February 25, 2009
The Age of Inequality
Celebrated Indian journalist Palagummi Sainath shares his understanding of how our consumption habits here in North America affect India's rural poor.
It's rare for a newspaper here in North America to employ someone in a position of "rural affairs editor". In India, however, their national newspaper, The Hindu, employs Palagummi Sainath in that very position.
Sainath is a celebrated journalist who accepted the invitation to be a featured speaker at the University of Alberta's annual International Week in early February. His talk was titled "The Age of Inequality" - a subject that his work has captured most explicitly since he first broke the story on the staggering rates of suicide among India's farmers.
It was standing room only in the packed Edmonton lecture hall and while Sainath's subject matter of hunger and inequality was certainly not a new one, his stories and insights carried much greater weight today than in years and decades past.
Although it might appear that there is greater awareness today of how our food choices and accompanying support for the globalized industrial food system impact others on this planet, the saddening and shocking examples shared by Sainath lent a whole new meaning to the idea of thinking globally and acting locally.
So what is it about current events today that suggests awareness of such issues carries with it greater importance than twenty years ago? Sainath introduced his talk with a telling example.
"For two decades now, the United Nations has been telling us that an additional expenditure of $60-$80 billion a year will help the human race sort out the most basic problems of hunger, health, sanitation, education, and literacy," said Sainath.
According to Sainath, such investment has never been made because governments continue to insist that there's "not enough money".
"But when crisis struck the suits on Wall Street", continues Sainath, "governments figured out that they could raise $1.5 trillion in seven days because a crisis is only a crisis when it hits the suits."
According to Sainath, this startling admission of selfish interests on Wall Street and in Washington captures just how detached the Western world has become to the plight of the world's poorest.
Sainath introduced a telling example of this detachment.
Less than a year ago, when global food prices reached an all-time high and the cost of wheat in India had risen 77%, "noted nutritionist George W.," as Sainath described, "declared from the White House that the problem really was that the Indians and Chinese are eating too much."
The mainstream media such as the Wall Street Journal agreed with Bush.
But is such an assertion even true? Sainath doesn't think so.
"While 10-15% of the population in India are eating better, the per capita availability of food grain in India has actually declined very sharply in the years of the neo-liberal reforms between 1991-2006," declared Sainath.
The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) encouraged these 'reforms'.
"In 1991, the food grain available per Indian was 510 grams," described Sainath, "and after fifteen years of market fundamentalism, the food grain per Indian fell to 422 grams." The Edmonton audience expressed its shock.
On the other end of the equation is the growing population of India's rich. According to Sainath, India now has 51 billionaires whose combined assets are equal to 31% of the country's GDP.
"Don't try and understand the wealth in isolation of the poverty," continued Sainath. "The two are inextricably linked; one makes the other possible."
At the same time that India's rural poor descended into deeper poverty and hunger, global food and agribusiness companies were recording all-time historic profits. "Within the profits of Archer Daniels Midland, at the time of the latest global food price increases, the unit dealing with grain storage trading reported a seven-fold increase in income, while tens of millions of people joined the ranks of hunger around the world," he described.
When India adopted these 'reforms' and began cultivating cash crops for the Western world instead of food crops for local consumption, the debt incurred by smallholder farms rose dramatically.
According to Sainath, the cultivation of paddy costs less than $180/acre while the widespread shift to cultivating vanilla now costs farmers $3,000/acre.
The subsequent credit, exorbitant interest rates, and accompanying debt, has pushed farmer suicides to shocking levels described Sainath. "A farmer commits suicide every thirty minutes in India and overwhelmingly they're cash crop farmers, because at the end of the day when crisis hits, you can eat your paddy."
Sainath concluded his talk by suggesting how the age of disconnecting ourselves from these issues is over. While it ultimately speaks to our humanity to care about how our choices here affect people abroad, the impacts of the global food system on rural communities is not isolated to India. As the global economy unravels, Sainath insisted that the inequality gripping the world today will increasingly be felt in the Western world where the models of this inequality originate.
Deconstructing Dinner is heard on radio stations across Canada and is available as a Podcast. A two-part exposť on Cargill can be heard at (www.cjly.net/deconstructingdinner/021209.htm).
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