Ahluwalia's sermons

Inflation and the poor
Last Updated 27 October 2010, 16:45 IST

Montek Singh Ahluwalia has been at the helm of India’s planning process for quite some time now. It is during his tenure as the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission that India has been pushed deeper and deeper into the quagmire of poverty. With the largest population of hungry in the world, the Global Hunger Index 2010 has placed India in the pit.

I wasn’t therefore shocked when I read Ahluwalia blame the hungry for the rise in food inflation. From someone who literally lives in the ivory tower of the Yojana Bhawan, anything can be expected. But what, of course, surprised me was the audacity with which he blamed the poor and hungry in the rural countryside for the rising inflation. Although I hate to say but there can be nothing more stupid than blaming the poor in the villages as if they have started eating more and therefore the pressure on food prices. 

A few years back, former US President George Bush had made that ignominious remark shifting the blame for the 2007 global food crisis to the hungry Indians. He had said that the food crisis was because the Indians had started eating more. In an interview, I had then replied that if Indians started eating as much as the Americans do, then probably the world would need to grow food crops on the moon.

While one can ignore what George Bush had said, how can one pardon the head of India’s planning process who should know much better. It also reflects on the disconnect India’s Planning Commission has with the existing ground realities. Obsessed with the growth figures that continue to be tossed around with much fanfare, the planners have tried but failed to hide the ugly underbelly of India’s economic growth.

Only a few weeks back, India was ranked 67th among 84 hungry countries of the world. Two years back, in 2008, the Global Hunger Index had placed India at 66th position among 88 countries. In other words, India had slipped still lower down the pit in the past two years. I can’t fathom how the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) had placed India in such a low esteem if the poor in the villages had started eating more.

Take another international report that was submitted by the Save the Children Fund just a few days prior to the UN Summit on Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that was held in the last week of September in New York. With over 5,000 children succumbing to malnutrition every day, India had once again topped the global ranking. This shocking disclosure is enough to put every Indian to shame. I wonder how the head of Indian Planning Commission can even walk with his head held high.
Let me also draw your attention to the 2006-07 report of the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) which brings out the stark truth. It tells us that the correlation between hunger and economic growth is robustly positive -- more the economic growth, more people go to bed hungry. This challenges the widely held view that economic growth pulls poor out of poverty and hunger.

What makes the alarming situation still worse is that ever since economic liberalisation was launched in 1991, the NSSO tells us that cereal consumption has been on a steady decline, with no corresponding increase in the intake of more nutritious eggs, vegetables, fruits and milk. It means hunger has been on a rise and is now more widespread and well-entrenched. So far the feeling was that with the changing food habits, people have shifted from cereals to nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables and milk. This assumption too does not hold true anymore.

Cereal consumption

The decline in cereal consumption has more or less followed a steady pattern in the rural and urban areas, and of course, much faster in the rural areas. I don’t think Ahluwalia ever read this report. Accordingly, per capita cereal consumption per month in the rural areas across the country has fallen from 13.4 kg in 1993-94 to 11.7 kg in 2006-07.

The decline has been sharper between the period 2004 and 2007 when just in three years, cereals consumption fell from 12.1 kg to 11.7 kg. In the urban centres the decline was from 10.6 kg in 1993-94 to 9.6 kg in 2006-07. In a largely vegetarian society, cereals constitute the single important source of nutrition and therefore its importance in the Indian context is well established.

This is still not the real picture. The NSSO survey does not cover the period 2007-08 when the world was faced with an unprecedented rise on global food prices. In any case, the average household expenditure on food shows an increasing trend, but does not translate into more food consumption. It only means food prices have been on an upswing, and the poor are finding it difficult to fill their bellies. The recent price rise had made it still more difficult for the poor to be well fed. Cereal consumption therefore is expected to fall still further in 2009-10, and the impact it must have had on the poor and hungry can be well imagined.

(Published 27 October 2010, 16:35 IST)

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