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Updated: February 13, 2013 00:54 IST

From Bengal Famine to Right to Food

M. S. Swaminathan
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While there is reason to be proud of the progress in the production of wheat, rice, cereals and millets, the use of farmland for non-farm purposes is a cause for concern

The year 2013 marks the 70th anniversary of the Bengal Famine which resulted in the death of an estimated 1.5 to 3 million children, women and men during 1942-43. A constellation of factors led to this mega-tragedy, such as the Japanese occupation of Burma, the damage to the aman (kharif) rice crop both due to tidal waves and a disease epidemic caused by the fungus Helminthosporium oryzae, panic purchase and hoarding by the rich, failure of governance, particularly in relation to the equitable distribution of the available food grains, disruption of communication due to World War II, and the indifference of the then U.K. government to the plight of the starving people of undivided Bengal.

Famines were frequent in colonial India and some estimates indicate that 30 to 40 million died out of starvation in Tamil Nadu, Bihar and Bengal during the later half of the 19th century. This led to the formulation of elaborate Famine Codes by the then colonial government, indicating the relief measures that should be put in place when crops fail.

The Bengal Famine attracted much attention both among the media and the public, since it occurred soon after Mahatma Gandhi’s “Quit India” call to the British in 1942. Agricultural stagnation and famines were regarded among the major adverse consequences of colonial rule. I wish to narrate the impact of the twin developments, namely, Bengal Famine on the one hand, and the “Quit India” movement on the other, on the minds of students like me. I was studying at the University College, Thiruvananthapuram, during 1940-44, when gruesome pictures of starving children, women and men on the streets of Kolkata and in other parts of Bengal appeared in The Hindu, the Statesman and other newspapers. The goal of my University education was to get into a medical college and equip myself to run a hospital in Kumbakonam left behind by my father, M.K. Sambasivan, who died at a young age in 1936.

Role models

Unlike today, when students have to search hard for role models, those of my time had many leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhash Chandra Bose whom we worshipped. A few of my college mates and I used to meet to discuss the role we could play when the British quit India. During my B.Sc biology course, I fell in love with the science of genetics. Therefore, in a meeting of students where the topic of discussion was our role in independent India, I announced that I had decided to shift my interest from medicine to agriculture, so that I could contribute to Gandhiji’s goal of making famine and hunger problems of the past. Though there was disappointment in my family that I would not be following my father’s footsteps and managing the hospital, it fully supported my decision to join the Coimbatore Agricultural College to do a B.Sc. degree in agriculture before proceeding for post-graduate studies in agricultural genetics and crop improvement.

Three factor

I am narrating this event in a crucial stage in my life only to point out the life-changing impact the Bengal Famine and Gandhiji’s vision of a hunger free India had on young minds. Looking back, I am glad I made this change and also that I am living today when a historic transition from the Bengal Famine to Right to Food with home grown food is taking place. On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Bengal Famine, Parliament is likely to pass the National Food Security Bill which will be the world’s largest social protection measure against hunger. How did this transition come about? I would like to pick up three factors which played a significant role in changing our agricultural destiny from the “ship to mouth” situation which prevailed during 1950-70, to the “right to food” commitment of 2013.

First, the Nehru era marked the development of the scientific infrastructure essential for improving farm productivity, such as major and minor irrigation projects, fertilizer factories, agricultural universities, farm extension services and marketing facilities. To get the benefit from the investment in these areas, an Intensive Agricultural District Programme (IADP) was started in 1960-61. By 1963-64, IADP covered 15 districts. Unfortunately, the impact of IADP on yield improvement was not up to expectation. My analysis showed that the package of practices missed one important ingredient, namely a genetic strain which can respond to the rest of the package, particularly irrigation water and fertilizer.

It is this missing ingredient that I helped to provide by undertaking a search for genes for non-lodging plant habit. This search led to our getting seeds of semi-dwarf wheat germplasm from Dr. Orville Vogel of the U.S. and Dr. Norman Borlaug of Mexico, and semi-dwarf rice strains from Taiwan and the International Rice Research Institute, the Philippines. The new plant architecture helped to convert nutrients and water more efficiently into grains. Consequently, they came to be referred to as high-yielding varieties. In 1962-63, it became clear that food self-sufficiency was an idea whose time had come. I prepared a plan early in 1963 titled “Five Years of Dwarf Wheats”, outlining a road map for achieving a substantial rise in production by 1968. An important component of this Plan was launching a large Lab to Land programme in the form of national demonstrations in the fields of small and marginal farmers. Agriculture is a risky profession and predictions are difficult. However, the strong public policy support extended by C. Subramaniam, supported by Prime Ministers Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi, led to the fulfilment of our expectation that 1968 would mark a new beginning in our agricultural history. Indira Gandhi released a special stamp titled “the Wheat Revolution” in July 1968 to mark this event.

