Food For All
Report on the Seminar

Welcome Address

Shri R. K. Mishra

Following the recitation, Shri R. K. Mishra began his welcome address with an obeisance to Shri Kaliyan Vanamamalai Jeeyar Swamiji. Introducing Shri Jeeyar Swamiji, Shri Mishra, recalled that he represents a matham of great antiquity that has a vast following both in the South and the North. Located at Nanguneri in Tirunelveli district of Tamilnadu, Shri Vanamamalai Kshetra is one of the 108 bhu-vaikunthas, the special abodes of Shri Vishnu on earth. Shri Manavala Mamuni Jeeyar Swamiji, one of the greatest Vaishnava Acharyas of India, had graced the matham in the fourteenth century. The presence of Shri Jeeyar Swamiji, Shri Mishra said, has imbued this seminar with divine grace.

Welcoming the participants on behalf of the Observer Research Foundation and Centre for Policy Studies, Chennai, Shri Mishra expressed his special gratitude to the guests of honour of the morning: Shri Chaturanan Mishra, Shri Atal Behari Vajpayee, Shri G. K. Moopanar and Shri Jitendra Prasada. He pointed out that this cooperation amongst and presence of high leaders representing almost the whole of the current political spectrum has given this seminar a character that transcends all political parties, and the various divisions that mark our society. These introductory remarks were followed by a lucid description of the background and the objective of the seminar. We give a brief summary of Shri Mishra’s statement in his own words. Shri Mishra said:This seminar is a humble attempt to bring together sections of Indian people who are divided between political India and religious India, between intellectual India and common India, between thinking India and working India. Indian society seems to be broken in two; there is a divide; and people across this divide talk at each other, never to each other. We are unable to bridge this divide even on problems where the entire people, the entire nation, all sections of society must get together. After all, such coming together on crucial issues alone is the proof of nationhood and of a common civilisation.

Sometime ago, Shri Balbir Punj of the Business and Political Observer had gone to Shri Tirumala. On his return he told about an unusual gathering of the highest Acharyas of India. They had assembled together on the request of the Centre for Policy Studies, Chennai to deliberate upon the issue of scarcity and hunger from the perspective of sanatana dharma. The acharyas also released a publication of the Centre, entitled, “Annam Bahu Kurvita: Recollecting the Indian Discipline of Growing and Sharing Food in Plenty”.

“Annam Bahu Kurvita”, as many of us must know, is a mantra from Taittiriya Upanishad. I glanced through the book that borrows its title from the Taittiriya Upanishad. Those of us who have some understanding of Sanskrit are aware that vaidika mantras carry multiple layers of meaning. I was fascinated by the interpretation of the classical literature on the problem of food that this book offered and the way the authors placed a modern problem in the perspective of our classical understanding of life and society. And I was indeed impressed that the book was released by the highest acharyas of India’s various sampradayas, who agreed to gather at Shri Tirumala at the invitation of the Centre to discuss such a core issue of our economy and polity. I thought that the issue was important enough to be brought to New Delhi, the place where problems are created and also occasionally solved.

I happened to meet Shri Chaturanan Mishra around that time. I gave him copy of the book; with some trepidation, I must say. But Shri Chaturnan Mishra very enthusiastically said that it was an important enough subject to hold a seminar on and he would be happy to inaugurate it. Then we began approaching various political leaders and scholars on the subject, and the response has been overwhelming. If we had known the intensity of response we would have tried to spread the seminar over two days.

Presentation of the theme of the seminar will be made by Dr. Bajaj, but I shall like to briefly summarize the issues. The book presents essentially three points. One, that at the end of 18th century the productivity of foodgrains in India was higher than it is now and the availability per capita was many times more. Two, since Independence per capita production and consumption of foodgrains in India has remained almost static. Three, that our per capita consumption of foodgrains today is among the lowest in the world. It is mentioned in the book that the British had set up a famine commission in 1880. In their report the famine commissioners had stated that to survive at an animal level of existence the Indians would need about 200 kilograms of food per capita per year. We, the representatives of independent India, have assumed that this is enough; that if an Indian can survive at this level of food, then that is what he would get. We have fixed that level of production and consumption as our target. When we achieve that we think we are self-sufficient in food.

These are the points concerning economics and statistics of food that emerge from the book. But more importantly the book seeks to link India’s current problems with India’s immediate and ancient history. The book really goes back to our roots and reminds us that abundance in production of foodgrains and abundance in sharing has been a part of Indian tradition. Those who are elderly enough and have not forgotten their pre-Independence childhood would know that this was the common practice in Indian families. Before sitting down to eat for themselves, our mothers and fathers used to always put away some portion for other human beings and for animals and insects. This was part of the Indian culture. We, until recent times, believed in the precept of Atithi Devo Bhava; to welcome the unknown guest on the door as a god has been our way. The book documents this culture of abundance and sharing. It also tells us how the classical Indian society institutionalised these practices, and how these practices were destroyed.

This is the basic proposition of the book and the seminar. The problem of scarcity and hunger that has come to prevail in India with the breakdown of the discipline of abundance and sharing has to be solved. Food after all is not merely an economic commodity; it is also a strategic commodity. Many of us remember, that in the 1960’s the then president of USA, Mr. Johnson, used to carefully watch every shipment of foodgrains to India. Every shipment was linked to the way India voted in the Security Council. To be smug and complacent about food is to jeopardize Indian security. Food is, of course, an economic commodity, but it is also a strategic commodity, and more than that it is an ethical and moral commodity. A society that cannot ensure food for every one, enough nourishment for every one, is surely a degenerate society; such a society can hardly instill a sense of dignity amongst its people.

I am indeed happy for the opportunity that the Observer Research Foundation has had to associate with this issue. I am sincerely grateful to all of you who have shown the inherent Indian capacity to rise above the smallness that unfortunately seems to prevail in the public life of our country today. I feel enthused and hope that if we can carry forward this spirit, we may be able to mobilise public opinion. We may be able to bring together the political and religious leaders of India, and also perhaps the intellectuals, to create a powerful movement to eradicate the problem of hunger and scarcity. After all this is a problem that has so much to do with national security and human dignity of our people.

Shri Mishra concluded his welcome address with a request to Shri Vanamamalai Jeeyar Swamiji to bless the occasion. He also suggested that Dr. Bajaj should make a somewhat detailed presentation of the theme of the seminar, before Shri Chaturanan Mishra formally inaugurated the seminar.