Beware of disaster capitalism hitting the Himalayas

Don’t sell out local food traditions with packaged food in the name of rehabilitation and development.

In the immediate rescue-and-relief scenario, packaged foods may play a role in ensuring that people do not go hungry in the aftermath of a disaster. However every packaged food company wants its product to be considered ‘normal’ and everyday food, not just for emergency. The food industry has managed to convert huge populations in Western and urban Indian areas to their ways, accepting packaged food as an ordinary everyday item. When these industries and the people they have converted are in charge of disaster aid, then there is a likelihood that the packaged foods and nutri-powders that are heavily marketed on front pages and prime time television will be considered not only as emergency relief material but a part of ongoing rehabilitation assistance packages.

As Naomi Klein reports in Disaster Capitalism: How to Make Money out of Misery, “‘Where has all the money gone?’ ask desperate people from Baghdad to New Orleans, from Kabul to tsunami-struck Sri Lanka.” The answer, she explains, is to those who already had money.

Klein and other journalists have reported on this after Hurricane Katrina, Sandy, and other disasters in the United States. I have seen this happen after the earthquake in Gujarat and the tsunami in Tamil Nadu. Lakhs of rupees are budgeted for something like a feeding center, but if spent on packaged food, those lakhs end up in the hands of Britannia, GlaxoSmithKline, Parle, and Nestle. What ends up in the people’s hands are biscuits and powders.  What ends up in their lands is the packaging. The brands get recognition.  The biscuits and powders boast nutrients on their labels but in reality offer little value compared to  foods prepared locally from fresh ingredients. Though this may seem obvious, the relentless push of the food industry to make packaged food normal and indeed preferable to homemade food tends to extend its use beyond the period of relief, into the phase of rehabilitation and eventually into the normal diet.

Commenting on the inappropriate use of the emergency food “Plumpy Nut” made by Nutriset, World Health Organization officer Zita Weise-Prinzo says, “Donors like seeing a product.   They like being able to say they have distributed so many tonnes of this magic pill or whatever and it was distributed to so many thousands or millions of children.” (Sophie Arie, “Hungry for Profit,”  BMJ 2010;341:c5221, )

Local Food Sovereignty

When we recognize the local food that people have traditionally grown and eaten in an area, we can look for ways to rebuild the supply through diverse channels, sustainable agricultural practices, and thus build local food sovereignty rather than bringing food and food-like substances from remote locations through centralized routes.

Millets grown in Uttarakhand

Millets grown in Uttarakhand.  Source:  Biju Negi, Beej Bachao Andolan

We must also guard against the role agribusiness plays in pushing government policy in their favour, as Biju Negi of Beej Bachao Andolan has written today in “Deceptive Intervention for Millets.” He warns that government intervention will destroy traditional millet farming in the Himalayan region.

In the same state or district where a disaster has struck, there may be farmers who can supply food required for rehabilitation. If not immediately, then some time after, especially if building their capacity is part of the rehabilitation plan. It is important to link with and procure from these suppliers, sustaining local livelihoods as well as food traditions. This requires us, after the initial relief phase, to look beyond “feeding the disaster-affected” to approaching community rehabilitation in a holistic way, drawing on the strengths and resources of disaster-affected and non-disaster affected people.

When I met the Koya tribal people who had been displaced from Chhattisgarh by Salwa Judum, I saw that they carried with them their seeds of sama, korra and other varieties of millets and were growing them in whatever small space they could make in the forest, processing them at home and eating them.

From the government as well as the local NGO, however their relief package consisted of white rice, nutritionally inferior to millet.  Even though in the very same Khammam district, there were farmers growing the very same grains that these people were used to eating. Why hadn’t the NGO bought those grains to use in the feeding centre?  Throughout India farmers and social organizations are fighting an uphill battle to sustain local grains.  Yet they are neither included in the public distribution system (PDS) of the government nor through the private suppliers who have the infrastructure to work with large donor agencies.  In this case, the donor agency had  stipulated that the food should be procured through specified routes that conformed to their supply and billing systems. This meant that rice coming from some other part of the state or even other states could be used in the program, but not the millets growing in the same district.  After eating white rice, would the next generation remember how to recover their diverse food traditions?

