Dharan on Siegel, 'Hungry Nation: Food, Famine, and the Making of Modern India'

Benjamin Robert Siegel
N.J. Dharan

Benjamin Robert Siegel. Hungry Nation: Food, Famine, and the Making of Modern India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. 290 pp. $105.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-108-42596-4; $34.99 (paper), ISBN 978-1-108-44196-4

Reviewed by N.J. Dharan (University of Pennsylvania) Published on H-Environment (April, 2021) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55606

For the environmental historian, perhaps a place to start would be the conclusion, titled “Landscapes of Hunger.” In it, as in much of the book, Benjamin Robert Siegel details how central hunger and the production of food has been to the making of the modern Indian nation-state. To speak of landscapes, however, is to recognize hunger not only as a condition of suffering but also as a social terrain, which has been shaped by forces ranging from economic pressures to political priorities, from colonial histories to evolving environmental crises, from land tenure debates to food cultures. This is perhaps the greatest strength of the book: to consider hunger within a complex relational field. Through six chapters, Siegel traces India’s “food problem” through shifting arenas and diverse perspectives, a challenge for any historian, but especially for those writing on the postcolonial period. Although the story is primarily a political one—on contested processes of nation making—environmental historians and historians of agriculture will nevertheless find Hungry Nation instructive for demonstrating how the politicization of food neither begins nor ends in the soils of the farmer’s field.

To understand why India as a modern nation is held responsible for feeding its citizens, Siegel begins with the story of food under colonialism. The Bengal famine of 1943, which claimed the lives of at least three million people, has long been mobilized as a scathing indictment against the supposedly liberal and benevolent British Empire, most famously by the economist Amartya Sen in Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (1981). Rather than mine this seminal event for evidence of neglect and colonial apathy, Siegel recasts the famine as a moment of political reckoning in his first chapter. Witnessing the scale of devastation and suffering, the nationalist movement took on the elimination of hunger as a priority, which would readily distinguish them from the colonial administration. Not only this, but relief efforts drew support from across India, affectively bonding a diverse group of Indians and transforming the famine into a national symbol. The literature on famine has been of deep importance to South Asian historiography, and by picking up where these scholars left off, Siegel makes a signal contribution, linking the tragedy in Bengal both to anticolonial sentiment and later political trajectories. More than this, we are urged to seriously consider what it means for political subjecthood to be formed in conditions of food scarcity.

This is not the only place where colonial history gave shape to the food problem in postcolonial India. The early twentieth century and interwar years saw the rise of nutritional research institutions, robust consensus around “malnutrition” as a widespread problem in the subcontinent, and the construction of food and diet as objects of imperial intervention. Thus, when nationalist leaders—such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose, Meghnad Saha, and Mahatma Gandhi—began to include food in their plans for the country, they were following in the wake of the colonial denigration and manipulation of Indian diets. Highlighting the contentiousness of these debates is another area where Siegel excels, by recovering an archive of expert and amateur opinions on how to address the food problem. These works ranged from agricultural officials and social scientists crunching the numbers on India’s food deficit and modeling ways to plan for it, to the self-published tract Independent India of Plenty (1946), where a Tamil farmer advocated for the state to do away with such vices as smoking, drinking, gambling, racing, and even cricketing so that India can focus on becoming a nation of abundance. Such a unique and colorful source surely deserves the privilege of being the title of Siegel's second chapter. However, this initial plurality of voices faded away, and planning at the national level increasingly became focused on infrastructural improvements and technological advancements, as Siegel details in chapters 3 of the book. Given the scale of India's food problem, however, the author might have dwelled more on how data on the hunger crisis was produced. Certainly no matter how one crunches the numbers, there was a problem, but I wonder whether the techniques by which the data was assembled played any role in conditioning a response.

Later chapters of Hungry Nation move away from discussing national politics to describing how planning schemes for agriculture and food systems took shape in the emergent political culture of independent India. Although the busy chaos of the bazaar has long been an icon of the enterprising nature of Indian traders, in the postwar years, the national government sought greater control and regulation over food suppliers. These actions drew the ire of merchants and elicited special criticism from Gandhi, who viewed rationed food and regulated markets as antithetical to the project of self-rule. As chapter 4 shows, this was but one arena in which scarcity was used to justify illiberal measures for securing the nation’s food supply. Chapter 5 turns to the project of land reform, a topic that may be of particular interest to environmental historians and historians of agriculture. The peasant-led bhoodan movement against the tyranny of the zamindari, or landholding, class met with increased pressures of capitalist rationalization. As India’s attempt to emulate China’s programs of collectivization failed, the dream of land reform gave way to proposals that were more lucrative for agriculturists and politicians alike. The last chapter, “The Ideological Origins of the Green Revolution,” thus demonstrates how the postcolonial nation-state ultimately conceded to a technocratic consensus and adopted a policy of state-sponsored capitalist agriculture, one that promises plenty while leaving many unfed.

This book proves to be especially relevant in light of ongoing farmer protests in India, which have remained heated and contentious in the face of an apathetic central government. Food remains an arena with great revolutionary potential, especially as the façade of developmentalism grows ever more fissured. Hungry Nation reminds us not only that these tensions run deep but also that the failure to resolve questions of farmers’ rights, land reform, and food distribution has deferred the consequences to a new generation. Siegel has written an excellent postcolonial history, which reveals the looming specter of hunger within the textures of Indian political culture and agrarian life.

Citation: N.J. Dharan. Review of Siegel, Benjamin Robert, Hungry Nation: Food, Famine, and the Making of Modern India. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. April, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55606

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