The Hunger Pandemic in India
This is the full unedited version of an article written for Embark Sustainability. You can read the published, edited one here.
The Hunger Pandemic in India
Dreaming of Food Justice
In 9th grade, one of my teachers taught us food meditation. Her room was always decorated with throw pillows and comforting rugs, dark curtains that blocked out all light and tiny lamps that created a mystical feel. She passed around little raisins to all of us, and we sat there holding them in our hands. Running my finger on it, I discovered as if for the first time the varied textures of this raisin – the ridges and wrinkles on its surface, the little stem at the top. Collectively, this class of 15 sat with their eyes closed, thinking about the journey this raisin took to be there in our hands. I could imagine the farmers picking out the grapes, the many hours they would dry in the scorching heat of Indian summers, the slow evaporating of moisture. Later, as we ate it, it tasted different to me – like my senses were heightened to the personal stories and flavours of this one grape-turned-raisin on my tongue.
I remembered this meditation again on the 40th day of my meditating everyday journey this year, as I sat with a hot cup of tea in my hands. However, this time, I tried not to think too hard about the people making it and the many injustices they face in the country I call home. I didn’t want to remember hungry workers indebted to plantation owners, women workers getting paid less than male workers, and young children working instead of studying to help support their families (International Labour Rights Forum).
If we really do stop to think, “where does our food come from?” what will we find?
The Case of India: A History
The agricultural industry in India has been a source of interest for many multinational corporations, going back to 1947 post-independence. While India remained a food-deficit country until the 1960s, relying on aid from the United States, things seemed to take a turn for the better as the Green Revolution was underway. Government-supported and backed by advisors from the US, farmers were incentivized to produce high-yield crops using fertilizers and gallons of water. To ensure the new crops would be purchased, the government planted purchasing agents in the wholesale market to buy grain, creating a supply for the Public Distribution System that distributed staples to the poor at subsidized rates (Dolsak and Prakash, 2020).
Yet applying these western agricultural practices also created cycles of debt. As indigenous varieties were replaced by high-yielding ones, the new seeds also came with a high demand for water. Since farmers could not rely only on rainwater to irrigate their fields, they needed to buy water pumps and other equipment to continue farming. Corrupt business intermediaries stepped in to meet the demands with high-interest rates where government loans weren’t available. This shift away from the traditional farming of mixed crops also damaged the soil, so the anaemia needed to be treated with more fertilizers (Zwerdling, 2009). Unfortunately, such high use of fertilizers further caused physical and chemical degradation of the soil, increasing its salinity and altering its microflora (Nelson, Ravichandran, Antony, 2009).
With the increasing liberalization of trade also came a division of farming land, where production of food grain was being replaced by export crops (Patnaik, 2009). This manifested in the international division of agricultural labour, as tropical lands such as India increasingly shifted to produce specialized crops like strawberries, edible oils, and flowers to meet the demands of Western nations (Patnaik, 2009). But the initial success of the Green Revolution was still being celebrated as grain production numbers increased while small farmers went out of business, to be replaced by commercial farms.
As the farmers’ debts rose, so did suicide rates. As Dr Patnaik, professor of economics at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning at Jawaharlal Nehru University and a member of the editorial advisory community of Journal of Agrarian Change (London), explains, “mass peasant suicides were unknown in India before 1991. As global primary food prices fell and protection was virtually removed under WTO discipline, debt-driven farmer suicides have officially claimed over 160,000 peasant lives over the last decade” (2009). These deaths between 1991-2009 only foreshadowed farmers’ growing desperation.
The Case of India: Today
According to the National Crime Records Bureau data, 2019 saw at least 10,281 suicides from people involved in the farm sector, including 5,957 farmers and cultivators. But when the government passed three bills pushing for further corporatization of farms, it was the last straw in a series of injustices. These systemic issues resulting from neoliberal agendas caused such widespread discontent that in 2020, farmers took to protesting for a year, despite unusually cold winters and the covid-19 pandemic, sleeping in their trucks only to resume the next day.
