HC Deb 31 May 1951 vol 488 cc381-5
12. Mr. Sorensen

asked the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations what recent representations have been made to him in respect of this country giving further assistance in the relieving of food shortage in India.

13. Air Commodore Harvey

asked the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations, in view of the impending famine in Madras and Bihar, if he will say how many of the ships chartered by His Majesty's Government, carrying food, have arrived at Indian ports; and if he will make a statement.

14. Mr. Grimond

asked the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations what request has been received from the Government of India for assistance in meeting the impending famine in Bihar.

Mr. Gordon-Walker

No request or representations have been received from the Government of India since that referred to in my reply to the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Gammans) on 5th April. We have followed India's food problem with close sympathy and concern, and we have done our best to give practical assistance. Since the United Kingdom is predominantly a food importing country, it is not possible for this assistance to take the form of the provision of food grains from the United Kingdom. This is fully understood by the Government of India. But we were able at the close of last year to arrange for the diversion to India, as a loan, of 43,000 tons of Australian wheat which would otherwise have come to the United Kingdom. I need hardly say that the question of its replacement is in abeyance until India's supplies improve, and the Indian Government have been so informed.

There is, however, one way in which we can make, and have made, a vital contribution. I refer to the assistance given by the Ministry of Food Chartering Organisation, which, by agreement, also acts as agent for chartering ships for India. So far this year some 60 ships from the Australian and North American runs have been chartered for India. Most or all of these would otherwise have been available for the United Kingdom import programme. Another 24 ships have been booked for lifting grain from China to India.

In all, the Chartering Organisation has secured about three-quarters of a million tons of shipping space for India over the last few months. Twenty-three ships of a total tonnage of over 200,000 tons have arrived at Indian ports. The Prime Minister of India recently expressed his appreciation of this help given by the United Kingdom. We shall, of course, gladly continue to give whatever further help we can in this way.

The House will be glad to know that on 22nd May the Indian Minister of Food announced that with increased purchases, accelerated shipping and resultant extra arrivals, the Government of India had been able to give to the destitute States larger quantities of foodgrains for distribution. He explained further that the local spring harvest almost doubled the stocks held in January, and this improvement, combined with grain arrivals arranged in May, June, July and August of half a million tons each month, enables the Government of India to hold the situation in the critical summer months.

I am sure that I speak for the whole House when I say that we very much hope that the present more favourable trend in India's food position will be maintained, and that India will emerge safely from the very difficult period through which she is passing.

Mr. Sorensen

If it is necessary to send to India further grains coming to this country, could we not adopt the same principle as we have done on previous occasions?

Mr. Gordon-Walker

Yes, certainly, but unfortunately there are no grains of that sort moving at the moment.

Air Commodore Harvey

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that correspondents' reports from India are not so optimistic as the reports which he has received? Will he inform the House when the remainder of the ships are expected at Indian ports? Cannot this country do a bit more by sending rice or something of that sort to help these poor, miserable people?

Mr. Gordon-Walker

I am not relying upon reports. I am quoting from public statements made by the Indian Minister of Food. We have not given as much as we would have liked, but we have given important help. The diversion of ships means that our own imports have diminished by that amount, because they are ships which would otherwise have been used for our own wheat and other imports. On the question of rice, we are only buying rice at the moment from Brazil and it is not the type of rice that India wants. It would be costly to divert it and the quantity would not be very great.

Mr. Eden

I am sure the House would welcome any action which can be taken. With regard to diversions from Australia, the right hon. Gentleman will remember that during the war on more than one occasion diversions were made and replacements were provided from Canada. If this situation continues to be serious, will the right hon. Gentleman consider whether further diversions of grains from Australia are possible, we making up the supply here by replacements from Canada?

Mr. Gordon-Walker

Yes, Sir. The 43,000 tons loaned to India were diverted from Australia and will in due course be replaced by India when she is able to do so. At the moment there are three ships on the way from Australia, but they are already beyond the point when they can reasonably be diverted; we are not loading any more grain from Australia at the moment and it is the next three months which matter to India. We are looking into all the points and doing all we can.

Mr. Grimond

In view of the widespread anxiety about this matter, will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that he will keep in touch with the Government of India in case they do need further help? Can he say whether we have been asked to give any other help of a different nature, such as administrative and medical help? Further, has he been in touch with other Commonwealth countries, and can he give us any information about the supply of foodstuffs from there?

Mr. Gordon-Walker

We are, of course, in constant touch with the Indian Government on this and on other similar matters. There has been no request from India, apart from the one to which I referred in answer to a previous question, for any help, whether medical or otherwise. We are also in communication with other Commonwealth Governments, many of which are doing all they can to help, particularly Canada, Australia and Pakistan.

Mr. A. Edward Davies

While appreciating the great help which has already been given, may I ask whether the Minister is aware that there is a widespread feeling in this country that even at greater sacrifice we should be willing to do more? Secondly, so that the efforts may be co-ordinated, have the British Government made any representations to the United Nations with a view to the best results ensuing from all the subscribing nations?

Mr. Gordon-Walker

I do not think that the United Nations would be able to help in this matter. I think we can do it better ourselves in consultation with other countries in the Commonwealth. I fully agree that there is a feeling in this country that we should do even more, and, of course, it will be possible for individuals to do more. The Oxford Committee for Famine Relief has, in a letter to "The Times," made an appeal for donations, and I hope they will reply to that generously. I have been very carefully into this question since it arose. I think we are giving the maximum help of the best sort that the Government can give.

Sir Herbert Williams

What kinds of grain have been shipped from China, and from what ports?

Mr. Gordon-Walker

I cannot say without notice. I think it is mostly wheat, but I am not sure. I would need notice to answer that question. It is primarily a matter for India rather than His Majesty's Government.

Dr. Barnett Stross

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the essential problem seems to be the distribution of food that has already reached there North of the Ganges into Northern Bihar, and that there are fears that the monsoons will come before the food can reach the areas where it is required and where there is destitution? Can he say whether we can offer technical assistance to see that the food reaches the places where it is so badly needed? Even if not from ourselves surely for that we might approach the United Nations?

Mr. Gordon-Walker

I think the essential problem is the shipping to get the wheat there in the first place. There, we have been able to give great help. There is a further important problem inside India which we have discussed with the Indian Government. They have not made any request for technical assistance, but if they did we would be happy to consider how we could help.

Colonel Gomme-Duncan

In view of the fact that the great problem for India is always that a large proportion of the population will not eat wheat, even if it is sent to them, but require rice—large numbers would not eat wheat but would starve—can the right hon. Gentleman say how much of the amount of chartered shipping to which he has referred has gone to rice exporting ports, where one can reasonably suppose some rice can come from?

Mr. Gordon-Walker

The ships we have helped to charter have been used to lift grains bought by the Government of India, who are in the best position to judge what grains they need.