The following transcript is protected under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.
Kootenay Co-op Radio CJLY
Nelson, B.C. Canada
February 12, 2009
Title: Palagummi Sainath - The Age of Inequality
Producer/Host: Jon Steinman
Transcript: Jennie Monuik
Jon Steinman: And welcome to Deconstructing Dinner, a syndicated weekly one-hour radio show and podcast produced at Kootenay Co-op Radio CJLY in Nelson, British Columbia. Deconstructing Dinner is heard weekly on Radio stations across the country including CHSR Fredericton, New Brunswick and CJJJ Brandon, Manitoba.
I'm Jon Steinman, on today's episode we'll listen in once again on recordings from the University of Alberta's International Week, held in early 2009 in Edmonton. The theme of the event was Hungry for Change: Transcending Feast, Famine and Frenzy. On last week's episode we heard from keynote speaker Francis Moore Lappé on the topic of Ending Hunger, Feeding Hope.
And it was on the following day of the event that Indian journalist, Palagummi Sainth, addressed a standing room only audience. His talk was titled The Age of Inequality: The Wages of Market Fundamentalism. Based in Mumbai, P. Sainath is the Rural Affairs editor for India's national newspaper, The Hindu. He is the author of Everybody Loves A Good Drought: Stories From India's Poorest Districts and he was instrumental in breaking the story about farmer suicides in India. A story that has been told around the world as a harsh reminder of how our global food system impacts the poorest regions on the planet.
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JS: The topic that Palagummi Sainath spoke of speaks to one of the goals of Deconstructing Dinner and that is to discover how our food choices here in North America affect people abroad. In today's episode we'll learn how, because of our support of the globalized industrial food system here in North America, farmers in India and abroad are committing suicide. Well, Palagummi Sainath recognizes this very disconnect as being fundamental to Neo-Liberal policies, similar to Frances Moore Lappé, he too, believes that we are all capable of moving beyond this system that breeds gross inequality and instead, encourage the growth of systems that are fair, just and responsible. A reminder that today's broadcast will be archived as usual at deconstructingdinner.ca and listed under the February 12th, 2009 episode.
Introducing Palagummi Sainath at the University of Alberta's International Week was Ricardo Acuna, the executive Director of the Parkland Institute.
Ricardo Acuna: After earning a Master's degree in history, Sainath embarked on a career in journalism. But by 1991, he'd come to understand that, in his words, "Conventional journalism was above all about the service of power. You always give the last word to authority." He decided at that point that if the mainstream media in India was going to move away from genuine news and towards covering entertainment, he would move in the opposite direction. He wrote at that time, and I quote, "I felt that if the Indian press was covering the top 5%, I should cover the bottom 5%." Since that time, Sainath has been reporting on the lives and struggles of the poor in India's rural interior. More importantly however, he has been using his writing to show Indians and people around the world, the connection between the daily struggles of India's poor and the policies of Neo-liberal globalism. Sainath spends a great majority of his time in the communities of the rural interior and has done so for the last 14 years.
He is the author of the book Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories from India's Poorest Districts and he is a current Rural Affairs Editor for The Hindu. His writing has not only raised public awareness of the impacts of globalization and previously hidden issues like India's farmer suicides, but has also contributed to concrete policy changes in India and informed development debates globally. His unflinching coverage of the negative impacts of Neo-Liberal policy on India's poorest populations has earned him over 30 awards, including the Amnesty International's Global Human Rights Journalism Prize and the Raymond Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication. His current project is on the agrarian crisis nation-wide, particularly those regions where its effects are most severe. He has filed over 100 reports on the subject in recent years and has personally taken all the photographs that go with those reports. Some of the ones were flashing on the screen during the introductions. These pictures of the families of the suicide victims makes up the only photo record of its kind in existence. Please help me welcome, P. Sainath. (applause)
Palagummi Sainath: Thank you so much. What a wonderful turnout. My friend and colleague, Joe Moulins, was scaring me this evening, he was warning me that I was going to be competing with the Oilers. (laughter) Thank you for coming.
For two decades now, the United Nations Development Program and other organs of the United Nations have been telling us, that an additional expenditure of 60 to 80 billion dollars a year, will help the human race sort out all the most basic problems of hunger, health, sanitation, education, literacy and issues like that. The estimate for sanitation, for instance, is an additional expenditure of 10 billion dollars a year. For hunger it's between 15 and 20 billion according to the Secretary General. Another 10 billion on health. Water, literacy, you can sort out the basic problems of the world with an additional expenditure of 60-80 billion dollars a year. Now the U.N. has been putting this out for about two decades and it has never happened because governments have told us, 'there's no money, there's just no money, we can't do it, we can't spend that much. Where's the money going to come from?' But when crisis struck the suits in Wall Street, governments figured out that they could raise 1 and a half trillion dollars in seven days. Yeah. Not 60-80 billion... 1 and a half trillion. In a week, they found the money, because you see a crisis is only a crisis when it hits the suits, not before that. And what's the solution to that crisis? To throw those trillions of dollars at the guys who got you into the mess. So that's the world we live in.
