In the tumultuous landscape of post-invasion Ukraine, a nation straddles two disparate worlds ~ the grim trenches of a relentless war and the increasingly contentious political battleground in Kyiv.
Russia’s withdrawal from the grain deal on 17 July received global criticism. The West accused Russia of employing ‘food as a weapon,’ as it impacted the UN’s World Food Program hurting weaker nations in Africa as also Afghanistan, though Russia promised to compensate by providing free grain to select African nations. It found echo in the Russo-Africa summit as also partially eroded Russia’s influence in Africa. Russia has had a bumper crop this year, but cutting it off from the global financial system has impacted its payment mechanisms. Russia and Ukraine are amongst the largest suppliers of wheat, barley, sunflower oil and other food products.
International wheat prices rose 1.6per cent on the Russian pullout. With Russia continuing its attacks on Ukraine’s grain stocks, global wheat prices are bound to further rise. On 20 July, India imposed a ban on export of non-basmati white rice. It resulted in panic buying in the US and Canada, shooting up prices. The primary objective of the ban, as announced by the government, was to lower domestic price of rice thereby reducing inflation, especially in an election year. India is the world’s largest exporter of rice and commands 40 per cent of the global rice trade, of which non-basmati rice is 15 per cent. As per US data, India exported 22.5 million tonnes of rice in the last financial year. The ban resulted in hoarding in some parts of the world.
Rice prices rose 2.8 per cent in July as compared to June. This is their highest level since 2011. Torero, the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization) chief economist stated, ‘the world has adequate food supplies, challenges to supplies from major producers due to conflict, export restrictions or weather-induced production shortfalls, can lead to supply and demand imbalances.’ India, on its part, kept a window open by stating that exports could be permitted on a case-by-case basis.
This is a repeat of what it had done when it banned export of wheat last year to curb internal inflation. Nations which approached India directly, Egypt being an example, received requisite stocks. India also provided wheat to Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the UAE, amongst others. Unlike rice, India was never a major exporter of wheat accounting for just over 1 per cent of the global trade. India’s share in the global food trade rose from 3.38 per cent in 2010 to 7.79 per cent in 2022. As compared to criticism of Russia for its wheat ban, there was little on India’s rice ban.
The US and the West barely whimpered. The IMF did comment by stating, ‘these types of restrictions are likely to exacerbate volatility in food prices in the rest of the world and can also lead to retaliatory measures.’ By keeping the door open on a case-by-case basis, India would provide to those nations whom it desires to assist. Most of them would be from the global south. Addressing the agriculture ministers’ summit of the G20 in June this year, PM Modi stated India, apart from being the voice of the Global South, will also play a crucial role in maintaining global food security. A report mentions that India has since approved shipment of rice to Senegal, Ghana and Indonesia.
All of India’s exports would be based on government-to-government requests, enabling India to enhance its soft power and global standing. India donating wheat to Afghanistan, post the Taliban takeover, resulted in rebuilding ties. It changed India’s standing in Kabul and opened doors for direct communication with the Taliban regime. The Taliban responded with its spokesperson mentioning, ‘The Islamic Emirate is grateful to India for its humanitarian assistance and cooperation.’ It also led to India reopening its embassy in Kabul with a ‘technical team.’
Similarly, India enhanced its influence in the Middle East and North Africa. Another possible reason for imposing the rice ban is to restrict uncontrolled export of rice to China. In 2022, private Indian suppliers shipped almost 30 per cent of Chinese rice imports valued at USD 777 million. With floods continuing in China as also lack of arable land, its demand for rice is likely to increase this year. With India having imposed a ban on rice exports, except on a case-by-case basis, the Chinese government will be compelled to approach New Delhi for provision of rice stocks, in case unavailable elsewhere. This would provide India with an upper hand in its diplomatic dealings with China. During Covid, India had successfully adopted its vaccine diplomacy, which was provision of Indian manufactured vaccines to economically weaker nations.
The programme was launched in Jan 2021 as ‘Vaccine Maitri,’ with the motto, ‘Made in India, shared with the world.’ India also sold vaccines at reduced rates to mainly low-income and developing countries. By March 2021, India had supplied over 60 million doses, before it was compelled to suspend deliveries because of a powerful second wave hitting the country. It subsequently recommenced. All the while, the WHO hounded Western nations for hoarding vaccine stocks. The QUAD vaccine partnership was also dependent on Indian production. National leaders from every continent thanked India for its ‘Vaccine Maitri’ programme in every global forum, prominently the UN General Assembly. India had for decades been offering 50,000 scholarships to African nations. It was time to change strategy.
India recently launched its education diplomacy, which involves setting up branches of top educational institutions in weaker nations. During his recent visit to Tanzania, Foreign Minister S Jaishankar announced the establishment of the first foreign campus of the IITs. Jaishankar had earlier inaugurated the National Forensic Sciences University’s first off-shore campus in Jinja, Uganda. India has also provided financial support to African nations to enhance their infrastructure. Similar educational institutions in other nations would follow suit. While China is seeking to gain a foothold in third world countries through its BRI, India is establishing itself through its soft power.
While the Chinese intent is to grab weaker nations’ strategic assets, India’s is to be a part of their success story. With far lesser investment, India would win hearts and minds, which China can never. India’s unorthodox diplomacy is proving a success. India’s acceptance as a respected voice of the global south is mainly on account of its desire to support economically weaker nations, while others seek to exploit them.
(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army.