Environment & Health

Feast and Famine

India is growing, but Indians are still starving: 43 percent of children under the age of five are malnourished. Will a new drive toward modernization make a difference?
A family of farmers plows the land in West Midnapore, West Bengal. | Credit: SUDIPTO DAS, COURTESY OF PHOTOSHARE

In the summer of 2009, New Delhi's Lalit hotel, a 1980s monstrosity that had recently been remodeled, hosted the “Second Food Technology Summit,” sponsored by the Ministry of Food Processing and the Confederation of Indian Industries, a powerful lobbying group. Experts and government officials sat on stage, taking questions from the audience, which included the chairman of the Indian Food Processor's Association as well as representatives from Coca-Cola.

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The questions were largely rhetorical, lamenting the obstacles to the modernization of India's food markets. “No one cares about the sell-by dates of bread,” one man commented. “What happens when the bread gets old in the village stalls? They fry it in oil and sell it as bread pakorainstead.” In the 600,000 villages and towns in non-metropolitan India, I learned, none of the teeming hundreds of millions of residents cared about the mechanized processes and international standards of hygiene that would allow India to join the industrialized nations in their eating habits.

Perhaps that is because those hundreds of millions have more fundamental concerns when it comes to food. The enthusiasm for expiration dates at the Summit must seem peculiar to the poor in a country where 43 percent of children under the age of five are malnourished. In sub-Saharan Africa, the figure is 28 percent; it's 7 percent in China, to which India is so often compared. The Indian government's own data show that 800 million Indians live on about twenty rupees (about $0.50) a day. Half of those are farmers who produce food that they, for the most part, cannot afford to eat thanks to the demands of speculators and affluent urban consumers. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), wheat prices reached a record high in February, and the cost of rice — which accounts for 30 percent of the typical Indian diet — hovers at around 22 rupees per kilogram even in Patna and Chennai, capitals of major rice-producing states. That's about twice the average cost from 2000 until the middle of 2007, when prices began to rise sharply. The average Indian consumes 73 kilograms of rice per year, which means that farmers, assuming they eat at least as much rice as their non-farming countrymen, are now spending some 20 percent of their income on rice alone.

Yet dramatically rising prices and the malnutrition crisis were far from the minds of the conference-goers enjoying their luxury hotel in the heart of the New Delhi business district. Since the late '90s, government food policy has promoted breakneck modernization, withdrawing support for local agriculture even while attempting to bring the Indian people into a more globalized food market as consumers and producers. This has involved the entire spectrum of food. Government-operated agricultural institutes emphasize patented, genetically modified crops produced by behemoths such as Monsanto and support attempts by Walmart and its Indian counterparts to take over the retail and wholesale systems. These changes have been welcomed by the 200 million members of the upper and middle classes, largely concentrated in the metropolises.

For the officials at the conference, it was a matter of faith that soon the majority of Indians would join in that welcome. India's embrace of a “free market” in the early '90s, its rise as an economic power, the presence of an outsourcing industry closely connected to multinational corporations in the West, and the growth of a frenetically consumerist lifestyle among the beneficiaries, seem to have led to the notion that, after long decades of Gandhian fasting, the country has woken up to a perpetual feast. The colorful crowds at the new malls, eating at local food carts, global chains such as McDonald's, and gourmet restaurants reinforce this impression.

Until recently, the new eating habits were noted mostly with approval in the West. In 2008, however, they began to come under criticism amid the worldwide rise in food prices. Many observers have pointed to the use of agricultural land for biofuels and the growing demand for meat and dairy products as principal causes of spiking prices. Both trends apply in India, but the government's free-market modernization scheme has exacerbated the problem further by encouraging the planting of animal feed in a country that was already struggling with the basics. Contrary to widespread stereotypes, Indians are not all vegetarians, but historically, they've eaten less meat than they do today. Whereas India produced just 121,000 tons of chicken meat in 1971, it produced 1.9 million tons in 2005.

A few days after the Summit, I spoke with Vijay Sardana, a food-industry consultant and poultry expert who had been in attendance. At the Lalit, Sardana seemed a symbol of India's food markets on the move. He took calls constantly on his Blackberry or made small talk around the generously laden buffet tables. But when I spoke to him at his modest apartment in East Delhi, he told a story I didn't hear at the Summit.

“It's not just ignorance at the farmer level,” he said. India's food problems included corporate lobbying, commodity trading (“all speculation,” he claimed), and government policies that were removed from the rural reality. Officials at the Summit want India to be the “food factory for the world,” but Sardana was concerned that the country may not even be able to feed itself.

The agricultural town of Armoor, in the Southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, feels like a forgotten settlement, no more than a cluster of mostly ramshackle houses and shops surrounded by a sea of rice and maize. In the summer of 2008, a riot broke out there. Around ten thousand farmers went on a rampage, setting ablaze three government jeeps and the two largest mansions in the town.

A few weeks later, the burnt carcasses of the jeeps were still visible as I walked around with a man named Devaram, who worked for a leftist party that had been instrumental in organizing the farmers. We stopped to take a look at the gutted mansions. In spite of the blackened walls and gaping door frames, the structures were imposing, standing tall amid the stunted shacks and scrubland.

