By Sada Reddi
The failure to provide adequate food supplies to the population intensified social conflicts, and these were to force the colonial government to address the issue of the health of the population and put political reforms on the agenda
Few people nowadays remember the food crisis that occurred during the Second World War, although the phrase ‘eating sweet potatoes and maize’ reminds us of the permanent emotional scar it left on important segments of the population. In the 1940s, Mauritius was threatened with a serious food crisis, and the colonial government responded by setting up a Food Control Board.
With the outbreak of the War, the government had to take drastic measures to ensure food supply in the island. On 12 April 1941, the Secretary of State inquired from colonial governors about arrangements that had been made to maintain the various services. As regards food supplies, the directive was to store foodstuffs for a period of 90 days. After discussions with the Mauritius Chamber of Agriculture and the Department of Agriculture, the Food Control Board was set up with the necessary executive powers to handle these matters.
A Food Comptroller was appointed to monitor food supply in the island. He was confronted with a number of challenges, namely how to make the island potentially self-supporting in foodstuffs, prepare for the prolonged interruption of overseas communications, and provide for the defence of the island. Several measures were taken to increase food supply with the setting up of new institutions, provision of financial support, extension of agricultural education, etc.
Though sugar production remained the priority of government, measures were taken so as to ensure the food security of the population. Rice supplies for six months were stocked in the granary and adequate stocks of oil and fat were maintained. 2000 acres of land were earmarked for growing maize and sweet potatoes; 28 acres were allocated for growing rice, and planting materials were distributed freely. It was estimated that 34,000 acres of land would be required for food production, including the production of 56,000 tons of rice.
Although Article 3 of the Food Control Regulations required proprietors with more than 100 acres of land to grow sweet potatoes, manioc and maize, there was no compulsion. It was only after the Japanese had overrun the East that it became important to implement drastic measures. Additional ones became necessary to keep the cost of living low. Retail prices of commodities were fixed, prices of foodstuffs were stabilized through subsidies, a Nutrition Unit was set up to provide instructions to prepare food to which the people were unaccustomed.
In 1942, the situation became critical. More land was required for food crops, and the government enforced compulsory growing of maize and other root crops; it also introduced the rationing and subsidization of rice and other foodstuffs. Attention was also given to livestock and milk production. Compulsory planting of food crops was implemented in September 1942 despite stiff resistance from sugar estates. The Mauritius Chamber of Agriculture was opposed to the measure, and Plantation House cabled the Colonial Office arguing that compulsory planting of food crops meant sacrificing 75,000 tons of sugar worth one million pounds. The colonial government had to opt for the gradual conversion of lands for food production.
By February 1943, it was realized that the target for food production would not be attained. In July 1943, the Government legislated for the compulsory planting of food crops on all estates of 20 acres or more. Food production plans for sugar estates were revised to 34,000 acres and were implemented as from 1 July 1943. As a result, the projected area under cane cultivation was reduced from 128,000 acres in 1942 to 122,000 in 1944, and 121,853 in 1945. The figures indicate that of the 150,000 acres under sugarcane in 1940, the compulsory planting of food crops by sugar estates was undertaken on 33,200 acres between September 1942 to September 1943. By June 1944, compulsory planting of food crops was abandoned, and by 1945, 8000 acres under food crops had been replanted with sugarcane.
Of the 28 acres allotted to rice cultivation in 1939, only 9.8 acres came to fruition. There were better yields at Yemen due to irrigation. The rice varieties harvested included: Patna 1785 kgs, Bangtulsie 2808 kgs, and Milchar 2200 kgs. Under non-irrigated land, the yield was 600 kgs per acre for Patna. The cost of production was much higher for plots under irrigation with the cost coming to 15 cents per kg. Even with these initial efforts, rice cultivation could not be extended because of shortage of land.
There were a number of problems that cropped up to increase local food production but also a lot of excuses. There were problems regarding the quality of the soil, droughts, crop diseases, high cost of labour and decline in labour productivity as a result of growing malnutrition. Some of the estates that refused to grow food crops were prosecuted before the Profiteering Court. Many sugar estates opposed the cultivation of food crops on the ground that they no longer knew how to grow such crops; the main reason was that sugar fetched higher profits during the War.
Local food production during the war was a failure, but according to Dr Clyde, the Food Adviser of the Colonial Office, the failure was a relative one. He argued that 49,000 tons of foodstuffs were harvested during the period 1942-1944 while sugar production was not only maintained but increased. While great efforts were made to increase food production, government hesitated to make food production a priority. Though food production equivalent to 56,000 tons of rice was projected, it was revised to 33,000 tons in the second year and only 19,000 tons in the third year. As a result there were shortages of manioc, sweet potatoes and maize and this was evident in the high prices of food. The problem of price control was particularly acute in those circumstances of food scarcity.
The failure of the food programme nearly plunged the island into a crisis in 1943, and it was only averted thanks to the timely arrival of manioc starch and wheat from Madagascar and Australia. Food shortages increased the cost of living and malnutrition among the population. More fundamentally, the failure to make the island self-sufficient in food was due to the dominance of King Sugar. The failure to provide adequate food supplies to the population intensified social conflicts, and these were to force the colonial government to address the issue of the health of the population and put political reforms on the agenda.
* Published in print edition on 14 April 2020
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