The imperial roots of hunger
16 June 2014
From the British Raj to today, the dictates of global markets still deny millions in India the opportunity to feed themselves.
In September 1900, while India suffered through one of the most severe famines in its history, a British official charged with identifying suitable recipients for free food shared his travails with the British Times. “The main difficulty in these inquiries is the unlimited mendacity of the Hindu farmer,” he complained. In his experience, many supplicants for aid had “starved themselves into a state of emaciation in the hope that they would receive gratuitous doles, rather than go to work for their living” in a food-for-labour programme. The civil servant went on to describe his interrogation of a typical “starved-looking wretch”:
Why is he not working? He says he has not the strength. But why did he not go to work before his strength failed? He pretends he does not understand; he only repeats that he cannot; and he falls on his knees and places his head in the dust and calls you his ‘father and mother’ and ‘protector of the poor.’ It is very pitiable – the mental and moral state more than the physical.
The civil servant did not mention that the taxes wrung from these very farmers paid his salary, and would pay his pension when he retired home to Britain. For that would come close to conceding that an imperial system of extortion had maintained India in an almost continuous state of starvation throughout the latter half of the 19th century, as Mike Davis detailed in Late Victorian Holocausts (2001). In that period India suffered a famine every few years, resulting in 25 million deaths even by a conservative count. The proximate cause of the famines was usually drought, although colonial administrators also blamed them on the tendency of natives to breed excessively. (Apart from the mendacity, masochism, indolence and obsequiousness cited by the above official, the alleged attributes of the Indian also included lechery.) But throughout the 19th century India was on average producing enough food to feed its people – which indicates that the roots of starvation lay elsewhere.
Nationalist Dadabhai Naoroji and pioneering economic historian Romesh Chunder Dutt demonstrated that British Indian famines arose from the way the colony had been forcibly incorporated into the global economy. High taxes, which had to be paid even when the crop failed, forced farmers to relinquish to the market whatever harvest they could gather – and to the moneylender or taxman almost all the cash they thereby earned. As a result, the poor had too little money left in hand to buy enough grain for their own needs. Their ever-diminishing purchasing power relative to consumers abroad, in concert with rigorously enforced free-trade policies, ensured that a substantial portion of the surrendered harvest left the colony’s shores. As Dutt calculated, each year India exported agricultural goods equal in value to the cereal requirements of 25 million people. These exports, in turn, earned India the foreign exchange to pay the Home Charge: the administrative and other expenses that the colony owed Britain for the privilege of having white men shoulder its burdens. By the end of the Victorian era, the Home Charge came to 20 million pounds a year.
With much of the harvest as well as all of its income ending up abroad, the price of what food remained in India was often too high for those clinging to survival. The foreign exchange that the colony’s starving farmers earned allowed the United Kingdom to pay off a third of its trade deficits with the United States and Europe – which meant that a state of intermittent famine in India was integral to the prosperity of the imperial nation.
Exploitation of the colony’s resources intensified during imperial wars, leading to inflation, food scarcities, and epidemics exacerbated by malnutrition. Such factors contributed to the demise of roughly 12 million Indians from Spanish flu during World War I, and at least 3 million from famine during World War II. As I demonstrated in Churchill’s Secret War (2010), Indians starved by the tens of millions because control over their economy resided not with them but with His Majesty’s Government, which prioritised the comforts of British civilians far above the survival needs of ‘natives’.
Hungry voters and hungry states
Colonial subjects did not, of course, vote in British elections, and so could not hold decision-makers accountable. Nobel-laureate economist Amartya Sen has argued that democracy protects against famine. “In democratic countries, even very poor ones, the survival of the ruling government would be threatened by famine, since elections are not easy to win after famines,” he said in a 2002 interview to the London Observer. He cites in illustration the Bengal famine of 1943 and the massive famine in Maoist China between 1958 and 1961, comparing it with the relative lack of famines in democratic India. Nevertheless, to ignore issues of sovereignty when assigning culpability for colonial-era famines seems akin to blaming an airplane crash on the pilot (and possibly the passengers) without examining the instructions sent by the air-traffic controller. Democracy is an attribute of a nation state; to focus exclusively on its role is to confine responsibility within national borders and exonerate external actors.
