Sunday, 31 January 2016

Drought and Famine - then and now...

I am reading about famine.  Seated in a comfortable push back chair in the Bhopal-New Delhi Shatabadi express.  Having been served coffee and snacks… and knowing that a chicken dinner and ice cream to top it off is on its way in an hour or two.

The train is currently stopped in Jhansi.  Chinese tourists have just boarded and are watching a movie in Chinese on their tablet.  Other passengers are sleeping or tapping away on laptops (like me) or swiping their smart phones.  An young Indian man talks with the ladies in fluent Chinese.  I ask him later how he knows the language and he said he did an advanced diploma in Chinese from Delhi University.

The book I am reading is a digitized copy of “A Narrative of the Drought and Famine which prevailed in the North West provinces during the years  of 1868, 1869 and the beginning of 1870.”

I am still a bit of a romantic I guess, still a bit old-fashioned perhaps, so reading something digital for me is still a bit off-putting and vaguely plastic.  But the good folks at Google who have digitized this (thank you dear ones!) have truly scanned the pages, and so I came across two stamps showing where this book had been. 

Firstly there is on an inside blank page this stamp.

I don’t think I will ever get to the “Indian Institute” at Oxford University, but digitally at least I have touched a book that was housed in their library.

The second stamp comes on the first page of the text.  It is more mundane, but also more specific.  

The book was published by the British Raj government in 1871.  It had clearly entered some kind of govt. library or document repository that year.

Why am I interested in reading about famines which took place 150 years ago?  Well, because Lalitpur, where we are in the process of shifting to, is in this very area and the whole Bundelkhand  experienced less rainfall than expected last year.

The very first task I had, on the very first day of joining the Harriet Benson Memorial Hospital was to listen in on a meeting which Thomas John who helps out with the climate change programmes for Emmanuel Hospital Association had with our HBM Hospital Community Health and Development Team here.   He had come to check out the modalities of the ‘Cash-for-Work” programme that our team was doing in the watershed management progamme.  He had found that the proper procedures had not been followed.  So my first task was to agree with him and have our staff go back into the field, and redo what had not been done.

So let us go back to the basics of famine.   Reading a 150 year old book is quite enlightening.

The author – a certain Fredrick Henvey – was an ICS man who was tasked with documenting what had happened during the famine years and understanding what the British govt. in India had done about it – and what the results were of these actions.

He starts out his tome by mentioning the two causes of famine. 

The obvious one is the deficiency of rain which means that crops sown in rain-fed agriculture systems fail.  This can be exacerbated by ‘false hopes’ when it seems that a deficiency is over, and farmers happily start sowing only to find their plans ruined with the rain deficit kicks in again.   Perversely, sometimes the farmers lose their hopes for a good harvest when unseasonal rain damages standing crops.

The second reason has to do with prices.  Henvey points out that “there are large and, it is believed, increasing numbers of people who are dependent for a livelihood on daily wages, and liable to be thrown out of employ as the pressure of high prices grows.”  

Henvey goes on to say “The tendency of famines is to bring the prices of all food, whether coarse of fine, to a commonly high level, and it will therefore be readily understood that, when wheat is selling at 8 seers, or 16 lbs., for a rupee, a man who earns a rupee once a fortnight must be hard pushed for a living.”   

We will translate this into metric units.  Henvey had earlier said that in years of plenty, at times a single rupee could by 80 seers (or 160 lbs.) of coarse grain.  That would work out to 1 rupee buying something like 72 kgs of grain.  So if as a labourer you earn 2 rupees a month you could be purchasing at least a quintal and a half of grain (of course there would be other expenses, but for a labourer it would be enough to live on).   However, in times of famine, the price of grains shoots up, so that instead of 72 kgs of coarse grain to the rupee you are now only able to get 7 odd kgs of grain.  The cheaper varieties have disappeared from the market long ago.  Prices of food have shot up 10 times what they were during seasons of surplus.  Staying alive becomes a lot harder.  Starvation looms large.

But here is the kicker.  As Henvey brings it out clearly:

“Nor is this all.  When prices rise to famine height, the employers of labour contract their expenditure and discharge workpeople, whom they can no longer afford to support.  Thus the weavers, chumars (i.e. leather workers), village artizans, and field-labourers are deprived of employment.   Not only is bread dear, but there is no money to buy bread.  It is a family of labour rather than of food.”

What happened in 1869 was that the previous year 1868 had already seen drought – and in 1869 the rainfall deficit widened to encompass a major portion of the North West Provinces.   Migration was futile, because work could not be found in any place.  And since the Bundelkhand did not have any irrigation worth speaking of at the time, the epicenter of famine took place there.

The writer points out that there had been 3 previous famines in the 1800s already.  In 1803 (when hailstorms, scanty monsoons and failure of winter rain lead to a famine), in 1837-38 (when the culmination of 5 years of poor rains lead to 800,000 lives being lost) and in the same decade the entire failure of the monsoon caused a famine in the year of 1860-61.

It is fascinating to read about our own Lalitpur district;
Henvey clearly sees the district as hardly being worth its salt.  With only 1/5th of the area cultivated, the district has poor soils and few wells and tanks (dug out water-retention ponds).

Ironically, today it is said that Lalitpur has the highest number of dams per district for the entire mega-state of Uttar Pradesh.   But the ground level issues that Henvey talked about 150 years ago still has resonance.