The second transformational factor was procurement of food grains from farmers at a minimum support price fixed on the basis of the advice of the Agricultural Prices Commission. A small government programme titled “High Yielding Varieties Programme” became a mass movement owing to the enthusiasm generated among farm families both by the yield revolution and the opportunities for assured and remunerative marketing. Wheat production has continued to rise since 1968 and has now reached a level of 92 million tonnes. A third important factor was the synergy brought about among scientific know-how, political do-how and farmers’ toil, often referred to as the “green-revolution symphony”. While we can be legitimately proud of our progress in the production of wheat and rice and other cereals and millets leading to the commitment of government of over 60 million tonnes of foodgrains for implementing the provisions of the Food Security Bill, there is no time to relax since dark clouds are gathering on the horizon.

I would like to touch upon three threats to the future of food production and our sustained capacity to implement the provisions of the Food Security Bill. First, prime farmland is going out of agriculture for non-farm purposes such as real estate and biofuels. Globally, the impact of biofuels on food security has become an increasing concern. A High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE) of the World Commission on Food Security (CFS), which I chair, will be submitting a report shortly on Biofuels and Food Security. In this report, we are pointing out that if 10 per cent of all transport fuels were to be achieved through biofuels in the world, this would absorb 26 per cent of all crop production and 85 per cent of the world’s fresh water resources. Therefore, it will be prudent for all countries to accord food security the pride of place in the national land use policy.

Adverse changes in temperature

The second threat comes from global warming and climate change. It is now clear that the mean temperature may rise by at least 2 degrees centigrade during the next few decades. Adverse changes in temperature, precipitation and sea level are all causes for concern. Both anticipatory research to checkmate the adverse consequences of climate change, and participatory research with farming families for developing adaptation and mitigation measures will be important. A third threat comes from the proposal to provide cash instead of grain to those needing protection against hunger. Such a shift may lead to a loss of interest in procurement and storage by public agencies like the Food Corporation of India. Most of our farm families have small holdings and have very little holding capacity. They want to sell as soon as their crop is harvested. If procurement goes down, there will be distress sales and production will go down. We should remember that the green revolution has been sustained only by assured and remunerative marketing opportunities. The Public Distribution System will suffer if procurement by public agencies goes down. National and global price volatility will increase, adding to the misery of the poor. The government, therefore, should always remain at the commanding height of the food security system.

On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Bengal Famine, we should derive strength from the fact that we have so far proved the prophets of doom wrong. At the same time, we need to redouble our efforts to help our farmers to produce more and more food and other commodities under conditions of diminishing per capita availability of arable land and irrigation water. This will be possible if the production techniques of the evergreen revolution approach are followed and farmers are assisted with appropriate public policies to keep agriculture an economically viable occupation. This is also essential to attract and retain youth in farming. If agriculture goes wrong, nothing else will have a chance to go right.

(M.S. Swaminathan is Agricultural Scientist and Member, Rajya Sabha)

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Professor MSS's essay should be an eye-opener to the current generation of "management" scientists in the agricultural sector and an inspiration to working scientists. I wish, however, that Dr MSS, while writing about "Biofuels and Food Security" in relation to water resources, had touched upon two factors, which, in my opinion are the biggest threat to agricultural production: scarcity of water for irrigation, and degradation of soils.
Professor Jhunjhunwalla, economist, has pointed out in an article in another newspaper how "free electricity" to farmers leads to profligate use of water: "In the year 2000, 89 per cent of the water was being used by farmers, 6 per cent by industries and 5 per cent by domestic users...". It is also well known that extreme over-exploitation of ground-water through bore-wells is leading us to disaster. I am sure Dr MSS's Foundation has data on these aspects, and I wish he would give us the benefit of his views and advice.

