Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Globalisation and Malthusian Realities

We live in a globalised world, connected and interlinked in layers and dimensions unimagined before. And, we are irreversibly transformed by these technological advances that have brought us closer.  The ease of communication and faster travel has facilitated globalised trade, commerce and inter-dependent economies . The world has shrunk and there are many reasons why this is very good - at least for a small fraction of the global population. I belong to this small fraction.

This exercise is to challenge myself to see realities beyond the global averages and cliches of less hunger, more human progress, and commonly perceived failures of Malthusian and neo-Malthusian realities. For, I would contend, we only see those realities which confirm our experience, and comfort our existence.

I live in India. I work as a volunteer on issues of human rights and civil liberties. Each experience opens a veritable Pandora's box of similar abuses and violations, each complex, inter-dependent and often globalised in origin and scope. It would be wrong to say that there aren't national human wrongs perpetrated culturally, historically - like a strong caste system,  or a repressive patriarchy.  But it is also true that a lot of human rights abuse - and I would consider primary amongst these to be deliberate deprivation of food, shelter and pursuing of livelihood - have a strong globalised component.

Let us for the moment, consider hunger. World population is exploding, i.e. expanding exponentially. By all counts, the human society is currently doubling its numbers every 70 years.  As early as in 1798, Thomas Malthus predicted that a exponential population increase was unsustainable and earth would eventually run out of its capacity to feed this increasing population, leading to catastrophic consequence - termed Mathusian Catastrophe.  Similar and more recent predictions of imminent human tragedy, due to exhausting of basic resources, have found little popular favour, being countered by gains due to technology advances, eg. green revolution, which is believed to have greatly enhanced the world food supply to stave off wide spread  hunger and starvation. It is commonly believed that the world is both richer and less hungry, despite the huge increases in global population.

However, a look at any recent world map on hunger reveals large areas of serious-to-alarming hunger, which seems also more or less aligned in world population map, to areas of large population. The global increase in population is dominated by the developing and under developed nations, as is hunger - consistent with a Malthusian view. According to conservative estimates by FAO here are 870 million hungry people in the world - and almost all of them in the developing countries. India itself is home to 836 million people who live on less than rupees twenty per day (equivalent to 0.32 USD or 0.24 euro) and with many more millions who have just a little more.

So rather than adopt a complacent and globally averaged world view of more food and more wealth,  is it possible that we are actually living in a malthusian sea of starvation and depravation populated by islands of prosperity? New research indicates that as the world wealth grows, so does inequality. It is time to ask, is this hunger and starvation Malthusian in origin? That is, have we run up against a hard boundary that food produced is just insufficient for the numbers, or are some other factors also involved?

In 1978, India achieved its first self-sufficiency in food, with no net imports of food grains. This situation is expected to last till 2020s. That is, India is expected to remain food secure for a little while longer. This makes the high level of its poverty and hunger, surprising. So what causes this hunger?  One is the rising food costs in India  and monetising of all human sustenance needs. Thus even though there is enough food in India, the poor cannot afford to buy this food, even at the BPL (below poverty line) rates(see here).

Opening up of Indian markets and globalisation of its trade sectors seem to have driven a high fiscal growth in India. Yet, by many indicators this has not percolated down to its really needy and higher wealth has not led to a more equitable distribution of its wealth or decrease in its poverty (here), but has actually widened this inequality, in India and worldwide. Oxfam reports that 85 of the world's wealthiest own as much as bottom half of the world's population - 3.5 billion!

Market driven commerce has had catastrophic consequences on India's top two rural industries', agriculture and weaving, leaving a huge number of people unemployed or gainfully employed - and usually hungry. The agriculture sector in India is dominated by small holdings and employs 56% of India's workforce, but only contributes 16% to its GDP - making it the least rewarded and poverty ridden sector in the nation. The transformation from smaller, organic, independent, and indigenous holdings growing subsistence produce into the prevalence of high input cash based chemical and BT agriculture with focus on cash crops have created an agrarian crisis, leading to large scale farmer suicides.  Since the opening up of India's markets, it is estimated that more than fifty thousand farmers have committed suicide, since 1995, in the state of Maharashtra alone [here], driven to debt by the high input costs of seeds and chemicals, both in hands of large global corporations who walkway with giant profits. For example, the cost of Monsansto seeds dominating the market have increased 8000%, contributing to a total income for the company of 69 crores ( more than 10 million USD) for the quarter ending march 2013, and primarily leaving the system.

Similarly, even with a sharp decline in hand looms, India's second largest rural industry still supports an estimated 13 million people, who barely eke out a livelihood - but insufficient to feed themselves (here). Power looms using Bt cotton dominate the market although employing a  much smaller fraction of people.

Compounding these are the high human cost of large infrastructure projects, mining, rapid industrialisation, all by forceful acquisition of lands by the state, and creating a large pool of poverty in the internally displaced people (IDPs). While the 2010 world bank numbers place this figure near 650,000,  others estimate a number as large as 21 million! Meanwhile, diversion of diminishing resources like water and energy  from human based sustainable systems to industries in hands of MNCs further channel the profits upwards to the wealthy and most often out from community systems of the developing world into the profits of the already wealthy industrialised nations.

To conclude, it appears that the Malthusian catastrophe is already a reality for a large global population, and it is currently driven, not by enormous shortfalls in food and basic commodities, but due to profit driven globalised systems that suck resources and profits from large numbers of have-nots, into the pockets of small numbers of voraciously consuming haves of a globalised world.
There is compelling evidence that this is so.  One has to only open one's eyes and ask, what makes wealth? and where does all this wealth go? And, where it goes, does not bode well for the rest of humanity.  The world is in a era of globalised colonisation of nations, not by countries, but by ruthless market forces directed by mafiasized MNCs. Under such circumstances, globally sustainable solutions are non-viable until those really privileged wake up and acknowledge who really fund their lives and lifestyles - and at what devastating cost to man and nature.