1972-73: YEAR OF THE GREAT FAMINE By Om Prakash Deepak, Published in Mankind, Delhi in April-June 1974 issue

The 25th year of India’s independence is also the year of the biggest famine of this century in this country. Many more people had died in the Bengal famine of 1943, but that was mainly because the British Raj (rule) considered them expendable. Diversion of food or transport to save lives would have hampered the war effort. According to an official enquiry, the number of deaths was over 3.5 million, and some people had earned profits at the rate of Rs. (Rupee) 1000 per death.

There is, of course, no comparison with the successive famines that hit the country during the last years of the 19th century, which, according to a news story published in an American paper at that time, had killed over 25 million people. Thousands of weavers had fled from, the northern plains to the cotton producing black soil areas, and their descendants now constitute a majority in several towns that are centres of handloom or power-loom weaving.

Somewhere back in my mind lurks a fear - next year, or the next, the biggest famine of the century may become the second biggest. And I know for certain, travelling through different parts of the country during the last few years, that India's ruling classes have made famine a permanent feature of the country's landscape, either through deliberate policy, about whose consequences they were blissfully ignorant, or as a result- of their all-consuming, selfish rapacity. The motives don't really matter, for the significant, over-whelming fact is that some parts of the country are in any case going to suffer famine conditions every year, at least during the next five to ten years, even if our famous ‘Green Revolution’ becomes an annual affair.

I am going to adopt the somewhat more risky method of generalising from facts. But 1 believe there are enough facts available to warrant it. There are, right now, two famine belts in the country - areas actually suffering from famine conditions. One belt includes parts of Bengal, South Bihar, adjoining areas of U.P. and extends southwards to Orissa and Chhatisgarh division of Madhya Pradesh. The other includes most of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra states, and also parts of Malwa in M.P., Telangana and Royalseema areas in Andhra Pradesh and the five northern districts of Mysore. According to India Government spokesmen the number of persons engaged in relief works was 8.3 million in the beginning of May (during 1966-67, one of the worst periods in recent times, the maximum was 2.5 million). However, probably this is probably an understatement, because state governments start relief works only in areas where ‘crash programmes’ for rural employment, and for relief to small farmers, sanctioned by the Centre in the annual budgets for 1972-73 and 1973-74 are not in operation. So the actual number of scarcity hit people, working at below subsistence wages just to keep alive is probably well over 10 million.

How did it come about? About a year back, by the middle of June 1972, weathermen were aware of indications that the monsoons were likely to play tricks. They did play tricks all right. Rains were woefully inadequate, and their timing, from the point of view of agriculture, was disastrous. Agricultural inputs for the regular kharif crops were a total loss. Fortunately for most of us. however, late monsoon rains partly compensated for the earlier shortfall, and it was possible to achieve about 60 to 70 percent of the targeted kharif production. The situation, very bad during the autumn months in all the southern states, somewhat eased in the coastal areas, when winter rains were adequate and timely. Starvation deaths, however, were reported in Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and Mysore, and in some cases, even officially confirmed.

The two famine belts described earlier, however, received no succour from nature or men. An interesting fact about the whole area is that there are almost no plains. It is all hills, supposedly covered with forests varying in density from fair to very high. Mostly they are also one crop, coarse-grains areas, with no irrigation facilities. To them the late rains (where they came) were of no help. Again, in some areas, particularly, most of the Bhil (tribal) areas of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, the first monsoon showers aroused hopes of a fair to good maize crop. The plants came up all right, but there was no corn - the crop was destroyed by pests.

Incidentally, during 1970-71 also, which is supposed to have been the best year for India's agriculture so far, almost the entire kharif crop was destroyed by pests in Marathawada division of Maharashtra. It is possible that some other areas also suffered a similar fate, and we know nothing about it.

Coming to the current year, production figures are anybody’s guess. Government spokesmen have been talking like a pack of twittering clowns. At one time, it was being suggested that food production, in 1972-73 would be only marginally less than that of 1971-72. Kharif production was supposed to be only 8 million tonnes less than last year's production, and the ‘bumper’ Rabi crop would bring more than 30 million tonnes, over 4 million tonnes more than last year. Thus the actual shortfall from ‘targeted production’ was only eight million tonnes. This probably sounded too tall to the magicians who produce agricultural statistics, so it was toned down to say that actual production would be over 100 million tonnes as against the target of over 110 million tonnes. As against this,, the Government of India had in 1972 a buffer stock of about 9 million tonnes of food-grains and it purchased 1.8 m. tonnes of wheat and milo from foreign markets in January 1973.

So, statistically, the country has had enough stocks of food-grains during the year. Minor difficulties were possible due to problems of transport and distribution, but there was no question of famine - there couldn't be.

