Is India the Canary in the Hunger Mineshaft?
Gaunt faces, swollen bellies, haunted eyes, barren land. The photographs bring famine to our living rooms. We respond with compassion and aid, but those horrifying glimpses are part of a larger story that calls for major rethinking of humanity’s relationship to land and food.
With more than 15% of the world’s population on only 2.4% of the land mass, India may be the canary in the hunger mineshaft. How successfully the country deals with issues of food production and distribution and how willing it is to address inequities will either be a role model for the world or another nail in the coffin of globalization.
The Green Revolution is a good place to start looking at India’s response to hunger and why it counts for the world. Though famine and drought have been regular visitors to India over the centuries, the Green Revolution solidified the place of a new kind of agriculture whose impact is global.
A technological fix for hunger problems
By Independence Day, August 15, 1947, the British colonial power that had dominated India since 1619 had limped to an end. Hunger was endemic, and famines were a recurring tragedy. They had worsened under British rule, and in the 18th and 19th centuries, some 44 million people died as a direct result.
In the industrial world, technological advances in agriculture had led to food surpluses and an end to the specter of starvation. At the same time, India’s food situation was becoming increasingly precarious because of droughts through the mid-1960s.
The Rockefeller and Ford foundations came to the rescue with funding to transfer western technological advances to ailing developing countries. The Green Revolution was born, with the stated intention of eradicating hunger.
The first two food crops to be promoted in India were new hybrid varieties of rice and wheat. These supposedly hunger-eliminating grains imposed a new kind of hunger and a new kind of colonialism. The new hunger was for high-cost, high-tech solutions: agricultural machinery, chemicals and high-yield seeds. As farmers became indebted to multinational corporations, they needed ever-greater production to keep paying down what they borrowed. The yoke of debt became a new kind of colonialism. The new masters were agribusiness corporations.
The Green Revolution “was neither green, nor revolutionary”
India’s agricultural production did increase, but physicist and activist Dr. Vandana Shiva points out, “India’s Green Revolution from 1940s to 1970s was neither green, nor revolutionary. It merely created a market for corporations by transforming war chemicals into agrichemicals and breeding crops to respond to high chemical inputs. It increased production of a few commodities — rice and wheat — at the cost of production of pulses, oilseeds, vegetables, fruits and millets. It focused on one region, Punjab, and pushed the agriculture of other regions into neglect.”
Along with the mechanical and chemical inputs came soil degradation, loss of biodiversity, water pollution and overuse, and, when crops failed to return high enough yields to pay off debts, thousands of farmer suicides. Journalist P. Sainath believes the toll of those suicides is much higher than the roughly 200,000 reported because women without property rights are not considered farmers, even though many of them run family farms.
At the same time, India did make impressive strides in increasing agricultural production. The International Food Policy Research Institute’s report, Green Revolution: Curse or Blessing?, points out both the gains and the losses. Agriculture was modernized. More food was produced. Many farmers made more money. It concludes: “By building on the strengths of the Green Revolution while seeking to avoid its weaknesses, scientists and policymakers can take significant steps toward achieving sustainable food security for all the world’s people.”
So why are so many still hungry?
During the past decade, the Indian economy has grown by a healthy nine percent a year, but the wealth has not trickled down to the country’s children. The 2010 Global Hunger Index reports, “India is home to 42 percent of the world’s underweight children and 31 percent of its stunted children.”
While government and business have focused on industry and innovation, agriculture has suffered. Inadequate investments, sagging infrastructure, corruption at many levels, lack of adequate storage and transportation have made it impossible to keep up with increasing demands. Food prices have soared, plunging many further into poverty and hunger.
Vandana Shiva also blames trade liberalization: “Globalised forced trade in food, falsely called free trade, has aggravated the hunger crisis by undermining food sovereignty and food democracy.” She continues, “Sadly, the Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, is trying to use the food crisis that his trade liberalisation policies have been creating to hand over India’s seed supply to Monsanto, food supply to Cargill and other corporations and retail to Walmart…..Research shows that globalised, industrialised retail is destroying farmers’ livelihoods and leading to wastage of 50 per cent food [sic]. This too is hunger by design.”
The canary in the hunger mineshaft
What Dr. Shiva calls for in India is a clarion call for agriculture everywhere. She writes, “To get rid of hunger we need a paradigm shift in the design of our food systems.
“We need to shift from monocultures to diversity, from chemical intensive to ecological, biodiversity-intensive, from capital-intensive to low-cost farming systems. We need to shift from centralised, globalised food supply controlled by a handful of corporations to decentralised, localised food systems that are resilient in the context of climate vulnerability and price volatility. Such system could feed India’s population.”
In March 2011 Olivier De Schutter, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, spoke to the UN Human Rights Council. Presenting his new report, “Agroecology and the Right to Food,” he called for the world to “achieve a reorientation of their agricultural systems towards modes of production that are highly productive, highly sustainable and that contribute to the progressive realization of the human right to adequate food.”
In spite of internal problems, globalization, and massive population, India is still in a position to create its own, unique green revolution. Only this time the revolution can be home grown, turning the innovative spirit shown in other parts of the economy toward solving the problems of agricultural production and human justice. Over half the country is still involved in agriculture. With improved infrastructure and equity, the intelligence and skills of millions of people could be turned toward sustainable agriculture that could be a model for the world.
Or India can continue on its current, unsustainable path. If the canary in India’s hunger mineshaft dies, the potential for this country to point the way toward greater equity and a sustainable future will die with it. And with it will die many of the hopes of other countries in distress, on our increasingly fragile planet.
Top photo from IRRI Images via Flickr