The Bengal Famine: How the British engineered the worst genocide in human history for profit

The Bengal Famine: How the British engineered the worst genocide in human history for profit

Rakhi Chakraborty | August 15, 2014 at 7:30 am


“I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion. The famine was their own fault for breeding like rabbits.”

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    -Winston Churchill

The British had a ruthless economic agenda when it came to operating in India and that did not include empathy for native citizens. Under the British Raj, India suffered countless famines. But the worst hit was Bengal. The first of these was in 1770, followed by severe ones in 1783, 1866, 1873, 1892, 1897 and lastly 1943-44. Previously, when famines had hit the country, indigenous rulers were quick with useful responses to avert major disasters. After the advent of the British, most of the famines were a consequence of monsoonal delays along with the exploitation of the country’s natural resources by the British for their own financial gain. Yet they did little to acknowledge the havoc these actions wrought. If anything, they were irritated at the inconveniences in taxing the famines brought about.

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The first of these famines was in 1770 and was ghastly brutal. The first signs indicating the coming of such a huge famine manifested in 1769 and the famine itself went on till 1773. It killed approximately 10 million people, millions more than the Jews incarcerated during the Second World War. It wiped out one third the population of Bengal. John Fiske, in his book “The Unseen World”, wrote that the famine of 1770 in Bengal was far deadlier than the Black Plague that terrorized Europe in the fourteenth century. Under the Mughal rule, peasants were required to pay a tribute of 10-15 per cent of their cash harvest. This ensured a comfortable treasury for the rulers and a wide net of safety for the peasants in case the weather did not hold for future harvests. In 1765 the Treaty of Allahabad was signed and East India Company took over the task of collecting the tributes from the then Mughal emperor Shah Alam II. Overnight the tributes, the British insisted on calling them tributes and not taxes for reasons of suppressing rebellion, increased to 50 percent. The peasants were not even aware that the money had changed hands. They paid, still believing that it went to the Emperor.

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Partial failure of crop was quite a regular occurrence in the Indian peasant’s life. That is why the surplus stock, which remained after paying the tributes, was so important to their livelihood. But with the increased taxation, this surplus deteriorated rapidly. When partial failure of crops came in 1768, this safety net was no longer in place. The rains of 1769 were dismal and herein the first signs of the terrible draught began to appear. The famine occurred mainly in the modern states of West Bengal and Bihar but also hit Orissa, Jharkhand and Bangladesh. Bengal was, of course, the worst hit. Among the worst affected areas were Birbum and Murshidabad in Bengal. Thousands depopulated the area in hopes of finding sustenance elsewhere, only to die of starvation later on. Those who stayed on perished nonetheless. Huge acres of farmland were abandoned. Wilderness started to thrive here, resulting in deep and inhabitable jungle areas. Tirhut, Champaran and Bettiah in Bihar were similarly affected in Bihar.

Prior to this, whenever the possibility of a famine had emerged, the Indian rulers would waive their taxes and see compensatory measures, such as irrigation, instituted to provide as much relief as possible to the stricken farmers. The colonial rulers continued to ignore any warnings that came their way regarding the famine, although starvation had set in from early 1770. Then the deaths started in 1771. That year, the company raised the land tax to 60 per cent in order to recompense themselves for the lost lives of so many peasants. Fewer peasants resulted in less crops that in turn meant less revenue. Hence the ones who did not yet succumb to the famine had to pay double the tax so as to ensure that the British treasury did not suffer any losses during this travesty.

After taking over from the Mughal rulers, the British had issued widespread orders for cash crops to be cultivated. These were intended to be exported. Thus farmers who were used to growing paddy and vegetables were now being forced to cultivate indigo, poppy and other such items that yielded a high market value for them but could be of no relief to a population starved of food. There was no backup of edible crops in case of a famine. The natural causes that had contributed to the draught were commonplace. It was the single minded motive for profit that wrought about the devastating consequences. No relief measure was provided for those affected. Rather, as mentioned above, taxation was increased to make up for any shortfall in revenue. What is more ironic is that the East India Company generated a profited higher in 1771 than they did in 1768.


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Although the starved populace of Bengal did not know it yet, this was just the first of the umpteen famines, caused solely by the motive for profit, that was to slash across the country side. Although all these massacres were deadly in their own right, the deadliest one to occur after 1771 was in 1943 when three million people died and others resorted to eating grass and human flesh in order to survive.

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Winston Churchill, the hallowed British War prime minister who saved Europe from a monster like Hitler was disturbingly callous about the roaring famine that was swallowing Bengal’s population. He casually diverted the supplies of medical aid and food that was being dispatched to the starving victims to the already well supplied soldiers of Europe. When entreated upon he said, “Famine or no famine, Indians will breed like rabbits.” The Delhi Government sent a telegram painting to him a picture of the horrible devastation and the number of people who had died. His only response was, “Then why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?”

