Annam Bahu Kurvita

Greed Eats Away Food Surplus
The Tribune, Chandigarh, April 13, 1997
by  Rajiv Lochan

Annam Bahu Kurvita:
Recollecting the Indian Discipline of Growing and Sharing Food in Plenty by Jitendra Bajaj and Mandayam Doddamane Srinivas. Centre for Policy Studies, Madras. Pp. lvi+217, Rs.400/-.

Annam Bahu Kurvita, thus enjoined the sages of yore. Grow more food, have more food, give more food. How this was done, is what way was foodgrain to be shared, what happened to those who did not share, all this and much more has been discussed in this book.

Essentially this is an exhortatory text. In these days of food shortage, famine and scarcity of essential items, it reminds the reader that our civilization has been an anna bahulya civilization. One in which there has been plenty of food to go around. Correspondingly, it was enjoined upon all, be it the richest king or the poorest householder, to share what he had with all others.

With the Europeanisation of our civilisation, however, the plentifulness of grain ceased and also vanished the desire to share whatever was available. We generated new civilisational presumptions for ourselves. We now began to assume that, for no better reason than that this presumption was common among our European rulers, that if food was unavailable to someone it was the result of shirking work. Correspondingly, those short of food did not deserve compassion or assistance but needed to be forced to work. The authors remind the reader of this change in civilisational presumptions and ask that we pick up the threads of our civilisation and try to re-weave them into our present.

In itself the point made by Bajaj and Srinivas is unexceptionable. As recently as the 18th century, they point out, even in the agriculturally not very productive lands, foodgrain production was about 2.5 tons per hectare. This was slightly above the figure for agricultural production today. In earlier times, and in richer soils, the yield was even higher. They calculate the yield at 13 tons of paddy per hectare in 1807 in Coimbatore region, 14.5 tons in the South Arcot region in the 14th century, and 20 tons for Ramanathapuram region during the same period.

However, once the British colonial rulers took over the country, foodgrain production slumped. The country emerged as one of the highest exporters of food in the 19th century, but at the same time famines took a heavy toll in various parts of the hinterland. Moreover, the British, and following them many westernised Indians, began to feel uncomfortable with the idea that those who did not have enough to eat should be given a share. It came to be believed that many people begged for food because they were good-for-nothing idlers. A mad kind of social logic began to gain dominance: those who did not have enough to eat should be made to work the most.

As the 19th century moved into the 20th this came to be the most dominant logic. Now you had the unedifying and inhuman spectacle of people dying of hunger at a time when ample food stocks were available simply because no would give them food unless they were able to pay for it.

Bajaj and Srinivas calculate that by the end of the 19th century productivity had declined to 800 kg per hectare and availability of food per capita to 280 kg down from around a ton per capita in the 18th century. In the 1950’s the figure fell to about 150 kg per capita and then stabilised at about 200 kg in the 1980’s. Little wonder that, they point out, that Indians are some of the most malnourished people in the world. They mostly subsist on foodgrains, and that too is not available in adequate amounts.

The figures that the authors offer, drawn from the UNDP report for 1994, are truly horrifying. Almost 88 percent of our pregnant women are anaemic, 63 percent of children under the age of five are malnourished, 40 percent of the total population has to make do with a bare minimum amount of food.

Whatever has happened, wonder Bajaj and Srinivas. It seems as if we became more selfish and ceased to share with others, so did our land cease to share its bounty with us. Much of their argument in this book is about the importance of sharing and the benefits that accrue to the people therefrom.

The evidence is mostly anecdotal. Lifting eclectically from various puranas, sutras, smritis, and some travelogues, they build an argument to show that sharing was a central feature of our civilisation from times immemorial. That those who refused to share, or shares adequately, were punished while those who shared willingly what they had with their fellow beings earned much goodwill and material prosperity.

It is almost as if they insist that while efforts should proceed apace for enhancing production capacity of the soil, we also need to rejuvenate our cultural traits of helping each other, of sharing without hesitation, and of desisting from our acquired, non-Indian, inhumanness.

The book has the imprimatur of some Shankaracharyas and other religious leaders of the Hindu community.