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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Hunger, tycoons and little girls

A lot of ‘educated’ people (including, I fear, most of those who read this blog) will be surprised to hear that one of the most serious things that have been happening in the world lately is not the launch of some new video game or the defeat of Tiger Woods or some celebrity’s wardrobe malfunction or the inaugural preparations for the Beijing Olympics but that food prices (especially those of staple foodgrains like rice) have skyrocketed, causing alarm bells to start ringing in the highest places (not the sort of places where only Paris Hilton, BMWs and Louis Vuitton-type labels matter, though). Robert Zoellick, President of the World Bank, has warned that more than 100 million people have been lately pushed down to starvation levels (that would include many tens of millions in India, it goes without saying, though the food riots have not yet started in this country). He has scorned the piffling and callous charitable efforts of world leaders, and asked them to ‘put their money where they mouths are’ (this was reported in The Telegraph from Kolkata on April 15: see page 3). Anyone who wishes to read up a bit on the dimensions of the crisis can click on the following link:


Wonder of wonders, who should be among the first to respond positively (even if no more than with a token) but George W. Bush, President of the United States, who has at once sanctioned $200 million out of a special food aid fund to help out the Third World countries most urgently in need. The UN’s World Food Programme has declared it needs a minimum of $500 million by May 1 to carry out its emergency-aid plan successfully. To put these figures in perspective, compare with the billion-dollar jewellery that the wives of a hundred tycoons together wear at any major party in any big metro in the world, the several billion dollars that Anil Ambani recently raised from the Indian share market in one day, and the nearly trillion dollars that the five richest countries of the world spend together on ‘defending’ themselves against one another every year (one billion is a thousand million, a trillion is a thousand billion). Tells us something about mankind, doesn’t it? Incidentally, my reading of history assures me that things were exactly like that when famines loomed in the time of the Buddha 2,500 years ago (read Tagore’s poem called Nagarlakshmi), and even as recently as in 1943 in India. Food for thought, for those who insist on believing there’s been a lot of ‘progress’ all around us. Obsessing with fashion, thrills and technology, especially when one and one’s parents have never known genuine deprivation, and feel quite sure they never will, is very conducive to forgetting the more unpleasant things about reality (this is in connection with my last post about really looking at the world). As some of my favourite pupils will understand, this is one of the major reasons why I look askance at studying science – at least, as we understand studying science in India. Of course, agronomy and public health engineering are important branches of science too, but only relatively poor performers go for them under compulsion, don’t they? The elite study computers and management. And they don’t waste time thinking about famines; famines don’t happen to ‘people like us’. Only, they get terribly upset if someone in their families accidentally gets killed or kidnapped by terrorists fighting for the least privileged – ‘why on earth should these wretched criminals target innocent people like us? What is the government doing? Shoot all the vermin!’ There has never been a bigger crime than a hungry man raising a fist or a gun against the most privileged (many of whom have never done a day’s honest work in their lives – think of Paris Hilton again, or even a typical government clerk grown fat on bribes and his even fatter wife and children, or the cybercoolie in Bangalore who spends more than half the day either on orkut or in a pub).

I hope some readers will realize I am not changing the context when I mention that I was thrilled when my daughter told me to read a story she had liked in a comic-strip book. The story is about a little girl in rural Karnataka who lived with her grandparents. Her grandmother, a hardworking, simple, god-fearing, traditional housewife, loved to hear the girl reading out a serialized story in a certain magazine, and waited with bated breath for the next instalment. Once the girl happened to be away from home for a few days; she returned to find her grandmother in tears, because she had not been able to read the latest issue of the magazine in her grandchild’s absence, and she was too ashamed to ask any neighbour to read it out for her. She begged her granddaughter to teach her how to read. She proved to be a very eager and diligent pupil despite her advanced age, and in no time at all she was capable of reading her favourite magazine all by herself. The young teacher was delighted and very proud of herself, not least because her grandmother did the unthinkable: touched her feet as the ageless Indian tradition requires the good and diligent student to do to acknowledge the debt that can never be repaid (no question about who is older here; today's parents please note!)

My daughter pointed out to me that the story had been written by Sudha Murthy. And I discovered not only that my 11-year old daughter had liked the story enough to draw my attention to it, but she knew quite a bit about Sudha Murthy too (which is more than what most of my ‘good students’ in class 10 and 12 can boast of): that she is not merely N. R. Narayan Murthy’s wife but a very accomplished scholar, teacher, manager, social worker and writer – a full and admirable woman in her own right, not merely a useless, expensive and vain ornament as most rich men’s wives are. We had a talk about the sort of people who ought to be respected, with or without money, and she seemed to understand perfectly well my lament that the real trouble with the world is that most of the money in the world is in the hands of the wrong people. I am beginning to have some hopes for my daughter. And I hope also that I have been able to hint at why famine-like situations should develop in a world of apparent plenty, and what sort of mindsets (rather than capital, technology and media gimmicks) are needed in large numbers in order to make a difference for the better.