‘Scarcity’ Wages

Then how is one to account for the fact that 8.3 million people go to work centres every day for wages that may turn out to be less than 50 paise (cents) after eight hours or more of strenuous manual labour. In fact a Maharashtra Minister admitted that in a few cases some workers were paid only 8 to 10 paise a day for stone-breaking. In a work project under a B.D.O. in Rajasthan, workers were engaged for road building at Rs. 8 per month. Let me repeat, the figures given above are 8 to 10 paise a day, and Rs. 8 per month.

Now that famine has become a part of our everyday life, it has been abolished from official terminology. We now only have 'scarcity'. So, naturally, famine codes have also been abolished. Now we have scarcity rules framed by State Governments. The guidelines were probably given by the Centre, for the rules are mostly similar.


Relief works are started when the crop in a particular area is assessed at less than 25% of normal. Test works are started if it is between 25 and 40% - they are continued if people turn up to work in sufficiently large numbers, otherwise closed. Men and women over 18 years of age are offered various types of work – contour bunding (euphemistically called soil conservation), stone breaking, digging or deepening of tanks or wells, road-building, cartage, construction of small bunds or bridges. That about exhausts the list.

Wages are calculated on the basis of work done, with an upper limit of Rs. 3 per day for men and Rs. 2.50 for women, regardless of amount of work done. As Government circulars emphasise, these are maximum payments and not the minimum – there is no minimum. Rates of payment also differ according to the types of work. Payment for bunding (both digging and setting the material) varies from 70 paise to Rs. 1 per cubic metre according to the hardness of the soil. But the minimum rate for similar work in digging tanks is Rs. 1.70 per cubic metre. Stone-breaking is the worst of the lot. It starts with quarrying of stone with the help of explosives. The rock is then broken in to big chunks, which are again broken into smaller ones. These chunks are then broken into pieces about 3 x 4 inches and 1 x 2 inches in size, or even smaller ones. Payment for the entire process is at the rate of Rs. 18 per 100 cubic feet. For breaking larger pieces into pieces approximately 1” x 2” in size, the wages are Rs. 12 per 100 cubic feet.

At some places the whole process takes place at a single site. Elsewhere, rock pieces are transported first to one place where they are broken into smaller chunks, and then to roadside sites, where they are broken into required smaller sizes.

The work is not only hard, it is, also risky. I have no personal knowledge of any fatal accident but I visited about a dozen stone-breaking centres, and every where I found some bones accidentally crushed to Pulp, festering wounds on legs, hands and faces caused by flying chips, eyes injured by minute stone particles. Moreover, stone-breaking day after day in the glare of the sun (temperature over most of the famine areas had gone up to 38° C (IOO° F) or more even during the last days of March, it has been constantly rising since then) results in night-blindness among a large section of the workers. Cartage, probably, is the easiest job. It enables farmers to feed the bullocks, leaving a small surplus for themselves, and comparatively speaking the work is not hard.. Average earning is Rs. 8 or Rs. 9 per day.

Only the omniscient officials who decide the fate of millions can explain the rationale behind the wage system. However, while going from Banswara in Rajasthan to Aurangabad, I could faintly discern the outlines of a pattern. Bunding is done mostly by women, of course harijan (untouchable) or lower caste women, from families with no or little land. The work is certainly not easy particularly for women, but let us say, it is considerably less hard (though I was surprised at the large number of women breaking stones) than stone-breaking. And also the lowest paid stone-breakers – most if not all – are harijans and adivasis (tribals). These sections also preponderate in road-building and similar masonry work. The work is hardest, most risky, and at the same time, the least productive. At many places, road-building plans projected for completion at the end of the decade have already been achieved. Millions of cubic feet or stone chips lie in heaps. One wonders how and when are they going to be used. What I am trying to point out is that the work doesn’t give the workers any sense of purpose – it is just a mechanical tap, tap, tap, from morning to night.

These facts acquire a larger meaning when we see that nearly 80 percent of workers at relief centres are engaged in just three types of work – bunding, stone-breaking and road-building. Upper caste, and landed middle-caste men and women are often found to be digging or bunding irrigation tanks. When the rains come and the tanks fill up, they will provide water for irrigation, and raise the sub-soil water table, so that there will be more water in nearby wells, and it necessary to dig quite so deep to find water.

I should point out that while officially almost all relief work is supposed to be done departmentally, there is in effect an elaborate contract system. Under the departmental engineers and overseers, are “mates"' or work assistants in-charge of the entire labour force engaged at a work site. Under them again are ‘supervisors’ in-charge of ‘gangs’ composed of 20 to 50 workers each. These mates and supervisors are locally recruited. They are either village headmen, their relatives and friends or other powerful men. They maintain muster-rolls, distribute implements (always inadequate), generally see that everyone works, and after the week, measure the work done by a gang, receive payment on behalf of it, and distribute-the wages among gang members. Thus these supervisors are the lynch-pins of the entire system and there is a lot of corruption, including seduction of harijan and adivasi girls by the mates and supervisors, who don’t have to work themselves.

