortage is now an international crisis. This is also a time when Biotech companies and independent researchers are on a collision course. I'd just heard a sample salvo on npr.

There is this battle of culture being waged out there - as in old v/s new or lifestyle v/s profit

I tried to think along these lines earlier. Thought it might interest you: here

Philip said...

Hi Jiby,
I got a link to this post of yours through g-man ( who suggested this to me after reading my latest post. My post seems to echo what you are trying to convey, although it is about the problems in Vidharbha in particular. I'm linking your post to mine, with you permission.

George said...

So many comments here and yet none have a solution. Ok .. here is my solution to the problem and I believe this is what PC & Sigh is trying accomplish.
60% of the total population in India still relies on agriculture as their source of income and profession. We are not as big a country as Soviet Union to make such huge human investment profitable. In Kerala most of the agricultural land is divided into small holdings. No paddy farmer with two or three hectares of paddy fields can expect earn enough to send his two children to decent schools and colleges. Rubber is a notable exception as it is not labour intensive and just check out the prices of RSS grade 4 . Food grains and vegetables have to be produced in large quantities to make a decent profit. Jiby kindly ask your parents about an old farmer in Kottayam named Murikkan. If we want food security then we should convert agriculture into an industry, where the best of technology is used with minimal human involvement.
PC & Co knows all these things and that’s why they have given an increased outlay to education in the 11th five year plan. In short if we can reduce the percentage of people employed in agriculture to below 20% then we can hope to have a sustainable food production mechanism.

b v n said...


when we approach an issue like this, it is very important to look at a historical perspective. so it was relishing to see you remind about the crisis in the 60s - something my dad too used talk about and in a similar way made some money for my mom's family as they were cultivators.

wanted to comment but in search of a solution. the other day i was reading about denmark, how that small high per capita country, read again high per capita country with a high living standard and an almost declining population is a 'net exporter of food' and not just that food is one of their major exports.

if we plan to be part of the indian union, then a solution may not be urgent for kerala. Because within a few months, this crisis will pass, there will be no famine. Even the monsoon looks good. Otherwise from my limited understanding, i'm looking at High tech agriculture as the solution. Yield has to increase if paddy and vegetable cultivation needs to benefit the land owner and the agricultural labourer. Best part is, we have a network of "Krishi Bhavans" which have percolated every nook and corner of agricultural kerala. If we have a plan (and some capital, the govt is so poor) we definitely can do it.

personally i'm having after thoughts about achu mama's vetti nirathal which i once considered draconian.

deadmanoncampus said...

Sainath seems to be another power hungry guy,another Ellsworth Monkton Toohey.This is my blog post on Sainath relating to NREGA.

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