What Will India Eat Tomorrow?

In view of the present serious threat of famine in rural areas throughout India, the Atlantic feels it is of first importance to determine whether this plight which has stirred wide American sympathy is susceptible of more than temporary relief. W. H. FORBES,Lecturer at the School of Public Health at Harvard University, has made two extended visits to India since 1949 in furtherance of a joint public health project undertaken by the School and the Ludlow Tate Co. Ltd. His sobering conclusions are the result of close study, far travel, and many consultations.



FAMINE has been the faithful visitant of mankind throughout its existence. We in America have largely forgotten this as we have never known anything but surpluses since the very early days. We think of shortages as exceptional. We are, of course, quite wrong. Recurring scarcity is the usual thing — so usual that it might almost be called normal — and continuous sufficiency is unusual. We form an exception, local and perhaps transitory, to the condition of the majority of mankind, who, like other biological species, periodically experience starvation. It is well that we should remember this, now that we are undertaking great responsibilities both of friendship and, at present, most unfortunately, of enmity in the East.

India is a splendid corrective to complacency. A great people living in a land reasonably well endowed with natural resources, rich and highly civilized when Europe was deep in barbarism and North America the range of nomadic hunters, is now unable to support itself. Standards of life are low and sinking, and widespread famine is imminent. What disaster or great error has reduced the inhabitants of India to their present status? Simply this: they have increased in numbers.

India and Pakistan together make up an area about half as large as the U.S.A., and at least as large a proportion is desert, mountain, or swamp; so the proportion of fertile land is not very different - if anything, it is smaller. This area is not richly endowed with minerals, being far less fortunate in this respect than the U.S. There are coal, iron, manganese, and small deposits of many other ores, but nothing much in excess of the reasonable needs of the vast population. In fact, in many things (oil, copper, tin, and nickel) needs greatly exceed resources. Consequently the population that they can support at a high standard of living is certainly not more than half what we can support, and may not be more than one third. They have, however, nearly three times our population. In short, they have eight to ten times as many people per unit of natural resources as we have.

But even this gives far too rosy a picture of the situation, because the people of India have so much less technical knowledge and equipment than we. They cannot use their land — little as there is per person — nearly as effectively either per acre or per man-hour as we can. This is not because of lack of intelligence or lack of effort. It is because they have not been able to afford education or other capital investments.

In a land where 90 per cent of the population are rural and the great bulk of this 90 per cent work the land and still are unable, by their utmost efforts, to raise the food to support themselves, it is clear that not many can be spared to teach or to investigate methods of increasing food production. Such efforts take five or ten years to give returns, and the problem is how to get food for next month. The answers worked out in other countries cannot be immediately transferred - they are not always applicable to India, and even when they are, the nearly universal illiteracy of the farmers is a great bar to the spread of new techniques whether coming from abroad or from the small number of Indian experts.

The mere fact that India has eight to ten times us many people per unit of natural resources as the United States does not of itself mean that it is overpopulated. We might be underpopulated. Some feel that we are, but many who have studied the question think that we have already passed the “optimum population,” and that, high as our standard is, it would be higher still if we had 100 instead of 150 million. There would then be fewer dust-bowl farms, less erosion, forests in equilibrium rather than disappearing, slower depletion of mines and oil, higher animal protein diet without overgrazing, and more exportable surplus per capita.

There are other indications that the population of India is excessive besides comparison with this country. Housing provides an easily measurable criterion of overcrowding. It is better in this respect than food consumption because floor space may be as low as one square yard per person, or as high as 100 square yards, but food (except for wastage) can vary only over a small range. A rich man simply cannot eat a hundred times as much as a poor man, or even three times as much. Indeed, a poor man working hard must eat far more than a rich one who is inactive.