Paucity of democracy also fails to account for recent near-famines aggravated by neo-imperialism. In the middle of 2008, for instance, disparate countries around the world erupted in food riots. As listed by economist Jayati Ghosh, these included Haiti, Guinea, Mauritania, Mexico, Morocco, Egypt, Senegal, Uzbekistan, Yemen, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Indonesia. “In several countries in Asia, such as Pakistan and Thailand, troops had to be deployed to guard food stocks and prevent seizure of grain from warehouses,” she wrote. Wall Street speculation in financial instruments based on cereals, coming on top of the First World’s use of grain for ethanol production, had caused global prices to rise by 80 percent in eighteen months. While Goldman Sachs likely made hundreds of millions of dollars, more than 100 million people worldwide descended into hunger.
What the starving countries shared was not absence of democracy, but dependence on imports – at least in part a consequence of economic imperialism. Take the first country on the list, Haiti, which until the 1980s was largely self-sufficient in its staple food, rice. Starting in 1986, however, the International Monetary Fund forced Haiti to reduce the tariffs that protected its domestic rice production from 35 to 3 percent, so as to qualify for a loan. Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate and former chief economist of the World Bank, has described the extent to which the IMF is controlled by the United States, in particular by Wall Street financiers who use the institution to impose on debtor countries conditions that favour their own interests. Cheap rice imports from the US, where production is highly subsidised, flooded out Haitian rice so that farmers gave up on farming and moved to cities. Domestic rice production collapsed. By the middle of 2008, when international rice prices soared by more than three times since early 2007, Haiti was importing most of its staple. The Philippines, which also features in Ghosh’s list, similarly turned from rice exporter to importer during the 1980s and 1990s, when it implemented ‘structural adjustments’ demanded by the World Bank which reduced support to farmers.
A debilitating dependence on imports may be induced in other ways. As economist Utsa Patnaik observes in her important book The Republic of Hunger (2007), during the 1970s and 1980s the IMF and the World Bank coerced several sub-Saharan countries into giving their prime agricultural land over to the cultivation of bananas, roses, fresh vegetables and the like for the European market, leaving less land on which to grow food for domestic consumption. Free-market economists had argued that with ample earnings from high-value exports, poor countries could buy cheap foreign grain to feed their people. But with many tropical countries simultaneously seeking to export their products, prices for these fell, earnings failed to meet expectations, and elites became reluctant to use scarce foreign exchange to import sufficient food. Meanwhile, in less than a decade, cereal output per head declined by a shocking third in the six most populous countries of this region. Even with food aid, per capita calorie intake declined for four of these countries. Sub-Saharan Africa is now one of the hungriest regions of the world, perpetually on the verge of famine.
This global trend has a surprising root: the glorious diversity of tropical flora and fauna. Recall that colonialism itself arose from the desire to acquire spices, silks, cottons and tea for the European market; so urgent was this need that the United Kingdom even waged war on China to force it to accept opium (itself coercively grown in India) in exchange for its tea and silks. Patnaik observes that an average supermarket in a rich Western country stocks about 12,000 items, of which roughly 70 percent contain ingredients such as sugar, tea, cocoa or coffee that are grown in tropical or subtropical climes. Although once considered luxuries, since the 19th century their everyday use has become crucial to the sense of well-being of consumers in rich countries – most of them former colonial powers.
“A civilisation with an unnatural appetite must feed on numberless victims, and these are being sought in the parts of the world where human flesh is cheap,” commented Rabindranath Tagore in his timeless essay, The robbery of the soil. With the decline of traditional colonialism after World War II, the First World crafted new ways to induce the Third World to grow the crops and mine the minerals that the affluent needed, and to accept in exchange either high-priced manufactured goods or the few varieties of crops that cooler climates do produce. Thus were born powerful new institutions dominated by the West – the IMF, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation – which could use loan programmes and trade agreements to mould the domestic policies of debtor nations. As a result many ex-colonies, including India, once again lost a significant portion of their economic sovereignty, won just decades earlier through the sacrifices of countless heroes and heroines.
