Costs and benefits of an Indian genocide

Hi folks:

here is an excerpt from the book I’m busy writing as we speak. Trust you will like it and, as always, feel free to send me your comments.

In 2012, that bunch of economic fundamentalists known as the Copenhagen Consensus published a new ‘consensus’, outlining the most important global challenges for the years to come. The ranking was done by a so-called Expert Panel of Nobel Laureate economists, on the basis of the work conducted by the Consensus researchers, which champions cost benefit analyses at the best tool for policy makers. The use of economic reasoning, with its claim of neutrality, can be quite alluring. As it forces us to think in terms of crude numbers, it makes us feel that we are getting to the crack of the matter, without getting lost in qualitative and subjective assessments. In fact, the reliance on cost-benefit analysis is a fundamentally macabre exercise, which overly simplifies the multidimensional character of social problems and makes us blind to the persistence of power structures that oppose the resolution of longstanding global problems.

A key example is their approach to hunger and malnutrition. In 2008, their ‘dream team’ of Nobel laureates found that micronutrient interventions – fortification and supplements designed to increase nutrient intake – were the most effective investment, “with massive benefits for a tiny price-tag.” In 2012, the Consensus researchers stroke again: they demonstrated that for less than $ 700 million per year, “the problem of hunger can be solved”. Their recipe was a list of technical solutions: “bundling nutrition interventions; increasing global food production; and improving market functioning through better communications and increased competition in fertilizer markets.”

They conceded that “increasing global food production might seem a strange proposal given that globally, food production exceeds food needs.” However, they maintained that “lower prices are necessary to make food more affordable” and “to provide a buffer against some of the negative consequences of climate change.” No surprise, then, that their conclusions are essentially in line with the most despicable corporate interests in the food industry: insure higher yields through extensive breeding, increase tolerance to drought, heat and salt, identify and disseminate the best varieties of crops and ensure the optimal use of fertilizers. They also recommend introducing programmes that send market information via sms to farmers (for a monthly fee) and reduce barriers to fertilizer access. These ‘innovations’ would yield “up to 8.35 in return for every dollar spent.”

No multinational corporation, from Monsanto to Nestle, could have put it more squarely. Of course the authors of the research acknowledge that “there have been mixed results from policies designed to stimulate sustainable fertilizer use”, given that “a small number of countries control most of the production capacity for the main nitrogen, phosphate, and potash fertilizers” and “the top four firms control more than half of each country’s production capacity.” Yet, to address this problem they would discourage policy makers to “consider the forcible break-up of this concentrated industry”, as this would cause “disruption” and would lead to “a loss of economies of scale.” They would also discourage regulation, as this would lead to “unproductive rent-seeking.” Instead, the researchers propose public investment “in the construction of new production capacity”, with the understanding that” the operation of the facility would be turned over to the private sector.” The goal would be to build two major conglomerates, one in Asia and on in Africa, for an overall cost (tax payers money) of roughly US$ 1,3 billion. These Asian and African equivalents of Monsanto would then distribute fertilizers and genetically modified seeds to their countries, with a net return of $12.5 billion.

Busy as they are to calculate return on investment and cost-benefits ratios, the authors forget to mention something that a wide range of research has demonstrated over the past few decades, that is, that the market-driven destruction of localized farming is among the causes why some much of the world has become food ‘insecure’. India is the perfect example in this regard. In the past, Indian peasants used to rely on natural processes to grow their crops. Good seasons would result in better yields and whatever surplus in production and seeds would be used to mitigate the negative impact of bad years. Men followed the rhythm of nature, which meant that food production remained a subsistence activity. Peasants were not enriching themselves. They were officially ‘poor’ but, unless some major natural disaster occurred, their villages would have enough locally produced food to feed themselves.1 Then in the late 1970s, the Indian government started introducing genetically modified seeds to help peasants move out of subsistence farming with a view to achieving large scale production. Ever since, massive advertising campaigns have led millions of peasants to believe that there is an easy way to produce more with less effort. Thus, over the course of a few decades, entire districts in India have switched from natural seeds to genetically modified (GM) ones, most of which are patented and commercialized by US multinational Monsanto. These new seeds hold the promise of resisting attacks from a number parasites, including the much dreaded mealybugs. As they are not freely available in nature, the GM seeds need to be bought on the commercial market, which often requires small peasants to take out a loan to front load enough capital for the investment. In a society in which banks are loath to lend to the poor, this means that many small farmers have to come to terms with the conditions imposed by loan sharks, which generally involves a property transfer of the land in case of non-repayment. And that’s when things tend to spiral out of control. As the power of GM seeds falls short of expectations and yields are only moderately better than those achieved through natural (cost free) techniques, peasants end up worse off. They realize that their income is no longer enough to feed their families and, at the same time, save enough capital to buy a new set of seeds for next year’s crops. Indeed, as GM seeds cannot be found in nature (nor do they reproduce themselves as natural seeds), a continuous flow of capital is needed to buy new stocks. In the short run, costs invariably outweigh benefits for small farmers. No surprise then that an agrarian country like India, where more than half the population depends on agriculture, has become notorious for his exponential rate of suicides among peasants. Most estimates, put the number of farmers’ suicides at around 17,000 every year ever since the phenomenon started being surveyed in mid-1990s. According to a survey conducted by India’s National Crime Records Bureau, the total of suicides between 1997 and 2008 would have totalled 199,132. Yet, independent researchers argue that these figures may significantly underestimate the scale of the tragedy. For starters, only individuals with an explicit title to land are ‘counted’ as farmers, which by default excludes women and tenant farmers. Moreover, the definition of farmers includes both full-time peasants and individuals who farm more sporadically. 

These peasants are not killing themselves because of weather patterns, stronger parasites or effects of climate change. Their suicides are an extreme reaction against the loss of dignity that indebtedness causes, especially when this is coupled with the loss of their only source of social status and income: land. And peasants are not simply dying. Many of them, deprived of an income, are abandoning rural areas to move to urban settlements. They turn squatters, servants and beggars, filling the ranks of the swelling slums of India’s metropolis. In the end, farmers’ suicides, land dispossession and commercialization of seeds are simply components of a fundamental process of privatization of the commons, which is often touted as a precondition for India’s shift from underdevelopment to global powerhouse.What are the real costs and benefits of this?

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