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'The largest mass migration in history is unfolding in India'

By Suman Guha Mozumder in New York
October 19, 2006 15:52 IST
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Wellknown journalist P Sainath told an audience in New York on Wednesday that while food courts are springing up almost everywhere in India's big city malls catering to the palates of well-off Indians, an average family in the country's rural areas has less to eat today than it had six years ago.

"The average rural family today is eating nearly 100 grams less of foodgrains than six or seven years ago and the average per capita availability of food grains has declined sharply. In 1991, when reforms began, availability of food per person was 510 grams, today it has fallen to 437 grams," Sainath said.

"At a time when people of our class are eating foods like we never had in our lives before, India's agriculture sector is in the midst of a collapse," Sainath said while speaking on 'India's Brave New World: The Agrarian Crisis, Farm Suicides and the Wages Of Inequality,' hosted by the South Asian Journalists Association in New York.

Giving snapshots of what he described was the spectacular inequality that has been growing faster in the past 15 years in India than at any time since the country was colonised by the British, Sainath said while India has eight billionaires and hundreds of millionaires, the country ranks 127th in the Human Development Report Index. Labour productivity has been 84 per cent in a period of reform during which real wages dropped to 24 per cent.

"So, on the one hand we have this incredible emerging tiger economy. . . (on the other hand) it should be remembered that the incredible tiger economy produces a very shameful kind of human development indicators," Sainath said.

"The life expectancy of average Indians is lower than people in Mongolia or Tajikistan. Per capita GDP might be booming at a growth rate which is astonishing but our per capita GDP is lower than that of Nicaragua, Vanuatu or Indonesia and the farm sector is in the midst of most incredible crisis that you can imagine," he said.

He said the Vidarbha region in Maharashtra has seen 968 suicides by farmers, including 120 on an average every month in the last three months. In March, Parliament was told by Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar that in the last ten years over 120,000 farmers have committed suicide in India.

"Suicides by farmers today are actually a symptom of a much wider crisis in India's farm and agricultural sector," Sainath said, adding that this was the result not of a natural calamity or some accident but a systematic and structured move to shift to corporate farming from small family farming practices as well as mindless deregulation that has ruined the farming community. "You get a picture of India in Vidarbha."

Without saying so in as many words, Sainath ripped apart the claims of the present and the previous governments that the country as a whole is making progress and reaping the benefits of development for all sections of the people.

Reeling out figures and statistics from the National Sample Survey Organisation as well as other government outfits, he said, "The claims that India is shining are true. I believe it, although it is happening for just the ten percent of the population."

"If you talk about the top section of the population, the benchmark today are the US, Western Europe, Japan and Australia, but if you look at the bottom part of the population, the benchmark is sub-Saharan Africa, even there some of the countries provide a better level of nutrition to their people than India does," he said.

Sainath -- the first reporter in the world to win Amnesty International's Global Human Rights Journalism Award in its inaugural year, 2000, and who was awarded the Judge's Prize in the Harry Chapin Media Awards in the newspaper category in 2006 -- said that for any real solution of the farmers' problems, the long-term land-related issues need to be solved.

"It is an explosive situation in India today as far as agriculture is concerned and the farmers are concerned with the employment rates in rural areas being the lowest since the late 1990s. We keep hearing about huge displacements due to dam-building or canal-digging, but let me tell you the biggest displacement is in agriculture where the largest mass migration in the history is beginning to unfold following displacement of people from their land," he said.

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Suman Guha Mozumder in New York

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