Has India Changed That Much Since the Raj Days If It Can Let Its Poor Starve?

A lot changed since India moved from being a feudal, colonised aggregation of states to a republic. But in recent years, inequality has increased. And now an exodus is triggering memories of Partition, and the words 'food riots' are in the air.

Mumbai: My mother attempted to buy vegetables last week, right outside the gates of the housing complex, and she witnessed police officials preventing sales. A cart or basket had been overturned. Vegetables lay crushed in the dirt. She saw desperate folk picking up the damaged food when they thought the cops were not looking. Her recounting of this brief experience triggered something within me. That, and reports of migrant workers – suddenly out of work, hungry, and trying to walk hundreds of kilometres on foot.

Something was triggered in many others. Some people on social media compared the current photographs with those of the Partition of India, in 1947. Others mentioned the Bengal famine when anything between two and three million people died, thanks to a combination of harsh administrative decisions including land alienation, war-time inflation, diverting of food from local markets to the ‘war effort’, that is, reserving it for armies and government officials, and the prevention of rice imports.

With a world war raging, hungry Indians were not uppermost in the minds of the British government. But how did we fare in kingdoms controlled by Indian rulers? Some glimpses can be had from ‘The Song of Famine’, a long chapter embedded within a travelogue written by the French traveller Pierre Loti. India was published in 1901, just after a major famine had affected many parts of the country, Rajasthan in particular.

Travelling through the states of Odeypoure (Udaipur) and Jeypore (Jaipur), Loti came upon children at the entrances of villages, “clasping tightly with both hands their hollow bellies, which resemble empty leather wine-bottles”. Passengers on the train noticed and threw out what they could spare: “scraps of cake and copper coins, for which the famished children rush like wild beasts, trampling each other under foot”.

Loti rightly deduced that there was still food available in shops, for those who had money. In fact, the train he was on had “four wagons of rice coupled”, but not the smallest portion of it was distributed as relief. It was intended for towns “where people still have money and can pay”.

In the city of Jaipur, Loti documented what he saw:

“Servants lead tamed cheetahs belonging to the King through the streets. These are led on slips so that they may become accustomed to crowds, wear little embroidered caps tied under their chins with a bow…But there are also many hideous vagrants— graveyard spectres like those lying at the rampart gates. For these have actually dared to enter the rose-coloured city and to drag their skeletons through the streets. There are more of them than I should have thought possible…horrible heaps of rags and bones lying on the pavements hidden amongst the gay booths of the merchants, and people have to step aside so as not to tread upon them. These phantoms are peasants who used to live in the surrounding districts. They have struggled against the droughts which have brought destruction to the land, and their long agony is imprinted on their incredibly emaciated bodies. Now all is over; their cattle have died because there was no more grass, and their hides have been sold for a mere trifle. The fields which they have sown are only steppes of dusty earth where nothing can grow, and they have even sold their rags and the silver rings that they used to wear on their arms and ankles so that they might buy food…They thought that people would take pity on them, and would not let them die, and they had heard that food and grain were stored here, as if to resist a siege; they had heard, too, that every one in the city had something to eat. Even now carts and strings of camels are constantly bringing sacks or rice and barley that the King has procured from distant lands, and people are piling them up in the barns, or even on the pavements, in dread of the famine which threatens the beautiful city on every side. But though there is food it cannot be had without money…”

The chapter is a difficult read. It describes, with a sense of marvel and genuine appreciation, the beauty of the rose-tinted city, its marbled arches, temples big and small, devoted to India’s various deities, the spectacular colours of muslin scarves, skirts and turbans. It also describes unbearable inequity. In the middle of such devastation that people were reduced to their skeletons, there were well-fed royal cheetahs and crocodiles, well-laid gardens that “by dint of laborious watering, have been kept almost green”. The gardens included not just palms and orange trees, which might have been cultivated for practical purposes but also “many roses that load the air with fragrance”.

The palace of Odeypoure. Photo: Pierre Loti, ‘India’

The long drought had reduced the water in the pond where enormous crocodiles were fed by a white-haired old man who

“sings in the high falsetto voice of a muezzin calling to prayer, and as he sings he waves his arms as if to call the slumbering reptiles… They approach quickly, swimming across the pond, accompanied by great greedy tortoises who have also heard the call and wish to be fed too. All now form a circle at the foot of the steps on which the old man stands with his serving-men, who carry baskets of meat. The livid and viscous jaws now distend cavernously in readiness to swallow the goat’s flesh, the legs of mutton, and the lungs and entrails which are thrown to them. Yet outside in the streets no one, with muezzin’s call, summons the starving to come and be fed. Those who have just arrived still wander about with outstretched hands, tapping, should any one chance to look their way, upon their hollow bellies. The rest, who have lost all hope, lie down anywhere, even under the feet of the crowd and in the track of the horses.”

