Saturday, April 12, 2008

Food and South Asia's Future

Food and South Asia's Future

By J. Sri Raman

Go To Original

The way to the political future of three major South Asian countries now lies through the stomachs of their poor millions. Escalating food prices may have far-reaching consequences for India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, each of which is currently passing through a crucial political phase.

The region might have been spared food riots of the kind to have rocked some African and Latin American nations in recent days. South Asia, however, is still a victim of the global food crisis hitting the headlines everywhere.

Especially distressing for developing countries have been the consequences of a shift in the farming paradigm dictated by the advanced world's quest for alternative fuels. Billed originally as a boon for the hungry of the earth, biofuels have actually spelled crop preferences that have proven cruel to the intended or imaginary beneficiaries.

The switch by tens of thousands of farmers in the US over the past two years from food to fuel production (on eight million hectares that provided mainly wheat, maize and soya crops earlier), with Europe and other regions following suit, has not meant fuller stomachs in either South America or far-off African and Asian areas. Experts agree climate change, entailing erratic rainfall, has compounded the crisis.

International agencies insist they are acutely conscious of the crisis, and the United Nations proposes conferences and promises concerted measures on the energy and environmental issues involved. The South Asians, however, can hardly afford to wait for such efforts to bear fruit. For them, the shortage of food and the spiral of its prices can have a political fallout of fundamental importance.

In India, a sudden and sharp spurt in food prices pushed up a long-contained rate of inflation from 5 percent to 7 percent over weeks after the country's annual budget was presented at the end of March. Grains, constituting the staple food of Indians, are threatening to go out of the common man's reach. The government has had to impose a ban on the export of wheat, consumed especially in the country's northwestern states. The price of rice, on which about 65 percent of the population subsists, has gone up by about 33 percent on average.

Even in New Delhi, the seat of power and the city of subsidies, edible oils cost 40 percent more, and milk is dearer by 11 percent. Vegetables and fruit have also recorded a whopping rise in prices across the country. What makes the figures significant is the fact, despite all talk of India's economic miracle, 75 percent of Indians earn less than two US dollars a day.

In Pakistan, the prices of "atta" (wheat flour, the ingredient of the poor Pakistani's daily bread) have been increasing rapidly, with no measures to halt the rise announced even in Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani's "100-day program." In January, the government had to reintroduce a ration-card system, abandoned earlier as part of avowed economic reforms. The situation today is such that government agencies have, reportedly, to keep a strict eye on food trucks.

In Bangladesh, prices of rice and other essential food items have nearly doubled over the last year. The average family is today constrained to spend about 80 percent of its monthly budget on food. According to one report, the poor families make do with a single meal a day. The situation might have gotten worse but for New Delhi agreeing, possibly for non-humanitarian reasons, to keep India's commitment, despite its own distress, to export rice to Bangladesh.

Critics in all the three countries have dismissed the claim about the crisis as an entirely international phenomenon and drawn attention to the internal factors behind it. They have a point. In India, while the government boasts about the economy's growth at a rate of about 8.5 percent, agriculture has grown by no more than 2.5 percent over the past five years. Given that farming still supports the majority of India's workforce, this shows a gross imbalance in the country's development strategy.

Similarly, in Pakistan, the otherwise inconclusive debate on the issue reveals a large degree of agreement that the crisis is also a legacy of former Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, with his background as a top Citibank executive and his baggage of elitist economics. Besides the floods and the cyclone that hit Bangladesh last year, the unconcern of the army-backed government in Dhaka has aggravated the problem. The famous anti-corruption campaign by the caretaker regime has made it worse, by most accounts, leading to the closure of many unofficial rice supply outlets without providing legal substitutes.

Popular protests were inevitable in all three countries. In India, the price spiral has elicited calls for agitations not only from the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but also from the left that has lent support to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government from outside. The price rise would appear to have largely offset the political gain for the government from the waiver of 15 billion-dollar bank loans to farmers announced in the March budget.

In Pakistan, the movement of lawyers against Pervez Musharaff might not have acquired mass support but for the Mundane issue of "atta" prices. Insightful reports have pointed out the prices issue influenced Pakistan's electorate as much as the question of democracy and dictatorship. The Gillani government cannot afford to forget the issue retains grave importance for the people. In Bangladesh, too, food prices carried further the pro-democracy protests of August 2007, in Dhaka University, with the city's poor joining the students and teachers, and with the unrest spreading to other urban centers as well.

At stake in the food crisis is the political future of each country. Food prices have dislodged political parties and fronts from power in the states as well as the federal level, more than once in the past. History can be repeated in this regard only as a tragedy. The BJP today represents a far-right that is straining to move farther right (as we have seen in these columns before) ...

Unchecked "atta" prices will pose a serious danger to the democratic experiment in Pakistan. Drawing attention to the danger, the Lahore-based Daily Times notes the fall in this year's farm output and warns, "... we could be looking at an even bigger shortage of flour in the country once again. Therefore, given our inability to deploy a system of special distribution for sections of population directly affected by this shortage, one can say that the masses are likely to become quickly disenchanted with the new government."

In Bangladesh. too, the current food crisis, considered the worst after the famine of 1974, cannot continue without serious political consequences. The two major political parties, the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, have threatened to launch protest actions against the continued detention of the leaders Sheikh Hasina Wajed and Begum Khaleda Zia. Food prices can provide popular fuel to such protests. It is hard to see how the military-backed regime - which has just given Army Chief Moeen U Ahmed a one-year extension until June 15, 2009, to ensure his august presence at the helm at the due time of elections in December 2008 - will handle such protests.

There is no easy or early solution to the problem of food prices in sight, of course. But the growth of hunger may bring no happy tidings for those who wish democracy and peace for South Asia.

No comments: