India has transformed spectacularly in innumerable ways in the last two decades. One of the least noted changes is in the way the country — governments, the press and people — respond to drought and food scarcities.
Back in the late-1980s, many states across India were reeling under back-to-back droughts for three consecutive years, not much different from the circumstances of India in 2015-16. I was district collector in districts of MP and Chhattisgarh during those years. At that time, for Central and state governments, as for the media and public opinion, there was little that was weightier than responding, or being seen to respond, to the ongoing drought. Collectors had extraordinary rights to draw on the state exchequer without prior sanctions. Our mandate was paramount and unambiguous — to do all we could to save lives, and mitigate food, fodder, drinking-water and migration distress. We organised feeding centres for the destitute, fodder stalls for cattle, and transported drinking water over long distances. At the peak, we were creating one lakh person days of work in relief works every day in my district.
During the long, dusty, hot summers, officers like me would be out in our Jeeps from 5am until late at night, inspecting relief works, and ensuring that people and livestock had food and water to survive those hard months. Administrations did slip and falter: Runaway corruption in particular was not uncommon. But there was no doubt what the preeminent duty of the state was when its people were assaulted by drought. To do all it takes to ensure food, water and work for all. To save lives.
It is a lesson completely forgotten in the India of today. Farmers and landless workers in 11 states are crushed by drought, often for three years in a row, but if you scan newspapers or television screens, debates in Parliament and meetings in state secretariats, it would appear that this is a figment of some imaginations. This, indeed, is what some senior journalists and officials said to me, or implied — that we are inventing the story of drought hunger. I decided to travel to the rural backwaters of Bundelkhand in UP to see for myself.
In villages that I visited in district Banda, followed by a public hearing attended by 500 people, I encountered desperate people eating just one meal a day, and that too coarse ground grain mixed with wild leaves. I bit into one such roti, and found it bitter and foul. Villagers said it was difficult to persuade children to eat this but they had no option as there was nothing else for them to eat. They explained the virtue of these wild leaves: Once you eat them, you don’t feel hungry for a full day. A rapid survey by some activists and lawyers found that already 86 per cent of families reported cutting down their dal intake, 79 per cent were eating roti and rice with salt or chutney, and 84 per cent had cut down milk for their children. In an estimated seven out of 10 households, not just men but often entire families had migrated to places as far as Punjab, Hyderabad, Surat and Delhi. Schools, therefore, were rapidly emptying out.
I found evidence of widespread intense food and drinking-water distress — and this when the summer months are not even upon us yet. There were also alarming reports of farmer suicides. The current drought was preceded, ironically, by a hailstorm that destroyed all standing crops. Many farmers, unable to pay off mounting crop debts, killed themselves after these recurring crop losses. But unlike in many other regions of endemic farmer suicides, we heard of landless labourers and marginal farmers also ending their lives. Their debts were not to banks but to usurious moneylenders who loaned at compound interest rates of 5 per cent per month. Shakuntala of Oran village, for instance, owns just two bighas of land. After sowing, her husband went to Punjab to find wage work but came back empty-handed even from there. He found that hail had destroyed their crops. Interest on loans by moneylenders of Rs 50,000 was mounting relentlessly. He needed to get his 18-year-old daughter married. Crushed, one day he hanged himself.
The response of the state administration to looming drought is disgracefully dismal and listless, lacking entirely in both urgency and compassion. People showed us empty job cards; public works under the MGNREGA, the most effective instrument to prevent distress migration, were nowhere to be found. Wages from earlier work had not been paid for over a year. Even more gravely, neither the Central nor the state government is serious about rolling out the National Food Security Act that should lawfully have commenced a year and a quarter ago. It would have ensured the availability of half of each household’s monthly cereal requirements almost for free for more than 80 per cent of households.
In addition, I found no plans underway for feeding the destitute, especially old persons left behind when families migrate, the disabled, and single woman-headed households. ICDS centres were in a shambles, otherwise they could have been upgraded to also supply emergency feeding to the destitute during the drought. Schools only occasionally supplied khichdi to a small number of children. There were no arrangements for augmenting drinking-water supply, including ensuring that Dalit and Muslim hamlets had functioning tubewells, or for transporting water where necessary. I found no attempt to create fodder banks and cattle camps.
All of these are fundamental elements of sound district administration, for which every young civil servant of earlier generations was trained and held strongly accountable. But no longer. Even British colonialists developed elaborate protocols for such times codified in famine codes. In Ash in the Belly: India’s Unfinished Battle against Hunger, I reviewed these colonial codes and demonstrated how they did attempt to save lives but at minimal cost to the exchequer, disrespectful of human dignity and the equal worth of subjects. However, in contemporary neo-liberal times, attempts to avoid “burdens” of high public spending on people coping with acute drought and hunger have revived. There seems even less preoccupation with saving lives of dispensable, invisible rural poor populations. In today’s times of rapid economic growth and overflowing grain warehouses, what can be more culpable?