Hunger: Old torments and new blunders — 2  

  Vol II : issue 6

  Amartya Sen
  Peter Svedberg
  M.S. Swaminathan
  Swadesh Deepak
Jayanta Mahapatra
  A.K. Shiva Kumar

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Amartya Sen

Largest food mountains and worst undernourishment

The barriers to nutritional progress come not only from old dividing lines, but also from brand new ones. Sometimes the very institutions that have been designed to overcome old barriers have tended to act as reactionary influences in adding to inequity and unequal deprivation. The terrible combination that we have in India of immense food mountains on the one hand and the largest conglomeration of undernourished population in the world is one example of this.[8]

In 1998, stocks of food grains in the central government’s reserve were around 18 million tonnes — close to the official "buffer stock" norms needed to take care of possible fluctuations of production and supply. Since then, it has climbed and climbed, firmly surpassing the 50 million mark, and it appears, according to recent reports, that our stocks now amount to 62 million tonnes. To take Jean Drèze’s graphic description, if all the sacks of grain were laid up in a row, this would stretch more than a million kilometres, taking us to the moon and back. Since Jean Drèze wrote this last year (2000), the stocks have risen some more, and the sacks would now take us to the moon and back to the earth, and then back to the moon again.

It is good to hear from the Government of India that a small part of this large stock will be used for various good purposes, including one million tonnes going for relief in Afghanistan (I applaud both as a human being and as the Honorary President of OXFAM, which is much involved in providing relief in Afghanistan), but this would neither make much of a dent in the food mountain, nor stop its relentless enlargement — perhaps to 75 million tonnes soon, or even to a 100 million.[9] The Food Minister has also proposed a different way of paying subsidies to the farmers, which apparently distributes them more equitably among the regions. Instead of the government’s being obliged to buy food grains at the minimum support prices, food would now be sold at market prices and the government will pay the farmers the difference between the market prices and the minimum support prices. Farmers — even very big farmers — would no doubt be relieved to hear that their "interests", as the expression goes, "will be protected". And, of course, the stocks will keep accumulating, even though they are now approaching four times the official "buffer stock" requirements. And the public expense of the programme of subsidies (estimated not long ago at a staggering Rs 21,000 crore a year) is unlikely to spiral down. We are evidently determined to maintain, at heavy cost, India’s unenviable combination of having the worst of undernourishment in the world and the largest unused food stocks on the globe.


Policy delusions

What can be the explanation for this odd insistence on counterproductive policy? The immediate explanation is not hard to get. The accumulation of stocks results from the government’s commitment to unrealistically high minimum support prices of food grains — of wheat and rice in particular. But a regime of high prices in general (despite a gap between procurement prices and consumers’ retail prices) both expands procurement and depresses demand. The bonanza for food producers and sellers is matched by the privation of food consumers. Since the biological need for food is not the same thing as the economic entitlement to food (that is, what people can afford to buy given their economic circumstances and the prevailing prices), the large stocks procured are hard to get rid of, despite rampant undernourishment across the country. The very price system that generates a massive supply keeps the hands — and the mouths — of the poorer consumers away from food.

But does the government not remedy this problem by subsidising food prices according to the level of procurement prices — surely that should keep food prices low to consumers? Not quite. Jean Drèze and I discuss this issue more fully in our forthcoming book, India: Development and Participation, but one big part of the story is simply the fact that much of the subsidy does in fact go to pay for the cost of maintaining a massively large stock of food grains, with a mammoth and unwieldy food administration (including the Food Corporation of India). Also, since the cutting edge of the price subsidy is to pay farmers to produce more and earn more, rather than to sell existing stocks to consumers at lower prices (that too happens, but only to a limited extent and to restricted groups), the overall effect of food subsidy is more spectacular in transferring money to farmers than in transferring food to the undernourished Indian consumers.

Need for a clearer class analysis

If there were ever a case for radical class analysis, in which the Left could take the Right to the cleaners, one would have thought that this would be it. Sure enough, some public interest groups have protested and taken issues of fundamental rights to the Supreme Court. But the systematic criticism of this problem from the perspective of class inequality has been amazingly muffled and silent. The protest we hear is strangely divided, along with repetition of the mantra about keeping food prices high for the benefit of farmers and cultivators. Why is this so?

