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India and the global food crisis

Posted by: Manjeet Krpalani on April 14, 2008

The food crisis is upon us all. You and I have seen it creep up in the last month, when prices of basic vegetables went from Rs. 25 to Rs. 30 per kilo, to Rs. 50 a kilo, as currently. I’m not talking asparagus, or even aubergine. These are carrots and potatos and okra and beans.

It’s the usual story - New Delhi been slow to heed the warnings, not bothered about the ordinary guy, always thought they could import their way out of a food crisis. But this time they can’t, becasue there is none available to be had. Thailand is short of rice, Malaysia is short of palm oil, Australia is short of wheat. Afghanistan’s poppy farmers are cultivating wheat because, says Subir Gokarn, chief economist, Asia Pacific, Standard & Poor’s, “the risk-adjusted return on wheat is far better than poppy for now.”

Astonishing, the cost-of-food story has still not hit the headlines in India - those are still dominated by the foibles and/or glam parties given by politicians, rapes in the capital, or the upcoming cricket extravaganza.

New Delhi should be warned. India’s economic take-off happened because the ordinary man, for the first time, had smelt prosperity. Interest rates were low, businesses were investing, jobs were being had, cell phones made the service industry happen. Stomachs were fuller, and with the additional money being earned, the plumber, the mechanic, the taxi driver, the vegetablewallah, all invested it in their children’s education. Sometimes that cost Rs. 300, sometimes Rs. 800 a month. That’s $7.50 to $10 a month, but it’s a princely amount.

Now with food prices going up, how will the man on the street make ends meet - especially as those ends include an education for their children? That they can no longer compromise on. They’ve seen a vision of a better life, and schooling brings respectability and feeds aspirations.

I’m hoping for street protests, so the politicians can hear, loudly. While Sonia Gandhi and her crew in New Delhi sit down to a sumptuous lunch of imported iceberg lettuce and pasta, and Dr. Manmohan Singh and finance minister P. Chidambaram with butter chicken at night, they should know that people are cringing from making agonizing choices - nourishment for the family, or school fees?

India’s food problems are of its own making. Reform of the services sector, of the financial sector, has all happened, but not yet reform of the agricultural sector, on which 65% of India depends for a livelihood. S&P chief economist Gokarn says the chickens will come home to roost for this government in New Delhi if India has one bad monsoon - and it’s coming up in June, just a few months before the national elections in 2009. The political environment will take a turn for the worse, as will the economic scenario.

“Perhaps now they will see the costs of not reforming agriculture,” says Gokarn. There are still too many bottlenecks, too many investments not yet made. “I believe in the crisis-begets-reform school for India,” Gokarn explains. “The deeper the crisis, the greater the reform. This is a significant trigger for change.”

In short, everyone should pray for a bad monsoon for India this year, so that the future can be ensured by deep reform at the cost of short-term misery. No one in today’s India should have to sacrifice their child’s education for the higher price of food.

Reader Comments


April 14, 2008 3:51 PM

Honestly, the political situation in India described in this article sounds very similar to the 'let's shuffle the deckchairs' attitudes the US politicians have right now. The complete lack of leadership in both political parties & at all levels of government (particulary at the Federal level) is what we're getting too. I guess it's heartening to hear we seem to be in the same boat. I hope it doesn't take a disaster to fix it.

Rusty K

April 14, 2008 4:34 PM

"In short, everyone should pray for a bad monsoon for India this year, so that the future can be ensured by deep reform at the cost of short-term misery". Considering a bad monsoon could mean famine and starvation for literally millions of people, I find that to be one of the least well thought out and offensive statements I've read in a while. Have a nice day.


April 14, 2008 9:50 PM


s. ranganathan

April 14, 2008 11:55 PM

Hasn't hit the headlines is a bit of an exaggeration. All the major papers have done center spreads about the food crisis, I believe, and India Today, Outlook, Down to Earth, BusinessWorld and others among the magazines have covered the story. That's apart from all the coverage of inflation--highly dependent on food prices--and how it's hurting the little guys and could bring down the government.