Flashback about a year and a half ago... no, not that many, sorry... less than a year ago, around early to mid-2008 with global food prices reaching an all-time high, and for the first time after world war two with the middle classes of Western societies being worried about food prices. With wheat prices going up 77% in the first 3 months in a country like India and food prices rising all over the world. That noted nutritionist, George W., declared from the White House that the problem really was that the Indians and Chinese were eating so much. (laughter) It's very unthinking of them. You know, I mean really. Now of course President Bush had considerable expertise in this area. He had personal experience with problems of eating. He once choked on a pretzel and blacked out for two minutes. (laughter) As David Letterman pointed out, it's very fortunate that those were precisely the two minutes that Dick Cheney was conscious that week. (applause) However, note that all the major journals monitoring and covering these issues, the media, agreed with Bush. The Wall Street Journal wrote an editorial, which I quote for you, it agreed with him that the problem was really that these guys are eating too much. It uses the words, "China and India are gobbling food." Two and a quarter billion turkeys. "They are gobbling food as never before and therefore, food prices are soaring," said the WSJ editorial.
It reminded me of the late Murray Kempton's definition of who an editorial writer is. Murray Kempton editing the New Republic in the 60s once wrote, "The job of the editorial writer is to go down into the valley after the battle is over and shoot the wounded." Now is this true that the food price crisis was caused by Indians and Chinese eating a lot more? Well, when food prices reduced by 45% shortly after, does that mean that Indians and Chinese started starving again? Actually, while 10 to 15% of the Indian population are eating better than they ever did before, the per capita availability of food grain in India has actually declined and declined very sharply in the years of the Neo-Liberal reforms from 1991 to 2005/2006. In 1991, as India stood on the cusp of brave new world Neo-Liberalism, the food grain available per India, that is, cereals, pulses, the whole works, was 510 grams per Indian. Fifteen years of market fundamentalism, fifteen years of Neo-Liberalism and the food grain per Indian fell from 510 grams per Indian to 422 grams per Indian. Now my friends, that's not a fall of 88 grams per person, it's a fall 88 grams into 365 days into one billion human beings, which means that your average poor family was consuming 100 kilograms less of food grain than they did just 10 years ago. Now if the top 10 of 20% were eating better than ever before on a shrinking cake, then it raises the question of: What the heck were the bottom 40% eating?
I mean, I'm sure Bush would tell us, but he isn't here. At the very moment that President Bush was speaking, at that period, tribals in India, in the state of Rajasthan practice what they practice every year, it's called 'rotating hunger'. A family of eight, there's not enough work to be had and everybody can't be in physically good shapes, so many of the tribes in these areas, what they do is, two members of the family eat very well that day, the others starve so that those two are fit to go out and do physical labour on the rural employment sites. Because they have to have the nourishment to do the work, so the others go hungry so those two eat and go out and do the work, the next day another two eat and go out and do the work, so that they are able to do the work, they rotate the hunger between them... and the food price crisis was caused by these people. Hmm. Incidentally, food prices then fell. Now why did this... a month after President Bush made his statement, I was covering the food price crisis in India where wheat prices went up 77% in 3 months and at the rural employment guarantee sites at the government of India 74 and 75 year-old people were going back to work in 47 degree celsius in the heat because their old age pensions were wiped out by the food price increase. That's about 200-300 rupees a month which they get, and when a crisis like that comes in these poor households the old, the widows get completely marginalized because they are seen as unproductive. They can't work, so we interviewed people who are 74-75 years-old reporting back for stone breaking work in the field. And consider that 74 as against the life expectancy of Indians, not Canadians.
But there was something else happening at the same time, the food companies, the agri-business companies were recording all-time historic profits. Wall Street companies, index funds, like the Black Rock Index Fund, all of them were heavily into betting on food. You see, at some point the planet is going to discover that it can live with our oil if it has to because the human race did manage for a few thousand years, but you can't live without food and water. And therefore, you had food prices going up as index funds were investing unprecedented sums of money in purchasing land, in purchasing companies that manufacture pesticide or seed. You had also, unprecedented levels of speculation in the futures markets and forward trading, the very same process that pushed up oil prices so high and then brought them down, that pushed up food prices so high before bringing them down, though not bringing them down to the same level as before. Speculation, that was pretty much a Wall Street phenomenon.
At the height of the food price crisis Archer Daniels Midland recorded its all-time highest profits and within its profits that division of... .Archer Daniels Midland is that giant grain processor... within its profits the unit of Archer Daniels dealing with grain storage trading, not grain production, the unit of Archer Daniels dealing with grain storage, transportation and trading reported a 7-fold increase in income while tens of millions of people joined the ranks of the hungry around the world. The giant seed and herbicide company, Monsanto, similarly reported windfall profits in each of those quarters. Mosaic, the fertilizer company reported similar huge profits. What we were seeing, and what we are seeing, even now, is the biggest vertical and horizontal integration of corporations cornering the world by its belly. The integration of food, from the control of land, from the control of water through the privatization of rural irrigation in dozens of countries, through the control of seed, pesticide manufacturers, other agricultural inputs, all the things tied up by a handful of corporations.
