Could India feed us?

Plagued with droughts, famine and riots, she faces her worst crisis since independence. But a new, progressive farmer class is emerging which could set India on the course to eventual abundance—if there is still time

Blair Fraser February 1 1967

Could India feed us?

Plagued with droughts, famine and riots, she faces her worst crisis since independence. But a new, progressive farmer class is emerging which could set India on the course to eventual abundance—if there is still time

Blair Fraser February 1 1967

Could India feed us?

Plagued with droughts, famine and riots, she faces her worst crisis since independence. But a new, progressive farmer class is emerging which could set India on the course to eventual abundance—if there is still time

Blair Fraser

SAID THE AGRICULTURAL expert, “No country in the world has such a potential as this one. Why, this land could come close to feeding the population of the whole globe, let alone its own. It has ample water for irrigation, it has a year-round growing season, it’s capable of producing three or even four crops a year instead of the one and a half or less it produces now.”

The speaker was David Hopper, a Canadian who works for the Rockefeller Foundation as an agricultural economist. You could win a lot of money taking bets on what country he was talking about.

It was India. Crisis-ridden, famineridden, poverty-stricken India, focus of the world’s concern for a long list of ailments any one of which could be mortal, may also be on the threshold of a major advance toward selfsufficiency. If — and it’s a big if — India can survive the next few months and still remain a nation, the next-toimmediate future offers a ray of new hope.

True, the hope is a slim one. India is not fully prepared for an agricultural revolution. Too many government “research” stations, supposed to advise the Indian farmer on how to improve his crops, are actually not as efficient crop producers as the best farmers in their areas. Too many government “experts,” white-collar graduates of agricultural colleges, have never actually farmed in their lives and literally do not know one crop from another when they see one. Too many Indian farmers have a too-wellfounded skepticism of the advice such experts hand out.

But it is not true, as is often alleged, that the Indian farmer is so rooted in ancient tradition that he cannot be induced to change. If he can be shown the change really works, he'll accept it.

My authority for that statement is Jim Ward, a graduate in agriculture of the University of British Columbia who is working with CUSO (Canadian University Service Overseas) as an adviser to farmers in Bharatpur, near Agra. He too thinks Indian agriculture is on the brink of a great future. And unlike many foreigners in India, Ward is convinced the Indian farmer is quite willing to accept improvements once it has been clearly shown to him that they are improvements.

“Until two or three years ago we didn’t know what to tell him, we just thought we did,” Ward says. “The socalled improvements we wanted them to try didn't work, for one reason or another. But now we have developed high-yield varieties that resist Indian pests and plant diseases, that can stand the Indian climate and absorb a lot of fertilizer. These varieties really do produce much bigger crops, and the farmers are more than willing to try them.”

Ward introduced me to a farmer near Bharatpur named Sher Singh. Sher Singh has 15 acres, which makes him a fairly big farmer, though not a landlord. One of his daughters is in college, the second daughter and his son will go when they are old enough. Sher Singh himself had 13 years of schooling and speaks some English, but unlike many educated Asians he doesn’t consider actual work to be beneath his dignity. His house is modest, not much different in appearance from the mud-brick dwellings of an ordinary Indian village, and his working clothes are only a little less ragged than those of his hired help.

Sher Singh is digging a 60-foot tube well in one of his fields to which he will rig an electric pump. He will then sink another tube well in another field. With those two, plus the shallow well he has already, he’ll be able to irrigate all 15 acres of his farm. “Then I can produce at least twice as much, maybe three times,” he said. “Without irrigation I get only one crop a year. With wells I’ll get two, and they’ll both be bigger than the one I get now — maybe half as big again, each of them.”

So far only 10 percent of the farmers in the Bharatpur district have tube wells, but it’s a minority that will grow. These are real farmers, sons of the local community whose judgment is respected and whose example will be followed — provided, of course, that it continues to prove right. Such men could transform Indian agriculture.

“There’s a new class emerging in this country,” said an American I who’s been there for many years, j “They’re the big farmers. They’re I land-owners and some are landlords, I even absentee landlords in a few cases.

: but they’re not like the old landlord ; class. They are interested not in I screwing a little more rent out of i: poor tenants, hut in making money out of the agriculture industry itself. They want to improve it, modernize I it, make it pay.

“These men are a class but not a ■ caste in the old sense — they’re ; mostly low-caste, in fact. They’re a minority, of course, but the dominant ’ one in the countryside. They already ; control most of the state governments, I and now they’re making themselves j felt at the centre against the old-style bureaucrats, the Balliol men, and the 5 socialist politicians from the London School of Economics. Give them a little time and they will change the ; face of rural India.” jj “Give them a little time” — that is the catch. In much less time than is needed for any kind of major change, India will run into her worst crisis \ since the turmoil that followed partition from Pakistan 20 years ago. Of course some kind of nation, something like India, will emerge from that : crisis. The vast sub-continent has endured such things for several thousand I years, and will endure this one. But whether what emerges will be a nation still strong enough, still well enough knit, to carry out any sort of planned reform is an open question.

continued on page 60

INDIA continued from pape 27

Famine is a certainty — but will the government admit it?

Famine this spring is a certainty. I spent a couple of days driving through the drought areas of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, where not a drop of rain had fallen since last April. The rice crop was an almost total failure. The smaller crop normally sown in winter and reaped in the spring would not. this year, even he sown: the fields were dry and brick-hard. Of the 75 million people in the area, at least two thirds, maybe more, were facing disaster.