Rich countries with warm regions also sought to colonise as much as they could the Third World’s seed varieties, developed over centuries by indigenous farmers. For instance, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), set up in the 1960s by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, managed to get hold of more than 16,000 varieties of rice developed by Indian farmers. These varieties, along with tens of thousands of rice samples collected elsewhere in Asia, ended up in seed repositories and biotechnology labs in the United States. In 1996, the International Food Policy Research Institute estimated that roughly three-quarters of US rice fields were sown with varieties descendant from IRRI material. The Texas-based company RiceTec went so far as to patent a hybrid strain of basmati rice that also appears to have been derived from the IRRI collection. (India, under pressure from its civil society, contested the patent with partial success.)
To be sure, the IRRI also provided some of the so-called HYVs, or ‘high-yielding’ varieties, that contributed to the Green Revolution and helped India feed itself. These varieties may be more accurately labeled as ‘high-responsive’: although very productive when given ample and expensive inputs, their yields fall steeply in the absence of adequate water, fertilisers, and pesticides. In his treatise Beyond Developmentality (2009), ecologist Debal Deb observes that the yield of HYV varieties per unit of water is in fact significantly lower than that of most indigenous varieties. Activist Vandana Shiva further notes that much of the purported gains of India’s Green Revolution can actually be attributed to intensive irrigation (which allows the same field to produce two or three crops a year instead of just the single monsoon-fed harvest), as well as to vast increases in the land area under cultivation for the chosen crops. In the Punjab, for instance, the total area under rice cultivation increased ten-fold and that under wheat increased three-fold in the four decades following 1960, whereas the area under cultivation for pulses decreased ten-fold. When such factors are accounted for, at most 17 percent of the global gains from the Green Revolution may be attributed to the HYVs themselves.
The problems associated with such industrialised agriculture are now becoming apparent. Excessive pumping of underground water is salinising fields and depleting aquifers (leading to falling water tables, and indirectly to arsenic poisoning in southern Bengal); overuse of fertilisers is spurring soil degradation and erosion; and rampant spraying of pesticides is contaminating food supplies and drinking water (causing a cancer epidemic in the Punjab). Pests are developing resistance to the very chemicals that all too readily kill farmers, and yields are either stagnant or falling. At the same time, with HYVs monopolising fields, native varieties are vanishing rapidly just when the need for their irreplaceable qualities, such as resistance to specific pests, is becoming most urgent.
Enter the ‘Second Green Revolution’. In 2005 Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and US president George W. Bush agreed upon the Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture (KIA), touted as the new route to abolishing hunger. It called for collaborative efforts that would result in US-based biotechnology companies getting access to the genetic resources of the vast network of institutes, universities and research projects supervised by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. According to analyst Kavitha Kuruganti, the KIA also empowered US corporations – including the multinational Monsanto, which features on its board and which already controls about a quarter of the world’s proprietary seed market – to influence the legal regime in India to their advantage.
In 2007, India’s Genetic Engineering Approval Committee suddenly announced that genetically modified foods would no longer require approvals. Adverse publicity and judicial activism led to the order being held in abeyance; nonetheless, confirming widespread fears of a fresh attempt to colonise India’s food chain, the committee subsequently approved Monsanto’s Bt brinjal for the Indian market despite inadequate assurances of its safety. Leo Saldanha of the Environmental Support Group charges that Monsanto had earlier, and illegally, accessed several varieties of brinjal from India, where the plant likely originated, in order to develop this genetically engineered variety.
Adamant opposition from the Indian states, along with nationwide hearings on the issue initiated by the then Minister of Environment Jairam Ramesh, led to a moratorium on the introduction of Bt brinjal. That setback appears to have motivated others in the Indian government to formulate a biotechnology bill that would empower an unaccountable new body to take all decisions on the safety and marketing of GM products, while curtailing the powers of states to regulate the new products as well as the public’s ability to learn about their environmental and health effects. Brazenly, the proposed legislation would also have punished, with steep fines and jail terms of at least six months, any attempt to “misinform” the public about GM products without “scientific evidence”. After having laid bare the corporate agenda that has possessed key figures in the Indian government, this controversial clause has been dropped from the latest version of the bill.
