“Sacrifice one meal at least a week!”. This was Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s plea to Indians in 1965 when India was at war with Pakistan. It was one of the various struggles the country had to undergo in meeting food demand for its burgeoning population. It is another story that today we grow surplus foodgrains. 

India’s struggle to meet the increasing population’s demand can be dated back to 1937 when Burma (now Myanmar) was separated from British India. The problem got accentuated when India lost West Punjab and East Pakistan during the Partition. Burma was a crucial region for growing pulses, East Pakistan was a rice bowl and West Punjab, which had a well-networked canal system, was a wheat granary. 

A key event took place in 1943 that extended India’s food shortage until the early 1950s. In 1943, Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered foodgrains meant for eastern parts of the country to be diverted to the British troops engaged in World War II. It resulted in a man-made famine in Bengal and the deaths of millions of people. 

Madras Chief Minister M Bhaktavatsalam (left) inspecting the first consignment of emergency allotment of American wheat at Madras harbour on February 19, 1966. The wheat was part of 1.5 million tonnes of food grain allotted by the US to alleviate India’s food scarcity

Madras Chief Minister M Bhaktavatsalam (left) inspecting the first consignment of emergency allotment of American wheat at Madras harbour on February 19, 1966. The wheat was part of 1.5 million tonnes of food grain allotted by the US to alleviate India’s food scarcity | Photo Credit: THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

According to late C Subramaniam, the architect of India’s Green Revolution, a US team of experts visiting India had predicted in 1964 an “intractable agricultural problem that would lead to the death of millions in the 1970s”. It was to be proved wrong later. The food emergencies that India faced after Independence extended till the Green Revolution was launched in 1967. An expert termed agricultural production as a “statistical uncertainty”. 

 When food production fell to a five-year low of 62 million tonnes (mt) in 1957-58, concerns were raised over the progress of Indian agriculture. In 1959, a visiting team of US agriculture experts urged then Prime Minister Jawarharlal Nehru to restore the primary to agriculture in the Second Five-Year Plan instead of industry.

Before that, India signed a long-term Public Law (PL) 480 agreement to get food aid under Government agricultural trade development assistance, with the US in 1954. The agreement was signed a few more times before the US ended it in the late 1960s as Lal Bahadur Shastri and then Indira Gandhi were not willing to make policy changes, especially to allow privatisation of the industrial sector, in return for food aid.  

Food aid under PL480 not only drew flak but some critics pointed out that the wheat sent to India was “fit enough only for pigs!”. It was termed as a great insult that was to linger for long in people’s memory. Despite repeated pleas, the US gave only “a small quantity of rice” to India. 

Indian imports under the PL480 drew flak from the global community. In response, the Centre agreed to buy Canadian and Australian wheat from the global market. By 1964, wheat imports had increased to a record 6.3 mt. 

Undaunted by increasing criticism over PL480, then Food and Agriculture Minister SK Patil, in 1960, signed an agreement with US President Dwight D Eisenhower that was four times the size of the 1956 pact. In 1963, the Union Cabinet asked Patil to negotiate only a brief extension of the deal, but the minister exceeded the briefing, leading to his ouster from the Cabinet.

Indian agriculture sector’s struggle after Independence was also due to the farm sector being neglected in favour of industries. Imports of foodgrains affected agriculture as farmers were deprived of any incentive to produce more. 

A few in the Government believed that it was cheaper to import foodgrains than to incentivise domestic agricultural production. As a result, wheat prices dropped sharply until 1963, preventing any private investment in wheat-growing regions, which held promise in the 1950s. During 1961-65, foodgrain production growth halved from nearly three per cent in 1955-60 as India depended on rain-fed agriculture.  

Advent of agricultural science

C Subramaniam, who became the Food and Agriculture Minister in Shastri’s Cabinet, wrote in “Green Revolution” that he favoured the introduction of science and technology in farming. He also called agricultural scientists for a “frank and free discussion” on the status of agricultural science. “I had to listen to a tale of woe,” he wrote.

Subramaniam came up with two-point formula. One, to provide price incentives to farmers and two, to go in for science and technology application. The price incentives proposal was opposed by Finance Minister TT Krishnamachari and the Planning Commission. The argument was price incentives would result in high subsidies and new technology would lead to fertiliser imports. But he won Shastri’s confidence and got a panel to make recommendations favouring his formula. 

When Indira Gandhi became the prime minister, she not only backed Subramaniam fully but made him a member of the Planning Commission that helped redraft the Fourth Plan with higher financial allocation for agriculture. The Indian Agriculture Research Institute (IARI) was set up giving priority to agricultural research among other reforms he carried out. 

Foodgrain purchases increased till 1967 but Subramaniam charted a recovery part for Indian agriculture to emerge stronger. Ralph Cummins of the Rockefeller Foundation brought to his notice how high-yielding wheat seeds from Mexico had been supplied to IARI and they have been found to be more productive. Subramaniam also got to know that similar rice varieties had been developed.

The minister then took up the issue with agricultural scientists among who the younger lot was optimistic that Indian farmers would adopt new technologies and new varieties. The Government decided to go ahead but opponents pointed out that a huge amount of foreign exchange would be spent on importing fertilisers.

Subramaniam argued that it would be more important to be self-sufficient in food production than to import foodgrains. India needed a huge quantity of fertilisers, estimated to cost $250 million then. It needed foreign financial aid and India managed to get it from then US President Lydon B Johnson. The rest is history. 

In the 1968 rabi harvest, India produced 16.5 mt of wheat, over 30 per cent more than the highest before that. In two years’ time, wheat production was double the average output during 1960-65. The Green Revolution had got going.