When the policy of food procurement was introduced and the case for purchasing food from farmers at high prices was established, various benefits were foreseen, and they are not altogether pointless, nor without some claim to equity. First, building up stocks to a certain point is useful for food security — even necessary for the prevention of famines. That would make it a good thing to have a large stock up to some limit — in today’s conditions, perhaps even a stock of 20 million tonnes or so. The idea that since it is good to build up stocks as needed, it must be even better to build up even more stocks, is of course a costly mistake.

It is important in this context to also examine a second line of reasoning in defence of high food prices, which too comes in as a good idea and then turns counterproductive. Those who suffer from low food prices include some that are not affluent — the small farmer or peasant who sells a part of the crop. The interest of this group is mixed up with those of big farmers, and this produces a lethal confounding of food politics. While the powerful lobby of privileged farmers presses for higher procurement prices and for public funds to be spent to keep them high, the interests of poorer farmers, who too benefit from the high prices, are championed by political groups that represent these non-affluent beneficiaries. Stories of the hardships of these people play a powerful part not only in the rhetoric in favour of high food prices, but also in the genuine conviction of many equity-oriented activists that this would help some very badly-off people. And so it would, but of course it would help the rich farmers much more, and cater to their pressure groups, while the interests of the much larger number of people who buy food rather than sell it would be badly sacrificed.

There is need for more explicit analysis of the effects of these policies on the different classes, and in particular on the extreme underdogs of society who, along with their other deprivations (particularly low incomes, bad healthcare, inadequate opportunities of schooling), are also remarkably underfed and undernourished. For casual labourers, slum-dwellers, poor urban employees, migrant workers, rural artisans, rural non-farm workers, even farm workers who are paid cash wages, high food prices bite into what they can eat. The overall effect of the high food prices is to hit many of the worst-off members of society extremely hard. And while it does help some of the farm-based poor, the net effect is quite regressive on distribution. There is, of course, relentless political pressure from farmers’ lobbies in the direction of high food prices, and the slightly muddied picture of some farm-based poor being benefited permits the confusion that high food prices constitute a pro-poor stance, when in overall effect it is very far from that.

It is said that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. So, unfortunately, is a little bit of equity when its championing coincides with massive injustice to vast numbers of underprivileged people.

A concluding remark

Not only is the persistence of widespread undernourishment in India — more than in all other regions in the world — quite extraordinary, so is the silence with which it is tolerated, not to mention the smugness with which it is sometimes dismissed. Nutritional deficiencies affect the lives of Indians at different ages but — as has been discussed — they can be closely interrelated. For example, the neglect of women’s nutrition can work through maternal undernourishment, foetal deprivation in the uterus, low birth weights, undernutrition and ill-health of children, and ultimately morbidity of adults as well. Recent research has brought out sharply the impact of early undernourishment on long-run health, and even on the development of cognitive functions and skills. The fact that India has such a massive incidence of childhood undernourishment makes this a particularly alarming consideration. Indeed, the negative effects of early undernourishment can be serious throughout one’s life, including in the propensity to suffer from cardiovascular diseases in later ages (again, higher in India, controlling for other influences, than almost anywhere else).

In battling against "so old a story" of deprivation and hunger, we also have to take note of the fact that the policy problems can take forms that are "somehow always new". In addition to addressing issues of economic growth and distribution, of healthcare and basic education, and the very old problem of gender bias and neglect of women’s health, we must also reassess public policies based on explicit scrutiny of who benefits from the respective policies, and who — most emphatically — do not. Many of the underdogs of society face not only traditional problems that have kept them back, but also new adversities arising from public policies that are meant to help the underprivileged but end up doing something rather different.

Given our democratic system, nothing is as important as a clearer understanding of the causes of deprivation and the exact effects of alleged policy remedies that can be used. Public action includes not only what is done for the public by the state, but also what is done by the public for itself. It includes what people can do by demanding remedial action and through making governments accountable. I have argued in favour of a closer scrutiny of the class-specific implications of public policies that cost the earth and yet neglect — and sometimes worsen — the opportunities and interests of the underdogs of society. The case for protesting against the continuation of old disadvantages has been strong enough for a long time, but to that has to be added the further challenge of resisting new afflictions in the form of policies that are allegedly aimed at equity and do much to undermine just that. The case for relating public policy to a close scrutiny of its actual effects is certainly very strong, but the need to protest — to rage, to holler — is not any weaker.

p. 1 p. 2 Endnotes

Amartya Sen is Master, Trinity College, Cambridge, UK. His work on hunger, poverty,
social choice and entitlements earned him the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1998