Food For All
Statement of the Problem

The following statement was circulated amongst the participants at the beginning of the seminar.

India produces about 200 kg per capita per year of  foodgrains. We produce little edible roots, except for about 20 kg per capita per year of potato. Production of fish, poultry and meat amounts to less than 10 kg per capita per year.

Of the food produced, about 10 percent necessarily goes towards seed and waste. Thus total staple consumption, including that of grains, pulses, roots, animal flesh and fish, adds up to about 200 kg per capita per year. In most other countries of the world, even in those considered extremely underdeveloped, average staple consumption is nearer 300 kg per capita per year. In relatively affluent countries of the world, a fairly substantial proportion of this staple consists of animal foods, which require many times their weight in foodgrains to produce.

These statistics clearly indicate that a large proportion of Indian population is underfed and undernourished. The fact is independently confirmed by measurements on the state of nutrition of Indians. International agencies routinely record that more than 70% of Indian children below the age of 5 are malnourished, and that at least 40% of the Indian population does not have the means to buy the amount of nutrition required for maintaining a minimal level of physical activity. Serious students of famine and hunger in the world estimate that India faces as many deaths due to malnutrition every eight years, as took place during the 3 years of the great famine that struck China between 1959-61.

Consumption at the level of 200 kg per capita per year is generally considered to be the lower limit for maintaining a basic level of physical activity amongst human beings. The famine commission of 1880 had determined this to be the minimum level of availability that would avert famine deaths in any region.

To provide this minimal level of consumption for our people, we have to allocate all the grain and edible roots that we produce towards human consumption. We are one of the few countries in the world, where animals do not have a share in the grains and roots produced on the land. Consequently, animals too are hungry and malnourished, and this state of extreme malnourishment of our animals has itself become an argument for getting rid of much of our cattle-wealth.

India in the Past

Historically, India has been known to be a country of agricultural abundance. Epigraphic information available from about 11th century onwards from different parts of the country indicates a very high level of agricultural production and productivity. And, European observers of the early nineteenth century repeatedly report levels of productivity that are high not only in comparison with the Europe of that time, but also with the best of today.

We have detailed information about the state of agriculture in 1760’s for about 2000 localities of the Chengalpattu region around the city of Chennai in south India. In this relatively difficult region, and in that period of extended war and great disturbance, average productivity of land was near 2.5 tons per hectare. Even more strikingly, the localities of relatively intensive agriculture, that covered about a sixth of the cultivated land, produced as much as 5 tons per hectare on the average.

Per capita production of foodgrains in this region, covering about 45,000 households, was nearly a ton per year. This is five times the production per capita in India of today.

Another striking feature of the Chengalpattu information is the extensive sharing of the produce that was practised then. The sharing arrangements of the Chengalpattu society covered almost every institution and every household of the region.

On looking at India of classical times, we find an extraordinary emphasis on production and sharing of food. The classical texts unanimously insist that abundance of production and sharing is the essential condition of dharma. For classical India, a state or a society tolerating the hunger of even a single individual commits an unthinkable sin. This discipline of taking care of the hunger of all encompasses not only human beings, but also animals, birds, insects and, in fact, all aspects of nature.

We have been fortunate to read the classical texts on the question of food and sharing, and have tried to offer a glimpse of the great discipline of abundance and sharing that they teach in our book entitled, Annam Bahu Kurvita, which forms the background to this seminar.

All literature and historical records of earlier times indicate that Indians had deeply imbibed this discipline of abundance and sharing taught in the texts. They practised it in their lives as righteous householders and created extensive institutional arrangements to follow the discipline at the level of the locality and the region. It seems that the discipline, at least in the southern parts of India, broke down only with the coming of the British; and even then conscientious individuals and various institutions tried to keep following the discipline within their severely limited capacities.

Causes of the Present Situation

Part of the reason for our failure to increase per capita production of foodgrains is of course to be found in the increasing population of India. But in this context, we need to remember that during the colonial phase, while the population of the people of European stock in the world boomed, populations of colonized people were kept in check. After the end of the period of colonization, populations increased everywhere. India is not alone in having an increasing population to feed; China, several countries in west Asia and Africa, and also our neighbours in south-east and south Asia, have also gone through the same phenomenon. Population increase in India has been somewhat better controlled than elsewhere; but others seem to have done much better in increasing per capita availability of food for their rising populations.

It is also true that India started from a fairly poor resource base; and in the first 50 years of independence, we had to allocate from the same amount of limited resources towards improving agriculture as well as industry. But, in view of the experience of rest of the world, we should probably think again about the relative priority to be given to agriculture and food in our scheme of things.

Another reason for the low production and consumption of food in India is the low purchasing capacity of our people. It is well known that we are self-sufficient in meeting the economic demand for food and some of the food produced has to be sold at subsidised prices. But, in a populous country like India, increasing agricultural activity in general and food production in particular is perhaps one of the quickest ways of enhancing the purchasing capacity of the people. The increased activity and purchasing capacity then help in increasing overall level of economic activity and demand in the economy. At least, that seems to be the experience of most other countries.

What needs to be Done

We need to think afresh about our food situation. Till now, all planning about food has been
based on ensuring the availability of a famine diet of 200 kg per capita per year. Our economists and agricultural scientists talk about the availability remaining at that level even in the year 2050. But, we probably need to double our food production in about 10 years. Only then can we break out of the vicious cycle of increasing population balancing out the increased production with the level of hunger and malnutrition remaining unchanged.

Other countries of the world have achieved near doubling of production in about 10 years with available technologies. For India to achieve this is relatively easier, because we are endowed with unusually fertile lands, abundant water, and sunshine throughout the year. These are rare natural endowments for any country. Notwithstanding our increased population, the amount of cultivated lands available per capita in India is almost the same as in Europe today.

In addition to making efforts to increase food production, we need to undertake a large scale effort to immediately alleviate the prevailing state of hunger. The ingrained tendencies of the Indian people to share food and take care of the hunger of others before sitting down to eat for themselves can be a great resource in undertaking this effort of sharing. The existing institutions of sharing and Annadana, that continue to exist in all parts of India, though in a highly weakened state, can also prove to be a great resource.

India believes that a nation that tolerates hunger of its people is capable of no great effort. Therefore, before undertaking the effort to increase our production of food, we shall probably have to revive the arrangements of sharing and distribution. This seminar is designed to focus on the abundance of both production and sharing.

Purpose of the Seminar

The main object of the seminar is to focus attention on the state of hunger and malnourishment that prevails in India; once the nation is concerned about the problem, solutions shall emerge.

Hunger and malnutrition of large numbers is not merely an economic problem; it is also a moral and ethical problem; and, of course, it is a political and strategic problem too.

Keeping the moral dimension of the problem in view, we first presented it before the highest Acharyas of India today. The Acharyas met in October last at Sri Tirumala and proclaimed that the state of hunger and malnutrition in a society represents a state of lack of dharma, and India ought to make all efforts to get out of this state immediately.

Now we are posing this problem before the political leadership of India and hope that from the deliberations here clear political directions will emerge to help India tide over this unacceptable state. 

J. K. Bajaj and M. D. Srinivas