By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 8, 2008
NEW DELHI, May 7 -- A brief comment by President Bush about the role of India in the world food crisis has set off a firestorm of criticism in this country.
Speaking to employees at a high-tech firm in St. Louis over the weekend, Bush noted that much of the developing world was prospering and that U.S. businesses could benefit. As an example, he cited India, where the "middle class is larger than our entire population."
But "when you start getting wealth, you start demanding better nutrition and better food," he said. "And so demand is high, and that causes the price to go up."
Overnight, Indians reacted with outrage at what they saw as a suggestion that they were to blame for inflation. Politicians lashed out at Bush. Newspapers excoriated him.
"India is not a net food importer. It is a food exporter. The assumption that prices are increasing because of a changed India is completely erroneous," said Manish Tewari, a spokesman for the ruling Congress party.
Defense Minister A.K. Antony called Bush's remark a "cruel joke," while an opposition member called the president the world's new "bread inspector."
In an attempt to clarify Bush's remarks, White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said Monday that it was a "good thing" that countries are developing and that "more and more people have higher standards of living." Stanzel also said growing demands in India and China were causing the price of oil to rise.
To Westerners, Bush's comments might seem innocuous. But after decades of slow national growth and forced austerity, middle-class Indians are now extremely proud of their newfound prosperity and are quick to react if they feel picked on by affluent nations.
Bush's comments Saturday came one day after similar comments by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice put Indians on edge. In a speech before Peace Corps country directors, she mentioned various factors behind the food crisis, among them the "improvement in the diets of people, for instance, in China and India."
In the days since, Indian newspapers have published articles citing comparative food consumption statistics for the United States and India. One headline said, "U.S. eats 5 times more than India per capita," and quoted data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
A cartoon in the Times of India on Tuesday showed a couple of overweight American tourists looking at emaciated Indian men rummaging for leftover food in a trash heap. "No wonder we're having food shortages back home in the States -- these guys in India have started eating way too much," they say.
"Bush is shifting the blame to hide the truth. We all know that the food crisis is an outcome of the American policy of diverting huge land area from food to fuel production," said Devinder Sharma, a food policy analyst and chair at the New Delhi-based Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security. "America has the largest land for ethanol production in the world."
Sharma said Bush's remarks are "an expression of racism" because they imply that excess food is permissible for some but not for others.
"If Indians start eating like Americans, the world would have to grow food on the moon," he said.