Vol. XLI No. 43 October 22, 2017

A Hungry Nation

Prabhat Patnaik

THE Global Hunger Index brought out annually by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has just been published for 2017. The fact that India occupies the 100th rank among the 119 nations specifically studied by IFPRI (for whom hunger is a problem), with only two other Asian countries, Pakistan and Afghanistan, below India in the rankings, has attracted some attention in the media. But what IFPRI has highlighted has been known for a very long time and mentioned repeatedly in this column, namely that notwithstanding the official talk ad nauseam about “development”, and the jejune crowing over India’s emerging as an “economic superpower”, ours is a woefully hungry nation, one of the hungriest in the world. It is a symptom of the lack of concern for the poor in this society, a lack of concern which is rooted in the horrendous legacy of the caste-system, that this fact of pervasive hunger has not aroused the kind of general indignation it should have.

The Global Hunger Index is built on four indicators: the proportion of the undernourished in total population; the proportion of children under five who suffer from “wasting”; the proportion of children under five who suffer from “stunting”; and the mortality rate among children under five. Since “wasting”, “stunting” and even mortality among children are related to nutrition, this index is a fairly comprehensive measure of the state of nutrition and hunger. It is built such that higher values of it denote greater hunger compared to lower values.

What is striking about the Indian case is that the value of the hunger index in 2017, at 31.4, is higher than in 2015 when it was 29. (Its methodology was revised in 2015 which makes comparisons with the absolute figures of previous years problematical). The Modi years when the noise about “development” has reached a crescendo, have thus seen an increase in the hunger index. These have also been the years when there has been a marginal decline in India’s ranking among the countries of the world in terms of the hunger index. Its rank was 99 in 2014 and has fallen a notch to 100 in 2017.

The fact that the extent of hunger in India is comparable to, if not greater than, what prevails in the “least developed countries” (a special group consisting of about 40 countries that is so designated by the UN) or even in the Sub- Saharan African countries, has been known for a long time. The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) provides systematic data on cereal production and consumption among the various countries of the world. Cereals of course are consumed both directly and indirectly, the latter in processed form or through animal products, into the production of which cereals go in as feedgrains. In fact richer countries like the US consume comparatively less cereals directly and much larger amounts indirectly. A rough idea of the level of nutrition of a country can be gleaned from FAO data if we just add up for it the amounts of cereal consumed per capita as food and feed. Doing so across countries we get the following picture for the year 2011:

Per Capita Annual Cereal Consumption as Food and Feed (Kg.) for 2011

Country                                  Food                    Feed Total

India                                       152.1                   9.0              161.1

Least Developed Countries  148.4                   26.9            175.3

Africa                                     150.5                   40.5            191

China                                      152.5                   121.7         274.2

EU                                          124.9                   330.5         455.4

US                                           105.8                   396.3         502.1

Source: United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation      

These figures give only a rough indicator for the following reason: while in countries where agriculture is highly mechanised, the cereals used for feed are mainly for producing animal products for human consumption, in poorer countries a part of the feed goes to sustain draught animals; and this part needs to be subtracted from the figures of feed if we wish to know about nutritional levels. Even so it is clear that  in terms of direct cereal consumption India’s figures are pretty close to those of Africa and of the least developed countries, while cereals used for feed are quite low in India (so that comparatively little additional nutrition comes from that source in the Indian case). The fact of India’s nutritional levels being close to or even below those of Africa or of the least developed countries therefore should evoke little surprise.

The surprise however comes from another source, namely that Africa produces much less per capita cereal output than India, 158.3 kg of gross output compared to India’s 192.7 in 2011. Africa in other words has a per capita cereal output lower than its food and feed requirements, while India has a per capita cereal output that is considerably higher. The question then arises: why should India have such abysmal levels of under-nutrition? In the case of Africa which has to import cereals, the ability to do so would depend upon the relative prices of the commodities that Africa exports; and subdued relative prices for Africa’s exports could conceivably lead to low levels of per capita cereal consumption. But why should such levels be low in India where cereals do not have to be imported?

In fact, of late, India has become a regular net exporter of cereals, which has been a contribution of income- deflation under neoliberalism. Taking foodgrains as a whole (cereals and pulses), net exports (in million tonnes) for the years between 2011 and 2017 have been 9.6, 19.8, 71.9, 19.9, 12.3, 8.6, and 7.7 respectively. Since India does not produce enough pulses for domestic consumption and has to rely on imports, this means that exports of cereals alone have been even larger than the above figures suggest. What this means is that even as the people have gone hungry, the country has exported cereals to the world market, where such cereals have often been used as animal feed in many advanced countries.

For squeezing out a surplus for export, even out of the meagre per capita output, the real purchasing power of the population has been compressed. Such compression can occur in three possible ways: open inflation; implicit inflation, where the consumer effectively pays a higher price despite the absence any open inflation (“targeting” within PDS is a classic example of this); and a direct squeeze on the money purchasing power.Since over the six years 2010-11 to 2016-17, the rate of increase in the wholesale prices of cereals has been comparatively low, a little below 5 per cent per annum, the non-openly-inflationary squeeze on the people’s purchasing power seems to have been the main instrument for keeping down domestic demand.

A whole panoply of measures has been used for imposing such a squeeze on the people’s purchasing power, and these have been passed off as “sound economics”. Cutting government expenditure for “keeping the fiscal deficit in check”, maintaining the interest rates at high levels in order to “keep inflation within the target rate”, all of which are measures of demand compression, have had the effect of keeping people hungry, by removing, directly or indirectly, purchasing power from their hands.

This is not to say that open inflation should have been allowed to occur, for the burden of open inflation also falls on the very same people who are otherwise subject to money purchasing-power compression for combating it. But what the government within a neoliberal regime does is to pretend that inflation and income compression are the only choices available to the country: taxing the rich in order to ensure that enough purchasing power remains in the hands of the working people is ruled out as a policy option, since it is held to be inimical to “development”. It is in the name of “development” therefore that the people have to go hungry!

But that is not all. A whole tribe of economists, who laud such “development” have come around saying that this “development” indeed benefits all. If statistics show that people are not getting enough to eat, then this is because they have so benefitted from “development” that they are now no longer keen on consuming more cereals! They are now more interested in buying superior goods like cell-phones or services like education for their children.

The people no doubt do buy cell-phones and education for their children which they consider essential (which is a good thing); they do so however not because they have enough to eat, but by skimping on their food intake within the limited purchasing power that the neoliberal regime lets them retain in their hands.

It is to the credit of IFPRI’s “Hunger Index” that it has not fallen prey to this reified view of the world where under-nutrition is passed off as improvement in living standards; it has instead been honest and candid enough to call a spade a spade.

The increase in cereal deprivation of India’s working population is a result of the neoliberal economic policies. In the years after independence and prior to the introduction of the neoliberal regime there was in fact an increase in per capita absorption of foodgrains which got reversed in the neoliberal period.

This conclusion also holds for Africa. It is just that instead of exporting foodgrains Africa has been made to export a range of non-food commercial crops in the neoliberal period; and it has done so by diverting land away from food to such crops. While relative prices of such crops vis-à-vis foodgrains could also play a role in explaining the food deprivation experienced by the African people, the same phenomenon of a purchasing-power squeeze has been operative there as well.

It is not so much India’s relative rank in the hunger index that should be worrying us, but the abysmal absolute level of nutrition in the country. And the fact that it is becoming daily more abysmal is the contribution of neoliberalism.