Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2805

Deadly heat in India will add to food emergency

Poor yields and rising prices pushed the government to ban wheat exports. But the market can offer no solutions for the poor, says Yuri Prasad
Issue 2805
Processing Wheat in Jassapara, Rajasthan

Crop failure is so rife India has banned the export of wheat. (Steven dosRemedios)

A terrifying heatwave ­continues to grip India and Pakistan, with temperatures in New Delhi last weekend fractionally off 50 degrees Celsius. Most rich and middle class ­residents can afford to hide ­themselves away and turn up their air conditioning during the hottest hours. But life is near unbearable for the millions of poor people.

Construction worker Tundre said he’s fighting a losing battle. “There is too much heat and if we won’t work, what will we eat? For a few days, we work and then we sit idle for a few days because of tiredness.” At 9am, with the temperature already at 36 degrees, Darshan Mukhiya walks barefoot while ­wheeling his 83 year old father in a cart. He has to take him to a ­government office before he loses access to state benefits.

“We don’t own a fan, let alone a cooler,” Mukhiya told the Economic Times newspaper. “What else does someone like me have to protect themselves?” His only option for cooling off is to soak in a polluted river.

There are also no fans at the open-air school in the shade of a nearby bridge. Delhi’s Metro trains roll overhead—their air conditioned carriages filled with people that can afford a little luxury.

There should be 300 pupils at this free school. But many poor people have fled the city for the ­countryside to escape the heat and seek support from their families as they can’t work during the ­heatwave. Yet all is not well in the countryside.

With high temperatures ­destroying crops and livelihoods, the ­government last weekend announced a ban on wheat exports. In February it forecast a wheat harvest of 111 million tonnes. By May it had reduced that to 105 ­million tonnes. Now wheat dealers suggest the real figure is lower than 100 million tonnes.

The huge reduction in wheat production will likely be mirrored in other core staples and is already sending prices soaring. The inflation crisis is sending a wave of panic through the hard right government of Narendra Modi. Its move to halt grain exports is not designed to protect the poorest from starvation. It is a political effort to bring prices down and ­redirect growing anger away from the administration.

The international markets are far from happy with Modi’s plan. “If everyone starts to impose export restrictions or to close markets, that would worsen the crisis,” said German agriculture minister Cem Ozdemir. The Green Party MP has joined the raft of politicians fighting to maintain the free market in the face of calamity. But the laws of the market have prevented the tough action on climate change needed to avoid the deadly heat today in India ­spreading across the world.

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