April 15, 2008 2:27 AM

I am not sure if the USA will go blameless for any gloabl crisis...Iraq, Afghanistan, global warming (Bigweed - can u see the link between gloabl warming and food scarcity?), the food crisis (driving to work in your Hummer using biofuels eating a juicy extra-large hamburger is more important that poor people's hunger surely), the nurturing of Osama, the support to the Saudis, the global credit crisis spawned by the US bankers' greed, oil at USD name it and it will have the US as one of the root causes. The reason is philosophical and the Americans might just not be able to get it...the lust for a better life and the ruthelessness shown in order to preserve your flawed way of life is going to extract its toll. And people across the world will pay a price for it. LEt us see the Americans take some bold steps for once - ban car racing, ban food commodity futures, stop commecial sales of gas-guzzling SUV's, and a million other small steps that show to the world that you guys are serious about something other than your stupid way of life.


April 15, 2008 2:54 AM

Ms. Kripalani wants everyone to pray for a bad monsoon in India this year! Why? Because in India, the deeper the crisis (translation - more deaths), the better the reforms! To write junk like this and actually feel happy about it, I think one has to be either insane or drunk.

I believe all sensible people should pray for The McGraw-Hill companies to post their worst-ever financial performance results this quarter. McGraw-Hill could do with some cost-cutting, at least in the Business Week's nut-case infested India Bureau. How about beginning the cutting-off-the-flab job by axing the alcohol allowance to Ms. Kripalani? She seems to be driving up the inflation in India by consuming as much IMFL liquor as she can before penning her ridiculous articles.


April 15, 2008 3:34 AM

Amazing that the writer of this article did not once mention the biggest underlying reason for shortage of food in India, which is over-population.

Questions that must be asked are:

1- Why does a country with the geographical size of India have a population of nearly 1.2 billion (which is almost 20% of the entire world's population and will soon overtake China as the most populous country)?

2- Why has Indian not taken any serious measures to tackle its enormous population growth?

Not only will India run of food, but at some point it will simply run of space for its people. Already many of its cities are severely over-crowded. When is India going to take this impending catastrophe seriously?


April 15, 2008 5:19 AM

We are not considering positive aspect of this story I guess. Positive aspect is if monsoon does not come this year Government will be forced to do reforms in agriculture and they will not just have to think about elections but they will have to think about the improvements in the agriculture which will be great for India as well as world because India still has a capacity to get 80 % more production from it's current land under cultivation.


April 15, 2008 11:40 AM

personally i'm not into pointing fingers at who is blame for the problems facing india's foods demands,but i'ld rather focus my attention finding a lasting solution to the problem.
The way i see it India's agro allied sector needs to be more active and responsibility shifted from just government to a more national effort to combating this problem.I think that first their SME's in agriculture needs to be better funded,so that more farmers will go in to big time farming and help stop this problem.It is obvious that there are not enogh farmers or SME'S in the agricultural sector.well if need for funding arises i know a blog online where funds can be raised for just about any purpose from investing,entreprenuship,charity name it.the best part is that you set the r.o.i%,loan period, there's no limit to the amount of funds you can raise and no collateral needed to get loan: be industrius and enterprising Indian should make use of this tool to source for loans

Philip Jacob

April 15, 2008 1:32 PM

I have listed below some sweeping general statements by the Author

1. basic vegetables went from Rs. 25 to Rs. 30 per kilo, to Rs. 50 a kilo,
2. "sumptuous lunch of imported iceberg lettuce and pasta"
3. "pray for a bad monsoon for India"
4. "I’m hoping for street protests"

At best, a crass writer, how did he find find his way up business week??


April 15, 2008 2:03 PM

I'm dying to know where Harry lives. I suppose that they have internet access but no car racing, large vehicles, or other vice-like institutions. I'm sure his computer runs on sunshine and his car is fueled by rainbows. He only eats organic soy products that were grown in his pesticide-free solar greenhouse, so naturally he can tell you how you should live.

America is blamed for everything and ANYTHING that goes wrong in this world. I'd like to take this moment to remind everyone that the US gives more foreign aid than almost the entire world... combined. I think that this has created both a sense of entitlement and antipathy. Imagine what would happen if we closed our wallet, even if it was only for 1 year. Not a pleasant scenario...