Drought itself is not, of course, any government’s fault, but in this case the government has heen far from guiltless. 1 talked to a farmer near Patna, in Bihar, who owns nine acres and is accounted well-to-do in a normal year. Six of his nine acres were brown clay in which nothing had been planted. Two more had a stand of dying rice stalks, already yellowish, on which no grain had headed out. By constant labor, with his bullock hitched to a primitive rotary pump, he was bringing up enough water to moisten a little less than one acre and coax along an obviously skimpy crop.

“If I’d had a diesel pump I could have managed at least five acres,” he said to the young government official who was with me. “Why can’t we get diesel pumps?”

The young man shrugged. He was sympathetic, but there was nothing he could do. The government had a program for the encouragement of diesel pumps, a subsidy of half the cost to any farmer progressive enough to invest in one. Unfortunately, though, no diesel pumps were available.

I asked Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in a brief interview in New Delhi, whether she thought the impending food crisis would have any effect on the unity of India.

“None whatever,” she replied with some asperity. “It will have no political effect at all, though of course the Opposition will try to exploit it.”

Did she regard the food crisis as a famine situation? In her reply she avoided repeating the word “famine.”

“It’s a much bigger crisis than last year’s,” she said. “This is the second consecutive year of drought, so we have no reserves as we had last spring from the good harvest of the year before. Whether we shall be able to get through without severe distress. it’s impossible to tell just yet. I can only say we are straining every nerve to cope with the problem.”

A riot a day

But it was difficult for an outside observer to tell the difference between “straining every nerve” and “business as usual.” The very avoidance of the word “famine” was symptomatic. If the government admits that there is famine in the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, various things will follow more or less automatically: there will be tax remissions that will strain the treasury, obligations for emergency relief that will be equally burdensome, in general an assumption of responsibility that any government would prefer to avoid in an election year.

So in the official lexicon of India, the famine threat is called “food scarcity,” the riots that arc daily occurrences in Indian cities are “student unrest,” and the devaluation of the rupee to 56 percent of its former value is attributed to “foreign pressure.” (Actually, there is reason to doubt that the 1966 devaluation went far enough. The official value of the rupee is about a shilling, 14 cents, but on the free market it sells for no more than a dime.)

But nobody denies that there was some foreign pressure for the reduction of the rupee, and this is enough to rouse fierce resentment. Some at least of the student-led riots that have been epidemic in India lately were caused by, or attributed to, this "yielding to the United States.”

The big riot of last November, which killed eight people and led to the resignation of the home secretary. rather obscured the fact that minor but still-serious riots have been a daily occurrence in India for more than a year, and that their numbers have risen steeply. In 1963 there were only 28 such disturbances in all India. In 1964 the total rose to 100, in 1965 to 240. Last year saw 202 by August 3 1, and they’ve averaged at least one a day ever since.

INDIA continued

Education is in poor shape. The result: anger and frustration

The causes, real or ostensible, are many. Law students rioted because the Bar Association had decided to set its own examinations and restrict the right to practise, instead of accepting the degrees granted by Indian law schools as in the past. Other faculties rioted in sympathy with them. All faculties rioted in several universities against unpopular principals or vicechancellors, who in fact are too often

chosen not among educators but among defeated politicians or decayed civil servants. The education system is admittedly in poor shape: a commission of inquiry reported last June after two years’ investigation, and found virtually nothing good about Indian schools and colleges. “The existing system of education is largely unrelated to life,” the report said. “It continues to have essentially the same features as at its creation more than a century ago.”

Three quarters of all Indian students are in nonprofessional courses, mostly vague mixtures of arts and science that qualify the graduate for nothing in particular and are related to no employment. The quality of teaching is poor, partly because teaching salaries are so low (full professors average $920 a year). Unemployable students are frustrated, apprehensive and furiously resentful of the time and money they have spent going nowhere.

But these just grievances are only part of the reasons for the “student” riots. Mohs led by students, but probably made up of about 80 percent ordinary street-dwellers, have rioted for a dozen reasons and for no good reason at all. In the town of Burdwan in mid-October, a boy was run over and killed by a bus. “Students” mobbed the police station, demanding that the driver of the bus be handed over to them to be lynched. When the police refused, the mob stoned the police station, and the police responded with tear-gas shells and a charge with lathis — the long, metal-tipped staves with which Indian police have been armed since the days of British rule. Several people were hurt.

In Calcutta a fortnight later, an eight-year-old boy fell off a tram and was killed. Within minutes, a mob had set fire not only to the tram beneath which the hoy had fallen, but also to two more cars stalled behind it. The three burning trams set fire to a nearby building. Police had to disperse the crowd with lathi charges to allow fire engines through.

The night before, also in Calcutta, a hotelkeeper was said to have “manhandled” a boy who was related to a police constable. Policemen poured out of a nearby barracks to sack the hotel and set fire to it, aided by a street mob which found itself, for once, on the policemen's side. However, the district commander of police who went to try to pacify the mob was stoned, as usual. This story rated a one-column heading on page nine of the next day's Calcutta newspaper. Another local paper omitted this item altogether but printed on page five, also under a one-column heading, the report of police firing on another mob. killing one and injuring four.

That is the kind of tinder that is strewn about India’s shabby streets as the world's largest democracy goes into its fourth general election and its worst famine in 25 years. When sparks so trivial could light such flares in November, nobody can predict what may happen in February and March as the real catastrophe of mass starvation replaces the minor irritants of the recent past. It would take a bold man to prophesy that India will come through with enough stability and vitality to take advantage of the opportunities now available for an “agricultural revolution.'’ But it would take an even bolder man to predict with assurance that she will not. India has shown for 2,000 years or more an almost infinite capacity to endure. If that capacity has not been exhausted — and so far. apparently, it hasn't — then new hope is visible on the horizon. ★