Winston Churchill: Image Source






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This Independence Day it is worthwhile to remember that the riches of the west were built on the graves of the East. While we honour the brave freedom fighters (as we should), it is victims like these, the ones sacrificed without a moment’s thought, who paid the ultimate price. Shed a tear in their memory and strive to make the most of this hard won independence that we take for granted today. Pledge to stand up those whose voice the world refuses to hear because they are too lowly to matter. To be free is a great privilege. But as a great superhero once said, “With great freedom comes great responsibility.”


Rakhi Chakraborty

Writer at YourStory. Student of human rights. Thrives on stories, ideas and innovation

A peep into 300 years of food history

M R Venkatesh, Feb 12, 2012

“Let them eat cake!” This infamous jibe often attributed to Marie Antoinette, the last Queen of France in the 1790s  when peasants had no bread even, may historically conceal more than it reveals.

From man’s daily bread to ward off hunger, a basket of agro-horticulture
produces, protein-rich metric nutrition with onset of industrialisation, ethnic cuisines, organic food, to highly post-modern personalised food habits when the affluent even fast in style, the “food evolution” has had an encyclopaedic vastness alongside man’s own.

Though largely Euro-centric, it impacted the world’s stage at large, as the history and culture of “food” waved through with its paradoxes. A fascinating peep into it came at a recent Indo-German encounter in a little known corner of Tamil Nadu, at St. Xavier’s college (Auto­nomous) in Palayamkottai, Tirunelveli, once hailed as the “Oxford of the South”.

Even subalterns may stagger at over 300 years of “food history” in western Europe, particularly in countries like France, Britain and Germany.

“You know, until 1850 large sections of the population were feeding mainly on potatoes, ” Dr Detlef Briesen, Professor of History and Cultural Studies at the

Justus-Liebeg-University Giessen, Germ­any, startlingly posed.  Incredible, but substantially true! After nearly three centuries of “prosperous living” in western Europe, mainly in the German-speaking countries, between the 14th and 17th centuries, Europe went through a period of  “food crisis” in the pre-modern period, Dr Briesen drove home.

Outbreak of famines

The perpetual European wars, a big climate change caused by the “little ice age”, periodic outbreak of famines and agriculture stagnation cumulatively led to what he termed a “hunger crisis”, often resulting in undernourishment or even plain starvation. This was a powerful motivation for Europeans to “get
aggressive to conquer other parts of the world.”

For more than 150 years’ “standards of mass nutrition decreased constantly”, when 60 per cent of the European population simply struggled for survival, nothing more, he noted. However, since the 17th century, as European powers set up colonies in other parts of the world, new products began arriving in Europe, which had been “developed abroad to serve the needy European consumers there”.

The foundations for a new food cycle were, ironically, laid outside Europe. Potatoes, for instance, originated from South America, liquor in large quantities was first distilled in the English colonies in North America, refined sugar imported from the Dutch, French and later English colonies, coffee initially from Mauritius and Sri Lanka and others.

“The demand for colonial commodities and the nutrition crisis modified European, including German, agriculture and led to the production of sugar beet, potato, and chicory. This production had a deep impact on agriculture and induced an often underestimated technological revolution in agriculture,” contended Dr Briesen, also a visiting Professor at JNU, Delhi.

Thus, it was only after 1850, that Europe began to witness replacement of an undernourished diet with a prosperous pattern of food consumption, as he put it. Partying times were ushered in with serving of wine, beer, large quantities of beef, milk, cheese, sausages, vegetables and of course bread.

People began to “celebrate their status by trying to emulate the consumption patterns of the French nobility”. After the French Revolution though, what emerged was a “French bourgeoisie cuisine as the paradigm of good, nutritious and genteel food for more than a century,” he explained.

Across Europe, the post-1850s generally marked a “return to prosperity” in eating habits. But this process was rudely interrupted during the two killer World Wars. “The real prosperous consumption of Food” in German-speaking countries in particular came only from the 1950s,” he said.

Simultaneous developments in the post-Civil War United States saw people with a much higher income level taking a “more pragmatic approach to nutrition”. Though American cooking was “mainly influenced” by British traditions, a strong German influence and elements of French Haute cuisine, rapid industrialisation, new products, mass production, standardisation of nutrition, abundance and prosperity led to what he termed an “even more rapid and far-reaching” dining table revolution in the US!

While the early 1950s’ unfolded a new pattern of consumption in the US “with more chicken, salad, corn flakes, rice, noodles, tropical fruits, less potatoes, bread, pork, etc.,” the “Coke” and supermarket culture spread to the European continent predominantly only after World War II. The emergence of the “European Common Market”, a television market and advertisement were key factors which aided this transformation, he said.