I will not sit here and defend every action my country takes. I doubt anyone would for any country, and if they do then they're probably not looking at every facet of it. However, I will state that Americans, along with America, care deeply about the direction this world is heading in - I know from personal, first-hand experience. And we do what I would describe as more than our fair share to uplift the rest of the world.

It's easy to point to the biggest player in the room and blame them. I see it all the time - we hate you, but not so much that we won't take a handout from you. It takes absolutely no guts. Real people who want real change don't depend on a foreign government to make it happen - they get it done themselves. That's one of the reasons that America as it does exists in the first place.

You make a request for bold steps. I couldn't agree more, Harry, but let's not be so short-sighted as to make it seem like "If the US would only change a little, then every problem will go away." We need change across the board, from fully developed countries like the US and most of Europe, to developing nations like India and Brazil, and on down to the third-world nations that need help to reach the next level of development.

What you're asking for is one of the hardest tightrope acts to perform. On a government level there is much work to be done in every country on this planet. On the personal level, we all do what we can.

So you say you want a revolution...


April 15, 2008 2:08 PM

this article is a rude wake up call to the food crisis in India. Living in upper middle class families in large cities we rarely feel the raising food prices effect as much.


April 15, 2008 4:55 PM

I believe the scientists have been warning for about 30 years that there are limits to growth. But we are still, literally, fucking our way to our own misery and no end to this is even being considered. Everyone is just hoping that convenient nice solutions will somehow drop out of the sky and save us all.. What are the odds of that happening? Same ratio as the miracles that has been registered by the vatican?


April 15, 2008 5:10 PM

To Harry: have you ever heard of the Band-Aid concerts? How about USA for Africa? The people of the developed world tried raising money and sending food to Africa. What the corruption at the docks didn't get, the warlords did. There was no infrastructure available to transport the food to the villagers that needed it. The lesson learned is that you can't just throw money at a problem, you have to deal with local conditions, both physical and political. India could have raised taxes and built roads, but instead spent the money on other things. India could have passed laws enabling large plantations and industrial farming, but they chose to favor traditional subsistence farming instead. Because of poor planning, they'll starve and try to blame the West because they can't import their way out of their shortages anymore.

Pradeep Nag

April 15, 2008 7:11 PM

How about Ms.Kriplani's husband divorce her and marry another worthful woman. So that she can reform well for her next marraige and start learning to take care of her husband better. Insane people are entering Journalism.


April 15, 2008 8:01 PM


Paul is exactly right. Overpopulation is the root cause here and what is criminal is that both U.S. and Indian politicians won't even talk about it. Remember what Bismark said? The fact that North America speaks English will be the defining fact of the 20th century. He was right.

Overpopulation will be the defining fact of the 21st century.


April 15, 2008 9:49 PM

Time for a two child policy. Its painful, but this is exactly what India needs.


April 15, 2008 11:19 PM

I hope the writer is not being paid for this myopic article on the food crisis. Is the writer aware of the deep ramifications of a bad monsoon ? India's GDP will take a hit and all sectors of the economy will be affected and the poor will bear more of the brunt. The United States bears an indirect responsibility being the largest economy. It's extensive perhaps wasteful use of fossil fuels and grains leading to inflation, however India has to put it's own house in order before pointing fingers at anyone.


April 16, 2008 12:10 AM

The writer of this article "Manjeet Kripalani" is obviously in bed with India's opposition parties. He is misinforming people and attacking Sonia Gandhi and the PM of India in the article. This is what radicals do all the time. Just because she is Italian (White) by birth she gets attacked for every problem in the nation. The current GOV of India has done a lot in terms of coming up with Billion dollars worth of packages for the poor and farmers. They have done a lot but in a nation like India with over a billion people its never enough. The current Gov is very well aware of the price rise and its a global issue not just one in India.
India heavily Subsidise consumer products like food and I am sure that if there was a serious problem they would do it.
Its election season in India and thus people like Manjeet Kripalani have been hired to write such baseless article's accusing the ruling congress of doing nothing.


April 16, 2008 3:05 AM


Yes, you are right. The opposition has paid up big bucks to publish this article (which is more like a teenager's blog) so that they can influence millions of BW's readers who will turn up in large numbers and vote out the holier-than-thou party in power next year. Just the target audience they wanted !