JS: This is Deconstructing Dinner. You're listening to journalist Palagummi Sainath, speaking in February 2009 in Edmonton at the University of Alberta. Based in Mumbai, Palagummi is the Rural Affairs Editor for India's national newspaper, The Hindu. Today's entire broadcast is featuring segments from his talk and I will note that some segments that could not fit into today's one hour broadcast will be made available on the Deconstructing Dinner website at deconstructingdinner.ca.
As Palagummi continued his talk titled, "The Age of Inequality" he addressed the current unravelling of the global economy and he suggested that what we see happening today is only the beginning of a much greater unravelling of an entire system built upon artificiality. Here again, is Palagummi Sainath.
PS: So you're seeing that kind of vertical integration and it's growing from the purchase of farmland, which is what the Black Rock and other index funds were investing in. The number of companies is getting smaller and smaller in this extremely unequal process. At the one end of this process are hundreds of millions plus millions of newly hungry, at the other end of the spectrum are record profits made from hunger. Inequality was the driving force, not just behind these activities, but beyond, behind, what everyone refers to as, 'the meltdown' the, 'Wall Street Meltdown' which I am intrigued to find being discussed by television anchors as if it's something that has happened and were fixing it. I believe the meltdown has just begun. We're in Phase One.
Every Great Depression, every economic catastrophe, every major economic collapse in history has been preceded by years of absolutely unsustainable levels of inequality. America in 1929, at the time of the Great Depression, was more unequal than America had ever been. America in 2008, was more unequal than America had been since 1929. Every such catastrophe has been preceded by absolutely unsustainable levels of inequality. And if you think that the crisis is over, just look at from September 1, if you look at the U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics website, it's easily available to you, from September 1 to December 31, the U.S. has been losing 16,000 jobs every day. In September that was 3,000 jobs a day, by the end of December it was 16,000 jobs a day. In November and December alone the U.S. economy lost 1.1 million jobs, 584,000 jobs in November, 524,000 in December and the December figure is a provisional one. When the final figure comes in it's going to be around 600,000. Now you're laying off half a million people each month in the last 2-3 months. A week and a half ago 50,000 people lost their jobs in a single day.
But look at how Wall Street and the banks and the suits continue to function. In the midst of all this chaos, as we throw hundreds of millions and hundreds of billions of dollars at the same guys who caused the problems. Citibank decides to buy a 15 million dollar corporate jet and has to be stopped by the Treasury Secretary personally. Meanwhile the head of Merrill Lynch redecorates his office at the cost of 1.22 million dollars in taxpayer bailout money and part of the redecoration is an antique commode on legs costing 35,000 dollars, maybe that was heavy symbolism considering that his company was right down the tube. But this is not... this crisis is not about a housing mortgage bubble. It isn't. That's a mistake. It's a very narrow understanding of what has happened. The credit card bubble is yet to strike and that'll take... when you're laying off half a million people each month you're going to have millions of people in 6-7 months who will default on their credit cards. And toxic debt in credit cards is three times as high as in housing mortgages, it's 30-35 % as against 10-12%. So when the credit... and that's just one more bubble, the credit card. Then you've got the private equity bubble, then you've got the realty bubble, you've got more bubbles than in bath foam in that economy. (laughter) And you're having giant layoffs going on at the same time.
Consider how we got here. In the year 2008, when 2.75 million Americans lost their jobs, which is the highest number of layoffs since the year 1945, when all the war related enterprises closed down in the United States. In a year when 2.75 million people were laid-off, CEOs and Chief Executives and other top executives paid themselves bonuses of 18 billion dollars. And after getting public bailout money have continued to do that until they get and if they can do it without getting caught. So you have CEO's salaries exploding at one end of the spectrum and working folks, everyday Joes and their salaries stagnating or shrinking at the other end. It couldn't last. You know, you'd have to be an economist to believe that it could. (laughter) Anyone else knows that is can't.
Now here's the thing. In the worst year of layoffs with 2.75 million losing their jobs. Eighteen states in the United States have cut their welfare roles, they've reduced their welfare lists. Direct cash assistance in the welfare system is at its lowest in 40 years, but CEO's salaries were at their highest in all-time history. You cannot sustain that kind of inequality, it's just not possible, you've tried and you've failed. Here is another interesting thing. Most of these corporations didn't pay a dime in corporate income tax. The general... the government accountability office of the United States has done a study which came out in October last year which shows that between 1998 and 2005, two-thirds of corporations in the United States paid zero corporate income tax. At that time, when corporate profits were at their highest in history, because in 2006 corporate profits as a share of the nation's total income stood at 14.1%, which was the highest in history but their tax payments were the lowest since the 1930s. You cannot sustain a system like that. It's not possible. Remember that John McCain complained during the election campaign, he was still on the reduced taxes line, he was saying that American corporations are being levied the highest rates of taxes in the world, but they have the lowest rates of payments. The rate may be the highest. It couldn't last. It was a fake world with fake products.
