People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 23

June 15 , 2008


A Tale Of Two Worlds

G Mamatha

“We (the bourgeoisie) grant you poor a right to exist, but only to exist… not the right to exist as befits human beings. You are a pest, and if we cannot get rid of you as we do of other pests, you shall feel, at least, that you are a pest, and you shall at least be held in check…Live you shall, but live as an awful warning to all those who might have inducements to become superfluous” - Frederick Engels on the attitude of the bourgeoisie.

THE summer vacation is about to get over soon. My daughter is eagerly awaiting the beginning of the new session, to get her new books, new uniform and continue her journey of education. Her enthusiasm is making me scared and hurt. With what heart should I tell her that it is impossible for me to send her to school this year?  This year the prices of everything that we people use for survival have gone up, gone up very steeply. It is on the food plate where the price rise has hit us the most. All my earnings go towards paying for food and provisions. How will I pay for my daughter's education? Increase in rents and other charges have added to an already strained household budget.

Even after working very hard, we are almost always out of money by mid-month. Vegetables are so expensive, so is rice, dal, wheat flour etc. Times are bad for people like me. I am thinking of sending my daughter back to the village, to my mother -- though life there is no better. With what I earn, I cannot afford to raise my daughter and give her a little food on a daily basis to survive, forget about the education.

This is a heartbreaking decision I have to take and I know my little daughter would be pained at this and it would affect her psychologically. Will I be able to convince her that it is not because of my lack of love for her but it is the policies of the government that are responsible for my sending her away?

These days I am going regularly to the meetings organised in our basti as I am made a member of one of the committees. Last week, our leader who visits our bastis regularly told us the reasons behind this crisis.

It seems that all the people do not feel the effect of price rise in the same way. While we poor are eating by spending even our last rupee, some are feasting on our misery. They have taught me to read and write and thus I was able to read a paper that the leader had given in our meeting. Let me quote at length from it.

'While we reel under acute distress, big multinational firms in the agribusiness like Cargill had made profits from commodity trading for the first quarter of 2008, up 86 per cent over the same period in 2007. US grain-trading giant, Archer Daniels Midlands raked in over $2.1 billion profits in 2007, a whopping increase of 65 per cent over 2006. Bunge Limited, another multi national's profit jumped by nearly 50 per cent in 2007. The inflamed grain market has led to windfall profits for others too. The Hong Kong-based Noble Group, listed in Singapore and involved in agri-commodities trade and transport, has seen a 95 per cent boost to its profits in 2007 year on year. US-based Monsanto in 2007, made a profit of nearly $1 billion. One of the biggest suppliers of grain and vegetable seeds, with penetration round the world, it reported gross revenues of over $8.5 billion.'

While the agribusiness giants mentioned above trade in physical commodities and are open to some scrutiny, there are a huge number of traders who have made millions through just betting on prices (wonderful way to earn money, isn't it?). The speculative investment in commodities futures has zoomed from about $5 billion in 2000 to $175 billion to 2007. These include Louis Dreyfus of France, a private agricultural commodities trading firm with annual sales exceeding $22 billion, which does not report its profits. An indication of the scale at which the speculative futures markets operate is given by trading volumes in the world's largest commodity exchange, the Chicago Board of Trade. In its April 2008 update, CBOT reported that during January and April 2008 644,741 contracts were traded on average every day, an increase of 17 per cent over last year. The average notional value for a day's trading was about $2.8 billion for wheat, $8.9 billion for corn and $11.2 billion for soyabean. Food and our hunger has been turned into yet another object of market speculation! Out of 216 countries in the world, 207 had to import wheat and 170 had to import rice from international markets, according to FAO. That is why the sun never sets in the offices of big agri-business.

Last week the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) held a meeting in Rome, Italy. According to the FAO, an estimated 815 million people around the world face chronic hunger and under nourishment. Around 777 million of these are in the developing world. One person dies every four seconds as a direct or indirect result of malnutrition. Fifty-five per cent of the 12 million children who die yearly are victims of malnutrition. However, having said all this, the summit did not come out with any concrete proposals to overcome the present crisis.

According to the Asian Development Bank, the rice price increases have already produced a “very, very serious impact on nearly 1.2 billion people”. Roughly 600 million people in these socially vulnerable sections have an average earning of less than $1 a day, while a similar number has a marginally higher income quotient above $1 a day. Before the latest rise in food prices, these people were spending almost 40 per cent to 50 per cent of their meagre incomes on daily necessities. By the fourth week of April, the same index rose as high as 80 per cent, particularly in some South Asian countries.

Sorry for quoting extensively from the paper and other reports, but doesn't it explain the situation very well to all of us? While the rich are making windfall profits and are getting richer, we poor are condemned to live wretched lives, unable to give a decent living to our children. Even temporarily depriving children of the nutrients can leave permanent scars in terms of stunting their physical growth and intellectual potential, say many reports. But who cares for our children. The government will continue to pay no heed to the problems of people like us.

We were told in the meeting that due to the rising costs of food items, even the UN's programme providing meals for 450,000 Cambodian children has already been suspended, and according to World Food Programme officials, a similar programme in Kenya, serving 1.2 million children, is facing cuts of nearly 50 per cent.

The price rise and agrarian crisis has affected our lives in all ways. Marriages of young girls have been delayed owing to this. Migrations are taking place, families are breaking and people are dying, but who cares! On the other hand, there are people who can throw crores of rupees to buy a paradise on earth with helipads, Italian marble, jacuzzi, 100 per cent power back-up, 24-hour filtered water supply, amphitheatre on the premises, spa club, yoga atrium, etc. There was an advertisement in a newspaper recently about the sale of land in some Arab countries! The government is concerned only with these sections of the people.

This can be easily understood when our rulers at the centre say that the hike in petroleum prices is not an anti-people measure.  “It must be appreciated that what has been done is the bare minimum”, the prime minister said and added “Business cannot go on like this forever. We need to learn to adjust to this new international scenario”. For him 'business cannot go on like this forever' but for us, with these kind of policies, life cannot go on even for a year.

Our leader in the meeting was telling about some countries where the people are not subject to these kinds of hardships-Cuba, Venezuela etc. He was telling us what Chavez has said: “I believe that there was life on Mars (where there was exploration going on recently) but I am also sure that today there is no life on Mars. The reason is that the rulers of Mars too had followed the same conditions and policies prescribed by the World Bank and its agencies and that had eliminated the entire life on planet Mars. The same is going to happen on Earth if we allow the rulers here too to follow the policies of World Bank and its likes”. How true he is! If we want to live, we have to eat and if we want to eat we have to fight. Let us unite to fight together against these policies and ensure a bright future for us and more importantly for our children. We took part in the struggles against price rise, don't you think that it is time for you too to take part now?