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  • Tathagat Bhatia

The Murky Politics of Crisis Peddlers

Cropped newspaper headlines found in the archives pasted against a green and yellow background that looks like a field. Headlines include "India Crisis Demands Action," "India's Agricultural Defeat," and "India Said to Face Food Crisis by '66."
Cropped newspaper headlines found in the archives. Photo credit: Tathagat Bhatia.

In the late nineteenth century, astronomers of the British Raj proffered a theory that linked famines in British India with changes in solar activity. Sunspot patterns, they argued, led to monsoon failures, resulting in low crop yields and food shortages. Official statistics attest to the death from starvation of somewhere between 12 and 29 million Indians during this period. And yet, in response, the Empire preferred to look to the stars rather than attend to pedestrian matters of grain stocks and food redistribution.

In contrast, nationalists like Dadabhai Naoroji pushed back against this swift, scientific logic of food crisis as natural. Referring to large-scale exports of grain during the height of India’s food shortages, Naoroji lay blame not with the heavens but the Crown. In his monograph titled Poverty and Un-British Rule in India published in 1901, he quipped, “Why blame poor Nature when the fault lies at your own door?”

In this piece, I interrogate the politics surrounding claims of food crisis and its perilous aftershocks in modern India. Using the famines of late-nineteenth-century British India, and the spectre of a looming food crisis in the initial decades of postcolonial India, I consider the political stakes of diagnosing crises. Instead of assuming these diagnoses are value-neutral and apolitical, I track the social and political contexts in which they come to matter.

The question of food crisis as natural or unnatural clearly carried tremendous political significance in British India. Since famines undercut the British Empire’s claims of beneficent and effective governance, colonial administrators often painted them not as failures of public policy but exculpatory acts of God. Indeed, viewed purely as a matter of solar physics, food crisis quite literally became a natural “disaster”—a word with Greek roots that means a “bad star”—with its attendant exemption of all moral and civic responsibility.

"Clearly, the question of whether a crisis is natural or artificial—an act of God or an act of humanity—influences who or what bears responsibility. What happens, however, when it is not so much the cause of the crisis as its very existence that is under scrutiny? "

Political scientists, development economists and environmental historians have produced a robust scholarly literature on how the many food crises during British colonial rule in India were the result of faulty governance. In line with this literature and contributing to it, the economist Amartya Sen pronounced in Democracy as Freedom that “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy.”

This kind of naturalisation of crisis toward political ends is not unique to South Asia. For instance, the historian Uwe Lübken has shown how in the 1960s, the United States government used publicly funded national insurance systems to deal with two very different problems—floods and race riots. In grouping the two crises together, the US government was doing what astronomers of the British Raj had done almost a century before them: treating eminently social problems as natural disasters, thereby redirecting blame from political organisations onto forces putatively beyond human control.

Clearly, the question of whether a crisis is natural or artificial—an act of God or an act of humanity—influences who or what bears responsibility. What happens, however, when it is not so much the cause of the crisis as its very existence that is under scrutiny? As it turns out, in the early years of independent India, there were a plethora of experts from US-based development groups who were convinced that a crisis was on the horizon. These experts wielded their crisis forecasts as a powerful tool of persuasion during the height of the Cold War, but not everyone was on board with their alarmist rhetoric. Examining some of the debates over food crisis in the years after Indian independence in 1947, thus, offers a productive site for examining the politics inherent in diagnosing a crisis.

In my research on food production in India before the onset of the so-called “Green Revolution” in the late 1960s, I have found examples of US agronomists and development economists peddling food crisis rhetoric to further political ends during the Cold War. They were part of a generation of US “development” experts who travelled to Latin America, Africa and Asia to secure a bulwark against Communism, while invoking ideological neutrality.

India was an important site for such development personnel because of its reluctance to join the Soviet or the US bloc. Many of these experts were funded by the Ford Foundation, an international philanthropic organisation that bankrolled agricultural research activities in the Global South after World War II. Many of the Ford Foundation’s economists were troubled to see India making huge investments in iron, steel and other heavy industries—following the Soviet example—at the cost of agriculture, starting in the mid-1950s. Concerned that they might “lose India to the Communists,” as Chester Bowles, the then-US Ambassador to India put it, the Foundation sought to use the rhetoric of crisis to dissuade the Indian government from pursuing rapid industrialisation.

"In my research on food production in India before the onset of the so-called 'Green Revolution' in the late 1960s, I have found examples of US agronomists and development economists peddling food crisis rhetoric to further political ends during the Cold War."

Invoking the Malthusian idea of population growth outstripping resource availability, the Foundation’s experts drafted their “Report on India’s Food Crisis and Steps to Meet It” in 1959. The report used purposefully grim and ominous language to highlight its “inescapable conclusion” that India would face a severe food shortage in the coming years if it did not abandon a Soviet-style rapid industrialisation approach to development. Instead, the Foundation urged the Indian government to prioritise food production by investing in capital-intensive modes of agriculture requiring fertilisers and hybrid seeds—precisely the domain in which the US had expertise and which it instrumentalised as aid to countries in the Global South.

Newspapers across India—and as far as the US and Ireland—covered this crisis talk, but not everyone was convinced. Some economists in the US State Department and many in the Indian Planning Commission objected to the report’s language and its simplistic mathematical logic that predicted crisis as a result of population growth. By spotlighting the social and political context of the Cold War in which the Foundation published its report, crisis appears not so much as an ineluctable fact as a socially constructed eventuality—an idea that anthropologists and theorists of the crisis concept have long proposed.

Douglas Ensminger, the director of the Foundation’s operations in India and Nepal at the time, might disagree with this characterisation of the organisation’s work, but in speeches to donors, he often noted the usefulness of crises in forcing a change of attitude amongst otherwise “complacent” political leaders. He wondered, “Being honest, aren’t most big decisions forced on us out of major crises?”

Such narratives of naturalising food crisis—be it those that explain away the crisis as the fault in our stars, or those that exaggerate its imminence and unavoidability—testify to the political work at the heart of crisis rhetoric. This is not to say that forecasts of food crisis stem purely from a political realm; concerns about food shortages were of course not entirely divorced from the reality of crop yields and grain stocks. Rather, my aim in looking to the past to excavate the political entanglements of crisis talk is to remain attendant to ever-pertinent questions such as “Where does talk of a crisis come from?” and “What work is such talk doing?” In other words, who benefits from framing events in terms of crisis and aftershocks?

These questions are all the more relevant in our current age of anthropogenic climate change. As more and more extreme weather events can be traced to human activity, the category of a truly “natural” disaster has become suspect, as the legal scholar Jedediah Purdy has argued in After Nature. Moreover, the unpredictability of what the anthropologist Adriana Petryna has called “runaway climate change” means that the very models designed to predict and chart the impact of human activity on the planet may no longer be able to precisely forecast rapid environmental change.

What, then, to make of crisis and its aftershocks in these uncertain and unprecedented times? Indeed, it may even be difficult to sufficiently demarcate shocks from aftershocks because of murky temporalities and models of ecological change thrown into jeopardy. But if the histories of food crises in modern India orient us anywhere, it is toward seeing crisis not as totally “natural” or totally “unnatural,” but instead locating it in entanglements of nature and culture. Attention to both aspects of its making is necessary for understanding and tackling the challenges that crisis brings.


Tathagat Bhatia [2021] is an incoming PhD student in the History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society program at MIT. They are interested in histories of science and environments in modern South Asia.

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