Monday, April 21, 2008

Hunger stares us in the face

Hungry kya? But
there’s no food
It’s been a week of disconcerting news. Events at home and abroad, along with grim predictions by those who should know, would suggest that the human race is heading for a Malthusian disaster. The ‘checks’ that the British demographer elaborated on, based on his thesis of rising subsistence levels leading to increasing population growth till the supply of food can no longer meet demand, appear to be coming true. We could, in the not so distant future, find ourselves fighting for rapidly dwindling food supplies. The catastrophic consequences defy imagination.
At home, the most worrying news about hunger and looming starvation has been emanating from two Communist-ruled States, Kerala and West Bengal. Since both are at a distance from Delhi, our so-called ‘national’ media, especially 24x7 news channels, have chosen to gloss over what’s happening in the eastern and southern hinterland. Ms Mayawati calling Mr Rahul Gandhi names and babus demanding more money for their exacting job of spinning red tape, apart from titillating details of the glittering high life of the bold and the beautiful, have been grabbing more media space and time than the spectre of hunger that is stalking vast tracts of West Bengal and Kerala.
It’s difficult to imagine verdant Kerala with its undulating paddy fields, toddy-rich palms, lagoons and backwaters teeming with fish, dazzling jewellery stores the size of shopping malls, booming real estate fuelled by millions of dollars that are dutifully sent to families back home by expatriate Malayalees, could find itself in the vice-like grip of a food crisis that’s worsening by the day. But it’s true. People in ‘God’s Own Country’ are alarmed by the prospect of returning empty-handed from grocery stories, many of which have already put up ‘Rice Not Available’ signs.
According to conservative estimates, Kerala’s annual demand for rice, the staple for Malayali meals, hovers around 30 million tonnes. The State, perched on the Malabar coast, has limited cultivable land and can at best produce up to five million tonnes of rice. The remaining has to be imported from other rice-producing States. Till last year, the bulk of the shortfall was met with imports from Andhra Pradesh, but the situation has radically changed this year.
A new law in Andhra Pradesh limits the export of rice to 25 per cent of the actual produce. This has obviously done with the purpose of increasing supplies, and thus depressing prices, within the State. There is nothing wrong with this approach; after all, the Government of Andhra Pradesh has to look after the State’s interests before it can look after those of Kerala. But the sudden fall in supplies from Andhra Pradesh has left Kerala in a jam. Two other factors have coalesced to make a bad situation worse: The Food Corporation of India has trimmed the amount of rice supplied through the public distribution system by a whopping 96,000 tonnes; and, unexpected heavy rain has destroyed one lakh tonne of processed paddy.
So, Malayalees are now forced to pay an ever-increasing price for rice that is fast disappearing from the markets. Three of the four major markets for rice – Kochi, Kollam, Kozhikode and Thrissur – have run out of stocks; stocks at Kozhikode are depleting fast. On Saturday, parboiled rice in Kerala was selling between Rs 22 and Rs 23 a kilo, way above what it was selling for a couple of months ago. The CPI(M)-led Left Front Government, loathe to admit that there is a food crisis and people, more so the economically disadvantaged, could soon face hunger, however insists that rice is selling for Rs 18.50 a kilo. For once Marxist propaganda stands exposed as fiction, even among the party faithful.
Ironically, retail stores run by Reliance, which have been at the receiving end of Marxist ire and the anger of traders dependent on small retailers, have seized upon this crisis to convert it into a publicity opportunity. Friends tell me that Reliance stores are selling rice at Rs 17.50 a kilo, which is a rupee less than the price touted by the Government and far less than the market price. But such gimmicks are unsustainable and sooner or later Reliance stores will also have to put up ‘Rice Not Available’ signs. Meanwhile, Malayalees are pinning their hopes to promises made by Orissa and Chhattisgarh to supply rice -- by when and how much is anybody’s guess.
In West Bengal, tales of hunger and starvation emanating from districts that witnessed food riots last autumn and where cereals have all but disappeared from ration shops, have a tragic sociological twist to them. Many of the men and women who are on the verge of starvation are elderly and, needless to add, indigent. Abandoned by families which have migrated to Delhi and Mumbai, they can neither work for a living nor afford the prices demanded by hoarders who also happen to be, not so coincidentally, local party bosses on whose support and ill-gotten wealth the CPI(M) is pathetically dependent for its survival in power.
The Left Front Government has opened some feeding centres, but there are reports that only those who are known to vote for the CPI(M) are being allowed access to these emergency facilities. With panchayat elections scheduled for next month, the CPI(M) has decided to cynically exploit the distress of the starving masses to ensure its hold over rural Bengal remains as firm as ever. Earlier, it was the fear of Marxist terror that would make people vote for the CPI(M). This time it is the fear of starving to death.
What is scary is that soon all of India, riding the crest of inflation, could be faced with the grim prospect of food scarcity. Our buffer stocks are not in great health. And given the reality of dwindling international supplies, importing food is no longer an easy option. Mr Jacques Diouf, Director-General of FAO, was in Delhi last week with some frightening statistics: The world’s food grain stock at the moment is just about enough to feed the global population for eight weeks.
To make it last longer till fresh supplies arrive, a whole lot of us will have to go hungry. And hunger does not necessarily kill. It also breeds irrepressible, destructive anger. Witness the food riots that are erupting in country after country.

Coffee Break / The Pioneer / April 13, 2008