25 April, 2014


It seems Barclays, one of London’s pre-eminent banks, is winding down its commodities market branch. They say it’s not profitable enough.

And what is the commodities market? (I’m asking because like most people on the planet, I actually don’t know.) It appears to be a stock exchange where people are betting on wheat and gold and oil, and commodities of this nature.

So basically (for people like you and me who have no clue how these things operate), it appears there are some rich people with money, betting that the wheat harvest this year will be better than last year’s, and putting money down in a virtual casino where they win if the wheat does well. Or perhaps they win if there’s a drought and there’s less wheat than predicted, in which case the prices go up and they win. The rest of the world loses, but never mind that. Or perhaps the referent, wheat, doesn’t even have to do well or do badly—at this point, the virtual simulcrum of wheat separates from its referent and floats off into this netherworld of virtual betting.

This “wheat” is not the actual grain that you and I eat in the form of bread. It is something that becomes detached from its original point, and has floated off in computers in the form of numbers and profits that find their way into the bank accounts of a handful of rich people attached to stock exchanges. I imagine this wheat is grown by giant companies and not individual farmers. It gets listed in the stock exchange, and stocks and shares gamblers put in options and derivatives on it. Somewhere in the middle, bankers make insane profits off this wheat.

 No wonder Monsanto has become a billion dollar company—the stock exchange ensures that creepy politicians who have put in their bets on this company continue to uphold the interests of companies of this nature, trying to squeeze out the farmers owning the one hectare plots of land, until all land, seed, crop and water (and media, check out the links at the bottom, they feature the “rational” voice of the Economist AND the BBC trying to prove that there never was a spate of suicide amongst farmers in India) is in the hands of one or two of these giant companies. I’m talking about India, where apparently the ban on GM testing has been lifted by one politician.

And I’m talking about one scientific study done by an university of London that’s getting a lot of press-apparently these good folks have finally figured out the cause of the farmer suicides in India. They say--hold your breath-- that the actual cause of the suicides is—poverty! Poverty. Did you hear that? In case you missed that, I’ll repeat it: poverty. Now isn’t that marvelous? What a marvelous study this must have been, done no doubt over months with many graduate students, and funded by bagfuls of heavy GBPs that comes out of the London Stock Exchange. No, they do not refer to P. Sainath or his work for the past decades, or to Vandana Shiva. No mention of Monsanto. They say, strictly and impartially, that the suicides were caused by poverty, and nothing else.

Now let me say I have great respect for scientific studies. Except when it turns out to be a crock of shit like this one. I mean, seriously. It’s like some university that goes off and studies global warming and comes back and says definitively that it’s the sun that’s warming the earth. They are positive. Not the automobile industry, not the humans’ usage of gas, not petrol, not our insane destruction of forests. No, no, no. It’s the sun, stupid.

Well, to be fair, these folks do say that the government should help the poor farmers who own less than one hectare of land. The “less than one hectare”, in the minds of these excellent scientists, is obviously the main culprit, causing the poverty. That’s nice these good folks advocate for policy change and help from the government for poor farmers. But that’s not the only issue here. Hundreds of thousands of farmers did not commit suicide prior to Monsanto’s entry into their world-they still only had one hectare, but they managed to grow food and feed their families. So its not the “less than one hectare, small farmer” status that is killing them. It is something else.

There’s something wrong when the basic unit of life—food—became a chip to gamble on the stock market. And everyone from corrupt politicians to feeble academic institutions in need of funding become vulnerable to bribery and corruption as they move to support these profitable companies. There’s a “natural” logic to the thought that small-holding farmers should eventually be “phased out”. This is the “natural” form of development, or so the World Bank would have you believe. Eventually, say the policymakers, all these smallholders will move to the city to become chowkidars and nannies while Monsanto provides them with their daily rations.

But is that how the world will, or should, proceed? Small farmers make up a significant bulk of the world’s population. They have, in many ways, managed to sustain themselves through their farming and their ownership of land, no matter how small. The Indian government creating a policy to support small farmers so they can continue to grow BT cotton, as advocated by the British academics, is wrong, in all senses of the term. The Indian government should compensate its small farmers, but not so they can continue a farming practice that has caused them so much harm. The government should be compensating them for the tremendous loss it has caused them—via life and lost income—by allowing a company that is lethal, and which has wiped out their livelihoods and way of life, into their lands.

Of course, I doubt this will happen anytime soon, not with Narendra Modi in the running. Mr. Modi clearly favors the big companies over the little people. That little ad with him using his hands to say: “Let me be the country’s sevak” gave me a little involuntary shiver. Who knew the word “sevak,” or “social service worker/server,” which has such humble and loving origins, would suddenly take on these sinister connotations?

It also occurred to me that the Gujarat massacre, with men with computer printouts and cellphones driving around in jeeps to set fire to Muslim businesses, may have a large economic motive. When I was in Gagangunj (a small neighbourhood of Nepalgunj) about fifteen years ago, the Badi women told us that a campaign to get rid of them from their town was in progress. The new people came in and claimed to be waging a morality campaign, protesting the Badi women were prostitutes and had to leave the neighbourhood. But in fact, the women told us, it was a clever campaign to take over the land. Most Badi women, surprisingly, own their own land—surprising in a land where less than 4% of women have land ownership. When groups of men stormed in and started to throw TVs and people out of the windows, the women left to escape the danger, leaving the land to be seized. In much the same way, the campaign to drive out the squatters in Dharavi, Mumbai’s largest slum, clearly had an economic motive—rich people wanted the land that the poor people had been living on for generations. And I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that much of the destruction of Gurujati Muslim businesses may have benefited the people who took over the abandoned shops, who may have been the very people who took part in the riots. In any crime, follow the money, as Hercule Poirot said (or maybe it was Miss Marple).

The move to get rid of smallholding farmers so that giant companies can take over the cleared land has much the same connotation as the Gujurat massacre where small Muslim businesspeople were displaced, so that other people could take over their shops and livelihoods. And this may be the biggest challenge of this century—having the courage to dismantle the apparatus of finance and politics that makes these “stock exchanges” possible.

That venerable publication of great repute, the Economist, says there is no unusual suicides amongst farmers in India. We the skeptics wonder how much the Economist and its management team received from Monsanto et al to write this piece:

The even more venerable voice of the greatest wool gathering--I mean, statistics gathering--I mean, news gathering--operation in the world, the BBC:

The even more venerable Guardian implies Indian activists are lying:

Oddly, it seems only the Daily Mail of the UK has reported on this the old fashioned way-not by crunching numbers and statistics, but through hard reporting. They actually sent a reporter down to see what was going on. And guess what, people were dying after drinking pesticide, and yes, they had been planting GM crops. Urm… I don’t know a lot about British politics, but isn’t the Daily Mail reviled by the so-called Left?


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