Volume 1, Number 1 (2008)

Imperialism, Resources and Food Security, with reference to the Indian Experience

Utsa Patnaik

Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi


This paper analyzes the reasons for declining incomes and nutritional standards of agriculture-dependent populations of developing countries under recent neoliberal economic reforms by taking up the case of India. Located mainly in tropical areas, developing countries can produce a qualitatively different primary output vector with a much larger range of products compared to cold temperate regions comprising today’s advanced countries. This fact underlies the author’s critique of Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage leading to mutual benefit from trade, which is shown to be based on a material fallacy since it assumes that both countries entering into trade can produce both goods, something that is factually untrue. Past demands by Northern countries on limited tropical lands under colonial plantation systems for expanding exports, always led to declining food grains availability for local populations. The same outcome is seen at present in countries opening up to trade, when these demands from advanced countries on tropical lands have increased manifold and encompass a range of perishable products whose rapid expansion for export entails a decline of foodgrains output and energy intake per head of the agriculture-dependent population. The past mechanism for releasing the land and resources required for an export thrust was heavy taxation by the colonial state reducing the purchasing power of local populations, and use of taxes to purchase export goods from them.  The present mechanism relies on expenditure-deflating policies by the national state following the advice of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. These policies raise unemployment levels and reduce the purchasing power of the agriculture-dependent population, which leads to a decline in their foodgrains absorption and energy intake. The official and World Bank claims of decline in poverty in India are shown to be untenable since the original nutrition norms for estimating poverty lines, have been abandoned, and the method actually followed using a fixed, over three decade old consumption basket, results in gross underestimation of poverty. Correctly measured poverty on the contrary, shows a markedly rising trend over the economic reforms period.