Demanding a fair share
Of course when India was colonised for the first time, the perpetrator was also a corporation backed by a powerful country and aided by native collaborators. Ever since Manmohan Singh ushered in the era of neoliberal ‘reforms’ in the 1990s, India has surrendered significant control over its economy to outsiders. Not only is it giving away the intellectual property of Indian farmers; in accordance with the diktats of the international financial institutions, it has also promoted cash crops and expensive corporate-controlled seeds, precipitously reduced investment in agriculture, and removed protective tariffs, thereby subjecting its cultivators to international prices that are either dangerously volatile (because of speculation) or artificially low (because of subsidies of a billion dollars a day enjoyed by First World agriculturists).
Small family farms are becoming unprofitable. Indeed, many analysts believe that traditional cultivation has deliberately been rendered unviable with the aim of forcing farmers off the land and ushering in a new era of industrialised and corporatised agriculture. According to journalist P Sainath, between 1995 and 2011 more than 270,000 Indian farmers – overwhelmingly growers of cash crops such as cotton, sugarcane and groundnut – committed suicide, and every single day at least 2000 farmers are giving up on farming.
Take the oilseeds debacle. Analyst Devinder Sharma reports that in the mid-1990s, India achieved 97 percent self-sufficiency in edible oils, extracted from groundnuts and other seeds grown on marginal lands. The World Bank argued, however, that India should import US or European oil because it was cheaper – without noting the huge subsidies that kept it that way. The neo-colony accordingly slashed import duties from 300 percent to practically zero, devastating its dry-land farmers. It is now the world’s second-largest importer of edible oil, for which it annually pays more than USD 10 billion. Most of this is palm oil, produced by decimating the rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia and their resident orangutans, as the World Wildlife Fund has complained.
In India since 1990, the area growing coarse grains – which the poor depend on – has decreased by a quarter, with much of that land being given over to cash crops such as jatropha, a toxic plant used for biofuel. Overall, the quantity of cereal available to the average Indian has fallen from 435.3 grams per day in 1990 to a disturbing 401.7 grams per day in 2010. This decline, compounded by increasing poverty in villages, has led to a 10 percent fall in per capita calorie consumption in rural areas in the first decade of the new millennium. The availability of pulses has halved since 1961, contributing to widespread protein deficiency as well.
Forcible seizure of the commons is exacerbating the problem. Indian villagers survive mainly on the grain and vegetables they grow and the water, firewood, fish, tubers, fruits and edible leaves that they get for free from their environs. Tens of millions of them are losing not only their fields and seeds, but also their forests, swamps, rivers and coasts – and therefore their ability to provide for themselves – to mines, dams and other development. “Dispossession amounts to pushing them off a platform on which they can stay alive,” observes the pioneering doctor Binayak Sen. Indigenous peoples, who account for two-fifths of those displaced, are predictably the worst hit. Dr Sen notes that 41.9 percent of India’s scheduled tribes have a body mass index of less than 18.5, indicating a state of incipient famine. (Norms drawn up by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network designate any community in which far more than 40 percent of the members have a body mass index of below 18.5 as suffering from famine.) Hunger deaths are routinely reported across tribal India.
Astoundingly, the country harbours enormous grain stockpiles, largely because, with the universal Public Distribution System that used to provide cheap food to all having been truncated (at the urging of the World Bank), too few people can now afford to buy the food they need. As the abysmal agricultural and nutritional statistics show, this bounty is a grotesque illusion, and it will fade fast. Much of the country’s wheat and rice harvest comes from HYVs that guzzle water, derived in turn from underground aquifers that are rapidly being emptied. “India’s water-based food bubble may be about to burst,” writes environmentalist Lester Brown. In the near future the country will have to import food if it is to prevent outright famine of the kind in which villagers migrate en masse to cities in search of nourishment and foul the pavements with their corpses.
But a dependence on imports is unfeasible. Diversion of food crops to ethanol production by both the United States and the European Union – cars having greater entitlement to nourishment than the global poor – has steeply increased global prices of all cereals. The US is using about 40 percent of its corn crop for ethanol, adding more than a billion dollars a year to the food import bills of poor countries. Just as worrisome, in recent years drought and fires induced by climate change have damaged harvests in major grain exporting countries such as Australia, Russia and the US. Global cereal prices are now almost as high as during the crisis of 2008. Speculation is rife, global stocks are low, and the United Nations has warned that any more severe weather could trigger a food crisis this very year. Although swathes of Africa are already starving, a new land grab is underway there as investors and corporations, ironically some of them from India, rush to secure access to well-watered, fertile soil that can continue to supply flowers and luxury foods to those who can afford them.