(P.S., April 18: After reading the above post, Rajdeep, from Nagoya, Japan, sent in the following relevant and highly interesting link: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1725975,00.html

Thanks, Rajdeep.

April 19: By the way, doing a Google search with the keywords 'current world food crisis' will yield very interesting results!)


Tanmoy said...

Dear Suvroda,

While reading your post, I remembered a small incident at a very early professional life of mine. In those days, I had just joined as an Economist with Confederation of Indian Industry. While I was attending the CII World Economic Forum(CII's flagship event attended by big names from industry), I met this elderly gentleman who has standing alone in one corner of the huge hotel room. I was just two months old in the profession perhaps and I thought I shall start by introducing myself to this man who appeared "not-so-posh"and "not-so-important" (actually many people attend CII meetings by paying huge sums just to come close with CII employees). Thus, I went up to him without any inhibitations and started talking to him about different topics. He was not very impressive while speaking and more than him I was the one who was speaking . I was immature to say the least, and I was very proud within, feeling as if I was telling an ignorant man - what all CII does and what all I generally do! I was foolish not to even remember how he introduced himself. After a while, I gave him my visiting card (the first ever person to whom I gave my first professional card) and told him that if he needs any help from CII he can contact me. He told me, he did not have his card in his pocket but asked me if I can give him a paper so that he can give me his contact details. I gave him another of my visiting card, on which he wrote his name and office phone numbers.

As I thanked him and went away I looked at the card - he was Mr. Narayanmurthy - the then CEO of Infosys whom I could not recognize. I felt really silly but was amazed to see his modesty while listening to literally "stupid chatter" from a young executive like me. The entire day at the event I did not even come near to him. However, during the evening when I accidentally bumped into him he recognized me and told me; he liked listening to me and wishes that I do very well in my career.

I shall forever remember this incident not because he is a wellknown executive but because in my early days in profession after meeting him I realized despite being an achiever one can remain grounded and one's face can reflect that "Yes, I have toiled hard and have become an achiever".

I felt enriched after being touched by the sheer genuineness. I wish India has more professionals like him.


PS: I do not know how far the comment is related to your post but felt like sharing the experience.

ginger candy said...


The real big problem with India is that a far too many 'do-numberi' and '420' people have risen to important posts and offices. These are the kind of people who have never worked hard a single day in their life, do not possess any real knowledge whatsoever, and do nothing to contribute for the betterment of the society. Easy money is flowing in from the U.S for all sorts of worthless IT jobs, and people are too busy hankering after 'onsite opportunities' so that they might earn enough money to make a comfortable living hereafter. No wonder, all these people drool over the wrong type of examples- For instance, I have seen a lot of people admiring Vijay Mallya for his flamboyance and panache (He lives life 'king-style', and although he does not contribute anything worthwhile to the society, he throws lavish Page3 parties), yet hold very low opinions of the likes of Warren Buffet and Melinda Gates who lead a simple life and are hesitant to hog the limelight for no reason at all. What more can you expect of a country infected with millions of such people?

As for those pitiable wives and girlfriends of the rich and famous, I have nothing but utter hatred for these creatures. In general, they are filthy rich and snobbish, and the world would have been a lot more cultured place without them. It's been their great good luck that they had been married to rich and influential people, and the likes of Paris Hilton shall never get any genuine respect of a single worthy person. I have heard and read a lot about Sudha Murthy and I know how great an example she is, but I do not think that too many people would feel inspired to follow her footsteps nowadays, which is very sad indeed.

I would like to narrate a small incident in this context: My mother is an ex-student of Shantiniketan and during her school and college life in Viswa-Bharati, she was very close to Amita Sen, the mother of Dr.Amartya Sen. Some years back, on receiving the news that she was critically ill, we visited her house in Shantiniketan and Dr.Amartya Sen was present there at that time. I was amazed to find how modest and well-cultured a person he is, in spite of his Nobel-Laureate status. He attended all the guests with respect, spoke with them in detail about his mother's health and thanked everybody profusely for taking out a little time for visiting his ailing mother. It takes all kinds- I only wish there were more of the likes of Dr.Amartya Sen and Sudha Murthy in our country,a so that we could have called India a truly civilized nation in the true sense of the term.