The farmers around Armoor, Devaram said, had become heavily dependent on agricultural middlemen known as seed dealers, who buy produce from the farmers and sell it to buyers in other parts of India. The seed dealers are highly influential in determining which crops farmers grow. They anticipate demand, passing on their predictions to the farmers in the prices offered for particular crops. In the past the government offered minimum prices for staple food grains such as rice or wheat, crops that require a lot of water and are not entirely suited to the region. But the free-market approach of the '90s led to a decrease in government support — from 1.8 percent of the national budget in 1993 to 1.3 percent ten years later — and greater uncertainty. The dealers had replaced most of the agricultural functions carried out by government agencies, giving out seeds, fertilizers, and even extremely high-interest cash loans to farmers as advances against payment for the final produce.

A few months before the riot, around 25,000 farmers in the villages surrounding Armoor had chosen to grow red sorghum for Mahipal Reddy, the biggest of the seed dealers in the area. But when the farmers finished harvesting, Reddy refused to take delivery or to pay them. The farmers found themselves without the money to buy the seeds they needed for the autumn planting season, the most important one of the year. They demonstrated outside the office of the district collector, the most senior government official in the area, and went on hunger strikes. But their agitation dragged on without any discernible response, and one June morning they converged in Armoor for a demonstration that soon became a rampage. The mansions they burned belonged to Reddy and another seed dealer.

When I asked Gopeti Rajeshwar, one of the farmers who had taken part in the riots, why he'd chosen to grow red sorghum, he replied that he had been offered a high price for it. Besides, it was easy to grow and needed less water than other commercial crops such as rice and maize. But his decision was only one small link in a chain that included the speculation of the seed dealers, the vagaries of the monsoons, the absence of government support, and the falling reserves of groundwater that he, like most farmers, exploited desperately through expensive bore wells. Three farmers had killed themselves the previous year in Rajeshwar's village after running into debt from sinking the wells. They were part of the growing national trend of farmer suicides, with nearly 200,000 farmers killing themselves from 1997 to 2008, in the very years that the Indian economy was expanding. If Rajeshwar had stayed out of debt so far, it was thanks to his father's two decades working in the Middle East and his own two-year stint as a construction worker in Dubai.

It was hard to meet the seed dealer at the center of the riot, but when I finally spoke to Reddy, he blamed the fiasco on rival dealers. He had offered the farmers a high price for red sorghum, he said, because there had been great demand for it in Northern and Eastern India and in Pakistan. But dealers who had formed a rival “syndicate” bought some red sorghum on the sly and sold it at a massive loss to Reddy's buyers in an attempt to put him out of business. They nearly succeeded. The bank that agreed to finance Reddy for his red sorghum purchase backed out when it heard of the falling prices, which in turn meant that Reddy was unable to pay the farmers. The same syndicate, he said, had sent thugs to murder him and also instigated the farmers to ransack his house in Armoor.

I asked Reddy what red sorghum was, if it was something people ate. “No, no,” his hangers-on cried out. Reddy smiled. “It's for cattle, and for chicken,” he said. “It makes them fat, makes them produce more milk, more eggs, more meat, so that people in the cities can eat them and get bigger.”

One might assume that the misfortune of the poor in the countryside would be the salvation of urban butchers, but they aren't necessarily feeling enriched by the increased demand for meat and dairy among India's upper classes.

The three Delhi butchers I met on a sweltering August day in 2009 were all burly men, trying to cover up their social awkwardness as they waved a folder full of documents at me. For over a century, the center of slaughtering operations in Delhi has been the Idgah, located in the old, walled part of the city. The butchers took me on a tour of the neighborhood, leading me through alleyways that ran past small stalls holding live animals, the ground beneath our feet thick with grain and droppings. The slaughterhouse was a large open shed with raised platforms on all sides. The slaughtering and skinning was done by hand, and things seemed dirty and disorganized. But it was also, as the butchers pointed out, a place that offered employment to nearly 2,000 people. Few animal parts were wasted, they said, pointing at the vendors standing outside the Idgah. They were selling goat heads and feet at twenty rupees per kilo to people who were too poor to buy meat but would use the animal parts to make stew.

The government decided to close the Idgah in 2005, and it was finally shut down a few months after my visit last year, the land earmarked for a shopping mall. All large-scale butchering was moved to a mechanized slaughterhouse in Ghazipur, across the Yamuna river. The butchers took me to see the new facility, sneaking me past the security guards employed by the company that held the operating lease. The assembly lines full of German-made equipment looked far cleaner and more efficient than what I had seen at the Idgah. In place of the chaos of the Idgah, the atmosphere at the Ghazipur slaughterhouse was one of regimentation and precision. The electric guns were, however, silent. The few workers hanging about were eager to show me around and express their discontent at suddenly having to make a twenty-kilometer commute every day. They were young, carrying cell phones and sporting stylish haircuts, but they were following a family occupation and felt bewildered at the changes enforced upon them. Even though the mechanized line was faster than the manual slaughtering they had done at the Idgah, they made less money now because animal suppliers were balking at the higher fees charged by the company running the place.

