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U.S.-India: Dealing With Monsoon Failure

When the U.S. government worked constructively to help a nation in danger.

February 6, 2014

Credit: Bluemoose - Wikimedia

The scene plays out in India.

At a reception, I met the head of Indian operations for Esso (now ExxonMobil). When I asked him how business was, he said it was great. In particular, diesel sales to fuel irrigation pumps were nearly double the previous year’s level. Why? Because farmers were pumping continuously to try to save their crops.

Soon after, I met an embassy staff person, an avid duck hunter. He usually took off a few weeks in the fall to go hunting on a lake up north. This year he had canceled his vacation because the lake was dry.

An agronomist who worked with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) traveled extensively in rural India and often stopped his car in the countryside to take soil samples. But he complained to me that he could no longer get good core samples: the soil was so dry it crumbled and fell out of his auger as he withdrew it.

This was something that I had never seen in my years of farming. I became convinced that India faced a huge crop shortfall.

It was the fall of 1965 and I had come to India because the USAID mission in New Delhi had asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for someone to help them with an agricultural analysis.

What caught my attention in New Delhi right away was the condition of that year’s grain crop. The Indian government officially estimated grain demand for 1965 would be 95 million tons. I soon began to wonder whether a harvest anywhere near this amount would materialize. I found reports of drought in virtually every corner of the country. The drought appeared to be almost everywhere.

Since the United States was the dominant world grain supplier — the only country that could even think about filling a deficit of this scale — this warranted an urgent cable to alert my boss, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman. If a potential deficit of this magnitude was a real prospect, he needed the information as soon as possible.

However, if I were going to sound such an alarm, I needed to estimate the size of the deficit, despite having only fragmentary data. If my estimate of the deficit was too high, the United States would over mobilize and waste resources. But if my estimate was too low, that could lead to famine. I worked to strike the right tone in the cable to Freeman.

Off to Rome

The cable actually went to Washington on Wednesday, November 10. On Friday of the following week, I received a cable from Secretary Freeman. It was short and cryptic: “Please meet me in Rome tomorrow morning.” He would be in Rome attending the biennial conference of agricultural ministers organized by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

At that point, I asked to meet with India’s minister of food and agriculture, C. Subramaniam, to share my assessment with him. I urged him not to play it down when he got to Rome – unless he was convinced that it was off base. Otherwise, the U.S. government would not mobilize its grain aid quickly enough and the needed shipments might not arrive in time.

When I met Secretary Freeman on Saturday morning, he said he had shared my cable with President Lyndon Johnson (LBJ). My analysis played to one of LBJ’s deepest concerns: that India was neglecting its agriculture as it concentrated on industrialization. Its government simply seemed to assume that the United States would fill any grain deficits that India might face.

Creating dependency

If India continued on this path, it would become dangerously dependent on the United States in the event of any crop shortfalls. That was all the more problematic as this was a time when scores of other countries also depended on U.S. grain.

President Johnson and his team knew that if the recent agricultural trends in India continued, eventually India’s grain needs would exceed the United States’ capacity to meet them. When an Indian official was asked by a reporter about the adequacy of the country’s grain stocks, he responded, “Our reserves are in the grain elevators in Kansas.”

It was this casual thinking about food security in India, then a country with a population more than double that of the United States and growing by 10 million per year that alarmed the U.S. president. It led to what came to be known as the “short-tether policy” on U.S. food aid.

Constructive conditionality

LBJ had asked Secretary Freeman to get a commitment from the Indians to develop their agriculture — and fast. Any continuing food aid from the United States would be contingent on this.

India was facing a potentially massive famine. I wanted to make sure that both governments understood the gravity and urgency of the situation. Rarely have two governments been in a situation where the stakes, measured in human lives, were so high.

Freeman, Subramaniam and I met on Monday morning to discuss the situation. They asked me to draft an agreement between the two countries based on our discussion. At the end of the day, I had a draft. The agreement was short, three pages double-spaced.

I knew what India had to do. The government’s food price policy, which catered to the urban population by imposing ceiling prices on wheat and rice, had to be replaced. What was needed was a floor price guarantee for the farmers growing these grains. Fertilizer supplies had to increase rapidly. This meant shifting fertilizer production from the public sector to the private sector.