Historical journey

Spanning this amazing historical journey of Food over 300 years, the food culture has now got more “egalitarian and ethnic”, thanks to migrant populations in different countries, even as it has spawned a “wonderful diversity of nutrition”, in Prof. Briesen’s analysis.

From “gourmet food, organic food, pragmatic food introduced by modern nutrition, traditional food with its regional variations, extremely selective food by the upper class, experimental nutrition coming from the chemical industry’s lap for athletes and women who need to be slim, to overeating of prefabricated high calorific food for underclass children,” this huge variety in the food scene now turns age-old cookery upside down.

People in higher echelons now consciously limit their consumption of food, alcohol and tobacco. Good enough, but it is also paradoxical, says Prof  Briesen. “Today, it is not the rich, but the poor who are overweight or even obese, and abundance had become the main factor for untimely demise and diseases like cancer, heart attack or blood pressure.”

Would Prof Briesen get such a platform to share these insights on “Food History” that is largely people-centric if Indo-German encounters had been confined only to the grand tradition of Indological studies in the line of great scholars like Max Mueller, Prof Daussein and so on?

Fr Biritto Vincent, College Rector and Assistant Professor at St Xavier’s Folkore Department, had no ready yes for a reply. For him, what enabled such dialogue was a less known tradition which also shaped Indo-Germ­an relations, thanks to the Grimm Brothers of Germany who first systematically collected German folk tales and myths in the early 1800s and compared them with other oral folk traditions in India. 

FAO Recognises Traditional Agriculture System in Koraput Region

FAO has officially recognized the Traditional Agricultural System of Koraput  as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System (GIAHS) site. This was officially declared on 3rd January 2012 at the Indian Science Congress organized by KIIT University in Bhubaneswar. This is an important recognition of our Tribal System of Agriculture and its conservation will only strengthen our fight against serious environmental challenges like climate change.

The official release added “The recognition of the Koraput Traditional Agricultural System as a GIAHS site will guarantee local and international efforts for the conservation of biodiversitysustainable use of its genetic resources, and the recognition of tribal peoples’ contribution to biodiversity and knowledge systems, whilst increasing attention to their natural and cultural heritage.

What is Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS)

Worldwide, specific agricultural systems and landscapes have been created, shaped and maintained by generations of farmers and herders based on diverse natural resources, using locally adapted management practices. Building on local knowledge and experience, these ingenious agri-cultural systems reflect the evolution of humankind, the diversity of its knowledge, and its profound relationship with nature. These systems have resulted not only in outstanding landscapes, maintenance and adaptation of globally significant agricultural biodiversity, indigenous knowledge systems and resilient ecosystems, but, above all, in the sustained provision of multiple goods and services, food and livelihood security and quality of life.

In order to safeguard and support world’s agri-cultural heritage systems in 2002 FAO started an initiative for the conservation and adaptive management of Globally Important Agricultural Heritage systems (GIAHS). The initiative aims to establish the basis for international recognition, dynamic conservation and adaptive management of Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) and their agricultural biodiversity, knowledge systems, food and livelihood security and cultures throughout the world.

(Source: FAO  Official Website:

The Official Release of FAO
 on Koraput Region
“The Koraput region in the state of Orissa, India, has a rich assembly of unique floral and faunal diversity. The genetic repository of the region is of great significance in the global context. About 79 plant angiosperm species and one gymnosperm are endemic to the region.
 In addition, people, who belong to different tribal groups, have conserved and preserved a large number of land races of rice, millets, pulses and medicinal plants, using diverse traditional cultivation practices, which have been developed as an answer to the topographical and ecological diversity of the region. Koraput has been identified as an important centre of origin of rice. The changes in the traditional practices coupled with both, natural and anthropogenic pressures require immediate attention for conservation of these unique species and genotypes for perpetuity.”

For More Please visit this link:

Growth of Cotton in India: 1847-48

We are all told that Indian cottons are not of quality and American cottons were introduced in India in early 1900.  Please see the REPORT from the SELECT COMMITTEE on the Growth of Cotton in INDIA: together with the MINUTES of EVIDENCE.
Growth of Cotton 1847-48 Committee Reports download

Thirupporur and Vadakkuppattu: Eighteenth Century Locality Accounts shows paddy yields higher than today

by M. D. Srinivas, T. G. Paramasivam, T. Pushkala

The Chengalpattu Survey of 1767-1774 was perhaps the first effort that the British made to understand the ways of the Indian people before devising modes of effectively subjugating and administering them. Accounts of over 2100 localities of the Chengalpattu region of Tamil Nadu were collected as a part of this Survey. These accounts present the most detailed picture available anywhere of the functioning of Indian society, economy and polity at its basic level, before it was disrupted and transformed through the instruments of British administration.

