Grain for books

This tidbit from history comes thanks to a reader friend Vijay who passed by to say hello. As we discussed history through the evening hours, he mentioned in passing about a big gift of books provided by India to USA during the PL 480 program when the USA supplied India, much needed wheat. I did not have the slightest clue that we had supplied something in return for the wheat. After Vijay left, I checked out the details. Here it is, and I must add here that while the PL 480 is well reported, the details on the Indian supply of books are shrouded, at best.

But first a recap on the PL 480 deal. I had written briefly about the wheat deal some time ago, for not only did we get wheat, but as reported, also the famed Congress grass weed (a debated fact, see US rebuttal) which is growing wild in many places and causing untold allergic suffering.

After partition, Western Punjab, India's wheat bowl had gone to Pakistan. A spell of successive bad monsoons added, there was a severe food crisis by 1955, reminiscent of the Bengal famine. India had no options. The Chinese were already starving. Russia, India’s quasi-ally didn't have enough for its own people. Europe was just recovering from World War II and could not help. India didn't have any foreign currency to buy food even if it were available. Millions of people would have to be left to starve, if the US had not came to India’s rescue. That was how the famous PL 480 wheat import deal with US was signed by India in 1956.

This was also, as I read elsewhere, the period when South Indians (and many other places) first started consuming wheat with much disgust & shame. Rationing and ration shops had just reached the South in the early 60’s if I recall right due to the famine and rice shortage. An Indian accounts the PL480 times - It is here that PL-480 came in handy. I grew up listening to stories told by my parents and grandparents about the "PL-480 ships" carrying rice from the United States. The passage of these ships was headline news on the airwaves ~ because their arrival would coincide with millions of people being able to eat. Magically, when the Pl-480 ships docked, the market prices for rice and wheat would ease, and the "ration shops" would open. PL-480 made the difference between food riots and dinner for everyone.

But what was the connection to the books?

The Columbia university website explained thus - Lacking the foreign currency to cover its wheat purchase debts, India agreed to repay the United States with multiple copies of all books published in the country for designated university libraries in the United States, beginning in 1961. This became known as the Public Law 480 Program, and was to continue for more than twenty years. New York Times repeated the same – Others (Tibetan books) were preserved by Congress via Public Law 480, passed in the 1960's, which let India partly repay a financial debt to the United States, in books.

Now, was this right? What was the real story? Let us take a look at the whole PL 480 business & the geopolitics of that period

Public Law 480 also known as Food for Peace (and commonly abbreviated PL 480) is a funding avenue by which US food can be used for overseas aid. By the mid-1950s, as food shortages began to develop and foreign exchange reserves fell sharply, the Indian government entered into an agreement with the U.S. government for assistance for the import of food grains under P.L. 480. Later, India would become the recipient of the most aid under that program; India received 50 million tons, or nearly 40 percent of all food grains and 25 percent of all commodities given by the U.S. government under P.L. 480 from 1955 through 1971.

In 1951-56 periods, the US-India relations were troubled due to the bad equations between Krishna Menon, Dulles, Eisenhower and Nehru. Dulles for example appeared to support the Portuguese over Goa, to which Menon & Nehru were against (as you may recall Menon eventually liberated Goa). Eisenhower & the others viewed Menon as a Commie and a Soviet supporter. However the PL 480 aid progressed smoothly until 1965 when Lyndon Johnson suddenly stopped it. He thought that India was not doing anything about stabilizing domestic grain farming. He also sensed aid weariness in the US congress and a lack of political motivation to continue with aid. In later years he arm twisted the Indian government to change its priorities on agricultural policy, which in retrospect was a good move (I think the FCI was formed then). However his involvement in the forced devaluation of the Rupee in 1966 was a further setback to India. The failure of monsoons and drought climates in India continued and the PL480 aid was provided only on a ‘ship to mouth’ basis. It took until 1971 for all of the above to change and change it did.

The troubles in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) started and India was wondering whether to step in. Indira Gandhi, the prime minister was in USA in Nov 71 meeting the US president Nixon. Nixon had already made up his mind that India was planning to attack (India and the United States - Dennis Kux Pg 299) Pakistan. Early in Dec 71, India was discussing if and when Bangladesh should be liberated. Yahya Khan of Pakistan preempted Indian action by bombing the Western border and soon enough a twin border war ensued. Kissinger & Nixon (and his envoy at the UN, George Bush Sr) blamed India for the conflict, and all aid to India was summarily frozen. As the war and diplomatic efforts continued, Kissinger expected that China will enter the fight supporting Pakistan, with all this possibly precipitating in a Russian attack on Chinese borders supporting India. The war on the eastern front was won and the US (Nixon & Kissinger) then started feeling that India would move into West Pakistan. Kissinger sent out the US navy aircraft carrier Enterprise as a warning, to the Bay of Bengal under the guise of relocating US personnel stuck in India. However, Indira Gandhi announced a quick cease fire on Dec 19th. Nixon and Kissinger retracted their earlier stand by stating that the USA had no significant interest in the Indo-Pak conflict. Indira & India did not forget and it took many decades for the relationship between the two countries to thaw. But that is another story, for another day.

That was the end of India’s PL 480 involvement. The PL 480 buildings used by the Americans (next to the Qutab Minar) to run USAID were returned to the Indians and it later became the luxury hotel Qutab.

Ok, so how about the debt? Since 1954, India was indeed repaying the wheat supply in Indian Rupees into a special RBI account. According to the agreement the USA was to use this money only for US investments in India and for paying off their local expenses. By 1971 it had built up to over 3billion US Dollars. India feared that the US access to such large amounts of money in India, at short notice could be used to destabilize the country. It also vexed the Americans as it added to the political mess that the war had created between the two countries. By then Nixon was mired in the Watergate scandal. A proposal was floated to write off 2.2 Billion $ and retain only 1.1 Billion $ for US expenses. Moynihan the US ambassador in India who was negotiating this in India worked hard to get this through with clever bureaucratic wrangling in the US Senate. Finally on 18th Jan 1974, the US gave India a cheque for 2.2 Billion dollars and wrote off the account. That was the single largest check written until that date and was handed over with characteristic flourish by Ambassador Moynihan. Everything started to look rosy once again though arguments cropped up over CIA, Vietnam & Diego Garcia.

On 18th May 1974, three months after Nixon was ousted, India tested an underground nuclear device making India the 6th Nuclear power. The equations changed again, but it never became icy like it was during Nixon’s and Johnson’s days.

So with that background we come back to the question, what was to be done with the Rupee balance in the PL480 account? A number of years ago, Franklin D. Roosevelt aptly said, "Books are bullets in the battle for men's minds." For decades the British have enunciated and supported the principle that "trade follows the book." The US followed suit. It was decided to use this money to support English language publishing In India. Some companies that were subsequently formed were (Contemporary India - Sadanand Bhatkal Pg 228) Prentice Hall, Wiley Eastern, Affiliated Eastern & Western and Tata McGraw Hill. Under the Joint-Indo-American Standard Works Program, the books are reprinted in India by Indian publishers with a subsidy from the PL 480 funds and sold at about 1/5th of the U.S. retail price. Popular American books such as College Chemistry by Nobel laureate Linus Pauling were republished in India — at one- fifth of their original price. (Note also that British titles came to India under the English Language Book Society program during this period. The ELBS books, which cost a third of the original, had “Low-Priced Edition” emblazoned across the cover). And that was how we got those nice Prentice Hall & McGraw hill books (some 8.5 million books were printed under this program) in India.
But how did all kinds of regular ‘Indian’ books find their way to the USA? Where did they go?
The Library of Congress site explains

American Congress and various US libraries were able to use rupees from Indian purchases of U.S. agricultural products (PL 480) to buy Indian books. The USAID New Delhi Field Office implementing the program started the thorough and systematic acquisition of publications in the modern languages of South Asia. Today, the South Asian collection in the USA holds material in over fifty modern languages used in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. The majority of the 350,000 publications are in Hindi (20 percent), Bengali (15 percent), Urdu (13 percent), and Tamil (11 percent). Other languages represented in large numbers include Marathi, Telugu, Malayalam, Gujarati, and Kannada. The majority of these publications are in the fields of literature, religion, philosophy, history, and politics, but all subjects are included. Under the program, copies were made of everything from daily newspapers to fine art to prized antiquities such as old Hindi and Sanskrit texts dating to the 15th century.
One great thing that came out of this was the reprinting of Tibetan literature from the 8th century to the 20th in India and its dispatch to USA.

To summarize, according to the bilateral agreement (primarily based on the LOC Farmington plan) a certain number of copies of every book published in India were sent to the Library of congress which would then distribute them to designated libraries. The work actually started at the Sheila Theater building in N Delhi in 1962. To read how the University of Chicago handled this deluge of books from India, read this voluminous account.

It is interesting to note how people react to the same thing. While US librarians were ecstatic about the books, the people who handled it complained of smelly books, allergy and what not. The OHS conducted a study and found that imagination was largely at play in these accusations. See the full report if interested. However on a personal note I must admit that some of our books do smell and can cause allergic reactions at times, especially old moldy books.

Isn’t it all ironic, the connections between Congress, PL 480, America, books, Tibetan culture and the congress grass weed! Today India is the third largest English books producing country in the world and fully self sufficient, and an exporter of food. In the end, this turned out to be a planned expenditure of Indian Rupees from the US embassy account on behalf of the Library of Congress, not a repayment in anyway.

1. The effects of PL 480 – A nice paper
2. Annayya’s story – About the Indian who discovered the East’s literary treasures in the West (thanks to PL480) and the University Library – Chicago.
3. To see some communications between Kissinger & President Nixon, click here
4. India and the United States - Dennis Kux
5. UC North Carolina account on the book acquisition
6. Building a World-Class Asian Collection – Library of Congress


SM said…
A real interesting read on this subject; never really knew it existed. I had heard of only the wheat imports & the weeds!

By the way, a wonderful connection though!
Isn’t it all ironic, the connections between Congress, PL 480, America, books, Tibetan culture and the congress grass weed!
i had a sudden flashback to tenth standard history with PL480. Had of course forgotten everything about it but the name. But exchange for pooks is a new angle.

Thank heavens for liberalization. Sometimes when i think about the nineties and heave a huge sigh of relief at the fact that finally, we are wehre we are.
I remembered the days when we had nothing to eat but the bamboo seeds. Incidentally PL480 funds were held in a special Non Convertible Rupee Account with the RBI and therefore while writing off a part of the debt, a cheque would have been drawn in Indian Rupees and not in Dollars. Thanks for a very detailed account of the period.
Maddy said…
Thanks SM...for visiting and keep coming.
Cycnic - you are right, it took us a while to come out in the open, but like you said, I am glad we did.
PNS - you are right, I should have made it clear that it was a check for 'equivalent of' 2.2B$.
Vijay said…
Thanks for the post.

For those interested, one of the main repositories of these books is the Center for Research Libraries on Garfield Avenue, in the University of Chicago campus. CRL was originally a depository (basically a dumping ground) for these books. In the 70's and 80's a vigorous program to catalog these books transformed CRL into a valuable resource for scholras. In addition to books in Indian languages, there are books in other Asian and European languages as well. Every book also has a prallel copy in the Library of Congress.

You can read more about CRL at
mangad said…
Hi Maddy,

Great article, as usual. I have heard that several families we know bought their first farmland (paddy fields) during the 60's. I wonder what would happen if there was another global food shortage today.

Niazzzz said…
Stumbled upon this post while googling on PL480. Wonderful detailed post. Thank you!
RD said…
Great article about the history of PL 480.
Today, I read about the C-17 Boeing deal with India valued at $4+ Billion.
Indians in my generation grew up eating the substandard PL480 wheat purchased from ration shops. There were no options then and in 40 years India has emerged.
Life does come full circle, US is celebrating the US-Indian defense deal.
I guess blame the Indian outsourcing bandwagon is temporarily running empty till the 2012 elections.
Maddy said…
thanks Niazzzz and RD
it was fun researching this..
the dennis kux book was a revelation...
Nina Varghese said…
very interesting
Maddy said…
Thanks Nina
glad you enjoiyed it
jaymuses said…
Fascinating story. I'd marked up a trivia on PL-480 from Ramachandra Guha's book. The context is Lyndon Johnson maintained a tight leash and released wheat allotments in monthly installments. Johnson wanted to make the Indians " made to fawn, their pride must be cracked". The US ambassador considered this a cruel practice and then Johnson came up with this idea of sending 1000 extension workers to teach Indians to farm. The ambassador found that incredulous and quipped that these workers will bring with them "950 wives, 2500 children, 3000 air conditioners, 1000 jeeps, 1000 electric refrigerators many which won't work, 800 or 900 dogs, 2000 or 3000 cats"
Maddy said…
Thanks jay..
that was an interesting aside!!

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