EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 6. Monsoon Failure in India

Sometimes our lives are shaped by specific events. For me, one of these came in the fall of 1965—nine years after my life-changing six months in India. The U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) mission in New Delhi asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for someone to help them evaluate an early draft of the agricultural section of India’s next five-year plan. Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman, with whom I was working as foreign policy advisor, decided that I would be the one to do it.

Almost immediately after I arrived in New Delhi and started reviewing the plan, something else caught my attention: the condition of that year’s grain crop. The officially estimated grain demand for 1965 was 95 million tons, but I soon began to wonder whether a harvest anywhere near this amount would materialize. Reading several newspapers each morning, as I routinely do—in this case, the Times of India, the Hindu, the Indian Express, and the Hindustan Times—I found reports of drought in virtually every corner of the country. Although this climatically diverse country is always experiencing both droughts and floods somewhere, in 1965 drought appeared to be almost everywhere.

Other random bits of information reinforced my concern about the projected harvest. At a reception one evening shortly after I arrived, I met the head of Indian operations for Esso (now ExxonMobil). When I casually asked him how business was, he said it was great—diesel sales to fuel irrigation pumps were nearly double the previous year’s because farmers were pumping continuously to try to save their crops. Also, an embassy staff person I wanted to meet while in New Delhi had said he would be on vacation, but it turned out he was actually there when I arrived. An avid duck hunter, he usually took off a few weeks in the fall to go hunting on a lake up north, but this year he canceled his vacation because the lake was dry.

Furthermore, an agronomist working with the AID traveled extensively in rural India and often stopped his car in the countryside to take soil samples, a hobby of his. 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.

After pondering these and other incidents, and compiling information from newspaper stories on crop damage in various districts and states as reported by local officials, I became convinced that India faced a huge crop shortfall. And 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 Secretary Freeman. It was already early November, and the logistical challenge of moving massive quantities of grain with little warning and preparation could be overwhelming. With a potential deficit of the magnitude that was in prospect, the secretary needed the information as soon as possible simply because of the time it would take to get wheat from grain elevators in Kansas to ports in New Orleans and Galveston. If we got adequate quantities to the ports, grain could be loaded quickly onto ships in case we had to mount a massive food-relief effort.

If I were going to sound such an alarm, it would be necessary to estimate the size of the deficit, despite having only fragmentary data. If my estimate was too high, the United States would overmobilize and waste resources. But an estimate that was too low could lead to famine. I worked to strike the right tone in the cable to Freeman. Written in cablese, it read:

After week study have concluded crop will be much less than officially admitted. Believe poor crop will result in major food crisis, perhaps most serious in recent history.

Crop shortfalls not localized. Poor monsoon nationwide, affecting nearly every state. Private conversation with Food Secretary Dias last evening confirms gravity of situation.

In light above fast developing situation suggest evaluate our position considering stock levels, possible use grain sorghum supplement wheat and merit using Indian ports full capacity to get much food as possible in country now before crisis reaches its worst.

Estimate 10-15 million tons or more grain imports from all sources may be needed to sustain India’s 480 million until next major harvest.

With a copy of the proposed cable in hand, I went to the embassy control officer on a Saturday morning, only to learn the cable would have to be officially approved and thus would have to wait until Monday at the earliest. No cable left the embassy that was not approved by Ambassador Chester Bowles or someone acting on his behalf.

The unorthodoxy of what I was trying to do dawned on me. Although I was not a member of the embassy staff, I was making an estimate of the grain deficit that the embassy should be making, and I was trying to use embassy communications facilities to send a message that no one knew about or had approved.

Later I learned that on Monday morning the staff had debated whether this cable, which contrasted strongly with anything the embassy had sent, should actually go. After all, I had not been asked to assess the harvest. It was not an official part of my mission. From what I have since learned about that meeting, John Lewis, the AID mission director, argued that if the cable did not go through official channels, he was certain that I would send it to Freeman via private channels. Therefore, he said it was better that it go through the embassy. He won the argument—the cable went as drafted, but with a P.S. in bold type at the bottom: “Country team preparing separate message on food situation.”

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 weeklong 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, a friend and someone I respected, 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, because it would slow things down and the needed grain shipments might not arrive in time. He agreed because he too was beginning to sense the potential magnitude of the deficit even though he did not mention any specific number.

