Food, famine and a nearly forgotten birthday of Lal Bahadur Shastri

If violence keeps Gandhi relevant, the perpetuation of hunger should keep us informed of Shastri?s role in the green revolution Photograph:( Zee News Network )

WION Noida, Uttar Pradesh, India Oct 05, 2016, 05.42 AM (IST) Madhumita Saha

Lal Bahadur Shastri and  Mahatma Gandhi share their birthday on October 2. Whereas the tempo of official celebration around Mahatma’s birthday has always been high, the same can’t be said about Shastri. This is not surprising considering we live in an aggressive world, and Mahatma’s message of peace and non-violence is often accepted as a desirable political alternative. If violence keeps Gandhi relevant, the perpetuation of hunger should keep us informed of Shastri’s role in stepping up food production during years of grave crisis in India. Interestingly, however, though hunger and violence are often inextricably linked in the real world, in the rarefied echelon of  academic analyses, Shastri has rarely found a place along side Gandhi as one of the “makers of modern India”.  

Shastri and the looming food shortages

Unlike Gandhi, Shastri did not experience a meteoric rise in Indian politics. He was always the short timid man who had been a loyal follower of Gandhi in his various mass movements and then, after independence, a steadfast supporter of Jawaharlal Nehru in the national politics. Evidently, after Nehru’s death in May 1964, the All India Congress Committee (AICC) decided to support Shastri as the prime ministerial candidate and not the Maharastrian politician Morarji Desai as they preferred the former’s personality type. Whereas Desai was known to be authoritarian and conservative, Shastri was seen as docile and lacking in strong ideological predilection. The party honchos believed that in moments of national crisis or in planning the country’s future, Shastri would not act alone.

 Shastri survived the initial political squabble inside the Congress Party but by the autumn of 1964, the government was beset by ‘national calamity’ in terms of availability of food. General protest ensued, particularly in the southern state of Kerala. Students broke out in riots in different places. Most of the opposition parties took advantage of the general swing of public opinion to pass a no-confidence motion against the Congress government in the Lower House of the Indian Parliament.

Shastri took a two-pronged approach to address the food crisis: he appealed to the public conscience to reduce food consumption, even advised fasting much in the line of Gandhi; on the other hand, as a far more constructive move, he constituted a Price Commission to advise him on policy formulation. 

The disagreement over scientific agriculture

The Commission and C. Subramaniam, the union food minister, were unanimous that the crisis could be solved only through a substantial increase in food production.This implied that all the previous mechanism of Nehru years that were in place to keep food prices low, such as price controls, state trading, and rationing, needed to be freshly assessed by the Shastri government. 

Considering the new proposals were a sharp departure from Nehruvian emphasis on institutional reforms, Shastri’s government moved pretty fast in favour of a technological redressal to India’s food problem.  

In January 1965, Subramaniam presented the framework of the new agricultural policy to the annual session of the Congress Party at Durgapur. The minister unequivocally stated that the ‘future programme’ of Indian agriculture needs to be defined in terms of ‘scientific agriculture’ that would be composed of extensive fertiliser use, bigger seed farms, plant protection, improved elements among other applications of modern agricultural technology.

But it did not prove easy for Shastri and Subramaniam to push through the proposed plans for ‘scientific’ agriculture. The main bone of contention was whether the new emphasis on food production through higher capital investment meant that the new plan was abandoning socialist principles - the cornerstone of Nehruvian economy- and with it the goal of social equity.

The enormity of the food crisis, however, forced the Congress party members to reach a compromise.

Citizenship, austerity and daily meal

However, before the new policy could translate into practice, on April 1965, Pakistani incursions occurred in western India. The volatile situation added to the national anxiety about the food situation and, to make matter worse, the US government suspended the food aid that could have helped the nation from starving. 

In a speech to the Indian parliament, Shastri correlated the need for greater food production with the preservation of India’s freedom. He asked citizens to practise self-restraint and not to hold parties, dinners and lunches, because he considered these ‘are not in tune with the time at all.’ He wanted public opinion to ‘encourage austerity’. By November 1965, the situation become so acute that Shastri urged each Indian family to skip a meal every week; the forced starvation even got the ceremonious name of ‘missing-a-meal’ campaign.

Austerity, a much cherished religious value, came to define citizenship duty in independent India. Not to mention, the various ways in which the political establishment shifted the onus of food supply on the shoulder of private citizens. 

Mexican seeds and the Green Revolution

In the meantime, Shastri gave C. Subramaniam the full political backing to import newly developed Mexican wheat varieties to try in Indian farms. These wheat varieties with small and stout stalk had a greater capacity to take-in fertilisers than the long-stemmed traditional varieties that were in cultivation in India. With greater fertiliser absorption, these Mexican varieties that were bred in CIMMYT by a team of US and Mexican agricultural scientists, could give greater wheat yield. A majority of Indian and western scientists came to see in these varieties the salvation of the hunger-afflicted Third World.

By the autumn of 1966, 250 tons of Sonora 64 and Lerma Rojo - two of the Mexican varieties - arrived in India to be planted in different fields and agricultural stations. Though the new seeds required constant irrigation, a feature certainly not uniformly available in India, high-doses of synthetic fertilisers which was still a rarity among Indian farmers, and were subjected to diseases and pest, they brought hope for a nation struggling acutely with food supply.

In the successful trials conducted at various farms where the varieties yielded 5000 pounds per acre, the agricultural scientists of India could see a great possibility of solving India’s food situation.

The task that was started by Shastri would be carried forth by the succeeding prime ministers of India. Lal Bahadur, having died in Tashkent in 1966, would not live to see the day when India will cease to import wheat in the early 1970s. The new agricultural programme - he helped to initiate in India - would attain global fame as the Green Revolution technology. Notwithstanding the facts that hunger continues to persist in India and higher production hasn’t made food more accessible to the poor, not to mention the technology has come with a social, economic and environmental price, but Shastri, at least in the short time he had, showed the courage to discard a system he found not working for the country. 

We can, if we want, blame him for not being prescient. But timid he was not. Along with iron and steel mills of Nehruvian planning, Shastri sets the path towards putting agriculture at the heart of India’s developmental vision.