I walked out of the slaughterhouse with my guides to take a look at the surrounding neighborhood. The modern, hygienic slaughterhouse sat next to the largest landfill in the Delhi metropolitan area. There was a low range of trash being turned over with infinitesimal patience by ragpickers, mostly children. The sky above was crowded with kites and crows wheeling in urgent circles, drawn there by the landfill, the slaughterhouse, and the wholesale poultry market next door. A canal ran nearby, filled with black slush the consistency of Turkish coffee. It was crowded with feral dogs trying to stay out of the August heat.

The setting is a perfect metaphor for India's approach to feeding itself as it grows and becomes more embedded in the global economy. Some will enjoy the fruits of that growth, and no doubt there are more Indians living lives of comfort than ever before. But a gleaming new slaughterhouse is of little benefit to those still waiting for their slice of prosperity. Under the banners of modernization and free-market economics, the better off are rigging a system that caters to their desires, while some of the world's most desperate people are left to pick at the refuse accumulated at the edges of luxury. Many countries have high rates of inequality, but prioritizing, as a matter of official policy, high-quality meat for the rich in a nation where half of children are underweight seems especially perverse.

The most comprehensive effort to address the failures of India's food policy is the campaign to pass a right-to-food law in Parliament. The stark inequality in India when it comes to food has already resulted in a mid-day meal scheme targeted at poor, school-going children. But the impact of the subsidized meals, instituted at a national level since 1995, is hard to measure. Evidence suggests that the program has been successful in certain parts of the country, but the quality is sometimes poor, leading to outbreaks of food poisoning. Corrupt businessmen and officials siphon funds from the program, and prices are now rising too fast for the government to keep up.

The right-to-food movement asks not only that the government provide food to especially vulnerable groups such as children and pregnant women but also emphasizes the country's larger policy, noting that “sufficient availability of food” for the hungry “requires that land and water must never be forcibly diverted away from food production for cash crops or industrial use.” The demands made by the movement are egalitarian, and because the movement is a loose coalition of organizations and individuals spread throughout the country, it seems inherently democratic.

Jean Dreze, a Belgian economist who has been in India since 1979, has been influential in framing the proposed law. He coauthored a number of books on hunger with the Harvard economist Amartya Sen and became an Indian citizen in 2002. I asked him what those pushing for the law hoped to achieve, since it was unlikely that a marginalized, impoverished majority could sue the government for not giving them food.

“The idea is not that everyone will rush to court, although that is an ultimate possibility,” Dreze explained. “The law would have an in-built mechanism for accountability, and we've seen that the government tends to become far more responsive when it can be held accountable in courts for something.” Dreze, who comes across as Gandhian in many ways, and the members of the right-to-food movement see food as part of a bigger question of what democracy might mean in India. In our conversation, Dreze expressed impatience with the Malthusian idea, floated in some Western circles after the global price rise in 2008, that India's growing population was to blame for putting pressure on limited food resources. He noted that population growth was decelerating in many parts of the country in 2008. If people had more money and work, they could buy more food, he said, citing Sen's work on hunger in British India, which showed that famines (the worst of which killed about 4 million people in Bengal) were a result of inadequate access to food, not inadequate supply.

“If the population needs to be well nourished, we do need to produce more food,” Dreze said. “But the present system is unsustainable and inequitable.” He argued that corporate interests manipulate the government framing the policies. “In child-nutrition programs,” he said, referring to the mid-day meal schemes, “the corporations have lobbies to push packaged food. They had pre-formatted letters sent to various members of Parliament asking them to sign these and send them on to the ministry overseeing the program. In some instances, they tried to have cooked meals replaced by packaged biscuits,” which have less nutritional value.

The government's public-distribution system, which had provided subsidized food grains and basic cooking ingredients to everyone, has also run aground since the '90s. The old system was inefficient and subject to corruption, but the current eviscerated version reaches only a fraction of the people most in need.

For Dreze and the other activists demanding a right to food, having enough to eat is a part of the right to life. In providing food for children, mothers, and pregnant women as well as for the rural and urban poor, the law would make India a more equitable country, bringing some kind of check to the deeply hierarchical market-driven economy that has taken hold. When I spoke to Dreze, he had seemed guardedly hopeful about the prospects for a right-to-food law. More than eighteen months later, however, the proposal in Parliament is a diluted version of the early draft, without either the accountability on the part of the government or the breadth of coverage activists hoped for.

When I visited India last December, food prices were rising once again. Onions, a staple in Indian cooking, had more than doubled in price, and the government had to resort to emergency imports from Pakistan, obtained in part with threats to withhold its own tomato exports. But it isn't clear if there is any desire on the part of the government to address prices at a systemic level. There has been talk that the government will work with American companies on genetically modified crops to put an end to future shortfalls, which would do little to alter the distorted system in place.

There may be meat and dairy for the privileged at the moment. For the majority, though, there is not much in the way of affordable food. Just the occasional biscuit.

Research support for this article was provided by The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, now known as Type Investigations.

About the reporter

Siddhartha Deb

Siddhartha Deb

Siddhartha Deb is a journalist and novelist.

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