India | No stranger to hunger, but this could get worse
To support his family of six, Raju sells plastic packets of chilled water to commuters on a busy New Delhi roadside. Like many Indians, he...
NEW DELHI, India — To support his family of six, Raju sells plastic packets of chilled water to commuters on a busy New Delhi roadside. Like many Indians, he normally spends more than half of his monthly income to buy food.
But over the past year, as world food prices have soared and inflation began creeping up, the rice, lentils and wheat his family needs have begun to take as much as 70 percent of his meager monthly salary of $77. With the other 30 percent of the family's income committed to rent, they have had to give up buying vegetables — meat and milk never have been affordable — and simply will have to go hungry if prices rise further.
"We're barely managing," said Raju, 36, who goes by only one name.
With India's inflation hitting 7 percent, "I don't see any improvement coming," he said. "There will be riots if this gets worse."
As global food prices race upward, no place demonstrates the growing risks to the planet as much as India — home to more than half of the world's hungry.
Worldwide, food prices have soared 45 percent over the past year as surging oil prices make growing and transporting food more expensive and as economic growth in emerging giants such as China and India leads to rising demand for food, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization.
In richer developed nations, where people spend an average of 10 to 15 percent of their disposable income on food, higher prices have been a growing irritation. But in the developing world, where most poor people spend at least half of their income to eat, rising costs threaten to create major social unrest.
All told, 33 countries are at risk of social upheaval as a result of acute increases in food and energy prices, Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, said in a speech this month. In countries where buying food requires half to three-quarters of a poor person's income, "there is no margin for survival," he warned.
U.N. officials said Friday that the problems are likely to persist despite an expected increase in global cereal production over the next year.
India, which has more malnourished people than anywhere else — even more than sub-Saharan Africa in both absolute and percentage terms — is so far not counted among the countries most in danger.
Largely that's because its government operates the world's biggest food-aid program, an $8.4 billion effort that pushes 15 million tons of subsidized wheat and rice a year to hundreds of millions of people.
India also enjoys an impressive economic growth rate, deep cash reserves of $300 billion and near-self-sufficiency in basic grains, all of which have helped insulate it from the world food-price shock.
But India has the potential to play a big role in accelerating the world's developing food crisis.
With its population and its per-capita demand for food growing faster than its agricultural productivity, the nation of 1.1 billion is edging toward becoming a net importer of food, a reality that could turn the current spikes in international food prices into consistent highs for a decade or more as demand continues to grow, analysts say.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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