economics (politics) of food in india

Les Schaffer schaffer at
Sun Dec 1 19:52:32 MST 2002

Poor in India Starve as Surplus Wheat Rots


Surplus from this year's wheat harvest, bought by the government from
farmers, sits moldering in muddy fields here in Punjab State. Some of
the previous year's wheat surplus sits untouched, too, and the year's
before that, and the year's before that.


More than two decades after a "green" revolution made India, the
world's second-most-populous country, self-sufficient in grain
production, half of India's children are malnourished. About 350
million Indians go to bed hungry every night. Pockets of starvation
deaths, like those in the Baran district of Rajasthan, have surfaced
regularly in recent years.

Yet the government is sitting on wheat surpluses -- now at about 53
million metric tons -- that would stretch to the moon and back at least
twice if all the bags were lined up. Persistent scarcity surrounded by
such bounty has become a source of shame for a nation that has taken
pride in feeding itself.


The reason, experts and officials agree, is the economics -- and
particularly the politics -- of food in India, a country that has
modernized on many fronts but that remains desperately poor.

Critics say the central government, led for the last four years by the
Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, has catered to political
allies and powerful farm lobbies in a few key states by buying more
and more grain from farmers at higher and higher prices. At the same
time, it has been responding to pressure from international lenders by
curbing food subsidies to consumers.

One result has been huge stockpiles going to waste, while higher
prices for food and inefficient distribution leave basic items like
bread, a staple of the rural poor diet, out of reach for many. Even
though the surplus is supposed to be distributed to the poor, politics
and corruption often limit their access.

"It's not an economic issue anymore -- it's a straightforward
political issue," said Jairam Ramesh, the senior economic adviser to
the Indian National Congress, the country's main opposition party.

les schaffer

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