We have so far been led to believe, on the basis of rather tenuous historical evidence, that India of that time was a poor, scientifically and technological backward, and socially and politically dysfunctional nation. The locality accounts presented in these manuscripts, however, present a picture of Indian society and polity that is the exact opposite of these images of poverty and dysfunctionality

This book presents detailed accounts for two localities, Thirupporur and Vadakkuppattu, in the original Tamil script of the of the palm-leaves and in English translation. The introduction gives an overview of the Chengalpattu information and highlights some of the important features of the society, economy and polity of Thirupporur and Vadakkuppattu.

Download the report from Centre for Policy Studies, Chennai

Anupam Mishra: The ancient ingenuity of water harvesting

With wisdom and wit, Anupam Mishra talks about the amazing feats of engineering built centuries ago by the people of India’s Golden Desert to harvest water. These structures are still used today — and are often superior to modern water megaprojects.

About Anupam Mishra

To promote smart water management, Anupam Mishra works to preserve rural India’s traditional rainwater harvesting techniques. Full bio and more links

The Great Gene Robbery

The Great Gene Robbery
(First published by the Illustrated Weekly of India in its issue dated March 23, 1986
By Claude Alvares
In 1982, Dr M S Swaminathan withdrew from his position as Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Committee to the Cabinet (SACC) and deputy chairman of the Planning Commission – he was also earlier secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture – and defected to join the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) based at Los Banos in the Philippines as Director-General. The word ‘defected’ is used here on purpose: in no other country of the world, would a scientist in such a strategically important position, privy to all the country’s scientific secrets particularly of those related to food, be permitted to leave and overnight become the employee of an institution controlled by two private foundations so closely allied to American capitalism and US foreign policy interests.
IRRI had been set up in 1960 as part of America’s efforts to control and direct rice research in Asia, even though American is hardly a rice eating country.
A famous plant-breeder had once said, in regard to rice: ‘He who controls the supply of rice will control the destiny of the entire Asiatic orbit. The most important thing to the majority of the Asia is not capitalism or socialism or any other political ideology but food which means life itself, and in most of Asia, food is rice.’
Earl Butz, a former US Secretary of Agriculture, is notorious for one sentence that he uttered in a course of an otherwise utterly insignificant life: ‘If food can be used as a weapon we would be happy to use it.’
And today, as we near the end of the twentieth century, we have to admit that the research concerning the two major cereals that rule our lives – wheat and rice – is wholly directed and controlled by institutions set up under American imperialism.
In many ways Dr Swaminathan’s appointment to IRRI would have been considered a demotion. While in India, he had lorded it over a scientific establishment that employed thousands of scientists, in the Philippines he would have not more than 200 scientists under him. The principal compensation, however, was the money, income tax free.
Already this international institute, always run by American directors, was facing the collapse of its High Yielding Varieties (HYVs) strategy, as seed after seed fell victim to waves of pest epidemics. Urgently required was a massive expansion of IRRI’s rice germplasm, genes from which were essential for passing on resistance to the HYVs. The largest collection of rice varieties, of rice germplasm, remained in the Indian sub continent. Swaminathan’s appointment was critical to this quest.
The IRRI is not a premier institute of science. It is a privately-controlled agricultural research centre. Even so, it is difficult to conceive of a man with Swaminathan’s record becoming its director general. Unless of course the person being appointed is known more for his ability to get things done than for his scientific work. Certainly no scientist with an equivalent scientific record would have found an appointment as director of, say, the Max Planck Institute, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), or the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR). I ask knowledgeable people in the Philippines how Swaminathan could have been appointed to the post of director general of IRRI. The most plausible answer was also the funniest.
There were apparently three applicants for the post. The first, a vice-president of the Rockefeller Foundation, insisted on coming to the institute with both his wife and his mistress, if he got the job. The second candidate, from West Germany, was found, upon examination, not to have a degree that he had stitched on to his name. In comparison, Dr M S Swaminathan whom an article in the 1979 Yearbook of Science and the Future, published by the Encyclopedia Britannica, put in the company of Paul Kammerer and Cyril Burt, two of the leading scientific frauds of the twentieth century, appeared white as snow.
India is rice country. Rice is a critical component of a complex eco-system, tied to legends, used as symbol, essential witness at religious ceremonies and rituals. Such an immense preoccupation with rice would, which is to be expected, call forth its own brand of competence to grow it; so we find a bewildering number of techniques, some of which even today, place Indian rice farmers, some Adivasis, in a class far ahead of international science (see box).

