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Review: Hungry Nation

Iris Yellum reviews Benjamin Robert Siegel's "Hungry Nation" (2018).

Published onDec 11, 2018
Review: Hungry Nation

Benjamin Robert Siegel. Hungry Nation: Food, Famine, and the Making of Modern India. Cambridge University Press, 2018. xi, 280 pp.

In Hungry Nation, a monograph developed from his 2014 dissertation, Boston University Assistant Professor of History Benjamin Siegel, who specializes in topics including economic history and history of medicine and the body, shows the centrality of food security to early Indian state-making in the mid-twentieth century. Roughly focusing on the 1940s to the 1970s and building upon extensive archival research from government archives, popular print culture, pamphlets, and sources in English and Indian languages, Siegel’s chronology addresses themes in development, economic and political history, nation-building, and the state. With an eye to politics, markets, and the ideological underpinnings of the Green Revolution, he makes a strong case for the gradual disintegration of the quest for human welfare and equity in India, which was set aside in favor of quantitative growth in agriculture and industry. Siegel asks us to address how the disturbing coexistence of bounty and want came to be, investigating the paradox that, even when growth prevails, food surplus fails to solve persistent hunger and malnutrition. He considers how the shifts in food crises may have been avoidable, and the conclusion of the book briefly takes up this question.

A few key concepts stand out in this history, including the early Indian remaking of the national diet, the coproduction of markets and the state, and early recognitions of Green Revolution failures. By setting the scene with the importance and aftermath of the 1943 Bengal famine, Siegel shows it to be one of the major motivations leading to the desire for self-rule. The introduction begins, however, with the famine through the eyes of a Punjabi farmer in exile in California. Siegel writes, “[his farm’s]… abundant harvest reminded him of the meager ones he had left behind: news of the Bengal famine, which had claimed 3.5 million lives, vexed Puri” (1). This narrative style allows the reader access to the national challenge of food through different lenses. Siegel also distinguishes between the many different actors—planners, citizens, peasants, “middle peasantry,” and landed farmers as well as their respective roles in making the early Indian nation. He exhorts us to consider the ambitions that were lost after the dawn of independence. Chapter 2 explores how food emerged as a site of contestation in addition to disastrous early attempts for free markets and self-sufficiency. Siegel writes in Chapter 3 that, by the 1940s, the reach of the state in Indian diets, as part of the making of the postcolonial Indian citizen, asked for too much. It is at this point that planners realized that the national quest for individual sacrifice demanded too much simultaneous change of the citizenry, as rations were introduced while voluntary fasting and particular domestic foods were encouraged.

Especially instructive are Chapters 5 and 6, which consider the roadblocks to land reform (namely, political discourse and propertied citizens) and the rise of productivism. Here is the point where India sought to create equitable land reform and socioeconomic equality, but real zamindari abolition failed due to entrenched caste politics, landed farmers’ avoidance of estate redistribution, the ambiguous position of peasants, and unequal access to resources (160).

In addition, Siegel clearly shows the coproduction of markets and the state. By presenting regionally wide-ranging examples in India and giving close attention to the ways in which planners were inspired by agricultural models and technologies from abroad (such as seeds from the U.S. and cooperative farming in China), Siegel shows that planners considered a variety of options for national food security. One of the more striking conclusions that Siegel delivers is the early realization that technology could not function as a panacea. Awareness that the Green Revolution could lead to failure was recognized even by U.S. experts at the time. Agricultural economist Wolf Ladejinsky once noted that socioeconomic reform had to be combined with technology. Siegel resists the temptation to paint the Green Revolution with broad strokes, showing how American scientists clearly saw the shortcomings of the early nation—including Indian scientists’ refusal to work in the field, the violence of caste politics, and socioeconomic barriers to accessing new technology (194).

Readers of Siegel’s Hungry Nation will find that the subversion of post-independent India’s early goals for self-sufficiency ultimately led to massive failures, anticipating the narrowing of political discourse today. Posing provocative questions regarding how planners lost sight of the quest for equity and human welfare, Siegel urges that scholars would do well to consider how early warning signs of agriculture failures and food crises often go unheeded, leading to the reproduction of violence and injustice. To move past today’s agrarian crisis in India, it is essential to understand the mid-century processes that led to the present. What responsibilities does the state have to agrarian livelihood? How do we remember the forgotten rural histories of early post-independent India? How has the hope of an egalitarian future dissolved into nutritional disparities across gender, caste, religion, and age, in spite of schemes for food security? Siegel reminds us of alternative experiences of independence, the paradoxes of caste politics, and the dangers in ceding public institutions to private initiative.


Iris Yellum is a PhD candidate in South Asian Studies at Harvard University. She works on topics related to food security, biodiversity, and the environment in India. She is currently working on a project related to scientists’ efforts to preserve and develop South Indian crop diversity. Her work has been funded by the American Institute of Indian Studies, the Harvard South Asia Institute, and the Harvard GSAS Graduate Society. She co-directs the South Asia Across Disciplines Workshop at Harvard.

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