Friday, May 30, 2008

The Original Argumentative Indian and the Politics of Food

Our blogsite pays homage to Amartya Sen and his concept of the Argumentative Indian. Dr. Sen himself has now stirred up a veritable storm of argument with an article in the New York Times on the looming food crisis. Within 24 hours the article generated so many responses that the New York Times had to declare that it could no longer entertain any more comments on the subject !

In the article, entitled The Rich Get Hungrier, Dr. Sen has chosen to place blame on misdirected Government policies such as alternative land use, growing purchasing power generating more demand than hitherto and imbalance in wealth distribution.

The comments from readers range from the downright dismissive, such as

“There is nothing new which Prof. Sen has brought out. The better thing would have been if Prof. Sen had come up with the solutions of the problem”

to more reasoned analyses and differences of opinion.

The fact that a voice as eminent as Dr. Sen's has now been added to the whole discussion of food will have the welcome result of focusing private and public attention more intently on the whole subject.

And not too soon either, considering that (according to a summary of studies conducted in the U.K.)

  • Over 9 million people die worldwide each year because of hunger and malnutrition. 5 million are children.
  • Approximately 1.2 billion people suffer from hunger (deficiency of calories and protein);
    -Some 2 to 3.5 billion people have micronutrient deficiency (deficiency of vitamins and minerals);
  • Yet, some 1.2 billion suffer from obesity (excess of fats and salt, often accompanied by deficiency of vitamins and minerals);
  • Food wastage is also high:
    In the United Kingdom, “a shocking 30-40% of all food is never eaten;”
    In the last decade the amount of food British people threw into the bin went up by 15%;
    Overall, £20 billion (approximately $38 billion US dollars) worth of food is thrown away, every year.
    In the US 40-50% of all food ready for harvest never gets eaten;
  • The impacts of this waste is not just financial. Environmentally this leads to:
    Wasteful use of chemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides;
    More fuel used for transportation;
    More rotting food, creating more methane — one of the most harmful greenhouse gases that contributes to climate change.
  • The direct medical cost of hunger and malnutrition is estimated at $30 billion each year.

    In India, with its stark contrasts between lavish feasts and widespread starvation, the situation is made even more poignant by the fact that according to Government sources from the Ministry of Food Processing, the annual food wastage in the country due to inadequate storage and transport infrastructure is Rs. 58,000 crores annually (close to US$15 billion)

    In order to forestall a shortage, the Government of India has now placed restrictions on the exports of rice from the country, provoking an outcry from traders bemoaning the loss of foreign exchange earnings in a rising market. It is worth remembering what Mahatma Gandhi said “There is enough in this world for man's need but not for man's greed” .


Teesta said...

Dear Kaisar,

I would disagree tha Sen is the 'original' argumentative Indian. If I understood his book correctly, he was pointing to many other argumentative Indians who preceded him. On his actual take on the food crisis, I disagree. Of course governments are to blame, but the profiteering from food is much more to blame. Here I am with Vandana Shiva.

Teesta from Kolkata

Kaisar Ahmad said...

Dear Teesta,

You are right, the food "crisis" would go away if human beings showed a modicum of humanity. And of course you are absolutely correct that the Indian tradition of enquiring dialogue was not Sen's creation, but the book has now linked the phrase "Argumentative Indian" with him. In much the same way as Izaak Walton did not invent the pastime of recreational fishing,but is indelibly associated with the phrase "The Compleat Angler" because of his book of the same name from 350 years ago.

As regards the article in the New York Times, don't you think the 54 comments were absolutely fascinating ? Perhaps more riveting than the article itself.

Ananya Mukherjee Reed said...

with due respect, I do not think the issue is humanity, although that would surely help. Several solutions to the crisis is suggested by many communities who are the worst victims of the crisis. It involves reversing the increasing corporate takeover of food production; better distribution of land; organic, sustainable and local farming; and preventing hoarding and profiteering in food. Of course, it is easy to say 'the government' should do all that. It should, who would disagree? But 'the government' is not an apolitical institution that exists in isolation from other powers. Sen routinely stays aways from discussing those relations of the state. He, like most academics, also appears disengaged from the ongoing social movements which are looking at alternative, innovative ways of producing food.

Anonymous said...

but don't you think the 'great Indian middle class' has to take some of the blame? How come there is so many demonstrations against reservations but nothing against the food crisis? This is because it doesn't affect us ...