“The resource base for First World lifestyles – whether they are enjoyed within the geographical territories of the rich or the poor nations – is the entire planet,” observe economists Aseem Shrivastava and environmentalist Ashish Kothari in their devastating book, Churning the Earth (2012). The wealthiest fifth of the globe’s population reaches far beyond national borders to consume four-fifths of the earth’s total land, water, minerals, carbon recycling capacity and other resources. And the earth is crumbling under the strain. In the 1970s, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had constructed an elaborate computer model of industrial civilisation and its interactions with the earth’s biosphere. They forecasted that unless humanity drastically changed course to live within the earth’s capacity to sustain life, pollution and a shortage of natural resources would cause society to collapse.
Australian scientist Graham Turner finds that in the four decades since that model was developed, actual global population, industrial production, pollution and other variables have tracked the most alarming set of predictions with sinister precision. Although global warming will deal the ultimate blow, he finds that the most immediate danger of collapse comes from rising petroleum prices, which will cause nations to divert ever more of their financial resources to securing oil supplies (as is already happening in India). With capital thereby drained from agriculture, the model predicts that harvests will dive, causing the population to decline steeply from a peak of between seven or eight billion around 2030 to around four billion in 2100.
The saving grace: agriculture in the Third World is not yet fully industrialised. Tens of millions of farmers still know how to grow food using their own seeds, and without the dubious benefits of petroleum-based fertilisers and pesticides. The only imaginable way to avert disaster is to protect and nurture the remaining pockets of organic, labour-intensive, community-supported agriculture, based on tradition and improved by science, but free of dependence on capital, oil or corporations. Genetically modified foods must be fended off, if only because they imply monoculture and corporate control, and therefore a dangerous loss of biodiversity and sovereignty.
A groundbreaking United Nations report published in 2011 argues that small-scale farmers could double their productivity and cut costs by turning their plots into thriving ecosystems, for instance by using ducks and fish in flooded rice fields to control pests and weeds and to nourish the plants with their droppings. Such creatures can also provide the poor with protein, as indeed they used to before pesticides sterilised most rice fields. Deb has similarly shown that organic rice production using traditional seeds and manure can be as productive as industrialised rice farming with hybrid varieties and expensive fertilisers and pesticides. His collection of more than 860 rice cultivars, garnered mainly from eastern India and available to farmers through his open seed bank Vrihi, contains specimens that can tolerate diverse pests, floods and drought – necessary qualities in a warming world.
Unlike the IRRI collection, most of which now consists of dead grains that are useless to farmers but possess genetic information that can be accessed by corporations, Deb keeps his seeds alive by growing and replanting them every year. After Cyclone Aila hit the Sunderban in 2009, salinising more than 20,000 acres of fields, Deb distributed samples of four traditional salt-tolerant rice varieties among local farmers and found two of them using others. Sadly, some of the recipients threw their samples away: having been repeatedly exhorted by government agriculturists to embrace modern technology, many cultivators have come to despise their own traditions. Thanks to Deb’s persistence, however, more than 100 farmers are now planting, harvesting, propagating and sharing all of these varieties, greatly increasing the resilience of the region’s crop. Another 200 farmers in Odisha, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala and Maharashtra have received seeds of flood- and drought-tolerant varieties from Vrihi, enabling them to rejuvenate their marginal farms.
“In bitterer moments, one is inclined to ask if the labour and money spent in endeavouring to save such people is not wasted,” the British official quoted at the beginning of this essay had complained of Indian farmers. The fact is, they need no help from imperialists masquerading as saviours. All they need is a fair share of the earth’s surface to call their own, the democracy and sovereignty to determine what to do with it, and allies to help defend their rights and enhance their knowledge. Granted these, they will feed not only themselves but the rest of us as well.
~This article was first published in our quarterly issue Farms, Feasts, Famines (Vol 26 Number 2).
~Madhusree Mukerjee, a former physicist, has served as an editor at Scientific American magazine and is the author of two books, Churchill’s Secret War (2010) and The Land of Naked People (2003).
~An error in the web version of this article was corrected on 12 April 2018 to make it consistent with the original version in print.