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Around the bowl in 75 years: Time for a different approach to food production

In 1947, Dr Rajendra Prasad was president of the Constituent Assembly of India. This would lead, after the birth of the Republic of India, to his becoming the first President of India.

But on August 15, one of his first tasks was to go to the Indian Council for Agricultural Research's (ICAR) Pusa campus in Delhi, "his motorcade rolling past a blur of horses' legs and bull's horns, painted in the national colours," as Benjamin Siegel writes in his book, Hungry Nation: Food, Famine and the Making of Modern India. Prasad was there because, along with heading the Constituent Assembly, he was also minister for agriculture and food in the interim government of India. That someone like him was put in charge was a sign that the government knew how critical those areas would be.

On that August 15, Prasad hoisted the Tiranga at ICAR and declared that India's most important task would be "to conquer that dread evil - hunger."

But the task was daunting. Eastern India was recovering from a hellish famine which, Siegel argues, played a crucial role in breaking the myth of Britain's benevolent rule of India. Partition made matters worse.

In January 1949, Prasad's successor as agriculture minister Jairamdas Daulatram, also in a speech at ICAR, estimated that India had been left with 80% of the population, but only 65% of wheat production and 69% of rice production. Was Pakistan mocking us when it put its abundant agricultural commodities, such as wheat and jute, in its national emblem?

The responses of the new government didn't always help. One policy - of freeing up all controls on food - was insisted upon by Mahatma Gandhi. His reasons for this were arguably correct, in that it allowed farmers to realise greater profits, and also made consumers aware of the real price of food. But politically, it was disastrous, as prices surged and the government quickly backtracked and imposed the system of controls that is with us still.

Another disastrous policy was collective farming. Then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was inspired by models in places like the USSR and Israel, though these had plenty of well-concealed problems.

Sweet Potatoes and Soy

Trying to impose this, in 1959, caused a backlash that helped the growth of opposition parties such as Swatantra and Jan Sangh.

Yet some of the experiments did point in important directions. As part of a campaign to encourage people to grow more food, Nehru planted the grounds of his residence, at Teen Murti house, with groundnuts, millets, maize, bananas and other vegetables. In 1949, he announced he was living on rotis made from 25% sweet potatoes and 75% wheat.

Another product that received attention at that time was soy, the beans which China had made into an all-purpose protein source. In 1946, The Times of India reported experiments in which 5,000 children in primary schools were fed a mid-day meal in which 1,600 were given soy milk products - and were found to be quite as healthy as those who got dairy proteins.

However, despite these promising experiments, it would take decades before soy would become an essential part of the mid-day scheme in schools. Sweet potatoes, too, got no boost from the prime ministerial endorsement, which is a pity since they are much more suited than potatoes for cultivation across most of India, and also more nutritious, especially when their leaves are also cooked.

Food Revolutions

All these experiments would be sidelined by the success of the Green Revolution, and later food revolutions, such as the one in dairy spearheaded by Dr Verghese Kurien. These revolutions were vital, transforming the food production capacity of India and preventing millions from slow starvation.


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