And as the economist Nouriel Roubini of NYU says, "All the bubbles are blowing and bursting at the same time now. We are in big trouble. It doesn't matter which part of the world you are in." We've been co-opted into that bubble. In the last 15-20 years, inequality has grown at a faster rate than at any time in the preceding 50 years. In India for instance, it is today at a level that can only be compared to the Colonial period of British rule and we managed that level of inequality in a space of 15 years. Imagine the decompression it has meant in the incomes, livelihoods and diets of poor people. It's a make believe world where mythical marriages sell mythical products, financial products, so complex that Warren Buffet says he hasn't a clue what they're about. Complex products, I mean a lot of people bankrupted by Madoff don't know it yet because the system never actually invested in anything that produced anything. I give X securities my money to invest, he gets one person as the fund manager, and he gets 15-20% of the benefits, then he passes it on to another fund manager who passes it on to another fund manager and it's been making the circles on Wall Street without actually being invested in anything that produces anything except more bubbles.
But why do I insist that the inequality of the last 15-20 years is dramatically different from inequality in other periods? There is a big difference. There have been periods of gross inequality in the past, but never in history has inequality been so cynically constructed, so ruthlessly engineered and so brutally imposed on hundreds of millions of people across the planet. That structural inequality, India for example, let's take India, we are the shining... in India shining is the slogan right? We are the star pupil of the star graduate of the Neo-Liberal school. India today has 51 dollar billionaires, by the way that's twice the number of billionaires Canada has, you have 25. Our dads are richer than your dads. Now India has 51 billionaires to your piffling 25, but you know something else, in the human development index of the United Nations, Canada ranks #4 and India, which ranks #4 in billionaires, ranks 128th in human development below Bolivia, the poorest country of Latin America and below several African countries, too. How did we manage that? Now if you want to know how concentrated the wealth is, how great the inequality is, India has a population of just over 1 billion, but the 51 billionaires hold assets and wealth equivalent to 31% of our GDP. Equivalent to 31% of our GDP. Incidentally, the #1 country in the world in the human development index went down the tube itself because of embracing the fake economy and that was Iceland, it was #1. It embraced this fake financial economy separate from... financial products and banking services and look at poor Iceland now.
And when we're talking about these billionaires, 23 of them have an address in the same city as I do, it's Mumbai. We're not talking about slumdog millionaires, we're talking about penthouse billionaires. We're talking about Mr. Mukesh Ambani of Reliance Limited who is building the costliest residential complex in the world, his personal house, in the costliest real estate in the world. Well so far the home has a mere 60 floors and, being a modest man, there are only 3 heli-pads so far.
See this kind of inequality that you've created, this kind of inequality we've generated it has an impact on the mindset; it has an impact on the way we see other human beings. It has an impact... .you know you cannot, even if you go back to the periods of, say, slavery, you have to absolutely dehumanize the slave in order to live with yourself by indulging in slavery. You had to create the idea that a slave was not a human being and, therefore, you could brutalize him endlessly because he was not a human being, he was an animal. And that's the kind of mindset, that's the kind of logic that inequality, gross inequality generates. I cannot be earning a hundred thousand times more than you and treat you as my equal, there's no way that's going to happen. The great American Jurist, Justice Brandeis when dismissing... what was he dismissing... he was dismissing a case seeking the abolition of income tax and Justice Brandeis summed it up so beautifully in one line. He said, "You can have great concentration of wealth or you can have democracy, but you can't have both."
JS: This is Deconstructing Dinner as syndicated one hour weekly radio show and podcast produced at Kootenay Co-op Radio CJLY in Nelson, British Columbia. I'm Jon Steinman. You've been listening to Indian journalist Palagummi Sainath speaking in 2009 in Edmonton, Alberta. Palagummi is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories from India's Poorest District. He has received over 30 awards over 30 awards, including the Amnesty International's Global Human Rights Journalism Prize and the Raymond Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication.
Again, segments of Palagummi's talk that do not make their way onto today's broadcast will be made available on the Deconstructing Dinner website under the February 12th, 2009 broadcast. In this next segment which will take us to the end of his talk, Palagummi speaks of the dangers found when a country switches from producing food crops to cash crops and the results help those of us here in North America who support the globalized industrial food system recognize how our food choices here impact rural populations abroad.
