Let Them Eat Rice

The world took umbrage at the US President's recent remark that increased consumption by the prospering Indian middle class, as well as other developing countries, is responsible for the emerging global food crisis. The Indian minister of state for commerce pointed out that the President is not known for his knowledge of economics, to which one may add that he is not acquainted with the art of diplomacy either. However tempting (and visceral) it may be to criticise the misguided attempt to impugn a sovereign nation, let us take a closer look at the statement and separate the wheat from the chaff.

It cannot be denied that the economies of India and China have been growing by leaps and bounds and one of the main beneficiaries of this upturn is the huge middle class, but this decade-long trend can hardly be held liable for the recent spike in food prices. Economists agree that a change in consumption pattern, particularly transitioning from a vegetarian diet to a meat-based diet, is not without consequences since it takes about 6 kilogrammes of grain to produce a kilogramme of meat. However, this changed behaviour of edible grain being diverted for fodder is more of a phenomenon in today's China (where increased wealth has made meat affordable to many people), than India where religion and not wealth (or health) influences eating habits. To digress onto a subject that deserves its own essay, it is interesting that the religions native to India placed importance on the sanctity of animals that were needed to irrigate the land in an (historically) agrarian nation.

Similarly, the argument that globalisation has benefited Indian farmers goes completely against the grain of ground reality. Dictates from the WTO have in fact forced India to import wheat and soya at inflated prices despite a surplus of produce in the country. While this has resulted in the loss of livelihood for millions of coconut, mustard, sesame, linseed and groundnut farmers, it also replaced India's traditional edible oils with unhealthy and genetically engineered oils like palm and soya oil. In addition, deplorable arm-twisting tactics by biotech companies like Monsanto (which developed a GM strain called Terminator that sterilises natural seeds in plants making farmers dependent on the company for seeds) has bankrupted farmers who cannot afford the cost of seeds each year and is culpable for a string of suicides across southern India.

There are three undisputed reasons for the rise of food prices in the United States. The first is the myth of biofuel as an energy policy-- with increased government subsidy for corn-based ethanol, it is in the short-term interest of farmers to raise cash crops, rather than food crops, especially in the face of soaring gas prices. This folly was pointed out in the World Economic Outlook by the International Monetary Fund: "Although biofuels still account for only 1.5% of the global liquid fuel supply, they accounted for almost half of the increase in consumption of major food crops in 2006-07, mostly because of corn-based ethanol produced in the US." The second reason is the weakening US dollar in the international market, which is a poor bargaining chip for the many grains that are imported into the country. The decision by some countries, including India, to raise customs duty on food exports in anticipation of hoarding also hit the Americans. Finally, the meteoric rise of gas prices (diesel is hovering around $5/gallon), in a country with an under-developed electric railway network, meant that the end-consumer had to foot the bill for hauling food items in trucks from one state to another.

What usually remains unsaid in food debates is the tragic effect of the West's successful export of its fast-food culture as a desirable ritual, despite dubious nutritional value and its fait accompli in the rise of obesity. Unfortunately, underfunded government health agencies are no match for the muscle of marketing dollars, with the result that India and China now present a strange dichotomy-- the poor are worse off because of lower agricultural produce, while the middle-class are worse off because of increasing quantities of processed and junk-food.

There is a sufficiency in the world for every man's need, but not for every man's greed.
Mohandas Gandhi

Just Not Cricket

Shashi Tharoor drew the ire of New York Times readers when he wrote a column analyzing American disdain for cricket, concluding that "the notion that anyone would watch a game that, in its highest form, could take five days and still end in a draw provokes widespread disbelief among results-oriented Americans." A colonial game that dates back to the sixteenth century (and still uses terms like "silly point" and "fine leg" in all seriousness), cricket has evolved through the ages to make it less time-consuming and yes, more result-oriented. Unfortunately in its latest incarnation, the Twenty20, the game seems to have set back the evolutionary clock, reducing a once-elegant sport to a fast and furious version of itself that is played in an environment resembling a cross between a circus and a carnival.

There was a time (not so long ago) when cricket was all it took to attract spectators to stadiums, students to sick-days, and sponsors to television. Ever since the limited-overs version of the game was introduced in the late-sixties, a result was all but guaranteed at the end of the day, leading to the debut of the four-yearly World Cup tournament in 1975. However, as the public's attention span began to wither and wilt (no doubt conditioned by faster games like football and tennis), organisers flirted with the idea of 20-over matches that would produce a result in less than three hours.