from:  witan
Posted on: Feb 14, 2013 at 17:39 IST

can you kindly propose a mechanism to procure farmers’ produce, whatever they produce, where ever they produce , at any time they bring for sale, at government support price of minimum price. If this mechanism is put in place by GOI through appropriate machinery, it will give you next agriculture revolution outright?

from:  varghese.al
Posted on: Feb 13, 2013 at 15:28 IST

Growth agriculture sector is very important because 54 per cent
Indians are attached with this sector and another 46 per cent are
dependent on agricultural products. so whole Indians are insecure due
to stagnation in agriculture.Those who are marginalized are most
vulnerable. Thanks to Indian government who is going to present food
security bill in the parliament.It will be end of PDS system.
No doubt direct cash transfer system lower the pressure on exchequer
of government but, it will not end the government responsibility.
Rightly said it can leave adverse effect on agriculture. I salute MS
Swaminathan who devoted his whole life in the development of
agriculture so that India become a hunger free State.

from:  Osama Hasan
Posted on: Feb 13, 2013 at 14:21 IST

Sir , All these developments happening in the area of Agriculture and Food Security is due to the collective and deliberate efforts of the persons of your Stature . Thanks for all.

from:  Raghavendra T
Posted on: Feb 13, 2013 at 14:10 IST

Two points.
A) Our granaries are overflowing, grain is being stored in the open and rats are eating it, at the same time people are dyeing of hunger.
B) all along we have been concentrating on giving apprx 2000 calories to a person, are we producing those grains which have more carbohydrates and less protein ? In Britain there used to be a saying " a mealy look " and " beefy look " are we getting enough protein ?
thank you for your years of service to the nation.

from:  govind
Posted on: Feb 13, 2013 at 14:09 IST

A very enlightening article. A very good point is made that if the
Direct Cash Transfer is rolled out the PDS will suffer. At least the
PDS ensured the nutrition in form of subsidized rice and wheat. To
ensure that the cash given is helping to attain food security would be
very difficult as the investment of the cash would be then a
discretion of the households.
Also the National Food Security bill is proposed at a time when there
is lot of uncertainty regarding the climate. Too much pressure on the
crop productivity and marketing could threaten the entire agriculture
sector in India.

from:  Divya Prakash
Posted on: Feb 13, 2013 at 13:53 IST

The causes given in this article not fully correct. The famine was largely caused due to exploitative British policies. In this regard a devastating account in a book titled " Victorian Holocaust" by Mike Davis may be read.

from:  Uddhav Kamble, Juhu, mumbai
Posted on: Feb 13, 2013 at 12:03 IST

The life of this man is the history of modern Indian agriculture. His
commitment to the cause and his vision should lead us forward. The
weakening of PDS by unleashing the Direct cash transfer scheme will
have detrimental outcome on the nutritional status of women and
children. Many national programs like maternal and child health and
ICDS will fail to achieve their objectives in the absence of a
universal PDS. Cash transfer will fetch votes in the short run but will
clutch out the life from the existence of masses.

from:  K.A.R.Reddy
Posted on: Feb 13, 2013 at 11:27 IST

In the midst of all the negative news in the media, both print and visual, refreshing to see a positive news. I remember, how in our student days, the student protests were for food, which to the present generation of students is un-thinkable. How much has our dear India progressed, despite all the inadequacies.

from:  GEORGE VARGHESE
Posted on: Feb 13, 2013 at 11:02 IST

A great presentation through the words of architect of indian agriculture, of 'transition'of indian agriculture and food, from bengal famine of 1942-43 to right to food bill and a warning note on the future possibilities. great sir!!!!!

from:  aneel.sb
Posted on: Feb 13, 2013 at 10:56 IST

I am a high admirer of sir Swaminathan. His contribution to our
agriculture is invaluable. If we can have more personalities like him
contributing to the agriculture, then famines and starving to death
would be thing of the past.

from:  Akshay Dhadda
Posted on: Feb 13, 2013 at 10:07 IST

With the chemical input technology, to support this technology in public distribution system that was introduced to serve food security only rice and wheat that were grown under this technology were introduced. This affected severely coarse cereals that were grown under rainfed agriculture. The area dropped by more than 50% and these were not made part of PDS. Now, in the new food security bill it is proposed coarse cereal as a part -- people like me canvased for this --but it was not made mandatory to buy. As the people made to eat rice and wheat under subsidy without mandatory people will not shift to healthy coarse cereals. Also, government inputs subsidy going to rice and wheat but not to coarse cereals. Because of this disparity, government agreed to provide cash subsidy directly to farmers as I proposed in 2009 to PM. However, now another new evil of GM crop is thrust on farmers by western seed industry. Agriculture needs change.