A thorough and careful survey of conditions in India was made in the middle forties by a large and competent committee appointed by the Indian Government and under the chairmanship of Sir Joseph Bhore. Their four-volume report was published in 1940 under the title “Report of the Health Survey and Development Committee,”and the following quotation from the sections which deal with housing is typical: “In the tenements constructed and owned by the Government of Bombay, 63,000 persons in 1939 were housed in 13,000 rooms.”This is 4.8 persons per room. The conditions are much more crowded now, and a recent editorial in the leading conservative daily, The Statesman, states that “30% of the population of Bombay live with 20 or more people to a room" at present.

In the city of Calcutta, an unknown number, estimated by some as high as 200,000 people, have no houses whatever and live entirely on the streets and in the railroad stations. This crowding is not confined to the lower working classes; even the babus (the educated, somewhat more highly paid clerical staff) are included. For example, one young clerk in a Calcutta office stated that he shared one bed with his two unmarried sisters, his mother, and his youngest brother, aged eight. One square yard of floor space per person is common; to have only four people in a room 9 feet by 9 feet is considered definitely superior housing.

In many places families alternate in a house or shop: a small artisan may have a shop attached to his house and two families may occupy both, one running the shop while the other uses the house, and then reversing.

Everyone agrees that conditions have become considerably worse since the early forties and that the deterioration has been particularly pronounced since 1947, especially in the cities, and perhaps most of all in Calcutta. This is partly due to the increase of 30 million or more in the total population and partly because the persons uprooted during the division into India and Pakistan have gravitated to the cities. Calcutta has gone from a little over 2 million to upwards of 4 million in less than five years. There has been no significant change in the number of houses, the supply of water, gas, or electricity, or in the provisions for sewage disposal.

These conditions would be appalling if they were now static, but they are not. The population is still increasing rapidly. The Bhore Report states: “During the past two decades there has been a steady fall in the mortality rate of the country. A further fall is bound to occur if the large scale programmes for improving the health of the community advocated by the different postwar planning committees are effectively put into operation. In the decennium between 1931 and 1941, the average yearly addition to the population of India as a whole was 5 millions. An annual saving of 3 millions in British India as the result of improved health conditions will raise India’s rate of growth to 8 millions a year, without taking into consideration any fall in mortality that may be brought about in the Indian States through similar health measures. Under such conditions the very large increase of 83 millions which took place in the 20-year period between 1921 and 1941 is likely to be reached within half that time. A purposeful control of mortality without a corresponding fall in the fertility rate of the community can thus have far-reaching consequences.”


INDIA is overwhelmingly an agricultural country, but instead of having a large export surplus it cannot even supply its own minimum needs and must import an ever increasing amount of food grains, this year 12 per cent of the total caloric requirements. There is no more convincing evidence of overpopulation in an agricultural country than a chronic and worsening shortage of food.

Another warning is the tiny size of many of the individual plots of farming land. There is just over one acre of cultivated land per capita of the total agricultural population. We in this country have twelve, and these twelve acres are generally good, while the Indian one is often poor. India cultivates over half her total area, the United States less than one fifth. Much of the land that must be used by an Indian farmer would not be touched by an American farmer. (A note should be added here about Pakistan. Her problems are similar but at present less acute because Pakistan has the more sparsely settled sections of the country, with over an acre per head, and India the more densely settled, with just about an acre per head. Pakistan has a smaller urban population and is still able to produce her own food, and even to export some in good years. The observations in this article apply with more force to India with 300 million people than to Pakistan with 80 million.)

The individual plots would be small in any event because of the great number of individuals, but the situation is made much worse by the inheritance customs which in many sections decree that if a farmer has a number of sons, three for example, he doesn’t merely divide his farm into three parts and leave one part to each. Rather, he divides his good land into three parts, his medium land into three parts, and his poor land into three parts. Consequently, in the course of time, holdings have become not only tiny but also widely scattered, and a farmer may have to trudge a mile or so from one minuscule plot to another.