Vanishing water

By the end of 1972, there were plenty of signs that famine areas were going to suffer from acute shortage of water. But I was certainly not prepared for what I found in some of the areas I visited in March. Riverheads were dry (including that of Godavari), the rivers themselves had dried up over hundred of km, thousands of wells had either dried up or had very little water left. From later reports, it now appears that over 20,000 villages in Maharashtra alone have no supply of drinking water left. The situation is worse in Kutch and Kathiawar, north Mysore, and parts of Telangana. Water is being supplied to affected villages and at worksites through tankers or bullock-carts - two drums per day for roughly 100 to 150 adults was the average supply in March. I do not know what is the situation now - it must be considerably worse. Pits were dug in riverbeds to tap underground water – the curse of Sita seems to be extending from Phalgu alone to other rivers too.

Over and above, the system of food supplies through fair-price shops had broken down in March. Only 4 kg per month per adult being supplied by fair-price shops in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. In Maharashtra it had come down to 3 kg. As a local official in Maharashtra said, people are bound to die in such conditions. An adult engaged in manual labour needs at least 10 to 12 kg of food-grains every month. When he gets only 3 to 4 kg to eat, and not enough water lo drink while he works from morning to night under a scorching sun, the chances of survival are not very high. We may call it by what-ever name we like, but people are going to die for want of enough food, due to dehydration and consequent diseases – cholera, small-pox and the like. This is inevitable, for average earning of a relief worker is between Rs. 1 and Rs. 1.50, barely sufficient for survival when he can get all his supplies from fair-price shops. In the open market, the prices of coarse grains, if available, range around Rs. 2 per kg. They are probably even higher now.

Supplies are not the only problem. The whole administrative system is so corrupt that an extension of public sector activity means inter-departmental bribery. The Commissioner of Aurangabad division told me that he had to pay Rs. 10 per truck as ‘speed money’ (bribe in plain language) to lift food-grains from the FCIs godown at Manmad. He couldn’t lift a grain without paying this bribe. He had raised the matter in official meetings at the highest levels. But he still had to pay the bribe.

So people are dying. They have been dying for the last three months. No body knows how many have died due to famine. Births and deaths registers invariably show that deaths were due to chronic illness or age, or something else. But men and women and children and suckling babies are dying; dying every day. There are about as many women workers as men at work sites, many of them with babies in arms. They are put in makeshift cloth hammocks that scarcely provide any protection against the sun. I wonder how many of them had the tenacity to live through.

Future Famines

I dare not think of what will happen if the monsoons fail this year. I hope the weathermen are right and rains this year will be good. Even so, some areas or the other in the country will again face famine conditions. It’s not sheer cussedness that makes me say it. There are two factors that make it inevitable.

Production per hectare has significantly increased (by 136%) during the last 6 years only in one food crop –wheat. Production of rice, our main food crop, has remained almost static - 25% increase in more than a decade. Production of pulses has gone down. There has been a marginal reduction in the production of coarse grains and oilseeds. Rice, coarse grains and pulses account for three fourths of our food-grains Production, and about 90% of the area under food crops.

Secondly, there has been going on a big racket during the last 25 with regard to our forest wealth. On the hilly coarse grains areas, the forests have almost completely disappeared, with disastrous consequences. Absence of trees has not only reduced the annual rainfall average, it has adversely affected top soil. If the rainfall is even slightly less than normal, plants do not grow fully for in the absence of trees, the land has almost completely lost its capacity to retain moisture. This explains why a substantial shortfall in rains in a single year (rains in drought areas were about one third of normal this year) the water table in the famine belts went down by 20 to 35 feet, and rivers, tanks, and wells all dried up.

There is another unfortunate aspect to this affair. All these hill areas are mainly adivasi areas and adivasis derived a substantial Part of their livelihood from the forests. Even this year, thousands, if not lakhs of famine stricken people have managed to survive by eating Mahua, Bel, Gular and other wild fruits either raw or boiled in water. Massive deforestation has destroyed the traditional life pattern of adivasis and is gradually reducing them to the status of harijans in society.

Coming back to the present situation, and assuming that the rain gods are going to be merciful, some of the most difficult days are ahead of the famine-stricken people. Even if the government managed to supply all necessary inputs to the farmers, (which is very doubtful) they will still be faced with a serious dilemma. Most of the farmers have nothing even to cat, not to speak of any reserves. So if labour is diverted from work centres lo agricultural operations, they won’t be earning cash wages, and will face the problem of immediate sustenance. If enough labour is not so diverted, however, agricultural operations will suffer. When I posed this problem before some government officers- in affected areas, the only reply they had was that the people will manage somehow !

The prospects are bleak in the future, however one looks at the situation. I refrain from thinking or talking about long-term prospects. Radical policies, both immediate and long term, can free the Indian people from a constant fear of famine. But what is the use of indulging in speculation? Such policies are not coming into operation, at least not soon.