In the Jagannath Temple at Puri in Orissa, I was told, freshly harvested rice is presented to the deity everyday, and various varieties of rice, placed in pots, one on top of the other, with a single flame beneath the lowermost, still cook simultaneously. In Chattisgarh region there is a rice variety called Bora, which can be ground directly into flour and made into rotis. Other varieties have fascinating names, like the kali-mooch of Gwalior, the moti-chur and the khowa; the latter, as its name signifies, tastes like dried milk. The dhokra-dhokri, with its length of grain over 14 mm is the longest rice in the world and the variety Bhimsen has the largest width; there is variety called udan pakheru – because of its long, featherlike structure.
There may have been as many as 1,20,000 varieties of rice in the country, adapted to different environments, and selected and evolved by farmers for specific human needs. These varieties are a product of nature’s desire for diversity, eagerly husbanded by indigenous and non-formal science.
The Central Rice Research Institute (CRRI), at Cuttack, had been working on the different problems associated with rice culture ever since it had been set up in the late 1950s. Dr R H Richharia took over as its director in 1959, and a number of competent scientists had come up with interesting work that sooner or later would converge into a strategy to produce more rice. Already in 1963, C. Gangadharan, a CRRI scientist had, for example, produced a mutant variety that was short-statured and produced high yields. The institute had also been working on Taiwanese and Japanese varieties. The work was slow because it takes time to discover which varieties are stable, and resistant to diseases and pests.
Gangadharan has placed the history of rice research in India into three major periods and the developments are highly suggestive. The first phase, from 1912 to the 1950s, concentrated on pure line selections, and by the end of the period, a total of 445 improved rice varieties, mostly the result of pure line methods of selection, were bred.
But what is interesting for our purpose and which starkly illuminates the major schism that would soon develop between indigenous science and ‘international science’ is the broad list of objectives of this early research. Gangadharan lists nine including earliness, deep water and flood resistance, lodging resistance, drought resistance, non-shedding of grain, dormancy of seed, control of wild rice, disease resistance and higher response to heavy manuring. Since pure line selection is itself based on natural selection occurring over centuries, there was no problem of incompatibility between genes and the environment, and therefore no pest problem.
The second phase was less promising. It involved the initially unsuccessful effort at hybridising the Japonica and Indica varieties. The objective, writes Gangadharan, ‘was to transfer the high yielding ability and response to fertilisers that characterise the Japonicas into local Indica varieties which are adapted to local conditions of culture and to the prevalent diseases and pests. Japan had used chemical fertilisers from the beginning of this century and Japonicas showed a response under Japanese conditions whereas the Indicas had not been cultivated under high fertility conditions.’
Only four successes were reported from this programme. The problem was that the Japonicas were both photo-period and temperature sensitive and additionally the seed had been brought from some of the coldest regions of Japan. When these varieties were planted in the tropical environment, they not only gave different but negative results. The introduction of the Philippines semi-dwarf varieties put an abrupt end to this line of research. Later the CRRI imported seed from the milder, temperate region of Japan. This time the efforts were successful but IRRI’s control over the rice research programme would effectively keep these efforts out of circulation, and science.
Which brings us to the third phase inaugurated by IRRI, and also the subject of this investigation.
IRRI was established on the basis of a note written by a Rockefeller official in 1959. Both the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations put up the money to start the institute, which was established formally in 1960 and began functioning fully in 1962. From start to finish, the CRRI would be no match in an unequal battle all the way. The IRRI officials would literally buy rice scientists from different parts of Asia, and take over most of the outstanding talent simply because of IRRI’s ability to offer them salaries not only in dollars, but out of proportion to what they received in their own countries, and its ability to provide accommodation, and opportunities for educating staff children anywhere in the world.

