Food For All
Report on the Seminar

oductory Remarks

Dr. J. K. Bajaj

Dr. Bajaj began with an obeisance to Shri Vanamamalai Jeeyar Swamiji. He prayed that with the grace of god and blessings of Shri Swamiji, the seminar would succeed in its objective, and the deliberations of the day would be of some help in ameliorating the condition of scarcity and hunger in which India finds herself today. These invocatory remarks were in Hindi; Dr. Bajaj continued with his statement of the problem in English; a summary of his statement follows:

Shri R.K. Mishra has indeed been kind to my colleagues and me in the Centre; he has succinctly stated all of what we have tried to say through our book and have been trying to put before the nation in various ways. I have only to elaborate a little on what Shri Mishraji has already said.

When one starts looking at the available information, the problem seems very obvious. It seems silly to us that we have to often repeat the well-known fact that India has been living on 200 kilograms per capita per year of foodgrains and that other countries do not live at this level of consumption. A total of 200 kg per capita per year of production and availability of foodgrains is not considered to be enough by any self-respecting nation. Dignified nations, whenever they come into their own, whenever they get the opportunity to make something of themselves, break out of such low levels of availability and consumption.

When a country produces and makes available only this much of foodgrains, then every grain of food and other edible materials is committed for human consumption, and therefore the animals have to necessarily go hungry. That is not acceptable to most societies; because human societies take care of not only human beings but also of animals, of insects, of other aspects of nature. But the 200 kg per capita per person that we produce, and that we have fixed as our target and limit, is normally not considered to be enough for human consumption also. Most economic thinkers think of this to be the level of availability at which human beings can continue to maintain a minimal level of physical activity. This is the minimum you have to make available for people to continue their mere physical existence. Below that level people begin to actually die of starvation.

This evening we shall probably have Prof. Jean Dreze with us. He, along with Prof. Amartya Sen, has been working on the problem of hunger and famine. In one of their better known books they make this rather strong assertion that during the great famine, that stalked China between 1959-61, about 30 million people died; and that, according to them, is also the number that keeps dying of malnutrition in India every eight years. The number of Indians who die before their due time every eight years because they do not get enough food adds up to the number that died in China in those three years of what is called the Great China Famine. These are the statistics about hunger in India! All active economists, all policy planners, and all those who have anything to do with numbers concerning Indian society and economy, are aware of these statistics. Those who do not believe in numbers, but have seen India at some grass root level, know how this hunger manifests amongst people and animals in India. Such hunger of men and animals surely destroys nations.

The information about scarcity and hunger in India has been public knowledge for quite some time. It is not that this situation has come about today; scarcity and hunger have been prevailing in India from the beginning of the 19th century. The British colonial administration began collecting statistical information on agriculture and food from around 1880. From then onwards availability in India has continued to hover around this same figure of about 200 kg per capita per year. The availability comes down during famine, but it almost never goes above 200 kg. We have not been able to raise production and availability above this level in the fifty years of independent functioning and development. Many countries of the world came to suffer scarcity and hunger during the colonial phase. Most of them, it seems, got over the situation soon after gaining their independence, and often raised their per capita production and consumption to double and more within the first few years of their independent functioning. We have not cared to undertake the first task that independent people set for themselves.

Information about the prevalence of scarcity and wide-spread hunger in India is not new; it is just that we do not talk about it. But we at the Centre for Policy Studies fortunately have access to a different kind of information too. We have been looking into how India functioned in the 18th century. We have detailed and highly reliable information about various aspects of society and economy of about 2000 localities in the Chengalpattu region. The region surrounds the southern city of Chennai on three sides; the fourth side of the city of Chennai and the neighbouring region is open to the sea. This is, of course, not a very fertile region of India; it does not fall in any of the great and abundantly fertile river valleys of India.
India is a country of great river valleys. We have been endowed with an extraordinarily abundant geography. Every part of the geographical area of India is traversed by some great life giving river or the other. We have at least seven rivers of the kind that can each sustain a whole civilisation on its own. And so more than half of the geographical area of India is constituted of extraordinarily fertile lands. Not many parts of the world are so well endowed; in most countries of the world only a small proportion of the geographical area is cultivable and fertile.

The Chengalpattu region, about which we have 18th century records, is not one of the naturally fertile areas of India. It is a coastal area, sloping down to the sea. Fertility in this region can be won from the land only by careful and painstaking tending of the rainwaters, so that they may nurture the lands before running down to the sea nearby. Our information shows that in this difficult area average productivity of land was of the order of 2.5 tons per hectare, which is considerably higher than the average that we have been able to achieve today with all our efforts. This was the level of productivity in the difficult times of 1760’s, when the region had already faced unsettled conditions for about 30 years with the English and the French armies marching up and down spreading destruction in their wake.

If we average over not the whole region, but only over the essentially agricultural localities, the level of productivity turns out to be much higher. For the localities that produced more than 600 tons of foodgrains in a year, the average yield is as high as 5 tons per hectare. This latter average extends over localities that covered one-third of the cultivated land and contributed about two-thirds of the total production. Among these essentially agricultural localities there are some where productivity is almost unbelievably high; there are individual localities with fairly large lands that produced as much as 9 tons of paddy per hectare. We have visited some of these localities; even today they seem involved in extraordinarily intense agriculture.