PS: I was mentioning that we are 128th in human development which places us in the bottom 50 nations of the world in human development, but when it comes to child malnutrition, we are not 128th, we are 177th, bottom. If you take percentages, these are U.N. figures, H.D.I.'s figures, if you take children below the age of 5 who are underweight, Guinea Bissau: 25% of children, Burkina Faso: 36% of children, Sierra Leone: 38% of children, Ethiopia: 38% of all children below 5 are underweight. India: 47% with 51 billionaires. I'm trying to tell you this, I'm trying to say this, don't try understanding the wealth in isolation from the poverty, the two are inextricably linked. You cannot understand the deprivation if you do not understand the wealth, you cannot understand the wealth if you do not look at the deprivation. These are not isolated compartments, one makes the other possible.
In the global hunger index, the FPRI, many of you have heard of the National Food Policy Research Institute of Washington, D.C., it comes out with a global hunger index. India ranks 66th out of 88. This time we beat Zimbabwe by a short hair, not because of our efforts but Zimbabwe's. Last year they were ahead of us, they were one notch ahead of us last year; they're one notch below us this year. In employment it's collapsed, in whichever sector you look at, the number of Tatas, who are the owners of Jaguar and Land Rover and Corus and the biggest steel makers have increased their steel output four times and reduced their workforce by half. The same with the biggest manufacturer of two-wheelers in the world, Bajaj. Who've increased their output four times, reduced their workforce by half.
What has the impact of all this been on rural India, on rural communities, on farming, and, I assert, that farming is in crisis across the planet, if you are looking at farming by human beings not by corporations. If you are looking at family farms, if you are not in crisis you will be, take my word for it, all the evidence points to it. The policies entrenching inequality have been pushed by powerful corporations and nations, institutionalized by bodies like the World Bank of the IMF and embraced by elite states, by elites in countries like India, Pakistan and elsewhere. Wilfully embraced, I mean, joyously embraced. As corporate power grows the impact of inequality on the countryside, on agriculture has been devastating because remember that is the last frontier, when you capture food and water you've got just about everything. From 1991, from the period of the economic reforms, 8 million people have quit farming in India. If you look at the '91 census there were 111 million cultivators, 2001 census there's 103 million cultivators. Where did these 8 million people go? We don't know because the media were busy covering Paris Hilton, so we really do not know where 8 million... and when you see the 2011 census you're going to see that figure dwarfed by the number of people who have left after 2000.
Investment in agriculture collapsed using the WTO, using a number of levers in the names of fighting subsidy while Western subsidies grew and grew and grew. Subsidies as a share of farming income in the USA were 2% in 1974 and 47% in 2000 as a share of farming income. And I'm not talking about American family farms; I'm talking about corporate farms because American family farms are down in the dumps, like anyone else. Don't think that the West is exempted. Today in the United States, there are three times the number of people in prison as there are on family farms. There are 700,000 family farms going bankrupt at the rate of 160 a week while there are 2.3 million people in State and Federal penitentiaries. So you have investment in agriculture collapsing, each year we reduce investment in agriculture to the rate of about 7-8 billion dollars a year and we directed that money towards the upper middle-class consumption of urban India.
I have covered the suicides of farmers on India, farmers who have committed suicide because they could not get a crop loan of 200 dollars, except at exorbitant rates of interest. And having covered that suicide, I've gone home to my urban middle class existence and received a letter form my bank welcoming me to buy a Mercedes Benz at 4% interest without collateral and that guy could not get 200 dollars for his crop loan except at 14-18% because we are transferring resources from poor to rich, we took bank credit away from poor people because that's the whole idea, consumption-led growth. What did George W. tell the population of the United States after 9/11? Go out there and spend. Even now what you're trying to say is give the banks money, they'll loan money, then you'll spend, right? It's getting back into the same... the whole thing was created by a crisis of excessive credit and debt.
Now this, in the period as we took money away from the countryside, the indebtedness of the peasantry doubled. Twenty-six percent of all Indian households, before the Neo-Liberal reforms began, 26% of Indian farm households were in debt. By 2001, that was 48.6%. Then all the other processes, predatory commercialization, everything converted into exchange value, privatization on health, privatization in education, commercialization of education services. Everything became so expensive and what happened to farmer's incomes in this period? The average monthly per capita expenditure of the Indian farm household, surveyed for 2002 was 10 dollars a month. Average per capita monthly... monthly per capita expenditure of the Indian farm household, according to the National Sample Survey, was 10 dollars. And what was the main expenditure on? Sixty percent of that expenditure was on food, farm households spending on food. Another 18-20% was on the purchase of fuel, footwear and clothing. That left precious little for health and education. At the same time we did create 51 dollar billionaires. Skyrocketing of input costs as corporations took over control of seed, as Monsanto took over seed, as Cargill took over whole sectors of the wheat trade, the skyrocketing of input costs devastated farmers who were cultivating cotton and other stuff. It cost 50 dollars to cultivate an acre of cotton in 1991, it now costs 375-400 dollars to use Monsanto's seed and cultivate an acre of cotton.