By 1966, IRRI had come up with its first success. It is important to emphasise that whereas the CRRI had nine objectives governing its research, IRRI had only one. IR8 was a semi-dwarf rice variety, the result of a cross between an Indonesian tall rice plant and a Taiwanese dwarf variety. Distinctive of the plant was its ability to stand heavy fertilisation, and heavier yields, without lodging. (It also inaugurated a vast market for American fertilisers all over Asia). Without water, fertilisers and pesticides, IR8 did not perform extraordinarily better than the older rices. The disadvantage of the latter was solely that they tended to lodge when given extra nutrients, thus leading to losses.
The CRRI had, as mentioned earlier, been working with identical material and in fact had isolated dwarf varieties from Taiwan that were free from susceptibility to viral attacks. When the news arrived that the Indian government was planning, at the insistence of IRRI experts, to import the new IRRI seed in bulk into India, Dr Richharia, CRRI director, objected.
The government seems to have found Dr Richharia’s advice contradictory: earlier, it had been informed by the CRRI that Taichung varieties could provide a breakthrough in rice production; now Richharia was objecting to their import. The contradiction stemmed from the fact that bureaucrats and politicians have little grounding in genetics: they did not seem to understand that seed tested after numerous adaptive trials over many seasons, and then selected and multiplied, is radically different from seed imported in bulk from abroad. The latter, because of its mixed population, will contain seed carrying disease and which might be susceptible to pests. IRRI at that point of time was too keen to get its seeds grown on a large scale before decisions could be reversed, to subscribe to caution of any kind.
It was also the tremendous leverage that the Americans maintained over the Indian science establishment that enabled IRRI to ride roughshod over the protests of Indian scientists. Though the country was allegedly nonaligned in politics, most of its policies in science and economics were largely under the control of Americans. Thus the community development programme originated with Albert Myers. Douglas Emswinger of the Ford Foundation once boasted that he had better access to Pandit Nehru than any of the latter’s cabinet colleagues. Dr Richharia first came to know of his appointment to the director’s post at the CRRI from an American, Prof Claim. Dr. Robert Chandler, director of IRRI, reported directly to Agriculture Minister, C. Subramanam.
Chandler, in his recent account of the IRRI, An Adventure in Applied Science, has admitted that he had never seen a rice plant when he took over as director of IRRI. Yet, it was at his instigation, and because he had been castigated once by Dr Richharia for bringing rice seed into the country without a quarantine certificate, thus violating the country’s laws, that the government decided to retire Dr Richharia, at that time one of the world’s leading rice specialists.
Once IR8 and TN1 had become fairly established within India and all rice research oriented solely in the direction of semi-dwarfs using these parents, IRRI would naturally retain the lead, with large doses of political clout and advertising to make up for shortfalls in science. Rice scientists from Asia, if they wished to make a career, would have to support the IRRI research direction.
One additional significant factor that seems to have made an impact on the government at the time were the disastrous harvests of 1965 and 1966. What weighed with the Government of India (and also former President Marcos of the Phillipines) in choosing to uncritically deploy IRRI technology, was that the latter, for the first time, offered an almost automatic method of raising food that would place it within the control of the administration, taking it out of the hands of the peasants. If the government concentrated its resources in a few, well-endowed areas, using the HYV package, it could produce a sizeable output of food that would be independent of the whims of the monsoons. Again, the very method of agriculture, based on expensive inputs, required credit, and this assured the government that a good proportion of the grain thus produced would end up in the market, in the hands of government procurement agencies, and could then be used to keep prices stable in the cities.
Two major developments totally ruined the prospect of a promised land overflowing with rice and honey. The first was economic: the oil price hike of 1973 effectively limited a fertiliser-based agricultural strategy. It would make Green Revolution inputs so expensive that they would have to be subsidised by Governments, if farmers were not to give up using them forever. The second major problem, also irreversible, arrived in the form of disease and insects. The growing of varieties with a narrow genetic base (all with the same dwarfing gene, dee-gee-wo-gen), upset insect ecology and invented entire generations of pests. Dr Swaminathan has himself made quite a shameless summary of the fate of IRRI varieties, in a recent issue of Mazingira. He writes:
‘It is difficult to develop a variety that has a useful life of more than five to six years in tropical environments unless genes for horizontal (more stable) resistance are identified and incorporated. Year round rice cultivation causes disease and insect organisms to occur in overlapping generations and increases the chance of new races or biotypes developing; thus new pest problems continuously arise. Variety IR8, released in 1966, suffered from serious attacks of bacterial blight (BB) in 1968 and 1969. In 1970 and 1971, outbreaks of rice tungro virus (RTV) destroyed IR8 yields throughout the Philippines. The IR20 variety, released in 1969, had BB resistance and RTV tolerance, and it replaced IR8 in 1971 and 1972. However, outbreaks of brown plant hopper (BPH) and grassy stunt virus (GSV) in 1973 destroyed IR20 in most Philippine provinces. Variety IR26, with BPH resistance, was released in 1973 and became the dominant Philippine variety in 1974 and 1975. In 1976, a new BPH biotype attacked it and IR36 was released; it had a different gene for resistance to the new BPH biotype and replaced IR26 within one year. It is now the dominant variety in the Philippines. Its resistance to BPH has held till recently, but it is now being threatened by ragged stunt and wilted stunt (both new diseases), as well as by another new biotype of BPH (No. 3).
