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Sunanda K Datta-Ray: Have you eaten?


Sunanda K Datta-Ray  |  New Delhi 

As global food stocks fall, the acquires new meaning.
Those who remember the Bengal famine "" and I can still hear the haunting cries for food from the street beyond barred and bolted doors and windows "" also know that grain was exported from Bombay while Calcutta starved. It was a later discovery that the US might have responded to India's unofficial appeal if Britain had not objected. The Americans similarly withdrew help on another occasion when Pakistan argued that India faced famine only because fields had been turned to cash crops and that food help would free domestic resources for arms and armaments.
Things are not so dire any longer. We don't even need to boast, as a former food minister did, that India is self-sufficient in food but for the small matter of many Indians not being able to afford the price. But with the world facing a food shortage, globalisation is on trial. Rice stocks are down from 130 million tonnes to 72 million tonnes; India, China, Egypt, Vietnam and Cambodia have imposed tariffs or export bans; and in Thailand, the world's largest rice exporter, accounting for 1.2 million tonnes though it grows only 23.3 million tonnes, the government has stepped in to punish hoarders and prevent large supermarkets from restricting retail sales to export more at inflated prices. But the need is for an international mechanism to streamline distribution and, ideally, promote genetically-modified strains that will multiply yields. Also to look at the conversion of food into fuel.
Howard Fast's novel, The Pledge, which turns into a male Bengali Communist revolutionary, claimed that the British deliberately created the 1943 shortage to weaken the independence movement. Food has always been a staple of politics, and starving out the enemy is one of the oldest strategies of war. That's what the Pakistanis tried when they objected to American aid. Unless someone steps in, there will be scope again for mischief as the price of Thai rice, up from $400 to $760 a tonne since January, goes up to $1,000 as some have warned.
If food is war, it's also culture. Bengalis speak of rice, bhaat, in symbolic ways, as the Scots do of porridge. Elderly Chinese Singaporeans still call a government job an "iron rice bowl" because it never breaks. Neither is anyone ever sacked (or so runs popular belief) from government employment.

New to Singapore 15 years ago I was puzzled by another idiomatic usage. "Makaned?" asked our elderly Indian Singaporean neighbour and I had no idea what he meant even when he repeated, "Have you had your makan?" The word is Malay for food and he was following the endearing Chinese practice of greeting someone with the traditional "Have you eaten?"

There was consternation not long ago when Singapore's government embarked on a campaign to initiate simple folk into gracious speech. Language couldn't lag behind GDP, the authorities said, causing much anxiety to older Chinese-speaking people in housing estate flats who wondered nervously whether the "Have you eaten?" greeting would be banished. Fears arose because that conversational gambit "" no more meaningful nowadays than the English "How do you do?" "" goes back to the era of China's devastating famines when so much depended on whether a man's stomach was full or empty.
Fear stalks the world again as the price of the staple food of more than half the global population surges upward. Already, 6.6 billion people worldwide are said to eat more rice than the annual harvest. The impact will be felt most keenly by the poorest, witness the queues and rioting already reported from Bangladesh. Globally, more people became dependent on rice as other grains became too costly.
No one factor accounts for the present crisis. Population growth is one reason. Drought in China, Indochina and Australia another. Other cited causes include transfer of land to animal husbandry as Chinese and Indians become richer, stockpiling in Africa and south-east Asia, climate change, higher fuel and fertiliser costs, cropland damage and the switch from food to biofuel production, particularly to meet US energy demands. A continuing change in the global diet is also blamed: 100 million rural migrants to China's big cities have switched from wheat to rice as they have become wealthier.
All this implies that the shortage is inadvertent. All the more reason, therefore, for a concerted international effort to pre-empt the danger. The energy angle especially needs investigating. Globalisation is not just about trade and investment making the rich richer. It should also be about ensuring that no nation suffers alone.

First Published: Sat, April 12 2008. 00:00 IST