The subtitle of Siddhartha Deb’s article, Feast and Famine, in the Boston Review reads, “India Is Growing, But Indians Are Still Starving.” The subtitle is too short. It should have added, “If India had not been growing, a couple of hundred million additional Indians would be starving.” I make this point because the article gives the impression that somehow India’s growth has something to do with the 800 million Indians who have to survive on less than Rs 20 a day.
The article is a reporter’s piece laying out some of the facts; it is not an analytical piece attempting to make sense of the situation as it exists. While it is mildly informative and makes for strongly depressing reading, it does not help us understand the big picture. Take for instance, ” . . . part of the growing national trend of farmer suicides, with nearly 200,000 farmers killing themselves from 1997 to 2008, in the very years that the Indian economy was expanding.”
Did you catch that implied hint of causation in the reported correlation? Anyway, just how high is that raw 200,000 number? We just don’t know because the context is missing. India’s raw suicide rate in 1998 was 12.2 for males and 9.1 for females per 100,000 population, or approximately 10.6 people 100,000, per year. With a population of 1 billion, India can expect 106,000 suicides per year. Now we have to ask, “Is the number 18,000 farmer suicides a year unnaturally high if the total number of suicides a year is 106,000?”
The answer to that question depends on what the population of farmers in the Indian population is. If the population of farmers in the population is, say, 25 percent, then the number of suicides among farmers is actually below the population average.
The point is that for us to make sense of the suicide numbers, we need to know not the raw numbers but normalized numbers — “farmer suicide rate is 15 per 100,000, as compared to overall rate of 12.2 per 100,000,” for example. Not just that, we need to know the trend. “Farmer suicide has gone up to 15 per 100,000 in 2008, from 12 in 1997.” (These figures are made up and not to be taken literally.)
The piece by Deb is unfortunately typical of such reporting. Perhaps word limits don’t permit a fuller treatment of the subject by the reporter. But even then, surely one can glean from just looking around that India’s starving hundreds of millions is a symptom of a deeper malaise, and mention that however briefly in the article. Instead the overall impression one gets from the article is that somehow evil multinational corporations are behind all the unimaginable misery and it is a compassionate government which is trying its best to fix the problem.
It is not my case that MNCs are really benevolent charitable organizations. They are in the business for profit, and can be as ruthless as they are often reported to be. You cannot wish them away, although you could legislatively force them to keep off your property. But that comes at a cost — there are benefits to having MNCs around. The challenge is to control them such that the benefits exceed the costs. Which brings us to the one agency which lies at the crux of the matter — the government.
We all know those numbers: nearly half of India’s children below five are malnourished; x thousand farmer suicides; 40 percent illiteracy; lack of drinking water; lack of power; overcrowding and slums in cities; . . . the list is long and distressing. India is desperately poor — even compared to many sub-Saharan African states.
They have a saying in Texas which goes, “if you see a tortoise on top of a 10-foot pole, you sure as heck know that it did not get there by itself.” India’s poverty could not have happened without the active participation of some agency in engineering it. We have to understand that basic fact and internalize it before we can have a hope of fixing it.
India’s poverty did not happen overnight. It took decades to engineer. When the British left in 1947, India had around 200 million desperately poor people. Six decades later, that number is now 800 million. It could not be because of multinational corporations simply because MNCs and modern globalization are recent phenomena. No, India’s problems have a local genesis — and how can it not be local when India has been pretty much shut off from the rest of the world by its wonderful socialistic autarkic regime thanks to Mr Jawaharlal Nehru and his spawn.
The unarguable fact is that India cannot afford to have such a large population dependent on agriculture as their primary source of income. Just do the numbers. Basic arithmetic, really. We must do arithmetic. John McCarthy, the Stanford computer scientist guru says, “Those who refuse to do arithmetic are doomed to speak nonsense.” Let’s avoid nonsense.
India occupies two percent of the world’s land area and has 17 percent of the world’s population. Agriculture requires land. And huge amounts of water. India’s fresh water reserves are pitifully little. Water tables are dropping. India — and Indians — cannot afford to earn a living growing food. Indians have to bring something else to the global table. It cannot be food. It has to be manufactures or even services, but not food.
Sure India needs food, and food that is produced in India. But there is a limit to food productivity and food production. New Zealand with it single-digit million population can be single-crop economy and prosper. India cannot because India is no New Zealand. India has a population of 1,200 million people.
India’s agricultural productivity has to increase so that its production goes up and fewer people are in agriculture. Arithmetic again. If 100 percent of the population is engaged in producing food, surely no one can be “rich” because to be rich one has to have something other than food. Who is going to produce that something other if everyone is engaged in producing food? Answer me that!
The simple fact is that India is poor because too many people are in agriculture. What India has to do is to move out of agriculture and go into manufacturing and services. But then, you have to be educated to be in manufacturing and services. With absolutely low percentages of the population even literate, there is scant chance of being educated.
Why aren’t Indians educated — even literate? Because the government does not allow education and literacy. Really? Yes, really.
India has to move to manufacturing and into services. It can be done, and in a short time. it is a matter of policies. But it cannot happen under the current set of rules, which are such that it forces more and more people into desperate poverty. Why do they do that? Because it helps the policymakers — more specifically the Nehruvian socialist types. The policies they make help them personally and impoverish the nation. That’s what needs to change, not the MNCs.