In India, the situation was equally horrifying. All of Dr Richharia’s predictions had come true. ‘The introduction of high-yielding varieties,’ noted a task force of eminent rice breeders, ‘has brought about a marked change in the status of insect pests like gall midge, brown planthopper, leaf folder, whore maggot, etc. Most of the HYVs released so far are susceptible to major pests with a crop loss of 30 to 100 per cent… Most of the HYVs are the derivatives of TN1 or IR8 and therefore, have the dwarfing gene known as dee-gee-wo-gen. The narrow genetic base has created alarming uniformity, causing vulnerability to diseases and pests. Most of the released varieties are not suitable for typical uplands and lowlands which together constitute about 75 per cent of the total rice area of the country.’
The IRRI counter-strategy against the pests involved breeding of varieties, with genes for resistance to such pests, taken from wild relatives of the rice plant and its traditional cultivars. All of a sudden it seemed critical that massive efforts be made to make as complete a collection of the older varieties: many of the traditional Indicas were found to be important donors for resistance. Gene incorporation strategy, in other words, required vast germplasm resources, most of which were to be found in India. The recruitment of Dr M S Swaminathan would be instrumental in the task of collection.
In India, again, Dr Richharia stood in the way.
After he had been retired from service at Chandler’s insistence, Richharia had gone to the Orissa High Court, where for three years, alone, he fought a legal battle that ruined his family, disrupted the education of his children, and brought tremendous strains on his wife’s health. The legal battle was successful, for in 1970, the Court ordered his reinstatement as director of the CRRI. He had redeemed his honour.
In the meanwhile, the Madhya Pradesh government had appointed Dr Richharia as an agricultural advisor, and the rice man set about his disrupted rice work once again, with his usual zeal. Within the space of six years, he had built up the infrastructure of a new rice research institute at Raipur. Here, this extraordinarily gifted and imaginative rice scientist maintained over 19,000 varieties of rice in situ on a shoestring budget of Rs. 20,000 per annum, with not even a microscope in his office-cum-laboratory, situated in the neighbourhood of cooperative rice mills. His assistants included two agricultural graduates and six village level workers, the latter drawing a salary of Rs.250 per month. Richharia had created, practically out of nothing, one of the most extraordinary living gene banks in the world, and provided ample proof of what Indian scientists are capable of, if they are given proper encouragement.
An attack of leaf blight that devastated the corn crop of the US in 1970, and which had resulted from the extensive planting of hybrids that shared a single source of cytoplasm, and the continuous attacks on IRRI varieties, impelled IRRI to sponsor a Rice Genetic Conservation Workshop in 1977. Swaminathan attended it as an ‘observer’. The report of that workshop begins with the statement: ‘The founders of IRRI showed great foresight when in 1960-61 they planned the establishment of a rice germplasm bank.’ Nonsense. The certified aims and objects for the institute merely talk of a collection of the world’s literature on rice. The workshop, being held 17 years after the establishment of IRRI, indicated that the germplasm problem was becoming important only now.
After the workshop, IRRI’s covetous gaze fell on Richharia’s 19,000 varieties at the Madhya Pradesh Rice Research Institute (MPRRI). Not only had Richharia now uncovered a fascinating world of traditional rices, some of which produced between 8-9 tonnes per hectare – better than the IRRI varieties – he had also discovered dwarf plants without the susceptible dwarfing gene of the IRRI varieties. His extension work among the farmers would soon begin to pose a direct challenge to IRRI itself.
IRRI staff members journeyed to Raipur and asked for his material. Still moulded in the old scientific tradition, he refused because he had not studied the material himself. He was decidedly against any proposal for ‘exchange’, for this could only mean giving up his uncontaminated varieties for IRRI’s susceptible ones.
So the IRRI did the next best thing: it got the MPRRI shut down!
The ICAR floated a scheme for agricultural development in Madhya Pradesh, particularly for rice. The World Bank contributed Rs.4 crores. The condition laid down was: close down the MPRRI, since it would lead to a ‘duplication of work.’ At a special meeting of the MPRRI Board, Madhya Pradesh’s chief secretary who was not a trustee, was present. He had been earlier connected with the Ford Foundation. A resolution was passed closing down the Institute, and the rice germplasm passed over to the Jawaharlal Nehru Krishi Vishwa Vidyalaya (JNKVV), whose vice-chancellor, Sukhdev Singh, also joined the IRRI board of trustees. Scientists were sent to IRRI for training in germplasm transfer, and Richharia’s team was disbanded.
This time too, they locked Dr. Richharia’s rooms and took away all his research papers.
On June 4, 1982, Dr M N Shrivastava, rice breeder, JNKVV, wrote to P S Srinivasan, the IRRI liaison officer, addressed it care of Ford Foundation, New Delhi, enclosing two sets of material as requested by T. T. Chang of IRRI: ‘First set (264 accessions) is from our early duration collection and second set (170 samples) is part of those varieties which were identified to be popular with the farmers of Madhya Pradesh and Dr R H Richharia, former director of MPRRI, purified them and recommended replacing originals with these purified versions.’
But with Richharia out of the fray, nature herself now jumped into the ring. It responded with the necessary mutations, and began to lay low the new pest resistant varieties, rendering even the strategy of gene incorporation, of temporary utility. And then, in a fashion that only those with some respect for nature’s awesome ways would understand, it delivered the coup de grace.