UNTIL two centuries ago, India always gave the impression of being rich in comparison with other countries. Now she gives the impression of being poorer than others. In 1800 there were probably between 100 and 200 million, and their number increased only slowly, probably reaching the latter figure about 1840 or 1850. Then the rate of growth began to increase, and in 1881 it had reached about 240 million, exclusive of Burma. The first Commissions of Public Health were not created until 1864, and it is probable that their effect was not very great until the etiology and modes of spread of the major diseases, especially malaria and cholera, were fairly well worked out. Generally speaking, the effective control of these diseases increased all over the world during the 1890s and early 1900s; and at about the same time, the population of India began its great increase, an increase which has reached 50 per cent in fifty years and is currently proceeding at about twice that speed.

The social history of India is little known, but it seems probable that in the early days the poor facilities for transport led to a considerable degree of isolation of the various parts of India. Disasters thus circumscribed might kill 30 per cent of the population in a given area, but not hit that area again for many years. The general picture may have been one of health and prosperity in 90 per cent of the country with famine and disease rampant in the remaining 10 per cent. The famine, caused by a vagary of the monsoon coupled with lack of transport, would not recur in this spot for some years, and the disease would die out from lack of susceptible and not recur until the passage of twenty years had provided a new crop of potential victims. A loss of 30 per cent of the inhabitants of 10 per cent of the country (3 per cent of the whole population) occurring almost every year in one region or another would keep the population as a whole approximately constant and would be compatible with reasonable health and a tolerable standard of living for 90 per cent of the country. Now it seems that the improvement in transport and the suppression of disease by the British, which has saved a hundred million lives, have had the effect of reversing these percentages, so that with disasters spread over longer periods and greater areas a situation has been achieved where 90 per cent are miserable and 10 per cent relatively well off.

The wealth of India has certainly increased under British rule, probably more than doubled. The population, however, has more than quadrupled, so that each person is only half as well off. The British found 10 million people in great distress and many dying, while the surrounding 90 million had some degree of prosperity. They provided sound, creative administration and applied liberal and humanitarian principles. The result was to bring 440 million to the verge of starvation and to keep them there, leaving 10 million in some degree of comfort. America has achieved a similar result in Puerto Rico. Is there something missing in our planning?

The Indian Government is well aware of the problems posed by the discrepancy between the country’s resources and its population. This is always expressed, unfortunately, as a “shortage of food” or “lack of housing” rather than as an “excess of people.” Their efforts to solve their difficulties are along four main lines: attempts to get hold of existing accumulations of capital, taxation of existing industries, increase in industrialization, and increase of agricultural production.

Of these, the first is obviously a self-limiting resource. One can only appropriate capital once. Furthermore, even the largest accumulations look small when divided by 400 million. The taxation of existing industries is fairly high, approximately 55 per cent of income, so that no great increase in yield can be expected from further taxation.

The third method, increasing the industrialization, requires a great capital outlay — so much that it is quite beyond the power of India to supply it. Its extent may be gathered from the following figures: In the United States $15,000 per employee is a conservative estimate of the capital required in an industrialization program for medium and heavy industries. In India the cost of machinery, even when it is available, is 50 per cent higher than in the United States but building is cheaper. In general, at least double the number of employees is required for a given size of output. Therefore, let us take $3000 per man as a low but reasonable figure of the cost of proper industrialization in India. Let us also assume that an average industrial worker will support four people besides himself. As there are 15,000 people added to the population every day, it would require the employment of at least 3000 new people every day at a cost of 9 million dollars of new capital per day, merely to keep abreast of the increasing population without improving the general standard of living at all. This means 5 billion per year, or between three and four times the present total budget of the country, just to keep from going downhill. There is no prospect that native capital can bear this burden or that private foreign capital can be attracted at a significant fraction of this rate.

Besides, it is not certain how much industrialization will help. It will be of some help, of course, but you cannot eat machines. There are too many men and there is too little land. Even if the machine will do the work of a hundred men, it is of little help unless it produces more food than the hundred men could produce.

The improvement of agricultural yields is the most promising of these methods for attacking the problem. Theoretically it should be fairly easy to raise the food output of India by a considerable amount, 50 or perhaps even 100 per cent, by the use of fertilizer, improved strains, irrigation, better methods of cultivation, and the opening of unused land. India’s production of corn averaged 0.27 tons per acre against the U.S. average of 1.07 tons; in wheat India got 0.26 tons and the U.S. 0.48. The average vield per acre of India’s eight principal food grains was about one third of the U.S. yield. There is a great difference, however, between what is theoretically possible and what can be accomplished in practice.

