Food capitalism and consequences of hunger among the rural poor

In the context of the agrarian crisis in India, imbalanced market policies have forced a major portion of rural population to shift away the from basic agricultural practices to become migrant labourers. As stated in the India exclusion survey of 2014, a large population of agricultural workers have been forced to become construction migrants making the rural markets fall into an informal economy architecture. The major agriculture dependent workforce faces severe market inequalities leading to increase in shortage of food resource’s and grain poverty. The total agricultural productivity yields in India do not match the context of grain poverty among the rural poor. As of the year 2013 a million tonnes of grains were reported to be stored at the Food corporation warehouses (FCI) with majorly starving belts present at the same time. It has been noted and written in several findings that India suffers the paradox of plenty with persistent drop in calorie consumption among the poor.

Another major context in terms of rising food shortage in India is in the policy behaviour of the Government that includes heavy export of food grains and introduction of foreign direct investments (FDI) in the farm markets. This further effects several small time agricultural houses to cope up with the rising demands of the market and effect nutritional securities of the households. Rising market fundamentalism in the agricultural scenario demands higher inflation prices that tend to make food unaffordable for the poor. In the month of August this year there was a food inflation of 14.72 % with the food price index (FAO is a measure of monthly change in international prices of a basket of food commodities) settling at 161.9 points. This explains the seriousness of food inflation scenario in India driven by structural and cylindrical factors of high exports, market fundamentalism, poorer reforms and lack of formal credit based approach. Globally there has been a 23% rise in average cereal prices and such volatility of food prices will keep effecting the poor and marginalised in India.

In the last couple of years, the agricultural market has witnessed challenges with output price fluctuations and failure of a formal credit system. This leads to lack of rural commercial credit and capital leaving the agricultural workers in a state of little money and no credit. In drought prone regions several such factors have increased borrowing with growing debt and significant drop of purchasing powers. Such conditions directly affect the average monthly consumptions of households forcing communities to skip meals and stay in starvation periods for long. In a such a context it is important for the states to re-investigate the food security measures to balance labour market risks of agriculture with nutritional evidences. It has been previously argued by the noted economist, Jean Drèze that states should focus more on effective ration delivery in such crisis conditions as failure to produce (agricultural yields) first effects the nutritional status of households leading to hunger and starvation. It is the role of the states to ensure that the process of grain procurement to delivery is regularised and managed among the rural poor. Between the period of 2006-12 the per capita calorie demands (World Food Programme 2012) among the rural poor significantly decreased while at the same time the state’s Food corporation warehouses had high percentages of grain diversion. Such empirical evidences highlight the structural inequalities in food distribution and delivery depicting the fact that food shortage has always been a burden of the deprived communities and not a national problem.

Among many developing economies, India is one such example where the criterions of labour market risks emerge wider than just occupational hazards. The dimensions are more subjective narrowing to affordability and accessibility parameters of the rural poor. In most cases such parameters are contained more towards food expenditure and security. The agenda to move from just food security to nutritional security is a huge leap for policies and schemes. The grain-led development model involves the paradoxes of equity and growth, identifying the priority of each in the context of food security. In many households among the rural poor the evidences of growth -subjective to increased wage did not proportionate to nutrition benefits. Thus reframing market reforms to control food inflations will be an ideal way to begin the transition towards nutritional security.

The framework of democracy is a unique opportunity to recognise the needs of the deprived and provide sustainable solutions for it. Sen has supported the fact that a democratic government can pull out millions out of poverty with flexible schemes and policies. He mentions the fact that as India grows with more productive power it will also solve the issues of hunger and food shortage. Though the literature advocates such work India presently ranks below some of the poorest nations in terms of its hunger index with more than a million underfed people. The agricultural productivity gaps are massive with varied interstate and regional disparities on allocation and distribution of grains. Unfortunately, the process of democratisation of food has fallen deep into a capitalist environment where millions starve while food prices rise indefinitely. The market dynamics are today more unfavourable than it has been for the rural poor and it is extremely important to analyse whether the food policies are pro-poor or not. The larger question in such a situation is to understand whether food is a commodity or a right for the rural poor.

Profile photo of Gaurav Bhattacharya
Gaurav Bhattacharya is a rural development fellow on a fellowship programme hosted by State Bank of India. He is working with a local NGO on a National Health Mission project to effectively implement a Malnutrition Treatment Centre in the Community Health centres in the tribal blocks of south-eastern Rajasthan in India. He completed his masters from the University of Oxford, and has been active in the study of rural economics to analyse social inequalities and exclusions of the rural poor.