Though a democracy is more accountable to its citizens, our governments continue to use the colonial framework for addressing food scarcity in times of natural disasters…

During episodes of food scarcity caused by drought and failure of the rains of the kind that looms over large parts of India today, district authorities in India are still substantially guided by updated versions of Famine Codes that were initially developed by colonial administrators. Their main objective was to save lives at minimal cost to the colonial exchequer. There is considerable irony that updated versions of these colonial Famine Codes continue to be the principal guide to public authorities in times of natural disaster in free India.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the people of India were ravaged by a series of cataclysmic famines, precipitated less by failures of nature and more by colonial policies, such as of rack-renting, both legal and illegal, neglect of agriculture, “free-trade” policies and additional levies for wars. There are terrifying contemporary accounts of these famines, such as of rivers “studded with dead bodies”, of whole settlements being wiped out by hunger and epidemics that followed in their wake, of desperate loot and plunder, and the cumulative tragic loss of a numbing 15 million women, men and children.

Initial codification

Initially, the colonial government had no cohesive policy to deal with these emergencies, except to prevent hoarding and crime, which was followed by ad hoc relief measures such as stray food kitchens, poorhouses and public works. The Famine Commission appointed in 1878 resulted in the first Famine Code, and this was adapted as a national model, adapted in different regions of British rule. These Codes provided comprehensive institutionalised guidelines to colonial administrators. These included instructions to anticipate famines, and to save life but explicitly at the lowest possible cost to the exchequer, by providing employment at subsistence wage, and “gratuitous” relief to the “unemployable”.

In independent India, State governments variously adapted and amended these Famine Codes. However, the shadow of the values of colonial administration continues to fall long on the culture and practices of the executive in crafting its response to food scarcity, even 60 years after freedom.

The first continuity is that all Famine Codes, both colonial and contemporary, cannot be enforced in any court of law. They lay down duties of various public authorities, but contain no provisions that enable citizens (or subjects) to take these authorities to court, or to penalise them, if they fail in performing these duties, even if this leads to the preventable death and suffering of people. In democratic free India, governments continue to often act late and inadequately, but people who are denied food have no legal recourse to hold them accountable.

British Codes were explicit in casting a duty on public officials to spend the minimum that was necessary, only to prevent the loss of lives, and nothing beyond that. The 1941 Bengal Famine Code, for instance, puts it starkly: “Government is obliged to limit its assistance to what is absolutely necessary for the preservation of life. When life is secured, the responsibility to the afflicted ceases and the responsibility to the tax paying public begins”.

Inhuman conditions

This minimalising of relief was accomplished in part through a series of stern “tests”, to discourage all but those unfortunate persons who were most in most drastic need to report for work. For this, wage seekers had to agree to undertake hard monotonous work, in bleak and austere camps, far away from homes. There is evidence that Indian famine practices were the model used later in concentration camps in the Holocaust.

At one level, much has improved since Independence. As in the past, governments rely mainly on public works for ensuring adequate food to households in trying times of food scarcity. Enduring small public works closer to the homes of people affected by scarcity are now recommended, and there is legislation to ensure equal wages for men and women and for banning child labour (although some field studies report that children continue to be observed in some relief works, helping their parents).

But wages are still fixed at bare subsistence levels, just sufficient for survival of the person and dependents. Drought Codes of most State governments today still contain no provision for raising wage rates in times of great distress. Instead, they actually reduce it on the specious grounds of reaching larger numbers. Workers in practice (in relief and even NREGA works) are paid on not just the basis of daily attendance, but on the amount of work done, an illegal and exploitative “double whammy”. The worker cannot leave if the work required is completed early, and is not paid more if more work is done. In effect, the minimum wage is also the maximum wage.

In some of the major scarcities and droughts from the 1960s to late 1980s, there was relatively greater fiscal freedom to local officials to respond to actual demand for work, but from early 1990s, relief work is seriously constrained by resources, and only minimalist interventions are permitted. NREGA rectifies this with its statutory guarantee of work, but it still is not an open-ended warranty, as it ensures 100 days of work and that too for only one person in each rural family a year, regardless of the specific exigencies of emergency situations. Public works continue to be closed before the onset of the rains, rather than with the reaping of the harvest, as in colonial times, and these can be periods of most severe food deprivation.

The Famine Codes of the past recognised that non-farm rural poor persons, like artisans and weavers, may be very hard hit by famine, but did little to address their food needs, although they were not equipped physically and culturally to participate in the kind of manual labour that is required in public relief works. Although weavers and other artisans continue to suffer enormous setbacks today, even more so because of their highly unequal integration with global markets, and reports pour in of both starvation and suicides by weavers, they are neglected even in contemporary Codes.

Those who are most vulnerable in times of food scarcity are old people, single women, disabled people and children. Colonial Codes contained niggardly provisions for them of “gratuitous relief”, and contemporary governments have not graduated even today to a comprehensive regime of social security. The easiest way would be to upgrade current food programmes in times of scarcity, with ICDS centres serving twice the quantities of food, as well as feeding the infirm and destitute; schools should provide meals round the year and even to out-of-school children; and families in scarcity areas should receive larger quantities of cheap grain.

Breaking free of the past

As prospects of food scarcity resulting from failures of the monsoon once again looms over large parts of the country, we must seize the moment to break away decisively from the dubious colonial legacy of Famine Codes. The duties of the State to people threatened with hunger in such times must be codified in a law which must surge much beyond the minimalist agenda of past Codes, which continued to ensure little more than to prevent mass deaths in famines at minimum cost to the State exchequer. A law to guarantee the right to food should instead need to contain cast-iron provisions to protect all men, women and children from food denials, hunger, malnutrition and starvation, both in conditions of unusual emergency and in more normal times. It is only then that we will finally break with our colonial past; and free ourselves from our collective memories of suffering and death, resulting from State failures which condemned millions of people to live and die with hunger.