Food For All
Chairman’s Address

Shri Atal Behari Vajpayee
Former Prime-Minister of India

Shri Atal Behari Vajpayee, chairman of the inaugural session, spoke in his usually chaste and inimitable Hindi. We cannot possibly presume to translate his eloquent speech; below we attempt to offer a brief English version. Shri Vajpayee said:

This seminar is important for many reasons. With the efforts of the Observer Research Foundation and the Centre for Policy Studies, we have gathered here, transcending all our political differences, to discuss the issue of food. This is indeed an issue that ought to be beyond politicking. However, we do engage in petty politics around such issues; this is a sad aspect of our democratic functioning; we need to pay attention to it.

This morning we heard about the greatness of Anna and its sharing as described in our civilizational literature. In this context, I remember a story from the Upanishad. The Acharya, teacher, was teaching; he saw that one the students was not concentrating on the instruction. If it were a modern teacher, he would have probably asked the student to leave the class. The Acharya of the Upanishad, on the other hand, was concerned; he inquired of the student whether he had got enough food the previous night. To me the story seems extremely important. Food is essential for life and for all human activity. A hungry person can hardly be expected to learn the ultimate truth about the universe, that the Upanishads teach.

We have heard Shri Jeeyar Swamiji describing the greatness of Anna in detail. We, in India, know of many kinds of fire; amongst these the fire that burns inside the stomach is the strongest. This fire must be assuaged; because when the fire of hunger begins to spread then nothing in the world remains safe. A hungry man is often willing to give up his humanity to satisfy his hunger. Therefore, to ensure sufficiency of food for all is the primary dharma, duty, and primary karma, activity, of all of us. This is also the most important obligation of our national life.

I remember the days when we used to look up to the rest of the world for feeding our people; we had come to depend upon what was termed as “ship-to-mouth” existence. We had felt greatly relieved when Shri S. K. Patil went to the USA and entered into the PL-480 agreements that ensured some steady supply of foodgrains. We have increased production of food since then; but we certainly do not produce enough food to properly feed and nourish our people. As was said this morning, we are producing just enough to keep our people from dying of hunger.

When I was the foreign minister in the mid-1970’s, I once visited the then Soviet Union. During my discussions with their prime minister, Mr. Kosygin, I mentioned that we had increased our food-production to a level where we could claim to be self-sufficient in food. Mr. Kosygin promptly disputed my claim and insisted that what we produced could not be enough to feed our people; we needed to produce much more. Mr. Kosygin discussed the issue for about an hour with us; Shri Inder Kumar Gujral, our present prime minister, was also present during the discussion.

We indeed need to increase our production. However, the question of distribution is also equally important. We may have foodgrains in the warehouses and the shops; but if the hungry cannot buy the food, what is the use of such stocks in the godowns? In this context, there is certainly something valid about the concept of sharing food. We may not import food from abroad or accept it as a gift from other countries, but we can certainly share the food that we have in the country amongst ourselves. Till not long ago, we had the custom of taking out a handful of food for the hungry before beginning to cook for ourselves. Shri Guru Nanak made sharing of food the key concept of Sikhism. Indeed, it does not seem proper that we continue to eat, while others remain hungry. So, we should certainly reassert the greatness of growing and sharing of food that is taught in our classical texts.In addition to issues concerning the production and distribution of food, we should also pay attention to proper storage and transport of the food that we grow. I am told that in the warehouses of the food corporation of India large amounts are eaten away by rats. We have also heard stories about cultivators in Maharashtra producing large quantities of potatoes, and then seeing it rot in the absence of marketing, storage and transport facilities. Recently, Mizoram produced an abundant crop of ginger, and the growers there had to sell it at throwaway prices.

We need to do a great deal on the question of food. Meanwhile, whenever we find people hungry anywhere in the country, their hunger has to be addressed immediately, even if it involves distribution of food free of cost. Thus, recently there was famine in some areas of Orissa. Shrimati Uma Bharati, she is present here, spoke to the chief minister of Punjab and arranged for truckloads of foodgrains to be sent to the area. Such emergency relief is important; but it is also important that we identify the areas that are prone to famine, and make efforts to lift those areas permanently out of such condition.

All these issues need to be looked into. There are also the issues of enhancing the purchasing power of the people, and of appropriately designing and targeting subsidies. This latter issue has acquired much importance nowadays. We have to discuss all these issues in a climate free of political recrimination; and try to find a comprehensive solution to our food problem. The Centre for Policy Studies and the Observer Research Foundation have indeed made an excellent beginning towards this effort by bringing together leaders of different political parties. Hunger makes man indulge in many sinful acts. Let us hope that soon we shall arrange our affairs such that none of our countrymen shall be forced to transgress the right path in order to assuage his hunger. Let us hope that with our joint effort we shall soon remove the sin of hunger from the face of our motherland.

At the close of the inaugural session, Shri R. K. Mishra thanked the participants and especially the speakers of the morning: Shri Vajpayee, Shri Prasada, Shri Moopanar and Shri Chaturanan Mishra. Most of all, he thanked, Shri Kaliyan Vanamamalai Jeeyar Swamiji for his gracious blessings. Shri Mishra said that organizing this seminar was an act of faith. Notwithstanding the apparent callousness and divisiveness of public life in India today, the Indian spirit continued to harbour an inherent resilience. This resilience, he felt, would always make us rise above the prevailing narrowness and come together to grapple with crucial national issues. His faith, he said, has been more than fulfilled with leaders of all shades of opinion readily agreeing to participate in this seminar. The seminar represented a humble beginning of the process of bringing together the political, the religious and the intellectual India in the service of the people. The organizers were indeed grateful to the participants, who have made this beginning possible.