This Quote Means | Gandhi: ‘To the hungry, God can only appear as bread’ and why MS Swaminathan invoked it

On September 28, renowned agricultural scientist MS Swaminathan (1925-2023) passed away.

Early on in his career, he rejected more mainstream career paths of a government job and the medical profession, instead following his interest in agriculture. He recalled how around the time he was a student, Mahatma Gandhi gave the call for the Quit India Movement of 1942 and this became a source of inspiration for him.

Swaminathan would again mention Gandhi, attributing the following quote to him: “To the millions who have to go without two meals a day… God can only appear as bread”. Why did Gandhi say so? And why were these words relevant for the man described as the ‘Father of the Green Revolution’ – someone who would help India achieve food security after turbulent p

Why Gandhi spoke about hunger

While there is no specific source for when Gandhi said this, it fits in within his larger philosophy. Gandhi was an advocate of self-rule (swaraj) and self-sufficiency. His ideal economic and political models focused on equipping the smallest units, the villages of India, to be self-sufficient in terms of clothing and feeding themselves by spinning their own yarn and promoting agriculture locally.

His larger ideology also focused on the concepts of sarvodaya (progress for all) and antodaya, or the upliftment of the last person in society, who is still untouched by the progress others have made. In this regard, the issue of hunger loomed large. It was associated with the need to produce enough and for the last person to be able to access and afford food.

ost-independence years? We explain.

At the time of independence, colonialism and the preceding medieval system of farming and land distribution had greatly impacted India’s productivity when it came to growing enough food for its people. But even today, India has been recording decreasing Global Hunger Index scores over the years, ranking 107 out of 121 countries in 2022.

Why Swaminathan mentioned Gandhi’s quote on hunger 

Apart from being inspired by Gandhi in his youth, Swaminathan also found his words relevant on a specific issue – achieving ‘zero hunger’.

In a 2013 booklet published by the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, titled ‘Zero Hunger is Possible’, he wrote of Gandhi in the context of how India would achieve this goal. As the name suggests, it is a global movement to end hunger. ‘Zero hunger’ is also one of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are aimed to be achieved by 2030.

At the time of the interview, the Indian government had passed the National Food Security Act for providing staple foodgrains to nearly 67 per cent of Indians at subsidised prices. But for years, many other member countries of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) have criticised such measures. Essentially, rich countries demanded to maintain a level playing field among different countries’ farmers, while also extending huge subsidies to farmers in the US, UK and France.

Swaminathan wrote of Gandhi’s quote in this context: “Gandhiji said, this God of bread must be available to every home and hut in an independent India. It is after a long time, after more than sixty years of independence, we have been able to redeem that pledge. I think countries that have some objection should also realise we are all humans, and it is important that we think of humanity rather than some petty regulations.” For further reading, you can click here for more on the issue of food stockpiling at the WTO.

And how did the Green Revolution help in tackling food insecurity?

Swaminathan spoke of the Green Revolution in India in the context of zero hunger – how until then, India had to import staple foods like rice and wheat from countries like the United States. He explained the three factors behind the scale of success it achieved: first was Technology, allowing yields to increase through the development of new crop varieties, and helping in developing pesticides.

Must Read | MS Swaminathan: The man who transformed India from a ‘basket case’ to foodgrain self-sufficiency

Second was Services. The nationalisation of the banking system in 1969 led to banks being asked to focus on extending rural credit under the priority sector norms. “New programmes for agricultural extension were designed to enable diffusion of technology, particularly, in targeted areas and among small and marginal farmers,” Swaminathan said.

Thirdly, he credited public policy, saying “Whatever we do, unless farmers are enthusiastic, we will not get the desired results…” The Agricultural Prices Commission and the Food Corporation of India were established, remunerative floor prices for food grains were established and an expanded public distribution system for food security and poverty alleviation came up.

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