And part of the Neo-Liberal philosophy was to move millions of peasants all across the world from cultivating food, which they needed, to cultivating cash crops, which you needed because we had to grow stuff that wouldn't grow in your climates. It's very difficult to grow coffee in Alaska. So people shifted and when you shift, what happens when you shift from food crop to cash crop? When you shift from, say, growing paddy or rice to growing vanilla, what do you do? You undertake gigantic additional expenditures. The cultivation cost of paddy is less than 180 dollars an acre; the cultivation costs of vanilla is 3000 dollars per acre, 150,000 rupees per acre. Now that means more debt, more credit, more going to the money lender because the banks are not giving it to you. These things are happening. So the indebtedness of the peasantry goes up. The banks abandon the farmers and move away. Farm incomes collapse. Worldwide there's a collapse of small holder agriculture and India's farmers are the last large body of owning small holders in the world and their existence is under threat.
What then comes out of all this? What you saw in the photographs. Between 1997 and 2007, 182,000 farmers committed suicide, according to the government of India. That's a gross underestimate that excludes lots of groups. It excludes women farmers because women are not considered farmers, they're farmer's wives. Sixty-seven percent of all agricultural work is done by women, but they're not considered because the property, the land is not in their name, it's in the husband's name by custom and tradition. So when a woman commits suicide she commits suicide, that's not a farmer's suicide, it's just a suicide. But with all the exclusions, you still come up with a figure of 180,936 farm suicides in 11 years, which means the current rate of suicide is, on average, 1 farmer commits suicide every 30 minutes. That is the government figure. Your guess about the real figure is as good or as bad as mine.
Who are these farmer's? Overwhelmingly, they are cash crop farmers. Far fewer food crop farmers have committed suicide than cash crop farmers, far fewer. Because at the end of the day, in a crisis, you can eat your paddy. Cotton is a bit harder to digest. We destroyed the livelihoods and food security of these people by pulling them out of food crop growth to cash crop growth. Don't think that farmer suicides are a phenomenon of India only, that is not true. Oklahoma has two and a half times... rural Oklahoma has two and a half times the national average of suicides, most of them amongst farmers. Minnesota has, unusually through the '80s it had an extremely high rate of farmer suicides. It's an attack on... what's it about? It's about small holder farmers, family farms getting wiped out by the growing spread and clout of corporate farming, that's what it's about. And it goes on, and it keeps on.
And in the first 6 years that we worked on this, on the farm suicides, there was denial from the government. Then when we pinned it down in their own numbers, in their own numbers, all the numbers are from the National Crime Records Bureau. In India, the Crime Records Bureau keeps suicide figures because suicide is a crime. You commit it and we'll teach you never to do it again. And when it became impossible to deny the numbers because it was their own numbers, their own police stations which had provided the figures, then they started changing the... challenging the interpretation. One of the favourite interpretations is alcoholism. You know what these farmers are? A bunch of drunks. They're all drunkards, that's why they committed suicide. I have been asked this in meeting after meeting and meeting after meeting, but it strikes me as very interesting, this argument, if drunkeness... if excessive consumption of alcohol drives suicides, damn it, there'd be no journalists left in the world. (laughter)
The sad thing, and I'm gonna conclude with that, the sad thing is how we have distanced ourself from ordinary people, disconnected ourselves from the lives of others. How does all this matter to you? How does this matter to us? We are not in the classes that are struggling. We are not in the classes that are about to collapse, though we don't know, I mean, give Wall Street time; they might achieve that, too. But why should we be bothered? Why should we be bothered? One, I think, it speaks to the very basic humanity in us that we should be bothered. Even if you wanted to put it in extremely selfish terms, you better be bothered. A hell of a lot of it is happening or coming soon to a theatre near you. The farm crisis is not restricted to India. The crisis of corporate power is not restricted to India by any means. In fact, suffusion of corporate power in the society is far greater in the United States than it is in India. You can still chase corporations out in India; you can't do that in the United States. You've really got to worry about that.
I believe that you have never been better positioned and better situated to turn things around because the great unravelling has begun. The great unravelling has begun. It's astonishing to watch; the professionals and experts look such complete clowns, as they do when they are trying to fix the economy. Also, we not only challenge ourselves, we also challenge the media that give us this information. We need to do that too. Let me put it another way to you. The crisis which you associate with Wall Street in 2008, that crisis has existed in hundreds of societies for more than 15 years. It's only when it reaches the suits that it becomes a crisis for the rest of the world. But it's been a crisis and you've had those farmers committing suicide for 11 years. It never became a crisis. It's a hell of a crisis for millions of families, but it never became a crisis for anyone else. It's only when Merrill Lynch tanks and Bear Stearns bails out that it becomes a crisis.
So be very clear that the crisis doesn't exempt you. It doesn't exempt Alberta. The farming crisis certainly will not exempt this province, understand that. Input costs, Monsanto seed costs, pesticide cost. Most of the farmers who committed suicide were not only cash crop farmers, they were farmers locked into the model of heavy chemical farming, heavy chemical use, heavy use of pesticides, heavy use of high cost inputs. They were farmers locked into that model. They were very poor farmers, but they were locked into that model and, therefore, they simply, they couldn't afford it.