Even if the NGO had found a way to include diverse and local grains in the relief package, they would have been more expensive since they aren’t part of the public distribution system and don’t receive the subsidies that white rice does. The question is, can the donor agency recognize the value of the local food traditions, biodiversity, local economy and community health that are part of that grain, above and beyond its weight in kilograms?  This calls for  strengthening local distribution routes as well as local capacity, and commitment to existing Acts such as the Forest Rights Act and to the policy of land to the tiller, which would guard against further insecurity and in fact would have helped people resist this displacement in the first place.

Global Economic Policy

Disaster capitalism goes beyond industrial food, Big Ag, Big Aid and Big Box, to the heart of economic policy. As United States secretary of state, Hilary Clinton declared openly that the pillars of American foreign policy were development, defense and diplomacy and these would be used to ensure America’s (meaning corporate America’s) access to global markets. Read, for example, Hilary Clinton, America’s Pacific Century.

Commenting on Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, economics professor and former World Bank economist Joseph Stiglitz writes about “the political machinations required to force unsavory economic policies on resisting countries (Stiglitz, “Bleakonomics,” New York Times, September 30, 2007).   These policies include privatisation of natural resources including water and land (or as Luke Erikson puts it, “Land from the Tiller”), public utilities such as electricity, and even public services such as health, education, and transport.  Though touted as the solution to poverty, these policies further deprive the poor, by defining development and progress in a way that discounts their own strengths and resources.

Consider the case of water. The Ministry of Water Resources’ draft water policy (2012), encourages the private sector and cuts agricultural and domestic subsidies, in line with World Bank recommendations.   It states as a basic principle: “evolving an agricultural system which economizes on water use and maximizes value from water.”  Unfortunately the history of water policy in India shows that maximizing value is not counted according to the numbers of people who have secured food and water, but rather the monetary value of that water and the goods it is used to produce. This serves the needs of the food (and beverage) industry.

The hundreds of dams that are part of the drive to privatize have also aggravated the present floods in Uttarakhand which in the past week have claimed thousands of lives and rendered more than one lakh people homeless.  India Climate Justice has called for a halt to construction of dams in the Himalayas pending review, and has noted that the Comptroller and Auditor General warned that this series of dams and hydropower projects could be environmentally damaging. Himanshu Upadhyay has detailed the failure to heed these and other crucial CAG warnings in  Uttarakhand: Ignoring the writing on the wall.  Apart from potential to aggravate floods, the series of dams diverts water to power houses and away from traditional irrigation systems, serving small local farms.

Everyday Disaster

In situations of chronic hunger, the food industry need not wait for any specific disaster to strike before bidding to introduce their products.  Since the hunger is chronic, the contracts will be long-term. Consider this ominous title of a UNDP Report: The Roles and Opportunities for the Private Sector in Africa’s Agro-Food Industry. The author of the report is “UNDP Africa Facility for Inclusive Markets.” Its stated focus – namely, ”development and expansion of regional value chains in job creating sectors such as agribusiness…” – works against the goal of local food sovereignty towards privatization and globalization.

Think Locally

Industrially packaged food that enters as an emergency measure must not come to be regarded as the new normal. Those involved in supporting rehabilitation programs should take care to guard against the push of this industry to reach new consumers, particularly in vulnerable times, and thus move more people away from the local, diverse, whole and home- made food that is the foundation of health, livelihood,community and food security.

Note:  India Together has published this as “Beware of disaster profiteering” on 2 July 2013 .

Bibliography, Resources

Uttarakhand Reading List

While we have all ears and eyes for reports form the ground regarding immediate relief and rehabilitation work, we should also pay attention to the very good articles and reports that are coming based on information already in our hands such as performance audits on existing programs and institutions.

With public attention turned towards Uttarakhand people are seeing real live impact of poor planning, poor implementation and climate change. As if ready for this moment to reach the public, Down to Earth Magazine has published a wealth of material on geographic and environmental aspects of the flood. Scroll down to see the links I have copied directly from their home page.

As part of Association for India’s Development, we must study these reports. We have a significant role to play in increasing public awareness of these issues. Although the tendency is to jump on eyewitness reports, we should not, to quote an excellent article by Himanshu Upadhyay, ignore the writing on the wall. I was moved by his commitment to understand the role of institutions and implementation in the present disaster:

“Yet, once again, while not rushing to ground zero to file a disaster-related human interest story, I have decided to browse through a source that friends often accuse me of being addicted to: Performance Audits by CAG of India on the working of institutions and implementation of Acts.
– Uttarakhand: Ignoring the writing on the wall

What Happened

Ground Reports

Heaven’s rage  (Down to Earth)
Food scarcity continues in Uttarakhand villages (The Hindu)
How Uttarakhand dug its grave (Tehelka)
Himalayan tragedy (Frontilne)

Disastrous Unpreparedness
Kumar Sambhav S,
CAG had warned state about lack of disaster preparedness 
(Down to Earth)  Uttarakhand government took no step to address shortcomings in three years.