There were high-yielding dwarf varieties of wheat. Initially developed in Mexico by Norman Borlaug and his colleagues with support of the Rockefeller Foundation, they had been tested in India and performed very well. India needed to accelerate the dissemination of these high-yielding wheats.

Creating linkages across borders

Once we had negotiated the agreement that contained these essential points, Freeman cabled a draft to LBJ for approval. The president approved it immediately and Secretary Freeman signed the agreement. In essence, he committed the United States to providing massive food assistance – as long as India adopted the reforms.

The Indian government’s original five-year agricultural plan was a much longer, detailed bureaucratic document. My new draft was only a few pages on the key initiatives needed. Its strength was that it linked the movement of wheat from the United States to the implementation of a new food production strategy in India. The monsoon failure and the massive looming grain deficit had changed everything.

Inside the Indian government, Agriculture Minister Subramaniam took all the necessary steps. In effect, he said: Our agriculture is in trouble. We could be facing a huge grain deficit, a potentially massive loss of life. We have to reform our agriculture. Here is what we need to do.

You reform, we deliver

One thing the Indians did not anticipate was the extent to which the Johnson Administration was going to use food aid to force the Indian government to follow through on every measure in the agreement. If the Indian government did not accomplish certain measures, the ships would stop leaving U.S. ports.

It took the Indians a while to realize that LBJ was dead serious about the reforms. Several times in the months ahead, the ships stopped sailing because India had not fulfilled its part in implementing the bilateral agreement. They would move again only when India had met its commitments.

The greatest challenge was actually importing the 10 million tons of grain in a single year when India previously had never imported anywhere near this amount before.

To assess whether — and how — this massive amount could be moved in time, Secretary Freeman called on logistics specialists in the USDA, men who had served in the Army Quartermaster Corps in World War II. During the war, they had become masters of moving equipment and arms from point A to point B. Their ingenuity was boundless.

Yankee ingenuity to help India

What they did to greatly increase India’s port capacity was to lease one of the largest supertankers afloat at the time, the Manhattan. They then anchored the massive ship in the Bay of Bengal and used it as a port.

On one side, ships from the United States arrived with grain that was pumped on board and then unloaded on the other side into small, flat-bottomed, local boats called dhows, which were about 30 feet long.

Thousands of dhows were used to move the grain up the Ganges River and its tributaries to reach the parts of the country where the drought was most severe and the risk of starvation the greatest. It was remarkably successful.

The result

Final data on the 1965 Indian harvest showed it coming in at 77 million tons of grain—18 million tons below the Indian government’s original estimated consumption. In the effort to stave off famine, the United States that year shipped a fifth of its wheat harvest to India.

At that time, it was the largest movement of food ever between two countries. Some 600 ships, nearly two a day, left U.S. ports laden with wheat for India. Measured by the number of ships used in a single logistical operation, it ranks high on the all-time list. This record flow of food from the United States to India avoided what could have been one of history’s most devastating famines.

With the new agricultural development strategy, India doubled its wheat harvest in seven years, a record for growth in production of a food staple in a major country. No country, not even the United States, had ever managed such rapid growth.

For the United States, this was one of our finest moments. And not just because millions of lives were saved, but because our government had seen a rare opportunity to restructure India’s agriculture by dramatically boosting land productivity.

Editor’s note: This essay is an adapted excerpt from “Breaking New Ground, A Personal History,” by Lester R. Brown, New York, W.W. Norton, 2013.


If my estimate of India’s 1965 grain deficit was too high, the US would waste resources.

If my estimate of India’s 1965 grain deficit was too low, that could mean famine.

India was neglecting its agriculture as it concentrated on industrialization.

India’s government seemed to assume that the US would fill any grain deficits that India might face.

An Indian official asked about the grain stocks responded, “Our reserves are in the grain elevators in Kansas.”

The US committed to providing massive food assistance – as long as India adopted agricultural reforms.

The record flow of food from the US to India avoided what could have been one of history’s devastating famines.