FORUM – The Poor Can Buy Barbie Dolls (Part One)

03 May 2001

When the French peasantry was reeling under a severe famine and Marie-Antoinette was told that they had no bread to eat, she nonchalantly said, “If there is no bread, let them eat cake”.
When thousands of our farmers are committing suicide, when millions of our women and children are facing hunger and starvation, a leading economist said that, “The poor can buy Barbie dolls”. This statement was made when I was on a T.V. panel with him to discuss and debate the impact of the removal of import restrictions (Quantitative Restrictions or QRs).
We were discussing the disastrous impacts of the free flow of products into Indian markets on small-scale producers and farmers. A video clip had been shown of the 100,000 lock makers in Aligarh whose units were being shut down as cheap locks from China were flooding our markets. The importation of agricultural commodities like edible oils have already destabilised the agricultural economy and with 147 more agricultural items removed from the restricted list, other sectors will be hit.
The removal of QRs has been celebrated by the media as a consumers bonanza. “Sample XS”, “Johnie Walker, fine wines in 2 weeks”, “The Consumer Bonanza”, “The Indian consumer has finally been crowned king”, “The brand India will be wearing Overcoat Dolce & Gabbana, Scarves Hermes, Belt Calvin Klein, Skirt Margaretha Ley Escada, Pullover Chloe, Diamond Necklace Van Clef and Arpels”.
The diamond laden lady is not the typical Indian consumer. Most Indian consumers are already consuming less than their basic needs require as livelihoods are destroyed, incomes disappear and purchasing power evaporates. Cereal consumption has declined by 12% in rural India during a decade of reforms. As imports further destroy livelihoods, especially of the poor, their consumption levels will further fall. No one is addressing the declining consumption of the poor as imported goods drive out domestic production and livelihoods. And when the issue of survival of the poor was raised, our worthy economist stated seriously, “the poor can buy Barbie Dolls”.
It is this mindset of elite India, blind to the growing hunger and destitution of the people of this country, but enthralled by the junk that can now be imported, which is fooling the country about the reason and impact of lifting QRs. Among the unrestricted imports are carcasses of sheep and goats, offal (animal waste parts) of chicken, sheep, turkeys, ducks, geese, rabbits, hares and swine.
We have opened up our markets to meat imports when Europe is in crisis because of Mad Cow Disease and Food and Mouth Disease. More than 500,000 animals are being killed and burned.
The U.S. Center for Disease and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta has calculated that nearly 81 million cases of food borne illnesses occur in the US every year. Deaths from food poisoning have more than quadrupled due to deregulation, rising from 2,000 in 1984 to 9,000 in 1994. Most of these infections are caused by factory farmed meat. CDC estimates there are nearly 20,000 cases of poisoning by the mutant E. Coli 0157.H7. This mutant bacterium was unknown before 1982 and contamination of meat by E. Coli 0157.H7 results from sloppy high-speed slaughter and processing industry.
The so-called Hazard Analysis Critical points (HACCP) is in reality a Trojan Horse for deregulation which has resulted in removing 1,400 food inspectors and leaving food safety in the hands of the factory farming industry which produces food hazards in its rush to slaughter more animals faster. A few high-speed slaughter operations have driven out thousands of small packers out of business.
The US slaughters 93 million pigs, 37 million cattle, two million calves, six million horses, goats and sheep and eight billion chickens and turkeys.
Now the giant meat industry of the US, including the disreputed meat giant Tyson, wants to dump contaminated meat produced through violent and cruel methods on India, a predominately vegetarian society.
Fewer employees were slaughtering more animals and the worker turnover rate in high-speed plants is nearly 100 per cent per year according to the United Food and Commercial International Union. Workers in America’s slaughterhouses call working in the meat industry worse than slavery.
Factory farms and slaughterhouses are prisons for animals and humans. Article XX of the GATT allows the exemption of WTO rules relating to prison labour (Article XX (e)). On grounds related to products of prison labour the removal of restrictions on imports from the US should be immediately stopped.
The Government’s announcement that the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act will be used to ensure “Biosecurity” under free import conditions is far from reassuring. PFA is an outmoded food law, designed before the age of Mad Cows, prions and GMOs. The Government has so far failed to pass a law drafted by the Social Welfare Ministry for the labeling of vegetarian and non-vegetarian content in food items. It has not shown the will to protect public health or the citizens right to know. It cannot guarantee food safety in the face of imports through the instruments it has offered. The “Licence Raj” has not ended. Our public health is being put in the hands of corrupt inspectors who will give licenses for the import of the most hazardous food stuffs without blinking an eyelid. Art XX allows for bans on imports and this is the route that should be used for agricultural products that carry risks for animal or human health.

Vandana Shiva, writer and “ecological scientist”, directs the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy in New Delhi. Her current work centers on biodiversity and sustainable agriculture.

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