Sep 21, 2010

Food as a political weapon. Providing some missing links.

The politics of food is intriguing. When Ireland faced Potato Famine some 200 years ago, the first food shipment came from India. Veteran journalist Sunanda K Datta-Ray tells us that China had helped during the Great Bengal Famine. In a spirit of bonhomie, India is now considering to ship food aid to Pakistan to address the human suffering left behind by unprecedented floods.

Food aid however does not come always without strings. Some years back I had written: "In the last 60 years or so, following the great human tragedy of the Bengal famine, food aid was conveniently used as a political weapon. But what is arguably one of the most blatantly anti-humanitarian acts, seen as morally repugnant, is the decision of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to offer US $50 million in food aid to famine-stricken Zimbabwe provided that it is used to purchase genetically modified maize. Food aid therefore is no longer an instrument of foreign policy. It has now become a major commercial activity, even if it means exploiting the famine victims and starving millions."

Before that, in 1974, the United States had used refused to provide food to Bangladesh. "At the height of the 1974 famine in the newly born Bangladesh, the US had withheld 2.2 million tonnes of food aid to 'ensure that it abandoned plans to try Pakistani war criminals'. And a year later, when Bangladesh was faced with severe monsoons and imminent floods, the then US Ambassador to Bangladesh made it abundantly clear that the US probably could not commit food aid because of Bangladesh's policy of exporting jute to Cuba. And by the time Bangladesh succumbed to the American pressure, and stopped jute exports to Cuba, the food aid in transit was 'too late for famine victims'. "

You can read my article Famine as Commerce:
http://www.indiatogether.org/agriculture/opinions/dsharma/faminecommerce.htm 

Sunanda K Datta-Ray provides more insight into the politics of food. In an article 'Involved in Mankind' which is pasted below, he says: "Though Harry Truman eventually sanctioned a $190-million loan to buy American wheat, the negotiations dragged on through months of carping criticism. The loan was so hedged in with demands and conditions that little grace was left in the giving. Nehru’s letters to chief ministers confirm his bitterness and sense of humiliation."

Datta-Ray is talking of the times when India was living virtually in a 'ship-to-mouth' existence. No wonder, I can now understand, the kind of humiliation that Jawaharlal Nehru must have undergone at the time of food imports. It is probably for what he was faced with that he made that famous statement from the ramparts of the Red Fort on Aug 15, 1955: "It is very humiliating for any country to import food. So everything else can wait, but not agriculture."

The present political leadership in India is immune to political humiliation. When I look at the way Manmohan Singh pushed for the passage of the Nuclear Liability bill in Parliament, I wonder where are those leaders who had a straight spine. Perhaps it is the industrially produced-processed food that we eat that has numbed us into silence. After all, we are what we eat. And we eat more of processed food nowadays.

Datta-Ray goes on to say: "The PL 480 programme made history with the world’s largest cheque. Though a figure of $59 billion is mentioned as the current value of economic assistance since 1951, the benefits of the partnership that made a hesitant start when Indira Gandhi went to Cancun far outweigh any monetary computation. It is now the bedrock of India’s nuclear development and strategic planning."

"As Inder Kumar Gujral later remarked when India lost the security council election after voting against the comprehensive test ban treaty, “If you defy, do not ask for garlands, bouquets or seats. Every nation has to pay the price for maintaining its self-respect.” Earlier, Europe had accepted the American doctrine when it went for the Marshall Plan.

Anyway, I think the enclosed article provides a great insight into our understanding of the politics of food. Everyone who dribbles into food and agriculture must know of the dirty games being played in the name of hunger and food aid. Unless you see through the ramification of food aid and the politics behind it, I don't think you can ever understand how and why certain food policies are framed.

INVOLVED IN MANKIND
Sympathy for Pakistan’s floods is a reminder of suffering at home

Sunanda K. Datta-Ray

Several moving reports of Indians trying to help Pakistanis in their trial by water recall a meeting in Washington 60 years ago to consider India’s dire need for food. Among those present was Pakistan’s first ambassador to the United States of America, M.A.H. Ispahani, a name that was once not without resonance in this city.

India feared a famine of potentially catastrophic dimensions. Its rich wheat fields had been lost in the west, luxuriant paddy growing areas similarly in the east. Flood in the north and drought in the south compounded the peril. Loy Henderson, the vitriolic American ambassador, may have derived perverse satisfaction from reporting that more than two million people would die of starvation without help. His embassy estimated that between eight and 10 million others would perish from diseases connected with malnutrition.

India cut cereal rations by 25 per cent. Jawaharlal Nehru spoke of scouring the world, even China which had helped during the Great Bengal Famine, for food. Burma and Thailand were ready to sell rice but had no shipping. The US had both, a glut of grain and so much idle shipping that some of it had to be put in mothballs. Nehru’s biographer says the Americans were widely expected to give India a million tons of wheat, but there was no sign of such largesse in the White House, state department or Congress.

Nehru referred in passing to India’s crisis during his visit in 1949 but, as is well known, there was no rapport between him and his host. Despite — perhaps because of — Nehru’s famously disdainful remark about not going with a begging bowl, many Americans visualized him with a begging bowl in one hand and a moral microphone in the other. Underlying Dean Acheson’s unsympathetic reference to the tragedy of hunger were deeper differences over China, Korea, the Cold War, Kashmir and Pakistan. When Vijayalakshmi Pandit, India’s ambassador in Washington, formally asked for “two million tons of grain on a long-term basis”, the chairman of the Senate foreign affairs committee made no bones about making food hostage to the “whole question of US relations with India”.