Then I had a second request. Since I was to meet Freeman in Rome the next morning, I needed a seat on the Air India flight leaving for Rome that evening. The airline had said the flight was full. Minister Subramaniam arranged for me to be on the plane.

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 and was assuming that the United States would fill any grain deficits that might result. If India continued on this path, it would become dangerously dependent on the United States in the event of any crop shortfalls, at a time when scores of other countries also depended on U.S. grain.

LBJ knew that if the recent agricultural trends in India continued, eventually India’s grain needs would exceed the United States’ capacity to meet them. It was carrying only very limited grain stocks that could serve as a cushion in the event of a crop shortfall. 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, a country with a population more than double that of the United States’ and growing by 10 million per year, that alarmed the president and led to what came to be known as the “short-tether policy” on U.S. food aid. LBJ had asked 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. By giving this assignment to the secretary of agriculture, without informing the State Department, LBJ was signaling his lack of confidence in the State Department or at least in Ambassador Bowles, a Kennedy appointee who was reputedly “soft on the Indians.” This was why I was so abruptly called to Rome.

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. 

The meeting between Freeman and Subramaniam actually stretched into several meetings. They were held at a private location: the residence of the U.S. ambassador to Italy, Frederick Reinhardt. The goal was to keep the meetings secret and away from the watchful and perhaps already curious eyes of the press.

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. It was distributed to both Freeman and Subramaniam for their review as a basis for discussion the next morning. This daily ritual of discussion and rewriting continued for three days. 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 with a floor price guarantee for the farmers growing these grains. If farmers were to invest in irrigation pumps, fertilizer, and land improvements, they had to know that at harvest time they could get a price for their crops that would at least cover costs.

Fertilizer supplies had to increase rapidly. This meant shifting fertilizer production from the public sector to the private sector. It was taking on average nine years to build fertilizer plants in the public sector—a profoundly laggard performance that was leading to fertilizer shortages.

I also knew that the high-yielding dwarf varieties of wheat, initially developed in Mexico by Norman Borlaug and his colleagues with support of the Rockefeller Foundation, had been tested in India and had performed very well. India needed to accelerate the dissemination of these high-yielding wheats, which would produce twice as much as traditional varieties with a given amount of land and water. To short-circuit the time-consuming process of multiplying seed in test plots over a number of years, we suggested that the Indian government import a shipload or two of wheat directly from Mexico to get seed to farmers quickly.

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 committing the United States to providing massive food assistance as long as India adopted the reforms. Although my original invitation from the embassy was to critique the agricultural part of India’s forthcoming five-year plan, I was actually writing a new agricultural plan for India—one that the embassy did not yet know about.

There were differences. The Indian government’s agricultural plan was a much longer, detailed bureaucratic document. My new draft was only a few pages on the key initiatives needed, but 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.

Subramaniam could not sign this without Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s consent. Freeman asked that I return to New Delhi and convene a meeting with Chester Bowles and John Lewis, explaining to them their responsibilities in implementing this agreement, assuming that either Shastri or Subramaniam signed it on behalf of India.

There was one small wrinkle. When I arrived at the airport in Rome on Friday night, Trans World Airlines (TWA) would not let me board the flight to New Delhi because I did not have a visa. The original visa for India was good for one visit only. Fortunately for me, Indira Gandhi, who was minister of information and broadcasting at the time, was also visiting Italy to accept an award. She had attended a small dinner for Secretary Freeman hosted by the Indian ambassador to Italy on Tuesday night in which I was included. Having had that brief contact with her at the dinner table, I decided to approach her and her entourage as they were preparing to board the same flight. I explained the situation and asked if she could intervene on my behalf and get me on the flight. She did and TWA let me board.

My assignment on returning to New Delhi was intimidating. At the time I was thirty-one years old—just seven years off the farm and feeling self-conscious about convening a meeting with the U.S. ambassador and the AID mission director. Ambassador Bowles, a formidable figure, had served presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and now Johnson. In addition to serving in the critical position of heading the Office of Price Administration during World War II, he had served Connecticut both as governor and congressman. After serving as under secretary of state to Dean Rusk in 1961 under Kennedy, he had returned to India as ambassador for the second time, having served previously during the late Truman years. And John Lewis, the AID mission director, was a widely respected development economist. There was no reason for me to think this meeting would be easy.

