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.

Related Stories:

Developing Countries Investing More in Renewables

New “Super Wheat” May Save the Globe’s Most Vital Food Crop

No Food For the Children? Let Them Eat Azaleas!

Second photo from Anand Jadhav via Flickr; Third photo from David R. Carroll via Flickr;

Top photo from IRRI Images via Flickr


Jon C.
Jonathon C6 years ago

India is in the throws of a cultural and global rebirth. It must be a world player and needs the rest of the world to recognize the massive contributions of this amazing country. It can not depend on being a rural society because that time in history has passed. I want to see India as an example of progress for all, not a harbinger of global disaster.

Dakota Payne
Dakota Payne6 years ago

"nail in the coffin of globalization", how sobering.

Noel S.
Noel S.6 years ago

I just wish to take issue with the corny 'soundbite' title....."Canary in the Hunger Mineshaft".

So clever-clever & so trying too hard.....

Derp Herpington
.6 years ago

As for pollution, that should be a non-brainer.

If you can't eat/drink something without without hurting/killing yourself then it needs to be handled/disposed of properly so it has little to no chance of coming in contact with your local water supply, food, environment, anything.

Stupid person = "Hurr durr derp. I'm going to spray toxic chemicals all over my food. I wonder why I glow in the dark, my penis fell off, and I have cancerous growths on my butt? Herp derp derp. (chemical spraying sounds)"

Robert O.
Robert O6 years ago

Good article. India is in a very precarious situation in terms of hunger and poverty since they are one of the most populous nations in the world, but it puts a spotlight in them as well to see how innovative and industrious they can (or will) be in addressing the problem adequately. Granted they have a monumental task in doing so, but hopefully they'll make great strides. I wish them the best.

Derp Herpington
.6 years ago

Artificial Scarcity occurs when the supply of X is controlled to make it scarce on purpose when the reality is that the supply of X is virtually unlimited. This is usually done to make X worth more than it really is, and thus increase profits for those who are the purveyors of X.

The easiest example of this is food. Every year millions of tons of food end up in landfills because the stores that bought it were not able to sell it. They rather throw it away to keep food scarce/expensive than give the food to those who need it for free. By doing so they create an artificial scarcity of food.

The largest example of artificial scarcity is the supply of money. Money is nothing more than metal/paper with fancy pictures on it, and has no intrinsic value accept what we give it. If we are experiencing financial problems we should either print more, or throw the entire concept of money in the garbage.

How morally bereft do you have to be to openly advocate the needless suffering/deaths of millions of people over the artificial scarcity of metal/paper with fancy pictures on it?

Derp Herpington
.6 years ago

TL P. - "India is projected to overtake China as the world's most populous nation by 2030, according to the CIA Factbook. Some fear that continued growth such as this will lead to widespread unemployment and political instability."

It's already happening, and mainly because people can't seem to wrap their heads around artificial scarcity and protecting the environment are both serious issues.

Lynn Squance
Lynn Squance6 years ago

I thought about this over night --- no sleep but lots of brain buzzing!
India is second only to China in population. It's rural population is largely uneducated or under educated (formal education, not life education) and so are not able to take city jobs. They rely on farming. However, as Dr Shiva states:
"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."

And why is there inadequate investment in agriculture, corruption and lack of infastructure? Could it be that this would acknowledge a part of society that the government would rather forget as they rub shoulders with the big multinational (financial corps, computer etc)corporations in the cities?

Dr Shiva goes on about losing ourselves in globalisation (my interpretation of her words). Eugene C below talks about a web of life (I really love that picture) being out of balance. Well how do we accomplish what we need to accomplish --- sustainable biodiversity that will feed the nations? India seems to be ahead of us all, perhaps she can light the path!

Suzanne H.
Suzanne H6 years ago

Life will go on.................but, it may not be human......

Eugene C.
Eugene C6 years ago

What a terrifying image, a person protected from head to foot in order to prevent contamination from toxic chemicals whilst spraying the food that he/she and all the people around will eventually eat. How insane!
l agree with Lynn, we must shift from monocultures and create diversity once more....We have the information, we know that every plant, tree, insect, animal, fungus and human being is part of the intricate, interconnected web of life and that our actions are followed closely by re-actions 'cause and effect' and that when we disturb this delicate balance we go out of balance. Well guess what......we are totally out of balance! Biodiversity is what creates this balance! If India is able to go 'green' as has been suggested it will need to embrace these basic principles in order to create sustainable agriculture. Perhaps India can show the way!