The distinctive success of the HYVs lay in their being short stemmed, able to stand heavy nitrogen applications without lodging, when compared with the older varieties. The incorporation of more and more genes from traditional cultivars not only passed on resistance characters, but also the tendency to lodge. Ergo, modern varieties began to lose their non-lodging character, the main advantage they had against the older cultivars. Research Highlights for 1983, an IRRI publication, observes:
‘Modern rices produce high grain yields with large amounts of applied nitrogen. However, heavy applications increase lodging, which reduces yields. Additionally, as higher levels of insect pest and disease resistance have been bred into modern semi-dwarf varieties, lodging resistance has tended to decline.’
The green revolution in rice had begun to involute.
What then have been the ‘achievements’ of such corrupt and politically naive science? (One set of all IRRI germplasm has been sent to Fort Collins, the maximum security installation in the US, without the permission of the Indian government). Has such science achieved any of its declared aims? Bharat Dogra summed it up:
‘Starting from just five million hectares in 1970-71, over 18 million hectares or nearly half the area of (rice) has now been brought under the HYVs programme till 1982-83… Therefore, this crop must have received a substantial share of the benefit of the overall increase in irrigation and the increase in the overall consumption of NPK fertilisers. However, compared to the increase in the area under HYVs and the increase in fertilisers and irrigation, the production of rice has increased to a lesser extent. During the period mentioned above (1970-71 to 1982-83), the production of rice has gone up from 42.23 million tonnes to 46.48 million tonnes. Assuming the production of non-HYVs did not experience any increase at all and all the difference in rice production was on HYVs land, we get an increase in production of about 4 million tonnes as a result of extension of HYVs programme to nearly 13 million hectares of land. In other words, an increase of 0.31 tonnes was achieved with HYV per hectare. This is a relatively small accomplishment which could have been easily achieved even without the expensive HYV programme and its infrastructure by making better use of village-based resources.’
A 33-member official working group headed by K C S Acharya, additional secretary in the ministry of agriculture, has determined that the growth rate of rice production after the Green Revolution has been less when compared with the pre-Green Revolution period.
Millions of hectares of rice are now routinely devastated by BPH and other pests and no compensation is available to farmers who are induced to take to such ‘modernised’ agriculture. Such pest infestations have been introduced into the Indian environment. The IRRI officials knew what they were doing, and they did it for the cheap objective of wanting to assert IRRI primacy.
The unmonitored, hasty introduction of HYVs of seed has led to genetic erosion of tremendous proportions, as hundreds of priceless traditional varieties have been lost to mankind. It is only in the eighties that the IRRI has begun to acknowledge the true worth of the older varieties. What a curious circle of events!
The IRRI inaugurated the revolution in rice by holding in ridicule the basis of traditional agriculture – the traditional cultivar, itself the result of close trial and error experimentation by farmers over decades – and sought to displace it with its own product, the HYV. However, since the HYV was not closely adapted to any environment, it required extensive support, having attracted pest infestations on a mass scale. Protection could only come from the same traditional cultivars, which at the time of HYV propagation, had been loaded with abuse.
Is there a way out: how can such a state of science exist nearly 40 years after independence? Why does the director of the CRRI continue to remain as a trustee of the IRRI, which he has been since 1979? To continue and deepen the dependence? The IRRI has no future, politically, and also as far as research is concerned. Politically, its future was tied to former President Marcos, and Filipino farmers and scientists had already begun to demand its closure. As far as research is concerned, the IRRI has no new ideas, and is now eagerly visiting China to learn Chinese techniques of growing hybrid rice, the next frontier in rice yield enhancement.
The CRRI has ample talent to match Chinese science. It has still vital access to hundreds of indigenous cultivars (a recent count of rice collection centres indicated that there were about 44,000 varieties, whereas the IRRI has 70,000). What then should be done?
First, the CRRI should be upgraded to international standards, for that is the only sure guarantee of the funds it needs, and which it has been deprived of, ever since Indian politicians decided to back IRRI science. Today, the CRRI germplasm unit does not have even a jeep to operate its collection of rice cultivars.
Second, all further export of rice germplasm to IRRI should be banned, since germplasm is part of our national heritage, and its preservation is enjoined by the Constitution in the chapter on Fundamental Duties. Third, steps should be taken to gradually replace IRRI varieties, and all those having IRRI parents, with productive indigenous varieties in the fields. This is already happening in the Philippines: farmers are exchanging old varieties with each other, disowning IRRI seeds, aptly described as ‘seeds of imperialism’ and ‘seeds of sabotage.’
There seems to have been some awareness at the level of the government that the rice revolution had been grounded, due to environmental and economic factors. The late Prime Minister, Mrs Gandhi, had asked Dr Richharia for a rice production increase plan. After he submitted it, he heard no more about it. After an article by Dom Moraes on Richharia, the M. P. Government hastily set about attempting to find some funds to ask the latter to resume his work. Now that proposal has been scotched by the same forces that once got the MPRRI to close down.

More than 25 years have passed in this costly, wasteful, environmentally unsound, flirtation with the exogene. The sorry and sad record only serves to underline the principle – despite our continuing mesmerisation by western science – that for genuine development of any worthwhile kind, the indigene is still the best gene.