Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Old colonial tricks in new bottles

Over at grist, an environmental news and commentary site, there's a nice post in the gristmill blog by Tom Philpott. Philpott lays the foundation for his argument by drawing on a 2001 book by author Mike Davis. The book, titled Late Victorian Holocausts: El NiƱo Famines and the Making of the Third World, uses as one example strategies employed by the British to gain from droughts in India:

Davis lays out in devastating detail (first chapter available for free here) how in the 1870s, high-living colonial administrators dismantled the old Indian system for handling droughts, replacing it with one in which the price of grain floated freely based on global supply and demand. Thus, when a drought struck a grain-producing region in India, the grain price surged. The only buyers who could then afford it happened to reside in merry olde England.

The subcontinent's railroad system, paid for by taxes imposed on the Indians, very efficiently carried grain being produced in the non-drought areas to ports for shipment to the mother country. Its cutting-edge telegraph infrastructure, also financed by colonial taxes, transmitted price hikes rapidly. Famine thus rippled throughout India, including in non-drought-stricken areas.

Tens of millions perished in a series of famines in late 19th century India; before, when drought struck a certain area, food would move in from luckier areas and famines were rare. Davis claims the English took advantage of these not-so-natural disasters to consolidate its grip on the subcontinent. It was all very efficient, really.

Philpott uses this example from Davis' book to draw a parallel to the neocolonialism of the biotechnology companies that sell Indian farmers expensive Bt cotton and other seeds. Only, because the Indian government, as part of economic liberalization, is pushing for an industrial agriculture system, there is no support to bail out farmers who wind up in debt and, after a failed monsoon or other disaster (natural or otherwise) have no crops to sell and no money to repay their debts.

In other words, in the 1800s the British used their might to impose on India a system in which the British could squeeze every last rupee out of the Indian farmer. What's the difference today? Seems like old wine in new bottles. The British are gone, but the west has managed to convince India of the virtues of free markets and expensive advanced technological solutions to age-old problems like famine. And in the place of the British, the Indian government itself is imposing austerity on the Indian farmer. Meanwhile, the EU and U.S. refuse to lower their subsidies for domestic farmers and tariffs against imported agricultural goods (a pretty good summary of the failed Doha round of WTO negotiations can be found here). It's quite a racket. And who benefits?

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gaddeswarup said...

I have been trying to understand the farmers' problems for a while and still cannot make up my mind. Sainath is a very sincere and respected journalist but I think that somewhat mre nuanced versions are in
There have been suicides of farmers in Australia too and I can dig up the references ( it may be somewhere in my blog). I think that kufr and mrajashekhar are more conversant with the problem than me. It seems to me, whether it is right or wrong, these seeming to be going one way all over the world regarding agriculture (except where they have been highly subsidized). Perhaps careful urbanization may be one solution.

Jennifer Brea said...

What was the old system for handling droughts?

I still don't think free trade is the devil. It's free trade imposed on some and resisted by others. It's the fact that trade isn't free.

Steve Zavestoski said...

Thanks for your comment, Jennifer.

Yes, trade must truly be free if it is going to benefit people. I'm just generally annoyed with the way the west spent most of the last 300 years destroying what were largely self-sufficient societies, then turned around at the end of the 20th century and told these same societies that they must accept free trade (as defined by the former Imperialist developed nations) in order to raise themselves out of poverty.

The model never questions how these countries ended up in poverty in the first place, nor whether they want to define the health of their economies in our terms (e.g., GDP).

As for how droughts were handled in the past, I'm not sure. At the risk of romanticizing the past, I would guess that tightly knit social groups stored surpluses and provided for their members during difficult years.