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Why Can't India Feed Its People?

In the afternoon, Ghanshyam's family eats unleavened bread with rice and lentils
In the afternoon, Ghanshyam's family eats unleavened bread with rice and lentilsPhotograph by Sanjit Das for Bloomberg Businessweek

It was 1958, my father was still a child, and India was running out of food. That year’s wheat crop had slumped by 15 percent, the rice harvest by 12 percent, and prices in the markets were soaring. Far from his village in eastern India, ships loaded with wheat were steaming toward the country, part of Dwight Eisenhower’s plan to sell surplus grains, tobacco, and dairy products to friendly countries. All India Radio gave daily updates on the convoys, and the army barricaded ports in Mumbai and Kolkata against the hungry crowds.

“It was this very coarse, red wheat,” says Narsingh Deo Mishra, a childhood friend of my father’s and now a local politician in Auar, their home village. “We were told it was meant for American pigs,” says Mishra. “Back then, we weren’t any better than American pigs. So we ate it. We ate it all, and we begged for more.”