When we look at production per capita rather than per unit of land, the data begins to seem even more fascinating. This fairly difficult region at an extraordinarily difficult time produced as much as a ton of foodgrains per capita per year. This level of availability is five times what we have established as our limit today; but it is near what the functioning affluent societies of today assure for their people. If you look at the amount of foodgrains that is consumed and utilised in Europe or America, you get numbers similar to what was being produced in Chengalpattu in the 1760’s. China today is fast approaching the same level of food production and utilisation. This is another set of data that we have about food in India.

We also have a third set of information. We have been reading some of the classical Indian literature, and we find that this civilizational literature of India has much to say about the place of food and sharing in life and the universe. It could be that what we have understood from the classical literature is just one interpretation of the text, as Mishraji just said; to us it seems the only interpretation. From whatever little of the classical literature of India we have been fortunate to see, it seems that all the texts—the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Itihasas, the Puranas and the Dharma-Shastras—are absolutely clear and absolutely explicit that the discipline of abundance in food and sharing is primary to dharma. This is not an implicit suggestion that the texts make, it is not something that has to be deduced or concluded from other statements. The texts explicitly tell us that dharma, which is the same as civilised living, begins with an abundance of food and the first dharmika act, first civilised act of a human being, is that of sharing one’s food with others before sitting down to eat for oneself.

Man does not eat till he has not shared. A responsible and capable householder, a grihastha, does not eat till he has not ensured that the hunger of everybody who comes within his domain of responsibility has been assuaged. The grihastha is responsible for all: for the unknown seeker of hospitality at the door, for the servants, the animals, and even for the ants and insects. When all of them have eaten, only then can a responsible grihastha lawfully eat and only then the food that he eats becomes amrita, the preserver and restorer of life. What he eats without having first shared is merely poison. The food that has not been shared is indeed the food, as Swamiji mentioned this morning, that eats man, instead of being eaten by him. The food that is eaten without due ceremony of sharing is food that shall eat you up, that is the explicit message of the classical Indian texts.

Ensuring an abundance and sharing it widely as portrayed above is indeed a matter of personal ethics, it is an essential part of the ethics of being a righteous house-holder. But the texts also talk about the ethics of the state and the society in this matter. They insist that a society or a state that tolerates the hunger of even one person is beyond redemption. A country where even one person has to sleep hungry cannot be saved and is not worth saving.
This information about the classical Indian discipline of abundance and sharing is then the third kind of information we have been looking into. We have looked at what that we have been able to achieve today with all our efforts. This was the level of productivity in the difficult times of 1760’s, when the region had already faced unsettled conditions for about 30 years with the English and the French armies marching up and down spreading destruction in their wake.

To our mind, the most painful fact about India today is that we have begun to tolerate hunger of men and animals. We have begun to cultivate an uncaring attitude towards the people and the animals, and also towards water and land, with which we have been so well endowed. Indian lands are fertile, we have an abundance of water, and we have sunshine throughout the year. With such natural resources, all we need to grow an abundance of food is to begin caring for our lands and our natural endowments. In the Chengalpattu information, what is most striking is the care with which the Chengalpattu society husbanded its land and water.

Once a renowned historian asked me how did the Chengalpattu people obtain that level of production at a time when technology was not much advanced. I told him about the irrigation system of the area. When you look at the maps of their irrigation system, it seems as if they knew their land as well as one knows the palm of one’s hand. They it seems knew every up and down of the land, and used the knowledge to develop an almost unsurpassable, yet seemingly effortless irrigation system. That kind of knowing and caring is a very Indian way; we care for the land, we care for our neighbourhood, we care for the people, animals and the insects. It is the caring that produces abundance; and we have stopped caring.

In this kind of situation, when a whole society forgets about its intrinsic attributes of caring and sharing, it is perhaps not enough to merely talk of statistical information about acute scarcity and widespread hunger; we have to recollect ourselves, we have to recall what we have always thought to be the essence of being Indian, we have to once again bring to our mind the great discipline of growing and sharing in abundance that our civilization has been teaching and practising with such intensity. Our book is essentially an exercise in recollecting, recalling and remembering. Because, we believe, that once we recollect ourselves and our discipline, we shall also learn to obey the discipline and thus recreate the abundance for which we have been renowned. To recollect is also often to recreat. Once a people recollect their essential way of being, implementing that way of being in practice is often simple.

Let me add that even if we in our wisdom decide that we need not follow the essential Indian ways any more, that today we have to do things in the modern way, even then we shall have to somehow solve the problem of scarcity and hunger. Prevalence of hunger amongst large numbers is not considered a proper state of society anywhere in the world. I do not know of any great economic thinker, who believes that a nation can achieve any kind of prosperity, any kind of economic activity at a reasonably dignified level, till the lands do not begin producing an abundance and there is not a surplus of food. This is what Adam Smith says, in his Wealth of Nations, in so many words.

To us however the Indian ways are important. That is why, we believe and hope that with the blessings of our great saints and the cooperation of our people, we shall soon make the effort to recollect ourselves and our ways, and soon free this great land of ours of the stigma of scarcity and hunger.