Food capitalism and consequences of hunger among the rural poor

Gaurav Bhattacharya

In the context of the agrarian crisis in India, imbalanced market policies have forced a major portion of the rural population to shift from basic agricultural practice and become landless migrant labourers. As stated in the India exclusion survey of 2014, a large population of agricultural workers have been forced to become construction migrants making the rural markets fall into an informal economy architecture. The major agriculture dependent workforce faces severe market inequalities leading to increase in shortage of food resources that leads to death due to hunger in many households. The total agricultural productivity yields in India do not match the context of grain poverty among the rural poor.

As of the year 2013 a million tonnes of grains were reported to be stored at the Food corporation warehouses (FCI) while there was persistent drop in calorie consumption among the poor.

The Government of India follows an export first policy which includes heavy export of food grains and foreign direct investments (FDI) in the farm markets. This has effected several small time agricultural houses to cope up with the rising demands of the market effecting nutritional securities and average purchasing powers of the households. The grain policy at present is surrounded by the question of reforming the in-kind food transfers with a cash transfer model. A cash transfer model might finally propose financial independency for the rural poor but the evidences are highly debatable. Unlike the in-kind food transfer policies, the cash transfer model is not devoid of problems of market fluctuations and rapid food inflations. The volatility in food prices will have direct effects on the purchasing powers of the households which will make grain procurement unaffordable. Also the context of the minimum support price index might be effected with a hasty transition to the cash transfer model. It will be ideally leading to an unstable situation if a minimum wage has to be balanced with rising prices and frequent variations. Mapping various such disparities provide direct reference to the fact that a grain led development model should involve the background of communities’ perspectives than just rely on direct market assumptions.

Rising market fundamentalism in the agricultural scenario demands higher inflation prices that tend of make food unaffordable for the poor. In the month of august this present year there was a food inflation of 14.72 % with the food price index (FAO is a measure of monthly change in international prices of a basket of food commodities) settling at 161.9 points. This explains the seriousness of the food inflation scenario in India driven by structural and cylindrical factors of high exports, market fundamentalism, poorer reforms and lack of formal credit based approach. Globally there has been a 23 % rise in average cereal prices and such volatility of food prices will keep effecting the poor and marginalised in India.

In the last couple of years, the agricultural market has witnessed challenges with output price fluctuations and failure of a formal credit system. This led to lack of rural commercial credit and capital leaving the agricultural workers in a state of little money and no credit. In drought prone regions several such factors have increased borrowing with growing debt and significant drop in purchasing powers. Such conditions directly affect the average monthly consumptions of the households forcing communities to skip meals and stay in starvation periods for long. Presently there are three main food security nets or welfare schemes (Integrated child development services, public distribution scheme and the mid-day meal) directed towards balancing the nutritional needs and food security for the rural poor. The Public Distribution System (PDS) is one the largest welfare schemes mandated under the National Food Security Act-2013 that is responsible for providing subsidised ration through the “Fair price shops” (FPS) to the rural poor. The National Food Security Act (NFSA) in India was legislated in the year 2013 as a universal scheme to assure grain security among all the households specially the most vulnerable ones. But the PDS system has several leakages like in the last fiscal year, it was estimated that only half of the procured grains through the PDS reached the poor which means on an average there was more than fifty percent leakages and diversion in ration delivery. Recently a public petition filed at the Supreme Court of India enquiring on the status and impact of NFSA. It was found that only nine state governments in India had effectively implemented the NFSA and most of the PDS in such states suffer massive leakages from procurement of grains till delivery. It is imperative here to argue the policy perspective of a universal scheme like NFSA specially in context to the state governance models in India should be reframed. Certain states in India have more rural poverty than the national average and in such a scenario a universal welfare agenda might not be suitable. Highlighting the NFSA here, it is important that the ruling government should transfer more decisive powers to the states for introducing food security schemes that match the vulnerability criteria of different communities in the several states.

It has been previously argued by the noted Economist-Jean Drèze that states should focus more on effective ration delivery in a failed agriculture market as failure to produce (agricultural yields) first effects the nutritional status of households leading to hunger and starvation. It is the role of the states to ensure that the process of grain procurement to delivery is regularised and managed among the rural poor. It has been previously depicted that the average household per capita consumption units have declined for the rural poor tremendously in the last decade. In figures the average calorie consumption in most of the rural households has declined from 2, 240 calories in 1983 to 2,233 in 1987-88, and 2,047 calories per head in 2004-05. There has been an overall 8.6 % decrease in the per head calorie consumption of rural households while simultaneously the countries producing power grew at large post trade liberalisation is only surprising to observe that the estimated gross domestic product (GDP) in India grew at 3.25 % between the period of 1980-2005 and then 5.4 % from 2000-2005 and recently showing a 7.25 % increase at the same time when the average calorie consumption rates where tremendously falling. We have been living in a decade of a liberalised economy with greater market reforms and faster foreign direct investments and it is still a matter of shame that we have more than a million underfed people in the country and several households that do not receive any grains at all. It is not only the lack of political will and commitment to eradicate hunger but the attitude of the government to realise the fact that we are indeed a hungry nation Such evidences highlight the structural inequalities in food distribution and delivery depicting the fact that food shortage has always been a burden of the deprived communities and not a national problem.

Among many developing economies, India is one such example where the criterions of labour market risks emerge wider than just occupational hazards. The dimensions are more subjective to narrowing affordability and accessibility parameters of the rural poor and in such cases the effects are larger towards food security. The agenda to move from just food security to nutritional security is a huge leap for policies and schemes. The grain-led development model involves the paradoxes of equity and growth, identifying the priority of each in the context of food security.

India presently ranks below some of the poorest nations in terms of its hunger index with more than a million underfed people. The agricultural productivity gaps are massive with varied interstate and regional disparities on allocation and distribution of grains.

Unfortunately, the process of democratisation of food has fallen deep into a capitalist environment where millions starve while food prices rise indefinitely. The market dynamics are today more unfavourable than it has been for the rural poor and it is extremely important to analyse whether the food policies are pro-poor or not. It is indeed true that the framework of democracy is a unique opportunity to recognise the needs of the deprived and provide sustainable solutions for it but it is extremely important to analyse whether the government really wants a well fed work force. In the context of rural poverty and hunger we need to evaluate and reframe the polices better such that the polices reflect food as a right and not a commodity for the poor.

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