Wake up, in every democracy it is the incumbent govt that gets blamed for all problems.


You need to stop being a frog in the well. How much aid do you think the US gave to India last year? For that matter, in total how much money do you think they disbursed to all other nations put together? Once you get this number, try to figure out the deficit that your country runs every year. This is financed in most parts by China, India, Japan and other Asian countries. You will find that you don't need to be a math whiz after all to understand this.

You think you have spent billions of dollars in reconstructing Iraq? Just figure out who gets those billions. You will find that it is the US military and other contractors who are gobbling up the whole pile in the name of paving those same roads that your F-16s blasted out of existence.

If you think you have doled out "your fair share" of aid to Africa, try and find out how much is the Armaments sales to these countries worth every year (yes, my friend they are American companies) and the balance of trade (over the counter) between the US and African nations (you of course get preferential access to their natural resources in return for propping up these dictatorial rulers). You will find that the aid was nothing but a pay-off - a pittance.


April 16, 2008 3:08 AM

It never seems to amaze me what hair trigger tempers the Indians have when it comes to discussing their internal problems. INDIA'S PROBLEMS ARE HOME GROWN, STOP BLAMING THE WEST,AMERICA, EUROPE, global warming, ETC. Go the way of China and adopt a one child policy.You will never get your problems solved until you learn to curb your rampant and unrestrained birth rate.Indians are the last people who should expect sympathy, because they are the last ones to dispense it when other nations are suffering.
Oh, and by the way, not everyone in the west drives a SUV.


April 16, 2008 3:09 AM

Of course, this is not to say that the root cause of India's problems is its ever-burgeoning population. But we can hardly legislate our way through this - can either Republicans or Democrats muster enough majority in the Congress to pass a Bill that bars Americans from conceiving and having more than two kids?

Of course, there is China's way...


April 16, 2008 4:58 AM

I also agree with Paul totally. Indians just didn't realize that overpopulation is the biggest challenge of their country. Many even take pride in the fact that their country will soon surpass China as the most populous in the world. What good is that when the majority of these youngsters are poor and uneducated and there is not enough food in the world to feed them?


April 16, 2008 5:10 AM

Groan! Where do they get these writers from? Along with a global food shortage, I think we are facing a shortage of decent writers as well.


April 16, 2008 6:50 AM

it is amazing to see some of the moronic comments from americans like BIGWEED. maybe he.she grows weed instead of hair on the top of his/her head. Bigweed wake india is not the only cheap destination for labor. apparently 90% of the planet is cheap compared to america. you know what it means that means America is expensive. maybe you ought to stop buying imported goods and let the dollar slide so that american jobs can be competitive. why don't you go and vote for a politician who will espouse a weak dollar policy.
as for Paul who is asking what is INdia doing for population growth. almost everything except compulsory vasectomy.
the government of india is doing everything to educate people on having two kids max. India did not become a country with a billion population in a decade. it had 300 mil in 1947 when it got independance. so its growing from a very large base. India had managed food grains effectively for some many years. this year happens to be a perfect storm, with lot of countries experiencing drought. with the indian harvest numbers coming down because of drought conditions. it is a recipe for disaster. agriculture has been made a priority for reforms, the PM has mentioned it so many times. some of the india critics ought to read more before opening their mouth with flippant and foolish remarks.


April 16, 2008 6:52 AM

I don't think it is correct to blame the author for expecting a food crisis. Any Indian will tell you that things move in the Indian bureaucracy only when there is a crisis whether it is about the pathetic infrastructure, capital market regulations, labour reforms, etc. The 60000 crore waiver on agricultural loans declared in the recent federal budget shows the myopic nature of government measures. Atleast a part of this writeoff could have been better used for agricultural and rural reforms.

This situation is similar to the subprime crisis in US. Americans had been turning a blind eye to the credit problem all this time and now they are talking about sweeping changes in the financial system!

In a democratic and secular country like India, imposing a two-child policy is an uphill task. The frequent coalition governments at centre makes it even harder.

Rakesh Krishnan

April 16, 2008 7:05 AM

Take a train ride across northern India and you'll see that at many railway stations and farms, huge piles of grain are left rotting in the open.