Himanshu Upadhyay,  Uttarakhand: Ignoring the writing on the wall

Watershed Moment, Uttarakhand government ignored advice from CAG. Himanshu Upadhyaya, Times Crest, June 29, 2013
CAG had warned last year about Uttarakhand Crisis in Making Himanshu Upadhyaya, Governance Now, June 27, 2013

South Asia Network of Dams, Rivers and People
Lessons from Uttarakhand disaster for Selection of River Valley Projects Expert Committee (Sandrp)
Uttarakhand Floods disaster: Lessons for Himalayan states (Sandrp) 

Even as the Uttarakhand state faced the worst floods in its history, CWC, which has been given the task of forecasting floods across flood prone areas all over India, completely failed in making any forecasts that could have helped the people and administration in Uttarakhand.

Jyotsna SinghMan-made reasons for Uttarakhand disaster (Down to Earth)
Sunita Narain, Himalayan blundersDown to Earth
” … stop blaming the people living in the Himalayas for the floods in the Indo-Gangetic plains. Instead, focus on building a management system to live with floods; to harvest the excess water in ponds, tanks and groundwater recharge systems.”

Ammu Joseph, An unequal disaster in the land of Chipko (India Together) 
There is now growing international recognition of the fact that women and girls face an increased risk of violence in the chaos and loss of social cohesion that routinely follow disasters in many parts of the world. However, violence and exploitation are not the only hazards women face in the wake of disasters. Even the death toll is sometimes influenced by gender.

Excerpts from Floods, Flood Plains and Environmental Myths, Center for Science and Environment


L.S. Aravinda, Beware of Disaster Profiteering (India Together)

Throughout India farmers and social organizations are fighting an uphill battle to sustain local grains. Yet these are neither included in the public distribution system (PDS) of the government nor distributed through the private suppliers who have the infrastructure to work with large donor agencies. – See more at: http://www.indiatogether.org/2013/jul/opi-relief.htm#sthash.W2OClKG7.dpuf

Throughout India farmers and social organizations are fighting an uphill battle to sustain local grains. Yet these are neither included in the public distribution system (PDS) of the government nor distributed through the private suppliers who have the infrastructure to work with large donor agencies

How to contain Himalayan tsunamis (Down to Earth)

The Himalaya is still geologically active and structurally unstable. Scientists speak on what needs to be done to mitigate disaster impacts in the region

CLIMATE JUSTICE STATEMENT ON THE UTTARAKHAND CATASTROPHE ” …similar catastrophes could recur with increasing frequency and intensity anywhere in the country in the coming years.”

Uttarakhand and Climate Change: How long can we ignore this in the Himalayas? (Sandrp)
” … we cannot ignore Climate Change and its associated challenges…”

PM kick starts 850 MW Ratle Project in J&K without full Impact Assessment: Invitation to another disaster in Chenab basin? (Sandrp)
India should start preparing for a large earthquake in Uttarakhand“…large parts of the Himalayas are overdue a large earthquake. Such an event would be even more destructive over an area hundreds of times as big.”

Development  in the Himalayas

The cost of development in Himalaya (Down to Earth)
There is a link between the disaster and the manner in which development has been carried out in this ecologically fragile region.

Uttarakhand: Existing, under construction and proposed Hydropower Projects: How do they add to the state’s disaster potential? (Sandrp)

Himalayas: the agenda for development and environment  (Down to Earth)

We need to think about a pan-Himalayan development strategy which is based on the region’s natural resources, culture and traditional knowledge.

Shripad Dharmadhikary (2009), Mountains of Concrete

Gender Equality in Our Lifetime?

Charlotte, 26 May 2013. Outside the conference room, S. Hiremath greeted me and said, “Congratulations to you and Sunita and the others for that session on gender issues. The way people spoke up and shared their experiences, I did not think I would see it in my lifetime! Really, hats off! How long can women endure this injustice in silence?”

The Survey, the Skit, the Session and the Silence
AID Conference 2013 at Charlotte, North Carolina

Daughter reads _The Art of Freedom_

The Survey Continue reading