There are serious difficulties to be overcome. The land is generally deficient in nitrogen, phosphate, organic matter, and water. A recent survey by the Agricultural, Fisheries, and Irrigation Departments in West Bengal, one of the richest agricultural sections, reports that the “natural drainage system and main source of natural irrigation” of this region are “unmistakably dying.”The ravages of floods on East Bengal rivers worsen each year. Sir Albert Howard, who spent most of his life on various agricultural projects in India and was agricultural adviser to the government, feels that the Indian peasant is getting about as much from the land as can safely be taken unless profound changes in agricultural practices are introduced, including the use of cow dung for fertilizer instead of for fuel. (It is much needed as fuel because wood is scarce and expensive.)

Although the necessity of increasing food production has been emphasized by a series of famines in which millions starved to death, the most recent one being the Bengal famine of 1943, and although much intelligent effort has been devoted to increasing production, the results have been disappointing. New lands have been cleared, swamps drained, drylands irrigated, but the total agricultural production has not increased — in fact, it appears to have decreased. Meanwhile the population has been increasing by 5 to 6 million per year. To get some idea of what such a torrent of humanity means, one must realize this yearly increase is greater than the total population of New England exclusive of Massachusetts; that it requires an area the size of New Hampshire or Vermont to provide one acre per person and that, except on the best land, two acres are needed to support one person adequately. Furthermore, this amount of additional land is required not just once, but is required every year merely to keep the situation from deteriorating.

Up to the early forties India had been in agricultural balance or nearly so; some rice was imported, but this was usually about balanced by exports of food. However, in 1944 it was necessary to import 650,000 tons without any significant export of food to balance it. From 1945 to 1949 the figures rose from 850,000 to 4 million tons. Now, in 1951, India is endeavoring to import 6 million tons. This will feed 30 million people for a year.

Six million tons is a huge amount of wheat — so much that it takes 600 really large ships (over 500 feet long) to carry it. To send this from America to India would require the dispatch of two ships per day for a year; and as the round trip with loading and unloading would certainly take 70 days, this would mean a total fleet of 140 ships devoted exclusively to this purpose.

It is true that in 1950 there was a smaller import than in 1949, and that in the end of 1950 and beginning of 1951 there have been rather an unusual number of disasters in the nature of floods and earthquakes which increased the imports for 1951. Nevertheless, there are floods and earthquakes every year and there is some indication that the floods at least are becoming worse, because of the culling off of the forests in an effort to get more land for cultivation. The reason for the ineffectiveness of the various efforts to increase production may be in part a declining fertility in the land. The behavior of specific crops suggests this; wheat and sugar cane may be taken as examples, fhere is, therefore, little indication that the theoretical possibilities of raising more food in India will be realized.


WHAT can be done? The outlook is dark but not hopeless. First the birth rate must be reduced. Without this nothing will be of much use. With this the projects now under way could gradually solve India’s most pressing problems. The difficulties of introducing good contraceptive methods are many and formidable. Mr. Gandhi strongly opposed contraception, holding that any intercourse when the desire for offspring was absent was sinful. The president of India, Mr. Prasad, and also the recently elected president of the Congress Party, Mr. Tandon, follow Mr. Gandhi. The Prime Minister, Mr. Nehru, however, has believed for many years in the necessity of contraception for India and seems to be pushing it more strongly during the last year or two. There are now eleven birth control clinics operating in Bombay, and others in other cities. Hinduism is not a revealed religion and hence has no authoritative dicta on the subject. It is not, strictly speaking, against the Hindu religion, though it is against the teachings of some religious leaders.

