Saturday, June 04, 2011

India is growing, but Indians are still starving

In the summer of 2009, New Delhi’s Lalit hotel, a 1980s monstrosity that had recently been remodeled, hosted the “Second Food Technology Summit,” sponsored by the Ministry of Food Processing and the Confederation of Indian Industries, a powerful lobbying group. Experts and government officials sat on stage, taking questions from the audience, which included the chairman of the Indian Food Processor’s Association as well as representatives from Coca-Cola.

The questions were largely rhetorical, lamenting the obstacles to the modernization of India’s food markets. “No one cares about the sell-by dates of bread,” one man commented. “What happens when the bread gets old in the village stalls? They fry it in oil and sell it as bread pakora instead.” In the 600,000 villages and towns in non-metropolitan India, I learned, none of the teeming hundreds of millions of residents cared about the mechanized processes and international standards of hygiene that would allow India to join the industrialized nations in their eating habits.

Perhaps that is because those hundreds of millions have more fundamental concerns when it comes to food. The enthusiasm for expiration dates at the Summit must seem peculiar to the poor in a country where 43 percent of children under the age of five are malnourished. In sub-Saharan Africa, the figure is 28 percent; it’s 7 percent in China, to which India is so often compared. The Indian government’s own data show that 800 million Indians live on about twenty rupees (about $0.50) a day. Half of those are farmers who produce food that they, for the most part, cannot afford to eat thanks to the demands of speculators and affluent urban consumers. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), wheat prices reached a record high in February, and the cost of rice—which accounts for 30 percent of the typical Indian diet—hovers at around 22 rupees per kilogram even in Patna and Chennai, capitals of major rice-producing states. That’s about twice the average cost from 2000 until the middle of 2007, when prices began to rise sharply. The average Indian consumes 73 kilograms of rice per year, which means that farmers, assuming they eat at least as much rice as their non-farming countrymen, are now spending some 20 percent of their income on rice alone.
Siddharta Deb in Boston Review. Here

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