By the time this abridged version of the game reached its adopted motherland, India, it had become a potent cocktail of cricket, Bollywood and celebrity shows geared towards prime-time television. The inaugural match of the current Indian Premier League (complete with high-stake contracts like its English namesake) was hosted in Bangalore and featured cheerleaders from America, stilt-walkers from Holland, stunt acrobats from Germany and laser operators from Malaysia. There must have been some irony in that the modern mecca of outsourcing had to fly in entertainers from different parts of the world to promote the tournament! While purists debate whether this entertainment package devalues the devotion of the cricket-watching public, there is no denying that many of these distractions (such as cheerleaders, or utsaah-utpaadak-pradarshak naari, a Hindi translation proposed by a professor at NYU's Stern School of Business) were unnecessary in a region where cricket-worship already borders on religious fanaticism. This is also symbolic of the transformation of the game at more fundamental levels-- firstly, teams in the league cut across national identities which is an experiment that has not been attempted in cricket outside of exhibition matches, and secondly, it demonstrates how British cultural influence on the game as played in India is gradually being replaced by American superficiality.

All this brouhaha makes one feel sorry for the late Kerry Packer whose World Series Cricket was often mocked as "pyjama cricket" for espousing colourful uniforms and day-and-night matches. In comparison to the indignity that is Twenty20, the World Series may be compared to a benign first circle of Dante's Inferno, and only time will tell whether the modern version of the game will gain as wide an acceptance as the Packer Circus eventually did.

If the wild bowler thinks he bowls,
Or if the batsman thinks he's bowled,
They know not, poor misguided souls,
They too shall perish unconsoled.
I am the batsman and the bat,
I am the bowler and the ball,
The umpire, the pavilion cat,
The roller, pitch, and stumps, and all.
Andrew Lang, Brahma

Emasculating the Media

Many Asian cultures have parables about a frog-in-the-well (kupamanduka in Sanskrit), an idiom that is not as common in the United States. This is ironic, since it is actually a very apt description for the American media, and the role they have played in creating an insular society that is largely ignorant of global events. For a visitor from any land of thriving media, watching the local news in the USA is an exercise in despair as the focus is more on entertaining and extolling the excruciating minutiae of the neighbourhood, rather than a genuine desire to inform the public.

One of the reasons for the abysmal record of the American media to act as independent checks of the political and legislative wings of the government is that they are owned by corporations who owe allegiance to the administration to continue currying favours. This is true both of the print media, where consolidation is increasingly the order of the day, and of broadcast where General Electric, the Walt Disney Company and Rupert Murdoch's News Corp own three of the biggest players. This complicity was exposed all too clearly last month when a Pulitzer-worthy New York Times investigation revealed that the Pentagon had plotted a propaganda campaign with these news corporations to deceive Americans about the status of the occupation of Iraq. Not surprisingly, this disclosure has been all but blacked out by the corporate media.

This failure of the Fourth Estate to challenge the government li(n)e makes one appreciate the vigorous Press that is present in India and the constructive role they have played in exposing scandals and kickbacks that would otherwise never have seen the light of day. An alert and unbiased media raises an awareness among people that is vital for a strong democracy, and the wide variety of newspapers thriving in India is an indication of the health of the state. However, there is also a subtle difference between an impartial reporting of news (performed quite capably by London's free newspapers, for instance) and taking a principled stand against injustice at great personal risk (attempted by the truly great). One cannot but acclaim the role played by The Statesman and Indian Express, in this regard, who stood up against Indira Gandhi's declaration of emergency in 1975-1977 and criticised it in unambiguous words-- the Government retaliated by blocking advertisements and bringing them close to financial ruin, but not once did these two newspapers houses yield to the pressure tactics.

Stories like these are few and far between in today's environment of superficial newsbites and anticipatory compliance, especially in the Western hemisphere which, ironically, has traditionally accused Communist leadership of such nepotism, propaganda and deceit. The recent debate between American presidential contenders is a case in point, where a pair of prejudiced moderators encouraged comments on non-issues for the better part of an hour, while touching upon plebeian concerns only as a rapid-fire questionnaire in the dying minutes. Happily, there is reason to rejoice in the knowledge that vocal viewers rejected this shameful display as an affront to their intelligence and complained in large numbers and in no-uncertain terms, leading one to wonder (with apologies to Carl Sandburg), "What if they called a debate, and nobody came?" The irrelevance and irreverence displayed by many of these so-called purveyors of American media do a grave disservice to the hallowed school of journalism and contribute to the disdain and distrust for mainstream media. This alienation also pushes readers to seek alternative news sources on the Internet that match one's political leanings-- not because these websites respect the sanctity of facts, but because they contribute to preserving one's ideological bubble.

But does not, though the name Parliament subsists, the parliamentary debate go on now, everywhere and at all times, in a far more comprehensive way, out of Parliament altogether? Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters' Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all. It is not a figure of speech, or a witty saying; it is a literal fact,--very momentous to us in these times.
Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes and Hero Worship