Monday, September 14, 2009

GDP and India’s hungry underbelly

Suman Sahai
Finally there is acknowledgement on the part of the government that the country is indeed facing a serious drought and a crisis in food availability. For months we were treated to the Met department statements predicting some shortfall in the rainfall, nowhere close to the calamitous situation that those who work on the ground could see developing. Until recently, the government also assured that all was under control, that the country had sufficient food reserves and there was no cause for panic. Only now have the powers that be admitted that there is indeed cause for panic.

And now that a full-blown drought is upon us, the Planning Commission has given us estimations that though the failed monsoon will shave off some points from the economic growth projections, the impact on the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) will not be significant. The Planning Commission is not overly exercised over the drop in farm output which translates into less food for the poor, more hunger all round, more anaemic mothers and a greater number of low birth weight children who will never grow up to be fully healthy adults. The human suffering that results from a drop in farm output is invisible on the paper on which the Planning Commission calculates that the current reduction in agriculture production will "have some impact but not a very large one" since agriculture contributes less than 20 per cent to the economy.

This cynical callousness is what is at the root of the problem. The real reason why droughts, floods, hunger and deprivation in rural India are year for year, treated with the disdain that we have come to expect from policy circles. Agriculture is neglected because it is not part of the charmed circle that contributes to nine per cent growth rates and to the "Shining India" that is getting ready to become a global power. Already, the government and its many economists have begun to introduce the "feel good" factor. Oh! OK! so the kharif crop has gone to the dogs… but the failed monsoon will not have any impact on the rabi (winter) crop. So now we can quit worrying because the rabi harvest will bring enough and we can stop being bothered with all these dull agriculture issues.

The fact of the matter is that in over 60 per cent of India’s agricultural belt, there will be, by and large, no rabi harvest. Regions which are termed rain-fed, still do not have any irrigation facilities, 60-odd years after Independence. The farmers there can grow only crop in the year, that is in the kharif season, when the monsoons come. If the monsoon fails, like it did this year, then the next crop will come only next year, hopefully when the next monsoon comes. In between there will be hunger.

The government has set up a National Rainfed Area Authority (NRAA) with a head holding some important rank but the irrigation cover in Jharkhand is all of three per cent. This plateau region, largely rural and populated by adivasis, is one in which there will be no rabi crop in most areas. The poor in Jharkhand and other regions like it, in Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Vidarbha and so on, which are dependent on monsoons, will know a worse hunger than they do in most years.

In these regions, it did not rain from June onwards. The farmers could not plant their rice or maize but because it did not rain, the famine foods that the rural poor come to rely on, did not come up either. The bitter gaithi, a tuber that dulls the worst of the hunger, did not grow, nor did the many green plants that spring up as weeds near the crop fields. Such leafy greens like chakor add a lot to rural diets, but they are largely missing this time.

In a survey that Gene Campaign is conducting currently in villages in Jharkhand, food stocks available with families will last another two months at the outside, if the family stretches the food. This usually means, the father eats some rice along with the starchy water it is cooked in, with some salt, the children get some of the rice with what little saag can be found and the mother, gets what is left over, not very much usually. The leafy weeds which are eaten as saag, are missing and there are no fish in the rice fields. Even the mud crabs and snails, which add protein to the family’s food, are missing this year because it has been so dry for so long. These families have not eaten daal for years , even when it was Rs 20 per kg. At the current prices of Rs 60 to 70 per kg, it is not even mentioned as a food.

A global power with such a large, vulnerable underbelly? Our policymakers must reflect seriously on the price the country will have to pay for the neglect of rural India. The disaffected youth that have abandoned the mainstream are not ideological maniacs, as yet. Most are just hungry and fed-up.