Sunday, October 02, 2005

Amartya Sen on 'hunger in India'

Amartya Sen's Argumentative Indian has some essays which are only indirectly related to the book's main theme -- that India has been home to an argumentative tradition for well over two and a half millennia. Chapter 10 is one such essay : Class in India. The main focus of this essay, based on the Nehru lecture he gave in November 2001 in New Delhi (sorry, I couldn't find it online), is on what he calls 'friendly fire':

Many of the distributional institutions that exist in India and elsewhere are designed to defend the interests of groups with some deprivation (or some vulnerability) but who are not by any means the absolute underdogs of society. There is an understandable rationale for seeing them as 'friendly' institutions in the battle against class divisions. Yet if they also have the effect of worsening the deal that the real underdogs get, at the bottom layers of society, the overall impact may be to strengthen class divisions rather than weaken them. This is the sense in which their effects can be seen as 'friendly fire'.

Sen goes on to present two examples. The first one is on how the food policy adopted by our government(s) have done very little to mitigate the problem of hunger (the second one is on primary education, and on how -- again -- policy has done little to ensure everyone gets it at the right level and right quality). This part of the essay (at least big chunks of it) has also found its way into another essay which, thankfully, is available online. The following extracts are from the online source as well as from the book.

First, a quick description of (the magnitude of) the problem:

[...] Not only are there persistent recurrences of severe hunger in particular regions (the fact that they don't grow into full-fledged famines does not arrest their local brutality), but there is also a gigantic prevalence of endemic hunger across much of India. Indeed, India does much worse in this respect than even Sub-Saharan Africa. Calculations of general undernourishment -- what is sometimes called "protein-energy malnutrition" -- is nearly twice as high in India as in Sub-Saharan Africa. [...] About half of all Indian children are, it appears, chronically undernourished, and more than half of all adult women suffer from anaemia. In maternal undernourishment as well as the incidence of underweight babies, and also in the frequency of cardiovascular diseases in later life (to which adults are particularly prone if nutritionally deprived in the womb), India's record is among the very worst in the world. [source]

Then comes a scathing attack on some popular misconceptions and myths.

[...]it is amazing to hear persistent repetition of the false belief that India has managed the challenge of hunger very well since independence. This is based on a profound confusion between famine prevention, which is a simple achievement, and the avoidance of endemic undernourishment and hunger, which is a much more complex task. India has done worse than nearly every country in the world in the latter respect. There are, of course, many different ways of shooting oneself in the foot, but smugness based on ignorance is among the most effective. [source]

Sen goes on to look at the friendly fire aspect of this problem. His analysis revolves around the growing dissonance between persistent malnutrition and the amassing of foodgrain stocks -- well beyond (and as much as three times) the 'buffer stock norms. Do you want to know how much the stocks really mean?

To see it in another way, the stocks [in 2001] substantially exceeded one tonne of food grains for every family below poverty line.

Then he adds:

The counterintuitiveness -- not to mention the inequity -- of the history of this development is so gross that it is hard to explain it by the presumption of mere insensitivity -- it looks more and more like insanity. [...] What could explain the simultaneous presence of the worst undernourishment and the largest unused food stocks in the world (with the stocks being constantly augmented at extremely heavy cost)?

The essay goes on to show how the government policy was formulated to help an important section of the poor -- the small farmer. The overall effect of this policy on the true underdogs -- "casual labourers, slum dwellers, poor urban employees, migrant workers, rural artisans, rural non-farm workers, and even farm workers who are paid cash wages" -- has been devastating indeed. In other words, "friendly fire".

Along the way, he also points out that much of the [food] subsidy, in fact, goes to pay for the cost of maintaining a msasively large stock of food grain! He says:

Since the cutting edge of price subsidy is to subsidize farmers to produce more and earn more, rather than to sell existing stocks to consumers at lower prices (that happens too, but only to a limited extent and to restricted groups), the overall effect of the subsidy is more spectacular in transferring money to medium and large farmers with food to sell, than in giving food to the undernourished consumers.

The policy does not seem to have changed since 2001. Neither does the state of malnutrition (particularly among children).

Do read the online essay (Pages 1 and 2, and endnotes).


  1. Anonymous said...

    Here's Tavleen Singh on hunger and what some people are doing to solve the problem - however limited the efect is. Akshaya Patra is a Bangalore based organisation. Sen is to be appreciated for keeping the spotlight focused on the country's problems - and heaven knows we have enough to keep us busy for the next 100 years. But he fails completely to study small movements that succeed for reasons best known to him. In this essay he has pinpointed the root cause - price supports and subsidies for the small farmer - and proved it. But the market wrinkle has been talked about for well over 50 years now. Rajaji remained a steadfast opponent of grain movement/price controls; which unfortunately has become unchallenged wisdom. Now how about winding up Food Corp of India over the next decade and repealing anti-hoarding legislation that makes it impossible for a private sector distributor to hold more than 5 tonnes of commodities? Is it heretical to even study the proposal?
    With all his talk about "Argumentative" Sen fails to study what has worked. Actually he doesn't argue very much.