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  Opinion   Columnists  29 Nov 2023  Abhijit Bhattacharyya | As 2 wars rage in world, is India facing a food crisis?

Abhijit Bhattacharyya | As 2 wars rage in world, is India facing a food crisis?

The writer is an alumnus of the National Defence College, and the author of China in India.
Published : Nov 29, 2023, 12:00 am IST
Updated : Nov 29, 2023, 12:00 am IST

The fatal hostilities by the belligerents since 2022 has already had adverse effects on the food sector even outside the conflict zones.

Palestinians inspect the destruction caused by Israeli strikes in Wadi Gaza, in the central Gaza Strip on November 28, 2023, amid a truce in battles between Israel and Hamas. A truce between Israel and Hamas entered a fifth day on November 28 after the deal was extended to allow further releases of Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners. (Photo by MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)
 Palestinians inspect the destruction caused by Israeli strikes in Wadi Gaza, in the central Gaza Strip on November 28, 2023, amid a truce in battles between Israel and Hamas. A truce between Israel and Hamas entered a fifth day on November 28 after the deal was extended to allow further releases of Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners. (Photo by MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

While we are thankfully not yet in the midst of a third world war, the planet has nevertheless faced “active armed conflicts in 56 countries in 2022, five more than in 2021”, and 2023 is creating more “favourable conditions” for further escalation in violence, encompassing a larger territory, as evident from the latest Israel-Hamas brutal massacres. The intensity and profligacy of the Levant’s bloodshed and body-bag counts could lead to unseen and unintended consequences of horrible times for humanity — the temporary truce for hostage release and the flow of aid notwithstanding.

Understandably, the fatal hostilities by the belligerents since 2022 has already had adverse effects on the food sector even outside the conflict zones. Those who have died fighting have left behind their families, women and children, whose lives have been ravaged as surely as those in the war zones.

The immediate outcome of the widespread violence has escalated global hunger since 2017, and has affected over three billion people worldwide who cannot afford a minimum healthy diet. The situation has worsened since the Ukraine war began in February 2022, as both the belligerents in Europe are major food producers. Moscow and Kyiv together account for “more than half the global production of sunflower oil, 19 per cent of barley and 14 per cent of wheat”. As the European war already rendered “a quarter of Ukraine farmland unproductive”, the situation can only worsen, leading to mass hunger turning into an epidemic, with the war in West Asia that began in October 2023.

Given this, statistics show India’s food sector, amidst the war-ravaged desolation, is a beacon amid the all-round barbarism. As Ukraine heads to being a pitiable food-producing nation in the near future, it’s alarm bells for food self-sufficient India as pressure is mounting on New Delhi to export its “surplus” produce. Though this might be music to India’s ears, making every citizen proud, we must remember the first duty of the Indian State is to feed its own 1.4 billion people, before becoming a 40 per cent exporter of rice in the world market.

The cold statistics notwithstanding, is everything going well for India? Is there a stark mismatch between statistics and the consumer market of India if one goes by a mid-October 2023 report putting India at 111th position among 125 countries in the World Hunger Index: a steep fall from 107 out of 121 in 2022? There is an eerie feeling of despondency that recalls the history of India’s penury, starvation, poverty, under-nourishment and man-made famines created by British colonial rule. True or not, the October report was damaging enough for the budding “economic powerhouse” of Delhi, notwithstanding the flurry of the official denials.

It goes to the credit of the pioneering ruling class of newly-independent India who knew very well that no large and populous country like India can ever attain prominence in global affairs without food self-sufficiency. They had seen for themselves the genocide-like famine perpetrated in the last days of the British Raj under a racist Winston Churchill and his ruthless military commanders who were ably assisted and helped by an influential and affluent section of wholesale and retail grain traders-distributors in Eastern India, ensuring the slaughter of more than three million people in Bengal in 1943-1944.

Nobel Economics laureate Amartya Sen had rightly referred to the 1943 famine as “man-made”, showing there was nothing wrong with quantum of rice production but everything wrong with the British Raj’s malicious method of grain distribution scheme, with the active collaboration of an influential section of India’s money-making merchants whose penchant for food hoarding and adulteration constitute the countryside’s folklore, particularly in eastern India.

How much truth is there in India’s low ranking in the World Hunger Index? A partial answer could be in the government announcement that 800 million people would continue getting free rations for the next five years. That begs an embarrassing question: if 800 million Indians out of the 1.4 billion population need free rations for five more years, the next uncomfortable question is: is it due to the fault lines or failures of three factors of basic economics: production, distribution and consumption?

Does India’s food (rice and wheat) production stand below the minimum national demand of consumers? Or is it due to the faulty distribution system and the snapping of supply chains? Or is it the establishment’s acceptance of the lack of purchasing power of 800 million out of 1.4 billion Indians, which constitutes 57.14 per cent of the population, who can’t feed themselves on their own financial strength, or the lack of it?

Reserve Bank of India governor Shaktikanta Das had recently warned of a complex and potentially scary scenario — that “India is vulnerable to recurring, overlapping food price shocks”. Thus, despite an incredible record food production by India’s magnificent farmers, its distribution and consumption need urgent direct State intervention to save ordinary citizens across the country from profiteers.

It has recently been reported that Indian traders have signed a five-lakh tonne rice export deal to cash in on the demand from both Europe and the Middle East. This, surprisingly, after the Central government had placed restrictions on the export of rice three months ago, and had set the “floor price or minimum export price at $1,200 per tonne”. The traders, however, complained that such high export “floor prices” had hampered their profitability and prospects as foreign importers found the price too high. The Government of India was then “compelled” to reduce the “floor price” from $1,200 per tonne to $950 per tonne. However, it transpires from the traders themselves that they had “signed rice export deals for between $1,000 and $1,500 per tonne”. The people’s loss is therefore the gain of a few private players.

The moral of the story is simple. Two wars are ravaging the world, in different regions. Food scarcity is hitting the third world, or what is today called the Global South, pretty hard. India is still self-sufficient in food but 800 million people need to be fed free of cost and the governor of the RBI has warned about future food costs. The government rightly took a call for the country, but a section of Indian traders will have none of it, except to ensure their own profits even if it is at the cost of more than 57 per cent of the Indian population who can’t feed themselves. Mera Bharat Mahaan!

Tags: israel palestine conflict, russia-ukraine war, food crisis