When I think about where our food comes from, I think about these farmers (along with the lower caste labourers unrepresented in even these socialist narratives). Grains are exported from India to meet the demands for animal feed of the meat industries of the West, while increased production of wheat and rice has also shifted food habits for Indians to less nutritious diets leading to health problems like obesity, diabetes, and anaemia (Patnaik, 2009; Nelson, Ravichandran, Antony, 2009). And while the pandemic has caused increased anxieties for all of us, growing levels of unemployment and the worsening economy has hit a new low. The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) reported unemployment rates as high as 11.84% in May 2021. With it, as has been reported by The World Economic Forum and Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the number of people facing moderate to severe food insecurity increased from 430 million in 2019 to 520 million in 2021. That is 90 million more people eating less than before, modifying their diets to cheaper foods, skipping meals, and eating less than enough because of a lack of money and resources.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare estimated a record high of food grain production at 308 million tonnes in 2020-21. Based on economic models, India produces more than enough to meet the consumption demands of its people (Bhat, 2019). Yet 520 million remain hungry. While it is true that the agricultural reforms previously outlined have increased the grain outputs to meet the estimated demand for consumption for the entire population, in the face of this reality, is India actually self-sufficient?
When I look to define food justice, I think of Gottlieb and Joshi’s (2010) definition, “a transformation of the current food system, including but not limited to eliminating disparities and inequities”. To me, this means not just access to food and eradicating hunger but also access to nutritious food produced and distributed sustainably. It includes questions of ownership and control of land, valuing agricultural traditions, and safe working environments for agrarian labourers.For me, with respect to all these measures, the India of today is only further away from food justice.
When I think about the 90 million more people facing food insecurity today than last year, I think about a little boy I met as I came out of a fancy restaurant in Kolkata in the summer of 2020. We had had some delicious authentic Mediterranean food and were waiting for our car when a little boy of 9 walked by us. He wanted to sell me balloons in exchange for whatever money I could give him.As we waited for the car, he lingered around and heard me say, “Oh, the car is coming”. This Bengali-speaking child who could neither read nor write, repeated after me with such self-confidence and charisma in fluent-sounding English, “the car is coming”. He didn’t know the language and couldn’t learn while begging to support his family. Yet, he could dream.
He went for a walk and returned as we got in our car, asking me to remind him of the words again.“The car is coming”, I said. “The car is coming!” he repeated.
“The car is coming! The car is coming!”
Economic models are certainly important, indispensable even, but our assumption that numbers are objective is far from correct. The complex, multi-faceted reality cannot be simplified objectively to numerical values. Statistics are appealing, and theoretically solving problems can certainly matter in finding real-world applications, but when we rely on grain output as the measure for self-sufficiency, we really must stop and ask ourselves what this data is meant to achieve. When I hear of the 90 million people, I think of the little boy who dreamt. I think of many boys and girls like him, who, along with their families, are likely to be struggling to eat more than they did before.
I don’t know how to solve these issues, but I also know many people are working tirelessly to find solutions. Samarpann, Kudumbashree, No Hunger Foundation, and so many more organizations and initiatives are encouraging and empowering individuals to support their communities. Little progress is still progress.
How About You?
If you were to stop to think where your food comes from, what would you find? What people and processes have played a part in the food you see stocked on your local grocery shelves? What can you do to express your gratitude to them?
I love food meditations because they help cultivate a deep sense of oneness with this global community. The environment, the people, the food itself is so deeply interconnected, and this awareness inspires me to do better. How do you want to do better today?
Some Links to Learn More!
The Youth Food Network’s Food Justice Resources – the Canadian context
The Industrial Food System - https://foodprint.org/the-total-footprint-of-our-food-system/issues/the-industrial-food-system/
International Food Policy Research Institute’s Food Security resources
Book - The Immigrant-Food Nexus: Borders, Labor, and Identity in North America, Edited by Julian Agyeman and Sydney Giacalone
Book - Global Meat: Social and Environmental Consequences of the Expanding Meat Industry, Edited by Bill Winders and Elizabeth Ransom
Book - Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups By Andrew Fisher
Book - Food Justice By Robert Gottlieb and Anupama Joshi