John Lewis was calm and relaxed, and Bowles was civil, but he scarcely contained his resentment over being bypassed in the negotiations. I got to the point quickly as I explained the reason for my quick trip to Rome a week earlier. After describing our week of negotiations, I pulled from my inside jacket pocket a copy of the agreement approved by LBJ and signed by Freeman. Bowles would not even be a signatory to the agreement.

The meeting was short. What made the situation manageable for me was the knowledge that LBJ himself had initiated the meeting in Rome and had specifically requested the agreement that we negotiated with Subramaniam. Bowles and Lewis were obviously not happy with this and it was not the most cordial of meetings. Then I had to wait for India’s response and get the document signed by either Prime Minister Shastri or Minister Subramaniam. At least that was my hope.

Subramaniam was in a difficult situation. He obviously could not talk about an agreement he had reached with the Americans while under duress, but he handled the situation with great skill. He included all the key points that were in the agreement in his proposed new plan for Indian agriculture. 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.

He was a popular political figure and an effective member of the Indian Cabinet. He said he would resign if his plan were not adopted. After two cabinet meetings, and despite strong resistance from the finance minister, he got his new plan for Indian agriculture approved. He then signed the agreement, which I carried back to Washington.

One thing the Indians did not anticipate was the extent to which LBJ was going to use food aid—his short-tether policy—to force the Indian government to follow through on every measure in the agreement. We had a sense of the timing when certain measures had to be accomplished. If they were not, 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 agreement. They would move again only when India had met its commitments. U.S. Under Secretary of Agriculture John Schnittker, with whom I worked closely, was centrally involved in managing the short tether.

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, the secretary 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.

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, which was longer than a football field, 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 thirty 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.

Another innovation was to dedicate certain trains within the United States to load up at the grain elevators in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, and transport the wheat directly to the ports in Galveston and New Orleans. As soon as their cars were unloaded, the trains would turn around and, as Orville Freeman put it, “hightail it back to reload again.” In that way, we were able to move the wheat into export position very quickly. During the next year, the United States, working closely with the government of India, moved 10 million tons of wheat from the Great Plains of the United States to the cities and villages of India, halfway around the world.

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.

The situation in late 1965 was one where I knew exactly what had to be done. There was no question in my mind. There was an enormous backlog of agricultural technology that could be brought into play in India to help eradicate hunger and stave off the threat of future famine. At that time, I noted that the new technologies could not solve the food problem—they would only buy time with which to slow population growth.

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 LBJ saw a rare opportunity to restructure India’s agriculture by dramatically boosting land productivity. My responsibility was simply to identify and incorporate into the agreement the measures needed to transform Indian agriculture into a thriving, fast-developing farm sector. For this fledgling public servant, it was a heady experience.

In the meeting with Subramaniam just prior to going to Rome, I had pointed out that the history of Indian agriculture showed a tendency for monsoon failures to cluster. When a monsoon failed, there was a well-above-average chance that the next one would also fail.

With this in mind, Walt Rostow, then chairman of the Policy Planning Council at the State Department, decided we should convene a conference of aid-donor countries to brief them on the progress in our massive food-relief effort with India and also to discuss the prospects for the 1966 harvest. The two-day conference was scheduled for April 4–5, 1966, in Paris. I was asked to kick off the conference on the morning of the first day with an overview of the situation and close it with a wrap-up at the end of the second day.

On the home front, Shirley was pregnant with our second child. We weren’t worried about the timing, because the baby was scheduled to arrive during the last week of March, right around my birthday on March 28. But that date came and went and we kept counting. And, finally, although the baby had not yet arrived, I had to get on the plane for Paris. Then I could only hope that the baby would not come until I returned three days later.

I gave a rousing opening talk, emphasizing not only the issue of food but also that of population—the importance of family planning and ultimately of population stabilization. That night the embassy control officer relayed a cable to my hotel room: “A girl. 7 pounds 6 ounces. All is well. Shirley.” Now my record was 0 for 2. Sadly, I had missed the birth of Brian and now Brenda. 