Sayan said...

Nice post Sir as always, as always a great reminder of what is important and what is not.
Very interesting comment Tonmoyda; a great lesson in life, I hope I remember that.
Sayan Datta.

Rajdeep said...

Highly perceptive, humane, critically analytical, and very well written. The kind of no-nonsense informative fact statement stories that made, '50 facts that should change the world' by Jessica Williams an admirable and highly readable book. People are, I believe, still surprisingly receptive to such write ups. A movie like Taare Zameen Par makes not only an impact but becomes a box office hit (though unfortunately, a friend I was watching it with, got up and left half way through the movie apparently bored!). This kind of writing will change the world - at least make a little difference for the better. Kudos!

Navin said...

excellent post. Right on the coin. It is indeed troublesome that we people blame so easily, when in some sense we are responsible for creating that mess, and never even wonder once when we are creating a mess.

Aakash said...

Dear Sir,

It is interesting to note how you have linked a general lack of concern for our fellow beings to the greatest disasters on earth, which were created mostly to achieve private ends. The price rise is just another fallout of this basic lack of concern for our fellow people.

The fact that a 100 million people have been pushed below the poverty level does not seem to affect us,that is, the middle class, as we are very much in collusion with the people who drive BMWs and wear clothes from Armaani or Luis Vuitton. In fact, we do not seem to mind the apathy that we see around us because we live off these very people. All we do are token acts of charity. In a country where a farmer commits suicide every thirty-nine minutes, we look hardly worried. As long as we are assured of tax rebates we're fine with all that goes around us. And, of course, we have IPL and Khali to entertain us if we happen to look outside the window.

In his book, 'Everybody Loves a Good Drought', P. Sainath mentions the same thing over and over to the point of sounding repetitive. But my recent visit to Jamshedpur proved me right. I saw the poorest of the poor slogging it out for Rs 30 a day at the coal depot and also smart young 'boys' riding Royal Enfields.

It is indeed a very sad story when a person with a genuine concern for the world around him or her is considered 'special'. But I do hope that more of such special people will be around soon.


Abhijit-Bhabhi said...

Dear Sir

When I started reading your Post , I was reminded of these words by Mahatma Ganadhi "There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.".

It is true that we are living in a society which seems to beleive that " we are not responsible if they are starving". It is this apathy which I think is the root cause for why millions are starving while the TV channels and the majority of the media is debating who will win IPL .

The public of today will blindly follow what the media tells then , whereas in fact it shoud have been the other way around. Hence there is no sensitive potrayal of the millions who even today only dream of a single meal a day because the media seems to have realized that their audience is REALLY NOT interested in either thinking or reaching out to the poor.

As Swami Vivekanda said " You cannot teach sprituality to man , with an empty stomach". What I understand from that,is that there can be no real develpoment as long as we continue to ignore the people below the Povert Line. It is only these people who should be first given" roti,kapda,makaan" ann whatever expenditure it calls for, should be provided , even if it means that our cities will have fewer malls , flyovers,and apartments and such symbols which we are foolishly seeing as the only signs of " development".

I think that as long as there are people like Sudha Murthy , there shall always be a few lamps burning bright to show us the right way to live our lives.

Thank You for the Thought-provoking post Sir.

Abhijit Bharadwaj


Rajdeep said...

Dear Suvro da,
Please delete my previous comment on Basmati rice. It was wrong information. The correct information is, Time reported from New Delhi that: "India, on the brink of a food crisis, bans the export of nonbasmati rice." I would like to know more about the food situation back in India.

Tanmoy said...

Dear Rajdeep,

If you shall like to read about the global food crisis, I shall suggest please read this week's Economist. The link to the article is http://www.economist.com/world/international/displaystory.cfm?story_id=11049284

Additionally, another recent article by noted economist Bimal Jalan (ex-RBI Governor)which I thought was good is http://www.business-standard.com/common/news_article.php?tab=r&autono=320615&subLeft=3&leftnm=3

Best regards

Rajdeep said...

Dear Tanmoy,

Thanks for the two links. They were very informative.

Best wishes,


Suvro Chatterjee said...

... here's another link that readers might find interesting:

Suvro Chatterjee said...

The senior and respected novelist/journalist Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay has commented worriedly and sadly on this in the latest (17th April) issue of Desh magazine. Interested folks might look up page 7.

The papers also tell me that given the general elections looming ahead, the current inflation has put a worried frown on our Prime Minister's face. I hope that augurs well for the poor and badly-off!