Abhijit Bhattacharyya | Wheat, famine, starvation: Some lessons for the West

The Asian Age.  | Abhijit Bhattacharyya

Opinion, Columnists

Like the 1770 famine which heralded the West’s arrival on Indian soil, the British departure from the East too saw the worst of all famines

Maintaining a healthy buffer stock to ensure the food security of 1.35 billion people is India’s compulsion, not choice. (Representational Image/ PTI)

Twenty-first century Europe has once again emerged as the sanctum sanctorum of bloodshed. Thirty European nations plus their allies are preparing for a prolonged war through “other”, or any, means. Supplying weapons to and enhancing war budgets for front-line warriors are their main agenda. However, when the reality of the war’s spill-over effects on choked food supply lines dawned, non-belligerent, non-aligned India became the punching bag for admonitions and stern advisories. Do this, don’t do that… The explicit condemnation of India’s wheat export ban was surprising. All the more so as the warning came from Germany’s agriculture minister, representing possibly the richest member of the wealthiest nations’ G-7 club (Canada, USA, Japan, France, Germany, Italy and Britain). “If everyone starts to impose export restrictions or to close markets, that would worsen the crisis,” he said.

One can offer a small suggestion, Let the G-7 club of the strongest and richest nations launch a fresh initiative to stop the bloodshed in Europe. The markets will immediately get back to normal. An attack on India would become redundant.

Does the West even care to remember, or has it ever expressed remorse or apologised for the price that India has been forced to pay for the wars started, supported and sponsored by the West since the mid-nineteenth century, without being a direct belligerent? Though India was always dragged into the distant wars of the West, the consequential famine and starvation death of its population has never been a cause of concern for the biggest and strongest of all Western imperial powers — Britain — while it was forcibly ruling over Bharat and fighting wars all around to maintain its empire and control of the seas. Today, India faces below-par crop production and a real possibility of diminished buffer food stocks for a rainy day to feed its 1.35 billion population to stave off starvation deaths and famine. The latter was the worst recurring gift of Whitehall’s War Cabinet during the last days of the British Raj in 1943. More than three million Bengalis were compulsorily made to die as the food supply lines were choked off on the orders of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, with the help of his white supremacist supporters and a large number of Indian traders who acted as stooges of the Raj.

Importantly, in the initial days of English rule too, within five years of their 1765 advent, had taken place the ravaging 1770 Bengal famine, in which marauding Englishmen made money on the common man’s misery, leading to the death of one-third of Bengal’s then population. Any apology? None so far, for one of the West’s greatest crimes against humanity.

Like the 1770 famine which heralded the West’s arrival on Indian soil, the British departure from the East too saw the worst of all famines, that led to the death of at least 3.5 million people in Bengal in 1943, the price paid by the East for the wars of the West.

Today, once again, it’s a story of war, wheat, starvation and famine. Let the facts speak for themselves. In 2020, the G-7 accounted for over 50 per cent of global wealth of $418 trillion, and 40-45 per cent of global GDP. In contrast, India’s GDP is less than $3 trillion. The G-7’s total population is less than 800 million, to India’s 1.35 billion. So, whose responsibility is bigger — G-7 or India —  feed people? How can anyone ignore India’s food security? India is therefore right to make tackling its people’s hunger as its topmost priority.

Let’s go to the Second World War famine and starvation death statistics. The figures show far fewer numbers died facing the gun than looking for grains. In six years (1939-1945), Britain lost 3.88 lakh people US 2.96 lakh people, while it was 8.1 lakh in France; Hungary (8.4 lakh), Greece (5.2 lakh); Romania (4.6 lakh) and (Italy 4 lakh) people — collectively, a total of 3.71 million deaths in six years. This was almost equal to the 3.5 million deaths in the man-made Bengal famine in six months.

Today, as the war rages in Ukraine and there are fears it could spread, the West is understandably edgy over a disruption in food supplies. But before trying to blame India for trying to protect its own population, the West should look at some figures. The 27-nation European Union is the world’s largest wheat producer (150,000 thousand tons) in 2020 and its production-consumption ratio has a surplus of at least 15 per cent for export. China, in the number two spot, has a four per cent surplus. In comparison, India’s wheat surplus is two per cent, and due to the long history of famine and starvation deaths in this country, India simply can’t take any chances. Maintaining a healthy buffer stock to ensure the food security of 1.35 billion people is India’s compulsion, not choice.

Besides these countries, there are Argentina, Canada and the United States, which have relatively smaller populations with a healthy wheat surplus for export. It would be wise, therefore, to focus on these nations than on countries with much bigger populations which have a history of chronic man-made famines, leading to millions of deaths. The West needs to remember that collateral damage has a more long-lasting effect than the combat casualties of combatants.

Thus, despite the allegations and counter allegations, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has choked the supply lines of 30 per cent of the world’s wheat moving from the field to the food mart, creating an imminent and unprecedented human catastrophe. It’s a problem that has been created by the West and not by India or any other developing nation of the Third World. The West, therefore, needs to reconsider its responsibility and think of ways to resolve the problem, rather than try to pin the blame on India or anyone else.

The world has seen enough of the wars waged by the West. Korea, Libya, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Suez, Iraq —  these were all in Asia and Africa or on their edges, far removed from the developed nations of the West, with the sole exception of the one that raged in the European heartland in the mid-1990s in the aftermath of the breakup of a united Yugoslavia into the six independent states of Bosnia and Herzegovina; Serbia; Slovenia; Macedonia; Montenegro and Croatia. It’s time for the West to ponder, and act with sincerity and a sense of responsibility.

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