Another feature of American strategy was to include Ispahani in discussions, apparently in order “to forestall Pakistani objections”. There was a precedent from the chaos that followed Partition when Nehru appealed for the loan of 10 US army transport aircraft to rescue 50,000 Hindus stranded in Peshawar. Some 500 who had tried to make it on their own had been ambushed, and 400 cut down: New Delhi feared a retaliatory bloodbath if the news got out or the 50,000 were also massacred. It promised to complete the operation in a week.

The state department insisted on an American commanding officer and Indian responsibility for fuel, oil, maintenance, the crew’s food, quarters and protection. When Nehru, who had already promised to bear all costs, agreed to every stipulation, the US said Pakistan would have to agree. Liaquat Ali Khan did so in principle, but it was not enough. The US “could act only if request made jointly [sic]” by the two governments. The matter petered out.

Against this background, Ispahani attacked India with devotional fervour. Islam succoured the starving, he said piously, but Indians, alas! had brought suffering on themselves through greed which had driven them to abandon cultivating foodgrains for cash crops like jute and cotton. Even now, instead of buying wheat and rice that generous Pakistanis were willing to sell, India was waging economic warfare against Pakistan. The ambassador’s final objection was that American assistance would enable India to conserve her own resources to make additional machine tools and military equipment.

Though Harry Truman eventually sanctioned a $190-million loan to buy American wheat, the negotiations dragged on through months of carping criticism. The loan was so hedged in with demands and conditions that little grace was left in the giving. Nehru’s letters to chief ministers confirm his bitterness and sense of humiliation.

My concern is not the US which had no obligation to feed hungry Indians who couldn’t, as was repeated in those days, make even a pin and had to import everything. Besides, with Pax Americana set to replace Pax Britannica, the US had assumed an awesome global mandate. All its efforts were concentrated on defending values and territories that it feared might succumb to Soviet communism. The Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan, the prime instruments of this strategy until the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation was born, were for countries that supported American global aims. India emphatically did not. As Inder Kumar Gujral later remarked when India lost the security council election after voting against the comprehensive test ban treaty, “If you defy, do not ask for garlands, bouquets or seats. Every nation has to pay the price for maintaining its self-respect.”

Besides, the Americans made up handsomely for Truman’s niggardliness. Started four years later, the PL 480 programme made history with the world’s largest cheque. Though a figure of $59 billion is mentioned as the current value of economic assistance since 1951, the benefits of the partnership that made a hesitant start when Indira Gandhi went to Cancun far outweigh any monetary computation. It is now the bedrock of India’s nuclear development and strategic planning.

Pakistan’s reaction doesn’t occasion surprise either. It is unnecessary to revisit the modern factors that compound historical Hindu-Muslim tension, especially since this age of ostentatious iftar parties makes the latter an unfashionable theme. But displays of bonhomie like the Indian and Pakistani ambassadors to the UN turning up together at last Friday’s US Open men’s doubles recall Golda Meir’s acerbic comment that a couple of Oscars would have been more appropriate than the Nobel Peace Prize for Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat. This particular “Indo-Pak Express”, as a newspaper called the tennis duo, is not going anywhere beyond the courts.

But the overflow of Indian sympathy for Pakistani flood victims intrigues me. Of course, suffering anywhere touches a chord. An estimated 2,000 dead and a million homeless is tragedy indeed. In John Donne’s often quoted (and misquoted) lines, “No man is an island, entire of itself.” But if “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind”, there are enough deaths nearer home to lament. There are bereaved families nearer home to console. There are destitutes nearer home to provide for. If I turn to more distant distress, it means that having done all I can for the suffering around me, I still have an excess of compassion, energy and resources for the rest of the world. Or else, I see no dividend in helping out with domestic catastrophe.

One wonders whether Rajmohan Gandhi, who teaches at Illinois University, launched a joint appeal for relief funds with Pakistan’s permanent UN representative because he was moved by the magnitude of the disaster or whether he reasoned that the gesture would help to forge Indo-Pakistani friendship. If the former, I would have thought that victims of the cloudburst in Leh or of Orissa’s cholera epidemic have first call on an Indian’s emotions. If the latter, the Pakistani high commission’s brusque rebuff to large numbers of Indians telephoning to offer help confirms how vain are hopes of a thaw. My query about Gandhi applies to all these other volunteers as well. But the Confederation of Indian Industry’s plan to send 25 truckloads of relief material is understandable investment while Suresh and Mala Vazirani in Bombay are eager to fly out 900,000 tents and more because it would help “fellow Sindhis”. I can understand their emotional attachment. Sindh remains home.

There is much wisdom in the proverb, charity begins at home. And talking of home, before they upped anchor for Pakistan, Ispahani and his brother Mahmood lived at 5 and 5/1 Harrington Street, the office and residence today of the American consul-general.#

Source: The Telegraph, Kolkata, Sept 17, 2010

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you, great article.

I am confounded by the lack of (serious) US support to Pakistan, but only when you consider the moral dilemma, not the political one.

Pakistan will / is being punished by the United States by our refusal to provide sufficient emergency aid. Let not the world forget this fact.