I am currently completing a Ph.D. at the Chair for History of the Modern World at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich. Over the last three years, I have scrutinized how private institutions and advocacy groups that had formed in India, North America and Britain attended to mal- and undernutrition in the Indian subcontinent. I trace the involvement and impact of these historical agents from the late colonial period to the formative first decade of Indian independence. Drawing from archival research in India, the US and Britain, I place relief and preventive practices, nutritional interventions and political campaigns that were geared towards the eradication and treatment of ‘hunger’ in India within a larger geographical and historical perspective.
With the consolidation of colonial rule and the surging of Indian nationalist demands in the nine-teenth century, the occurrence of starvation deaths in India had turned into a politically charged phenomenon. Although by the early twentieth century, the colonial state had improved its means to contain famine, the unavailability or inaccessibility of food continued to inform contestations over the right to rule. With an increasing global travel itinerary of Indian nationalists, anti-famine campaigns— that raised funds for famine relief alongside the questioning of colonial rule— gained pace outside of British India. In India itself, the political discourse that underscored the role of the economic exploitation of India under colonial rule emerged in conjunction with the growing activities of Indian social service associations. The latter refined their methods of alleviating famine during the first decades of the twentieth century and increasingly mobilised funds through diaspora networks.
At the same time, other historical agents had come to the fore. Since the turn of the twentieth century, North American missionaries began to conceive famine as a new field of missionary commitment. They articulated an ostensibly Protestant and ‘American’ answer to India’s problem of sustenance that emphasised the need of agricultural reform and placed education and training at the centre of missionary anti-famine activities. The involvement of North American missionaries fed into the production of a growing body of knowledge on rural reconstruction that would continue to inform the thinking and practices of development experts in the post-war era.
Meanwhile, ‘famine’ in India had received another nuance in the interwar period. Facilitated through the advance and increasing popularity of nutritional science, the prevalence of malnutrition moved into the focus and a host of historical agents began to step up their efforts to improve Indian diets. Nutritional research in India fuelled the global thinking about the adequate remedies of malnutrition and fed into the revision of means to nourish and treat people affected by famine.
As part of this larger project, I presented a paper titled Multi-Purpose Food, Indo-US Cooperation and the Transnational Circulation of Nutritional Knowledge in the Post-War Era (c. 1946-1965) at the Annual Meeting of the British Association for South Asian Studies at the University of Durham in 2019 and was awarded the Graduate Essay Prize. The paper offered a new look at the production and circulation of nutritional knowledge, and Indo-US development cooperation in the post-war era. In the paper, I explored the history of a food product that was developed in the laboratory of the California Institute of Technology in 1946. ‘Multi-Purpose Food’ (MPF in short) was intended to cater to the needs of post-war Europe. Instead, however, it made headway in India in the early post-independence period. While tons of MPF were exported during the famine in Bihar in 1951, researchers of the Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI) soon presented a new version of the generic formula as Indian Multi-Purpose Food. India’s food technologists were in the midst of developing technical solutions to India’s food crisis. MPF became one of a series of food supplements that were imagined to address the protein insufficiency of Indian rice diets. The CFTRI soon provided first large-scale studies of Multi-Purpose Food and thereby took a decisive part in the further development and spread of the food powder.
Joanna Simonow is a Ph.D. candidate at the Chair for History of the Modern World at the Swiss Fed-eral Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich. Her research project has been funded by the Swiss Na-tional Science Foundation (SNSF) from 2016-2019.