The people are conservative, suspicious of Western innovations, and in the rural sections still influenced to a certain extent by the idea that children are an economic asset as they were in the distant past when their help was needed on the land. They still do work on the land from about six years of age, but they eat more than they can help to produce. On the other hand there are some people in almost every class who are most eager to limit the size of their families and are now using for this purpose all kinds of methods, many of them completely ineffective, and some of them dangerous.

The practical difficulties are very great. Good contraceptive materials cannot be supplied for less than $2 per person per year, and the maintenance of a clinic even in India would cost at least $5 per patient. The annual cash income in rural India is of the order of $50 per capita (exclusive of the value of the food raised and eaten on the farm itself), and the total amount spent on public health is of the order of 12 cents per person per year. The expense therefore is almost prohibitive. Then there is the difficulty of spreading information in an illiterate population and also the lack of the trained personnel needed to make a birth control program effective. There are few doctors in the rural districts —about one for every 200,000 people — and only one nurse for every seven doctors. The cities with only 10 per cent of the population and a lower birth rate than the rural areas have at least three fourths of the 50,000 doctors and 7000 nurses in India. These figures are discouraging—but the desire to limit the birth rate is there, and this desire is something to build on.

Another obstacle which must be overcome is the failure among both Indians and foreign observers to appreciate the quantitative aspects of the problem. “India’s resources are vast,”they say. Yes, but divide them by 400 million and you find that per capita they are tiny. There was an excellent article in the Saturday Evening Post of December 23, 1950, entitled “India Opens Her Hidden Storehouse.”It describes most vividly 30 huge tractors handling great new machines which are ripping out kans grass and reclaiming nearly one square mile per day. This is quite a bit of land and it is rich land too. They are planning eventually to get a total of 240 tractors which will clear about 6 square miles per day and reclaim millions of acres— 10 million to be exact. Anyone reading the article is impressed by the size of the achievement. He sees in imagination the huge iron monsters cutting great swathes through the trees, shrubs, and weeds, freeing the rich soil for grains, demonstrating through science and the machine age the triumph of man’s intellect over the obstacles in his environment. He sees India’s problem practically solved and assumes that by next year, at any rate, when some of these vast acres come into production, there will be food enough for all.

He fails to calculate that this large total of 480 acres per day, the maximum that can be obtained from the present 30 tractors and their accompanying machines, is only one thirtieth of what India, needs per day merely to keep up with her daily increase. This enterprise, admirable and large-scale though it is, will merely make a scarcely perceptible decrease in the rate at which she goes downhill. When you have a herd of starving elephants it does no harm to go out and give one peanut to each, but it is a mistake to believe that you have made a significant improvement in their nutritional status by so doing. And if this belief diverts your attention from the fact that they are indeed starving and lulls you by the feeling that you have helped them, it would have been better to omit the peanuts and tackle the fundamental question of how they came to be starving.

The facts are these: India’s population is increasing by about 5 million [ter year — a rate which would double her present population of 360 million in about fifty years. Her total agricultural production of foods now averages about 4 million tons below her requirements and appears to be falling steadily in spite of all efforts to increase it. This vear, which was a bad one for production, it was 6 million tons below her requirements. She has no product the export of which can he increased in sufficient amounts to cover this enormous deficit. This means famine, continual famine, until population and resources are in balance.

Why should we in America concern ourselves with India’s problems? There are several reasons, and it is by no means certain that the most important ones are the two most commonly given: namely, a hope that we can keep her friendly to us rather than to the Russians, and a feeling that it is the humanitarian thing to do. It may well be that three other reasons are of much deeper and more lasting significance: first, the world is not likely to be stable and peaceful while starving millions know of the existence of luxurious surpluses just around the corner: second, India’s great artistic and philosophical culture can contribute to our perhaps overmaterialistic and scientific pattern: third, and perhaps most important, India is not behind us, as some think, but ahead of us on the road that the world as a whole appears to be starting to follow.

For at least two centuries the world’s production of food has increased faster than its population, but within the last few years the situation appears to have been reversed and the population of the world has increased faster than its food supply. The world is moving toward the condition that India has already reached. India has many lessons for us. It would be well to help and to study India.