Development and Expertise in Postcolonial India

I am Tathagat Bhatia, a rising senior in the College of Arts and Sciences from Lucknow, India. I’m majoring in Science, Technology & Society in the Department of History & Sociology of Science, and minoring in Russian. This summer I am working on my senior thesis, tentatively titled “Development Dreams: Exporting U.S. Expertise to Postcolonial India, 1947-72.” My project hopes to explore how Cold War-era U.S. agronomists, sociologists and bureaucrats sought to produce an “India” whose path to development was decidedly agricultural rather than industrial. According to these experts, India was so fundamentally ridden with problems of hunger and overpopulation that any attempt by the Indian government to pursue large-scale industrialization was tragically misguided, if not reckless, since it would divert resources away from agriculture.

I find this story particularly compelling because of the persistence of this paternalism even in contemporary discourses about development. Every time India launches a rocket into space, for example, I notice how there is an immediate flurry of criticism from Western observers who wonder whether a country as poor as India should even be investing in space research when it could be feeding hungry mouths. Through this project I want to show that there is a history to this kind of reasoning which demands developing countries to pursue food-first development strategies.

U.S. Cold War imperatives coincided with the objectives of a larger, Western mission to “develop” the so-called “Third World” in order to advance a particular form of development which was most suitable to U.S. interests. By the early 1960s, there was a growing realization in the U.S. Department of Agriculture that even as the Soviet Union might overtake the U.S. in many industrial fields, it would be a while before they catch up to it in agricultural production and efficiency. Hoping to capitalize on their advantage in this sector, governmental agencies such as the USDA and the State Department worked in concert with nongovernmental actors like the Ford Foundation to encourage what they considered inherently American agricultural practices in non-aligned countries like India. Over the summer I will be reading more about these extension programs through U.S. land-grant universities and colleges for training Indian agricultural workers. I argue that inherent in the activities of these programs is the assumption that an agricultural approach to development was the only way to solve problems such as hunger and poverty in India.

Frank Shuman, an agricultural extension officer from the University of Illinois, being honored with a garland whose text translates to “Long Live Nitrogen” in Allahabad in 1955, in response to his fierce fertilizer promotion campaign in the district. Source: Internet Archive.

However, not everyone was so keen about a food-first development strategy. Jawaharlal Nehru was a firm believer in industrialization as the path to modernization, much to the chagrin of many U.S. actors, most notably President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was becoming increasingly frustrated with India’s non-aligned stance even as millions of tons of food aid made its way from the corn fields of Iowa to the ports of Bombay and Vizag. According to Douglas Ensminger, the Ford Foundation’s representative to India and Pakistan from 1951-70, the problem was that India’s Five-Year Plans were devoting more and more resources to steel mills, not fertilizer plants, which was unacceptable to people like Johnson. Eventually, Johnson instituted a “short-tether” policy towards India, holding food aid hostage until the Indian government was ready to channel resources out of industrialization schemes and into agricultural reform. I hope to use moments such as this one to illustrate the pervasiveness of the food and agriculture binary in U.S. development ideals for postcolonial India.

The biggest challenge I am facing presently is access to libraries and archives. In the first place, I decided to center this story about development around U.S. actors, since access to Indian records has been curtailed due to the pandemic. But records of not all U.S. agencies and institutions have been digitized to the same extent. The State Department, for example, has done a really good job of making reports, memos and letters available to the public, but the USDA and the Ford Foundation’s records are relatively sparse. Moreover, the sources which have been digitized include agency reports and policy recommendations, rather than personal records of the people involved, which presents only the official side of things. However, I feel confident that between coronavirus restrictions being relaxed and the wonderful service of requesting archives to scan and deliver certain documents, I would have enough sources to tell this story.

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About Tathagat Bhatia

I am a rising senior (C'21) from Lucknow, India, studying history of science and technology, and Russian. I am especially interested in environmental history, histories of empire, and post-colonial histories of South Asia. My project explores how development experts in post-World War II United States exported their expertise to India, particularly in the domains of food and agriculture.