From Bengal Famine to Right to Food

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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