I began to read this chapter again once pictures and videos began to emerge of migrant workers and their families trying to leave cities after a sudden lockdown was announced to combat the ongoing Corona virus pandemic. People are heading back to villages where they hope to be fed. Perhaps they could live off the fruits of the land, if they have any, for a while. Perhaps they could shelter in a hut that’s not in an overcrowded slum. At the very least, if they die, their families will know what happened.

Some political leaders have since assured migrants of food and shelter; it remains to be seen how well the promise is fulfilled. However, the workers were not banking any such assurance and, until evidence of a mass exodus surfaced and it became clear that the risks of infection had been greatly compounded, no clear assurances and instructions were forthcoming.

There have been reports of hoarding of food and essential supplies in Europe and North America. There hasn’t been significant migration though, despite the fact that their unemployment rates are comparable or higher than that of India. In countries like Spain, Italy or Germany, citizens were probably not terrified in the same way. There must have been a degree of confidence that, while the state may not be able to save them from the coronavirus, it wouldn’t let them starve as long as there was food in the country.

Most Indians have no such confidence. The elite and upper-middle classes hoarded at once. All online stores and supermarkets were cleaned out. For the middle class, panic translated into crowding at food stores and hoping against hope that they’d last a couple of weeks, and worrying about black-marketing and food riots. For the poor, a lockout translates into death via hunger. They may be aware that India’s godowns are full and they may have availed of rations through the public distribution system. Still. They know that the journey from a few diminished meals to sickness to famine is a short one.

What circumstances enable such a short journey? The first is a democracy that fails to treat all citizens as equal. Democracy cannot be limited to the periodic casting of a vote. In an authentic democracy, people are assured of an equal right to life. This means reasonable policing, food security, and a share in natural resources. There remains gross inequality in the way natural resources are distributed in India. Patterns of land ownership still do not suggest proportional distribution based on caste or religion. Water continues to be hogged by the upper classes, made easier through dams on rivers. Like the food grains brought into cities by the trainload in the late 19th century, water is diverted towards urban centres. Farmers are continually impoverished and, with more restrictive laws, cattle wealth is worth less. Ancient handicraft trades have collapsed.

As cities explode into metropolises and small towns bulge into cities, hundreds of millions migrate. Even if they find work, they suffer multiple deficiencies leading to chronic health damage. The deaths of dozens of children in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar each summer has been linked to hunger as much as to encephalitis. While reporting malnutrition deaths in Madhya Pradesh, 15 years ago, I learnt from doctors that children can die of diseases they’ve already been vaccinated against.

A lot changed in the century since India moved from being a feudal and colonised aggregation of states to a democratic republic. But in recent years, inequality has increased. There has been a policy push towards privatisation of healthcare. Unemployment is rising, especially since demonetisation. Given that the majority of India is poor or middle class and works in the informal sector, we already had our backs to the wall before the coronavirus hit us. Now we witness a mass exodus that triggers memories of tumultuous events like Partition, and the words ‘food riots’ are in the air.

So far, there is no actual shortage of food. People who can are willing to pay. On the other hand, people who could were also paying for it in 1899. Or in 1943. What does this mean – people who can?

What does it mean in a time when there is no drought? Prices are rising and some of the fresh produce is rotting. There are reports of gallons of milk being poured into the mud because sweet shops are shut (perhaps other food processing units too?). Annual water shortages also mean that farmers are increasingly insecure, and if we don’t watch out, food shortages may occur. Certainly, there is never enough water for each individual to wash her hands six or more times a day.

Many of us are terrified about what will happen, not just during but also after the pandemic. We want to believe that no village, no mohalla, no household will be left without food, water and medicine. But if supply chains are disrupted beyond three weeks, how many Indians will be scrambling for food? What quality food? And do we not fear the consequences of food being diverted towards cities, since that’s where the money tends to be concentrated?

Over 120 years ago, Loti posited a question: “My God! What can be the material from which the souls of these people are fashioned? – people who would not kill a bird, but who feel no compunction when little children are left to die upon their doorsteps?”

I’m not sure we have an answer.

For those who want to read Pierre Loti’s book, a free version of the text is available here: https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.276598/mode/2up