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  Opinion   Columnists  01 Jan 2021  Abhijit Bhattacharyya | After horrors of 2020, is 2021 the year of famine?

Abhijit Bhattacharyya | After horrors of 2020, is 2021 the year of famine?

The writer is an alumnus of the National Defence College, and the author of China in India.
Published : Jan 2, 2021, 12:05 am IST
Updated : Jan 2, 2021, 12:05 am IST

Out-of-season foods have become scarce on supermarket shelves as labour is disrupted and crops are at risk of rotting in the fields


One sincerely hopes that the United Nations is wrong, and that what it has predicted for the coming year doesn’t come true. After a disastrous 2020, the world truly needs a break. Yet the facts can’t be ignored. The UN’s World Food Programme, based in Rome, has already warned that after facing the trauma of the Wuhan-origin Covid-19 virus in 2020, things aren’t going to get any better. “2021 is literally going to be catastrophic… (with) global famine knocking on the door”, it said.

The early warning signs are already there, with Australia and New Zealand likely to be adversely affected. “Out-of-season foods have become scarce on supermarket shelves as labour is disrupted and crops are at risk of rotting in the fields”. Covid-19 has put brakes on labour movement and deployment. The situation is even more dire in Africa and South America, which could trigger “global shortages and economic shockwaves”. The WFP says this could be the “worst humanitarian crisis since the beginning of the UN” in 1945, as “multiple famines” are looming.

What makes the WFP’s assessment even more alarming is that today “690 million people don’t have enough to eat while 130 million additional people face imminent risk of being pushed to starvation”.

That could potentially be fatal for mankind. Although India doesn’t figure in any of gloomy official assessments yet, its 1.3 billion people need to look back at its own history of food crises due to agrarian distress. This is vital to thwart any future famine across its 32.88 lakh sq km mass, 54 per cent of which are arable fields. Given the growing agrarian turbulence over the past few years, the emerging scenario looks hazy and blurred. A look at the past is in order, such as when the British traders had looted India.

Around 420 years ago, on December 31, 1600, was born the East India Company, headquartered in London. Subsequently, this private company directly ruled over a large portion of India for 93 years, from 1765 to 1858. Thanks to a “generous” grant of “diwani” (sovereign power to administer) bestowed on the foreign English traders by tottering Mughal emperor Shah Alam II, in one stroke the most fertile lands of India producing food -- the Bengal Subah (province), comprising today’s Bangladesh and India’s West Bengal, Bihar and Odisha, were handed on a platter to profit-seeking foreign traders. Was it a prelude to the 21st century privatisation spree by New Delhi of prime state assets?

This marked the beginning of direct rule by a British multinational company over clueless, helpless Indians as their 1765 Delhi ruler was totally inefficient, incompetent and cowardly. Expectedly, the private company of profiteering merchants ruined India, and after creating a complete monetary and military mess, handed over the baton to its country’s monarch in 1858 which managed to “rule by force” for another 89 years, till 1947.

Coincidentally, both the mercantile and imperial rule by the British began and ended with catastrophic famine, killing millions in India. While the London merchants saw the unprecedented Bengal famine after only five years of rule in 1770, the wartime government of Prime Minister Winston Churchill was singularly culpable for the manmade famine of 1943, four years before the British finally left India, killing over three million Bengalis in their homeland.

In between these two mega disasters, however, were several more famines in India in which the British rulers in India cut a sorry figure over their inbuilt indifference, ineptitude and incompetence. The mass death of non-whites seemed to matter little, except to a few conscientious Englishmen.

The real nature of the English traders ruling India was aptly described by a later-day English historian: “It took five years (1765-1770) for the full effects of the regime of unregulated plunder to become apparent; but when it did so, the results were unparalleled in their horror. The was stage set for the great 1770 Bengal famine.” This killed over 1.2 million people, around one-fifth of Bengal’s population. The starvation death of millions generated millions of rupees in profits, particularly for the traders of the East India Company. 

Fast forward to 1866-1867. In Odisha, known for its fertile river basin, the entire coastline up to (then) Madras was in grip of a severe famine, with a high toll in human lives. Next were the 1868-1869 local famines in United Provinces (now UP), Punjab and Rajputana (now Rajasthan) and fertile North Bihar in 1873. Then came two terrible years (1876-1877) of famine across a large swathe of Madras, Mysore, Hyderabad, Bombay and United Provinces.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, in the twilight years of Queen-Empress Victoria’s rule, the terrible famines of 1896-1897 and 1899-1900 ruined the countryside further; from UP to Bihar, Central Provinces (MP-Chhattisgarh), Punjab, Baroda, Madras and Bombay.

But what “outperformed” and “outclassed” them all was the 1943 “king of all famines” in Bengal thereby turning the adage, “to an empty stomach, food is God”, into a joke. The cynical template now was: “Farmers and food are for business and profits”. The racist and India-hating Winston Churchill, the incumbent British PM, ensured the death of three million Bengalis in their own land. By completely choking all transport, communications, distribution and assistance, the 1943 famine exposed the true face of the British rulers, brazenly supporting the private traders, making fortunes over the starving, emaciated bodies of dead Indians, scattered all over their own villages, fields, roads and backyards.

The perennial alibi, justification and defence, was that Britain’s “war effort” had to be ensured at all costs. In a macabre, Faustian repeat of Indian history, after almost 700 years, it was a rerun of Delhi Sultan Alauddin Khalji’s rule (1296-1316), ensuring feeding of his rampaging troops around the countryside at the cost of the farmers producing the food. Understandably, thus, was the historian’s poignant, yet pertinent, comment: “While the capital was fed, the country at large was allowed to be bled.”

For the 1943 killing of Bengal’s three million people, the then British government should have been charged before an international tribunal with criminal mass murder, akin to Hitler’s murder of the Jews. One can only hope history will not repeat itself in India, given the ominous warnings coming from the UN for the year 2021.

Tags: 2021, global famine, food shortage, catastrophic, un’s world food programme