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Survival of the fattest

Even as the United States advocates an end to subsidies in other countries, its new farm bill is laying out huge subsidies to media moghul Ted Turner, a Rockefeller and other assorted billionaires among others. Noted journalist P. SAINATH compares this to the situation in India where farmers, already struggling to make ends meet, are being attacked for `wasteful subsidies'.

REMEMBER all that stuff about the "wasteful subsidies" the Indian State throws at its farmers? And all that silence about who really gets things like the fertiliser subsidies? A list that includes some of the top business houses in the country. Remember that "end-the-subsidy-Raj" refrain of our brave new world economists? Only a select few were exempted from it. For instance, the millionaires who together owe India's banks Rs.1,00,000 crores or more.

Most farmers own two acres of land or less. A farmer making Rs. 4,000 off an acre in Kalahandi (around $80) thinks himself lucky that year. In Telangana, he could celebrate. In northern Karnataka, he might even send his child to school.

As they see the most minimal of supports cut from them; as input prices rocket while rural credit disappears; as corrupt power "reforms" wreck them further; as they see a resource like water being privatised — who are these farmers being asked to compete with? How do their counterparts elsewhere (if such exist) fare? In the United States, for instance? It seems the U.S. Senate has this month "dropped demands that annual subsidies be limited to $2,75,000 per farmer". That is, to Rs. 1.3 crores per farmer. And so, says The New York Times, the U.S. is close to finalising a $171 billion farm bill. That's Rs. 8,50,000 crores. A six-year bill "that would increase subsidy payments to the country's biggest grain and cotton farmers".

Who are these (to borrow from Indian bureaucratese) `beneficiaries'?

An Associated Press (AP) review of the U.S. Agriculture Department records yields much fun. The AP story of September 2001 showed: "The United States had doled out $27 billion in federal subsidies to its `farmers' in the last fiscal year. That's Rs. 135,000 crores." Just the top 10 per cent of America's farm owners collared close to two-thirds of this largesse. That includes "multi-million dollar corporations".

The needy farmers thus rescued include media baron Ted Turner, a Rockefeller and other assorted struggling billionaires. Turner is "one of the largest landowners" in the U.S.. He owns ranches in Montana, South Dakota and Florida. And his companies raked in $1,90,000. That's Rs. 95 lakhs. David Rockefeller, who owns a 3,000-acre farm, got $146,000. A modest Rs. 73 lakhs. He is a former Chase Manhattan Bank chairman and grandson of John D.

Other peasants rescued from committing suicide were "some of the wealthiest members of Congress". These people made money from "programmes they voted for". One of them got $149,000 in "rice subsidies". That's Rs.74 lakhs.

There were at least 20 "Fortune 500" companies among yet other poor farmers pulled back from the brink. Including Chevron, Caterpillar, IBP and Archer Daniels Midland.

There were other gainers, too. These included, as the AP report written by John Kelly put it: "more than 1,200 universities and government farms, including state prisons". They got cash from programmes "touted by politicians as a way to prop up needy farmers. Subsidies also went to real estate developers and absentee landowners in big cities from Chicago to New York".

Among those bringing home the bacon from this unending pork-barrel pipeline are several "prison farms". At least 14 states get subsidies on crops grown by convicts on such farms. The AP analysed more than 22 million cheques sent out by the Agriculture Department in the fiscal year 2000. What emerged?

Well, "63 per cent of the money went to the top 10 per cent of recipients". Many of whom "don't fit the image of the struggling family farm". In Iowa in 1998, I saw small holdings go bust that did fit the image of the struggling family farm. How did those families read their misfortune? Many felt they were victims of wasteful spending on welfare, affirmative action and immigrants. In truth, they were just squeezed out by big corporate farmers. Farm corporations who also held great control over input prices. And government subsidies. In fact, it all sounds a bit like home — only on a scale unthinkable in India. Top Indian business houses have plundered fertiliser subsidies worth thousands of crores of rupees for years. Of course, their amounts, crushing by Indian standards, look trifling next to the largesse doled out in the citadel of neo-liberal market economics.

But there's another vital difference. At the bottom end of this food chain, the average "real" farmer got about $16,000 each. These are perhaps the "needy" ones in the U.S.. And that's still Rs. 8 lakh per farmer.

Compare that with the Indian small holder, relieved to have seen off another year when he's earned $80 from an acre.

Even by U.S. standards, the subsidies at the top end are insane. We're talking about large corporations here. Who, as the AP notes, do not fit the image of the struggling family farm.

The need for a more rational approach to subsidies has been suggested over the decades. The idea being to change the priorities. To ensure, on the one hand, that the truly needy do not sink. While, on the other, depleting the trough at which the giant corporations feed. For this to work, all nations had to do it. Through all this time though, few of the rich nations, led by the U.S., have conceded an inch. The developing nations, however, have seen their agriculture go down the tube.

Meanwhile, the big boys are still at a trough that only gets larger. And in life at the trough, it's the survival of the fattest. What happens if Africa, Latin America and Asia increase their share of world markets by just one percent? An Oxfam report says that 120 million people could beat the poverty trap. But that won't happen in the field of agriculture. Not while corporations — with billions of dollars of subsidies behind them — rule theworld.

Unfortunately, for AP, its investigation came out on September 9 last year. Only to be blitzed away 48 hours later by the World Trade Center bombings.

You'd think that with seven months going by, it would take centre stage now. But not really.

The farm bill, says The New York Times, will "increase commodity subsidies by 70 per cent". It will do that without changing the rules that let 10 per cent of American farmers grab "the big part of the subsidies". That's in a small item of just over 300 words on page 15 (April 26). There was an even smaller item of less than 100 words tucked away at the bottom of its "National Briefing" on page 20 (April 2). There, the Times blandly noted the official response to the AP expose.

Lawmakers want to restrict "information about who receives federal farm subsidies". Why? Beats me.

Maybe it intrudes on the privacy of poor toiling farmers like Ted Turner and all those struggling homesteads of the "Fortune 500". At home, too, successive union finance ministers have played this game. They've held back the names of those who have looted public sector banks of billions. This, in the name of "banking secrecy". Even as they peddled this falsehood in Parliament, small farmers learned differently. Those owing as little as Rs. 316 saw their names in the newspapers. The very banks so concerned with secrecy were advertising their auction of the tiny assets owned by such farmers. Their names were also displayed in their villages. Some of these farmers, already crushed by their own government's policies, committed suicide.

But you can still see those whose names remained secret. (Till the bank unions spilt the beans and spoilt all the fun). And you can see them twice a year, at least. They are the Indian, mainly corporate elite, who dine with the Finance Minister — in widely televised meetings — before the budget. That's when they hand him their shopping list — officially. And after the budget, another meeting to have him explain how the flow of goodies will work.

It is silly to imagine that the U.S. will uphold the principles of market economics that it forcefully imposes on others. Or that it will hurt the interests of its huge corporations — the very forces making policy. It's logical that the U.S. will push their agenda.

It raises questions, though, about our own market fundamentalists. Including so many economists, bureaucrats and mediacrats. Why are they so eager to push the "Fortune 500" agenda? One for which there is not the slightest chance of reciprocity?

What do they get out of it? An agenda the MNCs and some Indian corporations will profit from. But which pushes thousands of our farmers towards suicide. (Over 2,000 in Anantapur district alone, since 1997.) Is it plain naïveté? Or do we have a host of small entrepreneurial cultivators in our midst, farming out their skills to the corporations that dominate the world? And pitting those skills against some of the poorest farmers on the planet?

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