A Review of “The Republic of Hunger and Other Essays”

Manish Kumar Shrivastava 

Utsa Patnaik, The Republic of Hunger and Other Essays , Three Essays Collective, New Delhi, 2007. ISBN: 81-88789-33-XX, pp. 232, Price (PB): Rs. 250.

“It is necessary for development…..some people have to pay the price for the time being……Once we are developed and become superpower everybody would be benefitted.”

There can be different reactions to this statement. For somebody following the development discourse from a people’s perspective, this kind of argument doesn’t come as a surprise. Rather, a routine reaction follows—oh, here comes another neo-liberal. But one has to take it with pinch of salt if it comes from a 12 year old boy in a small town of Madhya Pradesh. This boy was arguing in favor of large dams, Sardar Sarovar in particular. The argument then went further, supporting all sorts of displacements of people due to so-called ‘development’ projects. His argument was supplemented by more than a dozen other boys and girls of his age who were visibly excited by the idea of becoming a ‘superpower’ one day. They were convinced that only dams and shopping malls mean development and unless Indian has them it cannot become a superpower. There were also a handful boys and girls, little younger, who didn’t seem convinced with this idea of development and tried to articulate their concerns and doubts, but they certainly lacked the language and information. They could not understand how the electricity produced at the dams would improve the lives of those who have been displaced. Those who don’t have houses anymore wouldn’t need that electricity in the first place. They lost the battle of words despite applying their minds to an extent their parents don’t expect them to (or may even don’t want them to). Those who were dumb otherwise parroted what is available in plenty in electronic and print media, won the battle.

The incident is not about the half baked arguments and big words coming out of little mouths. It indeed is a miniature of a much larger issue that faces the progressive politics. The biggest lacuna of progressive politics, today, at least in India, is the lack of a language which can communicate with the majority of population whose thinking process has been enslaved by the neo-liberal propaganda. The words—development and growth—have become a holy cow which cannot be questioned even when thousands of farmers continue to  commit  suicide and more than 70 % of the population is living at less than Rs. 20 per day. The essays collected in the volume ‘The Republic of Hunger’ come across as an attempt to fill in for the lack of a language that would enable even a non-expert to argue with the so-called ‘experts’ writing and shouting continuously in the media. In these essays, Utsa Patnaik has tried to sort the threads of wool called economics.

One very easy explanation for the underdevelopment that catches the public imagination instantly is the growing population. Media and policy makers keep on harping what a monster population is for developing countries. That it puts immense pressure on scarce natural resources and it cannot be sustained. People are dying because there is not enough food and so on. Such a simplistic logic, which is nothing but a truism, gets easy acceptance among those who have no access to information and who genuinely believe in what the governments say in media. Utsas Patnaik unfolds this argument and shows that access to food or any other facility is not primarily a question of limited supply but it is essentially a question of politics, which in order to safeguard the interests of powerful creates and constructs such economic systems where less powerful are forced to give up their resources even at the cost of compromising with their own basic minimum needs.

In the essays collected in this volume, Utsa Patnaik has tried to explain the phenomenon of wide-spread hunger in the developing countries. Her analysis focuses on Indian case but she also generalizes it by citing cases of other Asian, Latin American and African countries. The central claim of this volume is that the wide spread hunger in the developing and under-developed countries is an inherent constituent of the centre-periphery relationship among the West and the rest of the world. Patnaik argues that the present day situation is nothing but a re-incarnation of the colonial era where the high standards of living in the West are maintained at the cost of declining nutrition levels and incomes in the developing countries (p.25). In her analysis, she equates the end results of colonial rule and free trade.  She argues that the inability of the West to produce a wide range of agricultural products due to climatic reasons necessitates their need to get free and easy access to the agricultural products of Tropical countries. This leads them to have either a direct political control over the resources of developing countries, as they did during the colonial period or an indirect economic control through the propagation of free trade dogma. She argues that the theoretical exercises done by Smith and Ricardo and many more contemporary neo-liberals, to show that free trade is equally beneficiary to all parties are fallacious as they overlook the uneven distribution of productive capacities.

One striking aspect of this volume is the similarities it draws between the colonial period and the present times. The similarity in the mechanisms through which per capita food grain output as well as availability declines in the colonies, which are now developing countries, shows that the exploitation of these countries has not stopped by any means, only its form and articulation has changed. The pattern of agricultural activity today is similar to that of colonial times. The agricultural sector is witnessing a shifting cropping pattern away from domestic food grain requirements and a focus on export of primary products, which were also the critical component of colonial policy in India and other countries. Another critical similarity between colonial rule and present neo-liberal rule is the steep decline in the purchasing power of the masses through deflationary policies—a complete withdrawal of the government from the social expenditure.

One of the conclusions that Patnaik draws in her work is that the complete trade liberalization, withdrawal of price support and subsidy cuts mean that the “protection of mass livelihoods and guarantee of subsistence have ceased to be the aim of state policy.” It is important, however, to note here that if one looks at the role of state the state policy seems to be more concerned about its people in the West as against this absolutely ‘callous’ attitude of the state in developing countries. Patnaik has repeatedly highlighted that the developed countries have not only maintained subsidies to their farmers but have, in fact, improved the protection while the developing countries have been following blind deflationary policies.

The second conclusion that Utsa Patnaik arrives at concerns loss of food security in the developing countries. She argues that the misery of Third World is necessary for the economic and social stability of capitalism in the developed world (p.89) and the material gains of the capitalist system that the West has achieved can be sustained only by squeezing the rights and livelihoods of the Third World population.

Consequent to this is her third conclusion, which is about the necessity to reject the capitalist model in order to ensure the food security for all. She demonstrates with the help of two examples – through the consequences emanating out of the shift from a socialist planned economy to a capitalist economy after the debacle of USSR and the second being the peasant resistance in the Chiapas region of Mexico against the neo-liberal policies. She argues that after the collapse of USSR, the social security went completely haywire as unemployment and mortality rates shot through the roof due to blind privatization of public sector. On the other hand, after Mexico became a part of NAFTA and imposed the neo-liberal policies, the impoverished peasants in Chiapas province rose in revolt against NAFTA. They forced the Mexican government to setup a ‘National Commission for Integral Development and Social Justice for Indigenous People’ and also drew up their own plans for the ‘restoration of land to campesino, abolition of debts…[and] have set up new organizational forms of cooperation among the diverse groups in the area’ (p.95). In other words, she argues that the neo-liberal model of privatization, deflationary policies and export promotion inevitably leads to the break-down of social security which forces the masses to revolt against it and set up a cooperative system against the dogma of competition.

Manish Kumar Shrivastava is a research scholar with the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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