The Food Corporation of India's warehouses are full and there's no space to hold them. Of course, all this storage is wasteful and will rot away to make space for more grain that the government will purchase from the farmers next year.

Have I made it clear now that there's no food shortage in India?

Okay, five years back there were reports that some tribals in the remote forests of Orissa were dying. Initially, the jumpy, half-baked journalists declared the tribals had died of starvation, even as the state kept denying it.

For once, the government was right. Turns out these tribals were in the habit of eating the seeds of a fruit that was sometimes poisonous.

But by then India's food machinery had sprung into action. Trains packed with wheat, rice and vegetables from Punjab, Haryana and Tamil Nadu started trundling into the towns closest to the area.

Millions of kilos of grain were dumped in the area to feed a small tribe whose diet was basically forest produce - roots, shoots and seeds! Hundreds of trainloads of grain was sent in because five or six tribals were accidently poisoned.

Any time there is a natural disaster, like earthquake, tsunami etc, the trains set forth loaded with grain, vegetables, flour, clothing, tarps, medicines. Much of it is not even needed, but the trains still roll in.

That's how well India is pepared for such eventualities.

India has had bigger disasters than Katrina but the difference is that initially there are a lot of deaths (because of the large population) but later the whole country swings into action. Groups start sending money, material and food, newspapers monitor the situation over months until people have been compensated and rehabilitated.

All this is in sharp contrast to Louisiana where the people are still suffering. Look how Bush rushed to California (where the rich live) during the fires while Louisiana never got any sympathy.

This never happens in India. Whether it is the earthquaqe in Gujarat (India's most developed state) or the supercyclone in Orissa (India's Louisiana), there's support from every quarter.


April 16, 2008 9:35 AM

India is facing big overpopulation problem. I guess many Indians have realized problem for long, but India has no way to fix it. On the contrary, many Indian experts claim that's India's advantage. What a joke.

India can produce only 250 million tons of food every year today. That's only half of China's production. But India's population is around 1.1 billion, not very far from China's 1.3 billion. It is very fault to deny the food shortage in India.

As such a large population country, food shortage can only be resolved inside India. What India can do:
1. Improve the education in rural areas. This can make agro technolgy more easy to be expanded.
2. Improve the agro infrastructure. Make more reserviors to store waters and more irrigation system to guarantee the food production.
3. Implement a population control system that is similar to China's familiy-planing. This is a real human rights action and responsible policy. But Indians and India government should have the guts to resist westerners' bashing.


April 16, 2008 10:48 AM

Malaysia is running out of palm oil. Didn't they burn down half the country - virgin forests - to plant palm oil?


April 16, 2008 11:42 AM

Although India has seen a boom in its economy, but its political leaders haven't reformed themselves. Nobody talks about those poor people. Even media doesn't care about those 75% people living in villages and most of these people live below poverty line.
Now all of a sudden, inflation has hit little bit, so everybody will talk about it for a while as general elections are approaching but I highly doubt some quintessential steps will be taken by great political leaders of India to rectify it.
I would blame on the character of the politicans for this miserable situation who are unable to lead this country. Everything has changed for good in the past decade or so but level of politicians hasn't changed a bit. I want to see how this nation reacts once it takes a economic hit (recession).


April 18, 2008 6:45 AM

Why one child policy? Why not zero child policy? Such policies mean that you want to wipe out the human race. What is needed is improvement in agricultural management and productivity. India's per acre yield of crops is one tenth of that of Israel even though India has much more water available that Israel has. So India can produce upto ten times the amount of food that is currently produced and support at least double her current population. In any case India's population will not double since growth rate has fallen to zero in 7 states and is reducing rapidly in other states, (like what is happening elsewhere in the world).