Lalitpur in 1868 saw far less than hoped for rain after June, a false hope when some rain fell in August, only to stop again and basically ruin the Kharif (monsoon) crop.  Then a bit of rain fell in December, but the Rabi (spring crop was poor) leading to even rich land-lords being willing to work for bread and the poor being pushed into terrible distress… and then the next year being even worse with no money to sow seeds, few animals left to plough the fields and many having died.  And then the terrible onslaught of cholera in Lalitpur as the abundant rains fell during July 1869.

[It is horribly ironic that after writing the above paragraph, I have been served a delicious chicken curry meal, with curd and a mixed rajma dal.  I am part of the privileged few, those who are able to travel and eat with God-like freedom.  The recipient of grace upon grace.]

How many died in Lalitpur during those dark days?   The writer notes that 500 were officially notified to have died of starvation, but points out that epidemic diseases did their terrible damage and so the true number of starvation related deaths will be higher.  Here is his summary of the mortality from those crucial years.

The population of Lalitpur district was 2.5 lakhs 150 years ago (it was 12 lakhs in 2011).  But almost 12,000 died in 1869, which was 4.7% of the population of the time.    And cattle died too.  According to the government reports, 95,543 head of cattle died that year (41%). “The stench arising from  thousands of carcasses polluted the air, and contributed to the outbreak of cholera, which was the last plague that visited the district.”

Strikingly, the government of the time seems to have done quite a bit to alleviate the sufferings, with poor houses being opened for those too weak to work, and large scale public works being done so that labourers could work for food.   Some of the works done were later found to be expensive for the quality of work done, and given the feeble condition of many of the workers, this is not surprising. 

What do we have different today?

We are in a situation where there is a deficiency of rain for the past year.  Will people migrate and leave their fields?

Our community health and development team has been working for the past 2 years with a watershed management programme in the Bar block of Lalitpur district.   It’s stated aim is to help vulnerable communities be able to remain in the village and not migrate and thus put themselves at risk of being trafficked.

Over the course of the last few months our staff found that the situation in the villages has meant that some are leaving to try and work in other places.

This issue was found across the Bundelkhand area.  The western UP and western MP regions recorded ‘scanty’ rainfall for the October and the first half of November last year.  Rainfall was 80% less than normal for western UP (of which Lalitpur is part of) and 72% less than normal in western MP.

Our colleagues in EHA and EFICOR swung into action and did a rapid needs assessment of the Bundelkhand area and found that the drought conditions are actually causing people to leave the land in search of work in other places.

And so based out of this assessment, they suggested the ‘cash-for-work’ scheme.  Given the drought situation, our normal watershed management activities of doing treatments to the land to improve water retention and combat erosion etc. should be strengthened by an additional component – a special fund to target the most vulnerable and allow them to get cash for work.  The idea being that if they are able to get work in their own village, that they will not need to leave and get work elsewhere. 

Based on this finding, our main funding partner very graciously allowed us the reposition our programme to address this need – and so we have implemented a cash-for-work component into our watershed management work in the Bar block of Lalitpur.

So I find myself trying to understand the situation of today.  How much drought is there really there?  On the hospital campus we see so many trees and greenery, it is hard to imagine that there has been any deficit of water.  But our staff tell us that the challenges that the vulnerable, especially landless labourers are facing are real.   And so we are in the business of helping out the villages that we are working with work through their village watershed management committees and identify those who are at risk – and help by offering a specific number of days of work.  

And what will happen from now on out?  Are we looking at a repeat of the terrible years of 1868 and 1869 when a deficient year was followed by a total disaster?  How should be plan for all of this?

Being only 11 days into my new task as the Director of the Community Health and Development programme of HBM Hospital in Lalitpur, I am very early in understanding all of these things. 

The questions that crowd my mind are about how effective is this work?  How sustainable?  How well are our village watershed committees making decisions?  What is the role of our staff… and the money that we are able to bring to the table?  How much should we push for our villagers to use the government MNREGA programme (a minimum rural employment generation act) – even though the field reality is that it is usually ‘bought out’ by the local corrupt(able) powers and even when given the payments sometimes only come 7 months after the work was done!

In addition, just this week my email delivered me with the ‘preliminary results’ of a mid-term evaluation of our work (and 3 other similar programmes in the Bundelkhand region) – the data for which was collected from our project late last year.   The report is dauntingly complex, feeding back the findings of a 7 person evaluation team – I have 30 plus pages of small text to work through… and I am to use these findings to redesign our work to reflect the learnings of the evaluation! 

It is now 10.16 PM and my train is just easing into Mathura junction.  This dear Bhopal-New Delhi Shatabadi (I think I will be getting to know this quite well in the future) is taking me to Delhi where I am due to spend the next few days hunkered down over this self-same computer, helping to design the coming year’s action plan for our Watershed Management work.  Our community health and development leaders of EHA have invited us all together for a hands-on proposal writing workshop.   Joining me is our HBM Hospital CHDP project manager Lukash Prakash (whom I had the privilege of working with many years back in Jharkhand) and our colleagues from other EHA community health projects, who will also be working on their programme proposals.

Much prayer is needed for the next few days.

Oh, that we will find real answers to drought-exacerbated hunger.  And that we will never walk through the valley of famine again.


  1. It is wonderful to get a write up like this to really understand what we are really at.At local administrative level it is often difficult to connect to the larger picture of the projects we run.

  2. Surely this write up and research is an inspiration and challenge. In drought hit Bundelkhnad I think safe and sustainable drinking water and sanitation is a challenge. It is also a basic human right; fundamental to socioeconomic development.