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  • Hungry Nation: Food, Famine, and the Making of Modern India by Benjamin Robert Siegel
  • Michael H. Fisher
Hungry Nation: Food, Famine, and the Making of Modern India. By Benjamin Robert Siegel (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2018) 291 pp. $34.99

Using archival documents and printed materials (in English, Hindi, Urdu, and Bengali), Siegel clearly demonstrates how newly independent India's planners, politicians, and literate citizens extensively discussed the vital national issues of inadequate production and inequitable distribution of food. Siegel argues that the pressing problem of feeding the people, and the often-heated Indian debates about the shape of policies and programs to ameliorate widespread hunger, shaped the emergence of the new nation. His work addresses the period from the Bengal famine (1943) through the start of the Green Revolution (late 1960s). His conclusion brings these continuing themes to the present, when about 15 percent of the population remains hungry and when widespread malnourishment is joined by increasing obesity among India's substantial middle and expanding upper classes. In the course of this fine book, Siegel refers to a range of disciplines, including agricultural, economic, political, and environmental history; however, he concentrates on a thoughtful analysis of the discourse and programs advocated by India's planners, politicians, and citizens.

As a baseline, Siegel briefly describes how the British Raj (1858–1947) presided over a series of tragic famines due to natural causes but with massive Indian death totals exacerbated by inhumane government policies. The final of these major disasters was the 1943/4 famine in India's eastern province of Bengal where 3.5 million died, largely due to Britain's extraction of rice from the countryside for its own wartime purposes. These destructive and demoralizing famines scarred postcolonial India's policymakers and citizens. Furthermore, Britain's 1947 partition of India made feeding the hungry nation even more difficult by allotting many of the most productive agricultural regions to Pakistan. The subsequent Cold War's ideological conflicts constrained India's access to international food aid and its willingness to accept outside influences on its nation-building. Centrally, political and popular aspirations for equity in landholding and access to food often conflicted with official efforts to maximize production; the Green Revolution's programs eventually tilted toward the official program to the detriment of the poor and landless. Indeed, chronic food-production shortages and distribution problems remained central to the postcolonial development of this new nation.

Siegel supports his discourse and public-policy analysis with extensive research in official government records in India, the United Kingdom, and the United States. He also draws effectively from thirty-three newspapers and many non-fiction and fiction books and articles in English and several Indian languages. He includes a dozen published cartoons, posters, photographs, and other images to show public sentiment, using them descriptively rather than analytically. Although Siegel shows mastery of the [End Page 634] relevant secondary scholarly literature, he highlights his own narrative of the debates among India's planners and citizens rather than engaging in deep theoretical discussion. He repeatedly and correctly acknowledges the "restraints"/"constraints" on his chosen methodology imposed by the "patchy" nature of the archives (4, 16, 20). In many ways, his work complements the extensive and rapidly growing scholarly literature on these issues that feature one or more other scholarly disciplines.

Siegel writes in an effective and engaging style. He provides extensive but not intrusive references to his own sources and to the relevant secondary scholarship in English that approach these issues from other social-science methodologies. Scholars, advanced students, and general readers interested in the first three decades of the development of modern India will gain much from this valuable volume.

Michael H. Fisher
Oberlin College


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pp. 634-635
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