What did the media do meanwhile in this period? We sold products where we should have told stories. We got the best bites, but told the worst stories. Where scepticism was crucial we displayed sycophancy. When we needed journalism at its best we produced stenography at its worst. I believe the unravelling has begun, but I will also say that there's, apart from the critique of the economy, apart from the critique of Neo-Liberalism, there's also the complicity of the middle-classes, of all of us in things that go on. In the choices we make and the decisions we make, it's very, very, very easy, until it becomes impossible, to disconnect from the sufferings of millions of people.
Indian history is replete with such examples. In 1876, for example, Victoria got bored of being a queen and she had recently acquired a very large piece of real estate, some of us now call it India and she decided to call herself Empress, with due modesty. And they held a party, the biggest dinner party in the history of the human race with 68,000 guests and 2,000 cooks in a year when famine raged across India and millions of people died. The party lasted a week. Now if you read the newspapers of the time, you see the same disconnect. The party is covered, they cover the party and, yes, the famine is covered, but there's no connection. The reports tell us that starving peasants trying to enter the city faced barricades from the police, who clubbed them to death at the barricades. A hundred thousand people died of the famine in just Madras and Mysore alone during the seven days of Victoria's celebration. It remains one of the best secrets in history. I think only Mike Davis has written about it in the Late Victorian Holocausts. Otherwise it's a secret in history. Call it Victoria's original secret. (laughter) But it shows you that an elite can so disconnect themselves from the misery enveloping the world around them.
A last note for you. Some 30 years ago, when I entered university, only to be expelled almost immediately, but then I re-entered again, I trained to be an historian not a journalist. And I read the Roman historian, Tacitus, on Nero and one question on that remained with me until 5-6 years ago. You have Tacitus on Nero and the burning of Rome. Tacitus despised Nero, but Tacitus was somewhat objective on the history of the fire, he said that Nero... I mean Nero did not cause the fire. In fact, Nero was very scared of how the fire was damaging his reputation among the masses because they believed he was responsible for it and he had to distract them, the Roman public, so he held the greatest dinner party of the ancient world, right? And you can read about it, you can read about Tacitus, it's online. The University of, I think, Michigan has put him online. Now they had this big problem. They had the crème de la crème of the old world, of the Roman Empire, the greatest scientists, the greatest philosophers, the greatest political figures, the centurions, the generals, the musicians... the cream. And then they had a problem in the party. It was a night party and you needed lighting for it. A problem they solved, according to Tacitus, and by other contemporary historians, by bringing out criminal prisoners from the cells and burning them at the stake in the surrounding areas. In the prose of Tacitus, "... thereby providing the nightly illumination." Now for me, this was never the issue; the cruelty of Nero was never the issue. We all know that Nero was nuts and like all those sane, just Roman emperors who routinely fed thousands of human beings to animals each year, right? The issue was not Nero, or his cruelty. There have been much more cruel people than Nero. The issue was - Who were Nero's guests? Here you had the world's great philosophers, scientists, political people, thinkers and not one raised a protest at the burning of human beings to provide the nightly illumination. It always intrigued me. Who were Nero's guests? What did it take to remain silent and coif another goblet of wine as another human being went up in flames? Or pop another fig into your mouth as another person burned as a human torch. After seven years of covering farm suicides, watching one after the other farm household go belly-up, I think I have my answer about who Nero's guests were. In the great unravelling that is on us, we make take different paths, we may have different answers, we may have different arguments and different solutions, but believe me, that unravelling is happening. And we can agree on one thing, that whatever we do or don't do, agree with or don't agree with, we will not be Nero's guests. Thank you. (applause)
JS: And this is Deconstructing Dinner. You've been listening to journalist Palagummi Sainath speaking on February 3rd, 2009 in Edmonton, Alberta. Palagummi is the Rural Affairs Editor of India's national newspaper, The Hindu. He was invited to be a featured speaker at this year's International Week, hosted annually by the University of Alberta. Deconstructing Dinner attending the event where I spoke on three occasions and compiled a number of recordings such as this one to share with you. If you missed last week's keynote speaker, Frances Moore Lappé, that episode is posted under the February 5th, 2009 broadcast on our website at deconstructingdinner.ca.
Now to bring us to the end of today's episode, I do want to share two more segments with you from Palagummi's talk, both of these recorded during the evening's Q&A. In this first segment, Palagummi addresses a question on the promise of producing cash crops versus food crops and he uses the example of vanilla, an ingredient found within many North American foods, but which carries an important story that most of us are completely unaware of.
