Saturday, February 19, 2011

Hunger in India

The New York Times examines the persistence of hunger in India despite consistent and impressive economic growth. Key excerpt:
There is no agribusiness of the type known in the United States, with highly mechanized farms growing thousands of acres of food crops, because Indian laws and customs bar corporations from farming land directly for food crops. The laws also make it difficult to assemble large land holdings.
But it's even worse than that, as Edward Luce details in his book In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India, with India's government further harming its citizens through an agricultural subsidy scheme as well as government-run grocery stores:
[A local villager] showed us her food ration book and said the manager of the local Fair Price shop, where people who are classified as below the poverty line receive subsidized wheat and rice, had ripped out four coupons in exchange for only one coupon's worth of grain...We stood up and marched down the road with her to the Fair Price shop. At first Ganga Singh, the food dealer in question, strenuously denied having stolen the coupons. Then, realizing we were not going to disappear, his demeanor transformed and he smilingly handed over another three portions of wheat to the old lady. But the wheat was of such poor quality that even the local camels would have thought twice before eating it.

Like many such food dealers, Singh had sold the good-quality government-supplied wheat on the black market and replaced it with inedible chaff. After more elaborate discussion, Singth cheerfully admitted this too in the full knowledge that nobody present could do anything to remove his license.

...India's government can be both negligent and callous, but the state's army of statisticians regularly churns out reports that supply incriminating evidence of its own guilt, as does a wealth of independent studies. They vary in their details, but all point to a glaring and massive 'diversion' of public food from those to whom it is supposed to be targeted. Rates of theft vary widely from state to state, with the better ones, such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu, getting more than 80 percent of subsidized food to the poor.

However, in the northern state of Bihar, India's second poorest with a population of 75 million, more than 80 percent of the food is stolen. The all-India average varies between a quarter and a half of all food depending on the state. It conveys a pattern of routine larceny at all levels of the state.

...Under [India's price support system], the government buys wheat and rice from farmers at a higher price than the market would pay in order to increase their incomes. This 'minimum support price' system sounds reasonable in theory. But in practice it is a maximum support price system. A small proportion of wealthy farmers in the well-irrigated states of Punjab and Haryana collect almost all of the subsidy, because they produce much higher surpluses of grain than those in other states and because they operate a ruthlessly effective lobbying system in New Delhi.

The government's intervention sharply raises the purchasing price of food, which inflates its selling price. Higher food prices hit everybody, but they hit the poorest the hardest, since they spend almost all of their incomes on food.
In other words, a cornucopia of statist policies that range from "protecting" Indians from the evils of large corporations and preventing family farms from being bought out by large agribusiness, to state-run retail stores and an agricultural subsidy scheme, have all contributed to a reduced supply of food, higher prices and increased hunger. While one could chalk this up as simply another failure of good intentions, the results are so predictably bad and unsurprising that such policy-making almost rises to the level of malevolence.

No comments: