Of health and harvests: Seasonal mortality and commercial rice cultivation in the Punjab and Bengal Regions of South Asia

Lauren Minsky

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


This chapter turns on a central paradox of the modern world: hunger, malnutrition, and disease severely haunt the people who produce the staple food grains that nourish and sustain the world’s population. Related to this paradox is a second: that the health experiences of food grain producers are afforded considerably less attention than those of the consumers they feed. Histories of rice, as wheat and maize, tend to skirt the disease challenges faced by those producing them. And, when studies do turn to questions of cultivators’ health, they typically posit deterministic formulations between particular ecologies, crops, and diseases-associating, for instance, the humid tropics with rice, and rice, in turn, with diseases like malaria and cholera simply by virtue of its being a “wet” crop. This volume, then, provides a valuable opportunity to work toward developing a more complete and nuanced understanding of historical patterns of morbidity and mortality in agrarian regions that are central to global rice production and supply. In this exploratory spirit, I pursue a comparative and interdisciplinary analysis of the lived health experiences of rice cultivators in Punjab and Bengal - regions at opposite ends and ecological extremes of South Asia‘s Indo-Gangetic plain - during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. I find that in both regions a series of environmental changes were connected to an expansion and intensification in the production of high-input varieties of rice (among other crops) that were desired by urban and foreign consumers. Although regionally and even sub-regionally specific, these environmental changes ultimately led Punjabi and Bengali rice cultivators alike to experience a marked rise in disease morbidity during the principal commercial harvest seasons. Additionally, in both regions the dramatic increase in commodity production for global markets was accompanied by a concurrent increase in social inequality, as manifested in a growing disparity in entitlements to land and food and in the distribution of harvest labor and caloric demands. In this context, preharvest seasonal hunger, malnutrition, and immunological vulnerability became significant features of agrarian life, and rates of harvest mortality, and not simply morbidity, rose to record levels.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationRice
Subtitle of host publicationGlobal Networks and New Histories
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages30
ISBN (Electronic)9781107360266
ISBN (Print)9781107044395
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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