PS: The cash crop idea was actually an idea of the World Bank and the IMF. And the reasoning was this, that you see, food crop doesn't earn you anything and food is cheap. Well, it's cheap in the United States, where, say, Basmati rice, for 30 years, is cheaper to buy and consume in the United States than it is in India, where it's grown. The idea was food crop growing doesn't get you anything, it doesn't get you anywhere. You grow cash crop, you export. Export-led growth was a theory. And when you export to the West you earn dollars and you can buy all the food you want because we'll export food to you. So we'll give you food and you'll have dollars so you'll be able to buy our food, so let us do the trivial things like food production and you do the important things like growing vanilla.
Now the second part of it is, many of these cash crops have no internal market in India or in the countries where they grow. Vanilla, most of the vanilla produced in the world is consumed in the United States. Vanilla-nation. India has a zero market for vanilla and thousands of farmers shift to vanilla and how... it also brings up a bit to your question, sir. The government pushes this idea, as I said in the processes that local elites fully, joyously embraced the Neo-Liberal model. It's not as if the Indian Prime Minister accepted these policies kicking and screaming. If he was screaming it was only with joy. So you had thousands of farmers switching to vanilla because government policies ensured, for instance, that credit went to cash crop farmers. So they coerced you, forced you, coaxed you, pursued you, brow-beat you into moving towards that and then you were also seeing that those growing cash crops were getting a much better deal in everything, at least for a while.
I remember the vanilla boom in the southern Indian state of Kerala. Wayanad, the name of the district Wayanad is actually Vayal Nadu, which means 'land of paddy'. It's very hard to find anyone growing paddy now, it was one of the ancient centres of paddy growing. People shift to vanilla from 880 dollars an acre for cultivation costs to 3,000 dollars. The first year, the first season, this is how corporations work... the first two seasons they made phenomenal profits. The U.S. Vanilla Association always states the demand, all these sort of things happen, and everybody and his grandmum from Kerala to Kenya switched to vanilla. The entry of millions of farmers into vanilla immediately crashes the price at one level. Then the associations in the West restate the demand and say, 'Oops you know we got a couple of zeros there by accident.' In the first year, farmers made 4,500 rupees per kilogram. That's, yeah this is Canada, kilogram. Per kilogram of vanilla they got a price of 4,500 rupees, that's 100 U.S. dollars per kilogram. So they were thrilled and everybody thought this was... they were made. When I last was in Kerala, vanilla was selling for 68 rupees a kilogram, 1 dollar 30 cents. That, my friend, is not a fluctuation, it's an annihilation and it was a very planned annihilation. You got the mugs to get into your scheme, got them there, now when they've made the investment and as one of the farmers told me, "The only thing we can do, the only use that creeper now has it to hang ourselves with it." So the cash crop thing was nurtured, nourished, it was part of the export-led growth idea. It was very systematically foisted on millions of people, some of whom took it willingly believing that this was a way out of poverty, and many others who found that unless they did it they would not get a lot of government support.
JS: Palagummi Sainath. And in this last segment that will conclude today's broadcast of Deconstructing Dinner we'll leave you with one last recording from the Q&A following Palagummi's talk. And again, if you missed any of today's broadcast it will be archived on our website at deconstructingdinner.ca. Unheard segments from Palagummi's talk will also be posted there.
PS: The last famine we had was 1942-43 Bengal famine. Once the British left we never had that because this was the result of human policy. So what happens? 1860s, we suddenly start growing much more cotton than we need. We grow this cotton but what happens? The civil was gets over. The civil war gets over, cotton growers in India are getting some good remuneration and then America re-enters the cotton market and cotton prices in India and Egypt tank. That was the first globalization. We had a wave of suicides of cotton farmers even then. It's the same script being played all over again.
People being made to grow what they don't need, people being denied the right to grow what they do need and made to operate against their interests. I think some of the solutions are pretty obvious. Dismantle Neo-Liberalism. Don't accept it. One of the first things is to resist what is being imposed on you. A bunch of Mafiosi destroy the planet with their financial product and then we give them trillions of dollars to set it right. I think the answer is going to come from you and me, it's going to come from everyday people, it's going to come from ordinary people who have always, in my opinion, been the model of change. It's never been easy, it has been done. It won't be easy, it will be done because you are having protests and that unravelling all over.
One of the most interesting things I saw in the United States when I was teaching at Berkeley last semester was, a strike in the public windows and doors company in Chicago where the owners tried overnight speeling out of the company locking out and abandoning their workers who then occupied the factory and demanded their severance pay and their vacation pay, and got it. Had that happened before the Meltdown, you'd have had the troops or the police in there clubbing those workers and throwing them out as trespassers. Instead you had Obama declaring support for the striking workers and every celebrity from mayor to governor showing up to declare their support. But more importantly you had ordinary citizens of Chicago going there with food hampers for the strikers. There's hope.
JS: And that was this week's edition of Deconstructing Dinner, produced and recorded at Nelson, British Columbia's Kootenay Co-op Radio. I've been your host Jon Steinman. I thank my technical assistant John Ryan.
The theme music for Deconstructing Dinner is courtesy of Nelson-area resident Adham Shaikh.
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