Hungry Nation: Food, Famine and the Making of Modern India by Benjamin Robert Seigel explores the intricate ways in which nation-building, development planning, citizenship and welfare were centred on the postcolonial state’s promise of eliminating famine and hunger in independent India. Raghunath Nageswaran finds a book that offers a wide-ranging account of the nation’s vexed relationship with food in the first three decades after independence leading up to the Green Revolution.  

Hungry Nation: Food, Famine and the Making of Modern India by Benjamin Robert Seigel. Cambridge University Press. 2018

A great deal has been written about India’s status as a nutritional basket case, both in academia and in the popular press. How did we arrive at a situation where, despite claiming foodgrain surplus year after year, we have failed miserably in addressing both distributional inequities and nutritional insufficiencies of food? Benjamin Robert Siegel investigates the historical roots of this problem in contemporary India and attempts to shed light on the reasons for India’s persistent failure in tackling hunger in Hungry Nation: Food, Famine and the Making of Modern India.

Siegel takes the Bengal Famine of 1943 as the starting point for his narrative that links the food and famine to the postcolonial nation-building project. Even though famines were a running theme throughout colonial India’s history, Siegel posits that “…it was in the wake of the Bengal Famine of 1943 that Indian nationalists tied the promise of independence to the guarantee of food for all, drawing upon novel critiques of India’s political economy” (pp. 5).

Wartime economic mismanagement by the British Raj culminated in acute food shortages in many parts of undivided India, of which the Bengal Famine was only the extreme end of the spectrum. In his view, the 1943 famine was a catalytic moment in the history of modern India that crystallised the material basis of the argument that systematic colonial exploitation of the subcontinent had pan-Indian ramifications. The Famine had a transformative political effect of making food a key site of claim-making by the nationalists for self-rule.

At the cusp of independence, India’s food situation was grave and the influx of refugees from across the border due to partition only intensified the problem. The postcolonial state’s legitimacy rested upon its ability to deliver on the promises of preventing the recurrence of famines and addressing mass hunger head-on, precisely the grounds on which the nationalists had arraigned the Raj.  The agricultural sector that had languished for decades under the Raj had to be revived to produce food on a subcontinental scale.

India had to seek food aid from other countries, particularly the United States, which started reckoning India to be central to its strategic interests in South Asia only after the Chinese Revolution of 1949. Food assistance from the comity of nations came in a trickle and a food crisis loomed large in the immediate aftermath of independence.

It is important to situate the postcolonial state’s commitment to banish famine and hunger in independent India within the broader canvas of planned economic development. We would do well to remember that the postwar global order inaugurated the era of “development economics”, which put forward the following thesis: decolonised countries embarking on economic development need a “big push” from their governments that would chalk out coordinated investment strategies in the industrial sector in order to shift surplus labour from low-productivity agriculture to high-productivity manufacturing. India’s modernising political leadership, led by Jawaharlal Nehru, strongly believed that state-driven rapid industrialisation was the cure to India’s economic ills, including mass poverty.

Therefore, the urgency of the industrialisation project encouraged the planners to view agriculture as a “bargain sector”, a sector in which productivity can be raised by putting in place a patchwork of institutional measures such as Community Development projects under American auspices and land reform legislations. The planners believed that such tinkering at the margins would free up resources required for the urban industrial sector, while achieving equitable land redistribution and rural transformation without the state having to make substantial investments in agriculture. It was presumed that agriculture would benefit by establishing linkages with the industrial sector as the economy grew and expanded.

The postcolonial state to devise an idea of citizenship that was predicated not on constitutional rights but on the imperativeness of performing national duties. In the context of food shortages, the prime national duty was to refrain from the consumption of rice and wheat that drained the country’s foreign exchange reserves and “in place of these staples, India’s new citizens were asked to adopt substitute and subsidiary foods – including bananas, groundnuts, tapioca, yams, beets and carrots – and give up a meal or more each week to conserve India’s scant reserve of grains” (pp. 87). Thus, a macro-level predicament that warranted the postcolonial state to deliver on its promise of guaranteeing food for all was turned into a microeconomic problem requiring solutions at the household level in the first decade of independence.

The signing of the agreement with the United States in 1956 under the Agriculture Trade Development and Assistance Act, popularly known as Public Law 480 (PL-480), helped address three major constraints in one stroke: pay for imported wheat in rupees, saving precious foreign exchange; provide foodgrain (wheat) to urban industrial labour at low prices through ration shops and help the industrial sector accumulate surpluses by enabling it to keep the wage bill low. On the flipside, this move had other consequential implications: “While the 63.41 million tons of wheat that India would import under the aegis of PL480 over the next fifteen years kept shops stocked, it simultaneously hampered agricultural production and handcuffed India to American foreign policy aims” (pp. 136).

Siegel explores the question of agrarian citizenship by focusing on the politically thorny subject of land reforms. The postcolonial state was confronted with a painful dilemma: should equity and improved productivity go hand in hand or should the goal of abundance be delinked from questions of social equity. The landed gentry and propertied interests in the countryside subverted any state action that required them to relinquish their assets in the cause of redistribution. Even volunteer-led grassroot movements such as Acharya Vinoba Bhave’s “bhoodan” came a cropper, because they failed to combine moral purpose with a social vision.

There was a section even within the Congress party that advocated targeted inputs and the selective privileging of certain farmers to achieve greater productivity, even at the expense of equity. The underlying notion was that it was worth sacrificing equity for growth and the food problem might be solved without the universal uplift of all producers. This strand of thought which remained at the margins became mainstreamed after Nehru’s demise in May 1964.

The ascent of Lal Bahadur Shastri to the position of Prime Minister and of C. Subramaniam as Food and Agriculture Minister in 1964 had momentous consequences for India’s polity, as they expedited the process that paved the way for a paradigm shift in India’s agriculture policy with the unleashing of the “Green Revolution”. Siegel observes that “..in the years that followed, an empowered class of agrarian capitalists who had benefited from Green Revolution transformations would remake national politics and stymie further efforts at egalitarian reform” (pp. 218).

Credit, implements, irrigation, price incentives, seeds and chemical fertilisers – a state-sponsored institutional package which allowed the reasonably well-endowed “progressive” farmer to ascend the agricultural ladder towards more productivity and prosperity became the nostrum for achieving abundance in food, eventually decoupling food from welfare and citizenship. The Green Revolution was a product of both conscious policy choices and historical contingencies against the backdrop of Cold War era realpolitik.

Siegel could perhaps have elaborated upon a couple of themes that warrant detailed discussions: differentiation in the dietary patterns of urban and rural India, food shortages in independent India as a largely urban problem and the air of inevitability surrounding the Green Revolution. These themes have received sufficient scholarly treatment in Richa Kumar’s book Rethinking Revolutions: Soyabean, Choupals, and the Changing Countryside in Central India (2016), in which she devotes an entire chapter to challenge the dominant narratives associated with India’s food problem and Green Revolution.

The fact that India’s quantitative food surpluses in the aggregate have not been translated into meaningful gains for millions of hungry and malnourished cannot be refuted. As Amartya Sen’s influential work on famine and its causes shows, food security in any given society can be ensured only by access to food based on the entitlements (such as employment and regular source of income) that people have. The nature of social relationships mediated by caste, gender and religion coupled with constitutional guarantees determine the availability of such entitlements. India’s track record on this count leaves much to be desired.

Raghunath Nageswaran has an M.A. in Economics from Madras Christian College, Chennai (India) . His  principal area of research interest is the political economy and economic history of post-independence India. He is a freelance writer and can be contacted at raghind@gmail.com.

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