Tuesday, Aug 09, 2022

Reductionist Slogans

It is important to ensure that we do not become prisoners of a new set of competing slogans that result in the suspension of our rational faculties for another half-century

A good slogan, it has been remarked, can stop analysis for 50 years. A succession of pseudo-socialist slogans did precisely this in India, crippling the economy and inflicting a paralysis of mediocrity and corruption--the notorious 'licence-permit raj'--on the state's administrative machinery. As India celebrates the gradual disintegration of the chains that held down the national economy, however, it is important to ensure that we do not become prisoners of a new set of slogans that result in the suspension of our rational faculties for another half-century.

The Indian political economy is far too complex to be reduced to competing slogans of socialism, on the one hand, or of liberalisation-globalisation, on the other. The problem of reductionist approaches is that they tend to throw the baby out with the bath water, and the contemporary votaries of the new economic order appear as committed to dogma as were the advocates of the old.

Other than the waning myth of the 'trickle down effect', for instance, the new economics has little to offer the growing armies of what Marx called "useless people" (in his telling dictum, "The production of too many useful things results in too many useless people"), and no solution for the visible and, on several authoritative estimates, growing, distress of the poorest of the poor.

Among the most glaring and unacceptable indices of this distress is the epidemic of malnutrition, and the near complete absence of food security, among a large proportion of the Indian population. As the size of the 'national cake' augments dramatically, thinking Indians will have to ask themselves how the reality of a booming economy is to be reconciled with the fact, as one UN Report noted recently, that levels of malnutrition in India are comparable to sub-Saharan Africa, and that food insecurity had actually increased since the 1990s. Indeed, India accounted for "one of the highest levels of child malnutrition in the world, higher than most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa."

Chronic hunger is the reality of many lives today, and nearly 53 per cent of the population is undernourished; the bottom 30 per cent consume, on the average, less than 1700 kilocalories per day, well below the international minimum standard of 2100 kilocalories.

There is much rhetoric about children being the nation's future, but it is important to recognise that the lives of India's children are not just brutalised and destroyed by deviants in Nithari; they are systemically brutalised and destroyed across the country by an epidemic of want. Nearly, two million children die every year in India as a result of serious malnutrition and preventable diseases. Almost half the country's children suffer from moderate to severe malnutrition, and 46 per cent are 'stunted'. This 'stunted' population has already been robbed of its potential, its physical and intellectual capacities substantially destroyed before it arrives at adulthood.

As we witness the miracles wrought by the opening up of the Indian economy, it will be necessary to confront the imperatives of redistributive justice and, specifically and crucially, of food and nutritional security. Here, again, simply sticking to old formulae will not do. The Public Distribution System has been riddled with corruption and failure and cannot be relied upon to deliver what is needed. Even at best, moreover, it cannot help address many of the specific deficiencies that have resulted from market-driven shifts in production patterns and declining availability and consumption of coarse grains and pulses--the principal sources of essential nutrients among the poor--that have become entrenched.

Worse, though the current crisis is overwhelmingly one of poverty and purchasing power, the spectre of absolute deficits appears to be re-emerging in the foreseeable future. After decades of Green Revolution-driven surpluses, the rate of agricultural growth is now lagging behind the rate of population growth. The per capita availability of foodgrain has declined from its peak, at 177 kilograms in 1989-92 to 155 kilograms currently, a level only marginally above the 152 kilograms in the crisis-years between 1950 and 1955. Ironically, per capita availability in rural areas--the source of India's agricultural output--is even lower, at 151 kilograms.

The rural deficit afflicts all food products and not just foodgrains. The White Revolution brought a flood of milk into urban markets, but actually resulted in a decline in milk consumption in the villages, as families sold not only their surplus milk, but rather their entire output, denying their own children what was traditionally a rich nutritional source. Overall per capita availability of cereals and pulses had declined from 510 grams per day in 1991 to 463 grams in 2004. Current projections suggest a darker future: India's annual food production must double by 2020, if the country is to feed itself adequately. Given current and declining rates of growth in agriculture, attaining this target will be a remote possibility, unless aggressive and countrywide transformations are introduced and sustained.

Crucially, 'the market' is not going to solve this problem in any meaningful timeframe-- if, indeed, it ever can. Market forces have been crucial in creating and widening existing imbalances between the urban and rural sectors, and between rich and poor; and in disempowering and pauperising rural populations. This is not, as some would have us believe, a great neo-colonialist conspiracy, but the consequence of the mechanistic and entirely impersonal dynamics of the open-market system.

Current interventions have progressively extracted productive resources from rural India and then sought fitfully to ameliorate the consequent distress by sending back food and 'relief' from the centre into pauperised villages. Apart from the vulnerability of such an approach to the country's notoriously corrupt 'delivery mechanisms', this is hardly a solution that can secure a life of dignity or security for the rural masses.

The village itself must become the centre of food and nutritional security, and this objective has been secured in micro-experiments where villages have been transformed into relatively stable centres of production through micro-credit, crop insurance, the intelligent application of technologies, and the creation of local food banks. Translating these localised successes into a national policy and system, however, is a tremendous challenge, and will demand a review, not only of specific components of the delivery system, but a more fundamental review of the economic models that currently dominate national planning and perspectives.

Such a review and corresponding transformations in national policy are now imperative, if the tremendous gains of the liberalisation-globalisation processes in one sector of the economy are not to be jeopardised by the growing immiseration and instability of the other, numerically and geographically larger, sector.

K.P.S. Gill is a former Director General of Police, Punjab and currently president, Institute for Conflict Management. This piece first appeared in the Pioneer