from:  Dr. S. Jeevananda Reddy
Posted on: Feb 13, 2013 at 09:58 IST

"Looking back, I am glad I made this change..." Sir its not just you
but the whole nation who is glad that you made this transition,
pointing to a very important fact that doctors/engineers are not the
only professionals that are required to run a nation. Parents please
note.
One major concern that I see our farmers face is the credit availability, much has been written about this and the condition sure is improving but the farmer is still at the mercy of the local money lender.
Another concern is the monopolistic nature of some of the giant seed-companies that are slowly taking over. We have way too much of our population directly depended on farming and believe we are not yet ready for large scale commercial farming.
In both these cases the government have roles to play and should deliver the way Mr Shastri and Mrs Gandhi set the political tone for you (and the nation) to achieve food security within a few years.

from:  Vinod
Posted on: Feb 13, 2013 at 09:23 IST

Sir, A very self-explanatory article which is much needed today in the
backdrop of over information available now. The history behind our
food security bill and the agenda and scope of the bill should reach
all the citizens of India and hence I request you to publish
translation of your article in all the major languages of our country
in leading dailies. Also I would like to request you to conduct
workshops in schools and colleges to create an awareness among the
young citizens of our country. Though the youth of today may not have
inspiring leaders like the ones you were lucky enough to have, the
cause namely 'Food Security' is by itself a much bigger inspiring one.

from:  nirmala narayanan
Posted on: Feb 13, 2013 at 07:53 IST

Excellent article. Well stated. I would have 2 comments.
1. Dr.M.S. Swaminathan is a scientist and he is perhaps the right person to comment on whether purely organic farming can achieve the same yields us other agricultural practices
that he has shaped and pioneered.
2. Just like railways has its own budget, can the agricultural ministry present it's own budget? It will put the spotlight on the ministry and force it to articulate both it's fiscal priorities and overall strategies to promote yield, preservation of foodgrains, fruits and vegetables, as well as farm income. <

from:  Anand
Posted on: Feb 13, 2013 at 06:22 IST

From the first para it is clear that famine is not associated with food availability but associated with distribution -- improper transport and storage mechanism. The second point is The Nehru legacy of creating irrigation projects, known as modern temples. Using this facility Swaminathan introduced with the help of the then agriculture minister the evil green revolution that created evil pollution -- air, water, food -- and thus health hazards to life forms -- thus the modern evil medicine. If he would have directed the researchers to improve traditional system of agriculture under animal husbandry system the nation would have saved from subsidies, loans, health hazards running in to lakhs of crores that went in to pockets of MNCs. About global warming, swaminathan following World Bank dictats and not looking at reality to established internationally -- by 2100 the increase may be around one degree Celsius.

from:  Dr. S. Jeevananda Reddy
Posted on: Feb 13, 2013 at 05:51 IST

Misses the point. If procurement of foodgrains by the government slows down a bit and if production of foodgrains fall as a result of that, it would be a good thing. Then farmers can shift to more remunerative produce like commercial crops, vegetables and horticulture. The grain procurement policy artificially jacks up the prices of foodgrains which hurts the very poor - it also leads to market distortions so that farmers keep on trying to produce more and more foodgrains which the government acquires at high prices and millions of tons of foodgrains thus acquired rot in government storage forever. To improve nutrition, we need people to eat an improved diet of milk, eggs and vegetables and whenever possible some fish and meat. They already eat grain (like rice or wheat) - that is 80% of their diet, but it is not enough for good nutrition. We need to get away from this foodgrains obsession. It is dirstorting farm policy at various levels.

from:  Mitra
Posted on: Feb 13, 2013 at 03:09 IST

Good discussion - but lets not be overly populist about the acquisition of farmland for industrialization. Without industrialization, there can be no poverty eradication and no general prosperity - that is the experience of every country. And in an overpopulated land scarce country like India, without acquisition of farmland, no industries can be set up. Projects worth hundreds of billions of dollars are stuck today because of land acquisition hurdles. This has an impact on poverty/incomes and employment generation.

from:  Mitra
Posted on: Feb 13, 2013 at 01:21 IST
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