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038: Bengal Famine and the FCI with Dr. Kurush Dalal (Day 8 Part 1)

Updated: Aug 25, 2022

How do we understand the landscape of food corporations in India? Dr. Kurush Dalal, an archaeologist, historian and food anthropologist, provided us with a broad context on the Day 8, of the Food and Politics workshop.

The first part of his presentation focused on the largest public player in the scene - the Food Corporation of India, which has been in the news in connection with the farmers protests in Punjab, and the recent repeal of the three contentious farm laws.

How was the FCI formed? When the Japanese army occupied neighbouring Burma in 1942, the panicked colonial British government adopted a “scorched earth” policy in Bengal. All small fishing boats were destroyed and all rice grain distribution was controlled by the government in order to deny enemy troops access to food. Despite a bountiful harvest, most peasants in Bengal were systematically denied their basic diet of fish and rice. This policy, along with other factors, led to the tragic Bengal famine, in which 2.3 million people died. Millions others were left impoverished, families torn apart, and farmers and fisherfolk left with no choice but to migrate to urban centres for work.

With the Bengal famine, and the disastrous consequences of the partition of India, looming in their consciousness, the new republic formed the FCI - the ‘Food Corporation of India’ in 1964. Through its extensive public distribution system (PDS), the FCI aims to provide grains to residents below the poverty line (BPL) via the ‘ration card’ scheme. Alongside it maintains a buffer of rice and wheat in storage to provide national food security. It manages minimum support prices (MSP) for farmers, and can intervene in the market in order to stabilize prices in case they spiral out of control. The formation of the FCI along with the techniques imparted by the American agronomist Norman Borlaug (referred to as the ‘Father of the Green Revolution’), India was assured of a surplus of wheat and rice production from the 1960s onwards.

As with all corporations, whether public or private - the on ground reality is not as straightforward as the legislation. As Biraj Patnaik showed us last week, the Right to Food Act of 2013, finally ensured that the right to nutritious food became one of the fundamental rights of the citizens of India.

Talk conducted online on November 30, 2021 by Dr. Kurush Dalal

Image: Vie Studio from Pexels


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