Labour Monthly

India’s Food and Population

Reveiew of India’s Food and Population, Mukerjee Oxford Pamphlets, on India No 8 (O.U.P. 9d.) by Michael Carritt

Source : Labour Monthly February 1945, p.64-5
Publisher : The Labour Publishing Company Ltd., London.
Transcription/HTML : Ted Crawford/D. Walters
Public Domain : Marxists Internet Archive (2010). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

The steep upward curve of India’s population increase during the last hundred years provides easy ammunition for the pseudo-scientists whose science plays a very second fiddle to their political thesis that all India’s troubles are due, not to political, causes, but to the infertilty of the land and the overfertility of the people. This contradiction, regarded as an irreversible Act of God, is seen as an obstacle to all political, economic or social advance.

Professor Mukerjee the leading Indian authority on agrarian and dietary problems, starting from the hard fact that in 1935 the total food supply was only sufficient for six-sevenths of the population of India is nevertheless not of this pseudo-scientific school of fatalists. His brief description of the terrible trail of moral and material desolation left by the Bengal famine is all the more striking for its sobriety. “There has been a wholesale relinquishment of holdings, a sale of huts and belongings, a wholesale exodus from the villages, the desertion of women and children, infanticide and a recrudescence of slavery as in the famines of the eighteenth century.”

But he insists, the famine was a man-made famine, representing “a tragedy of economic misplanning and political disagreement”, a tragedy springing from a century of neglect of the needs and interests of the cultivating class. It was inevitable only in the sense that neglect and interested policies have made the impoverishment and ruin of the cultivator inevitable. But if the causes for this ruin are not removed, it is idle complacency to pretend that the danger of renewed famine is removed. Among the urgent steps recommended to avert this danger are the following (1) provision of irrigation facilities and, the lowering of the water rate for canal irrigation. (2) the provision of seeds and manures at nominal rates. (3) Reduction of rents. (4) Guaranteed prices to the cultivator. (5). Licensing of wholesale grain dealers. (6) Establishment of Co-operative societies. (7) Rationing and the requisitioning of surplus stocks.

Apart from the fact that the broader political issues involved and the question of inflation are not touched upon it will be seen that these proposals materially coincide with those put forward by the Indian Communist Party for Famine Relief in Bengal.

More drastic, and more long term change are necessary in Professor Mukerjee’s view if India’s increasing population is in future to be fed on a reasonable diet The facts are that in 1935, assuming the daily caloric requirement per head at 2,800 calories, India fell, short of food for 48 million of her average men, or in other words, a deficit of 423 calories, in each man’s ration. (Incidentally, the official gruel kitchens established in Bengal only provide 825 calories.) At the same time, not only is the yield per. acre lower in India than in other countries, but there is a steady deterioration in the quality of her food grains and a steady tendency to switch over to non-food crops for the commercial market. Holdings are becoming more and more fractionalised, and the cultivator is so heavily in debt, that he cannot afford to pay the fees for canal irrigation or the high prices of artificial fertilisers. Shortage of grazing land has produced degenerate and weakling herds. The cultivator tries to compensate for the poor quality of his cattle by increasing the size of the herds until there are as many as 67 cattle per hundred acres of sown land, as compared with China’s 15 and Japan’s 6.

Yet Mukerjee is in agreement with other experts that India can grow enough food to feed her growing population, at a reasonable standard. In the first place India cannot afford 110 million acres of culturable but uncultivated wasteland. India’s canal and river waters, must be made available to the cultivator. The area, devoted to commercial non-food crops must be limited and greater area devoted to the more nutritive cereal seeds. The findings of scientific research must be applied to improve crops, their productivity and their rotation. Government, with the help of scientists, must introduce new food crops and raise the yield per acre by providing cheap fertilisers. India must plan deliberately to reduce her cattle population and to improve its quality.

What kind of a Government can or will plan for a prosperous Indian agriculture along these lines? Or, what kind of Government will succeed in winning the necessary co-operation and good will of the cultivator in carrying through such revolutionary changes? Professor Mukerjee is not concerned with these, political implications nor, in this pamphlet, does he return to the deadening role of landlordism in Indian agrarian economy. But perhaps Professor Mukerjee regards the answer to these questions to be so obvious as to require no comment.

Michael Carritt