Raj Subbaram

April 18, 2008 6:22 PM

I am the first generation from my agricultural family that has gone out of the lineage from farming. My Mother and my father did even at their very early ages predicted that agriculture the way it is treated in India will go bad to worse and worst in the years to come. This made them focus on my education and prepared me to get out of agriculture and into other profession. Our family has traditionally been doing farming (mainly rain fed crops) in the south (Tuticorin District). We did cultivate Cumbu, Corn, Ragi, Black Gram, Sesame Seed (oil), Cotton, Chilies and Green Gram. I have heard from my Grand Ma about the sort of harvest we had and the sort of living the entire village (and the whole area for that matter) had. Ever since I recollect from 1966 onwards, in-spite of Dad receiving awards for his excellence in tonnage of sugar-cane per acre and the quality of Cotton per acre, the government and the overall outlook on agriculture was very sub standard. Whatever my dad and mom had to pay to buy the required fertilizer and the pesticide etc was over and above the produce that the land could harvest. It was always very had to make both ends meet. Something that I would like to mention here, though very sad, but makes my Mom very proud and shows her generosity and noble was that she sold her entire 500 Sovereign Gold jewelry that her dad gave her, to educate me and my brothers. Even now we have over 600 acres to us; but that really did not help us and not even helping us now by way of the intense agriculture my parents get involved in.

I end with this BBC News Commentry:
The government has announced a $15bn waiver of farmer loans and extended a jobs scheme - ensuring 100 days of work in a year entailing manual labour to every family demanding such work at the official minimum wage - to all over the country.
None of these populist initiatives will really work until India's rulers begin giving its ignored farms the importance they deserve.

Askari Kazmi

April 23, 2008 9:28 AM

Don't pray for a bad monsoon. People should learn how to cope with famine and global food crisis. Many people may die with hunger and will learn to live in poverty. There is no way politician can do any thing by now. what is the reason every country in the thirld world is getting less food crop than normal?


April 23, 2008 5:26 PM

Food shortage is here to stay. Population is not reducing; global warming is not helping; blaming politicians does not yield results;

Media should focus on promoting self reliance. What prevents a taxi driver from growing vegetables in a small scale. On the second floor of an RCC building my mom grew tomatoes 25 years ago. Though it was a hobby for her it definitely yielded good results. Today I am teaching my kids to grow vegetables for a hobby.

Solutions: Rain water harvesting; grow as much vegetables as you can; If you dont need the produce just donate; The smile you receive will make your day.

my 2 cents...


May 10, 2008 2:48 AM

Here are the steps I have taken as an American.

1. Advocate Biodiesel Research using Algae (non food crop)
2. Use laptop computer saving for solar (less energy used)
3. Drive diesel car that gets 48 US mpg.
4. Have not reproduced (holding off for a few more years.
5. Donate about 500 US dollars per year to of my own money to help other countries with no personal benifit
6. Watch my flag get burned all over the world as thanks.



May 25, 2008 6:54 PM

From what i know of living in India for the last 40 years, i haven seen a famine in the last 20 years. This was proudly considered as one of the significant achievements since independance from Anglo Saxon colonialism and rightly so.. and i doubt if we would ever have famines in the scale seen in British India , so Ms Kriplani can worry herself to death if she wishes but i dont see how a global food crisis , largely due to irresponsible speculative behaviour of global financial institutions spinning spurious excesses into commodities, can focus all its fury on just India.. competitiveness in the farmlands have little to do with the demand led inflation


August 29, 2008 9:54 AM

though iam just 12 i have understood the impoortance of food and what it is worth.but unfortunetley the governmernt hasnt so friends just hope for the best and dont let india lose its momentem in the ongoing process of becoming a super power.lets alkl get together and give anew life to india

ritu venkatesh @ venkatesh rangachari

August 30, 2008 7:20 AM

Ms. Kriplani, Ritu and I are writers on marketing (and business evolution) and have a differnt take on this debate.
1. if you look at salaries in India since 2003 (from driver-maid- blue collar and white collar professionals), they have almost tripled.200-300%

2. Inlfation since 2003 has cumulatively been 30% over 5 years.

There is a BUFFER between inflation growth and wage growth. In western countries, where GDP growth is 3%, inflation is 2% and annual salary growth is 3%.

India is different and one reason why my driver seems as interested in the brand of DVD player to buy is explained by the disconnect between wages and inflation.

If inflation does not get back to single digits by mid of next year, this gap will decrease and we will see discontent on the streets. Till then we believe we should remain optimistic.

thank you
ritu and venkatesh

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