It was decided that I would catch a plane back the next day, but since the plane was not to leave Paris until late morning, I could give a preliminary summary of the conference and a renewed call for action first thing in the morning.  The reason for rescheduling my talk was announced. I then informed the conferees that Brenda was our second and would be our last child; the children were five years apart. This, I said, was family planning.

As the 1966 monsoon got under way, Rostow called to see if I had any sense of how it was proceeding. Fortunately I had arranged to get a rainfall report by cable from the Embassy in New Delhi every Friday. With their data, I was making by hand a color map showing cumulative rainfall state by state. I sent the latest one of these to Rostow so he could get a visual sense of how things were looking. Big mistake! He then wanted me to do a colored map for him every week from then on.

Not surprisingly, the 1966 monsoon was also a weak one. Again, it took several million tons of U.S. grain to fill the gap. But this time the effort proceeded much more smoothly. The reforms were being implemented on schedule, and we had worked out the logistics of moving massive quantities of grain into India.

One of the hallmarks of the USDA during the Kennedy-Johnson era, the eight-year span when Freeman was secretary of agriculture, was the department’s growing involvement in international agricultural development. In 1964 the USDA, working with the AID, had created a new agency—the International Agricultural Development Service (IADS). Matthew Drosdoff, an agronomist who had been the Food and Agricultural Officer for the AID in Vietnam since 1962, became the first agency head. In contrast to the Foreign Agricultural Service, whose responsibility was to develop markets for U.S. farm products, the purpose of the IADS was to help develop agriculture in third-world countries. In many countries the AID subcontracted the agricultural part of their program to the IADS.

In 1966, it was decided that the agency should be playing more of a policy role, and Secretary Freeman appointed me the IADS administrator. I had no idea this was coming, but I was both pleased and honored.

Two years earlier the agency had been cobbled together very quickly, with personnel donated from other agencies in the USDA. Unfortunately, this meant that the various agencies often sent employees who were about to retire and not their most productive. To help make it a more effective agency, I hired some talented young staffers from outside the department, including I. M. Destler (who got his masters in public administration from Princeton), William Abbott (a White House fellow who had edited the Harvard Law Review), and William Jones, editor of Development Digest. From within the department, I hired Lyle Schertz and Dana Dalrymple.

As the youngest agency head in government, I needed to learn a lot quickly. To help me, I recruited the experienced Mollie Iler from the embassy in Rome, the one who had typed each draft of our agreement with India, as my administrative assistant. One of the advantages we had, whether in setting up a project or implementing it, was that we could draw on the vast pool of skilled professionals in the sixteen agencies in the USDA, such as foresters from the Forest Service, agronomists from the Soil Conservation Service, plant breeders from the Agricultural Research Service, and professionals from over a dozen other agencies.

We had a huge range of on-the-ground projects going in thirty-nine countries, including expanding rice production in Senegal, breeding higher-yielding corn varieties in Kenya, organizing farm co-ops in Brazil, and helping the Maasai in Tanzania improve their herd management. With the success of the high-yielding grain varieties in India, we were working actively to introduce them in other countries. Managing the IADS was complicated, simply because we were working with the AID, the host-country government, and officials and farmers within the country. On top of this, my earlier responsibility of advising the secretary on foreign agricultural policy continued. For me, this was a stressful and demanding period, but also one of intense learning and, above all else, a chance to improve agriculture on many fronts at once.

I headed the IADS for two years, then in 1968 Richard Nixon was elected president. I knew that I did not want to work in a Nixon administration. I resigned, leaving office a week before Nixon was inaugurated in January 1969. Much to my regret, Nixon dismantled the IADS. The reason given was that U.S. farmers did not want the USDA helping other countries to develop their agriculture, thus creating competition for them.

I had arrived in the department in 1959 and left in early 1969. This was a remarkably intense and rewarding decade. Between 1959 and 1966 my government service (GS) grade went from GS-7 to GS-18 and agency head. No one could have asked for more opportunities than I had during this period. Many friendships from then continue to this day. Orville Freeman and I maintained a close relationship until his death at eighty-four in 2003. At the secretary’s memorial service, his son, Mike Freeman, made a point of telling me that the secretary had long thought of me as his second son. 

I walked away from the Nixon administration, but not from my life’s work. The next half century or so would be spent at various institutes, researching and writing about an ever wider array of global environmental issues.