In the summer of 2016, at least a third of India’s rural residents are battling drought, often for the third consecutive year. Where rains have failed, farmers who depend mainly on rainwater to irrigate their crops – the large majority - have no yields or very low yields. Those who rely on irrigation are scarcely better off, with groundwater sinking and streams and reservoirs drying up. The extent of the crisis is compounded by chronic agrarian distress reflected in a massive slowdown in agricultural growth to as low as 0.2 per cent in 2014-15, with no imminent signs of recovery.
In this Issue Brief, Harsh Mander, a former officer of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), civil rights activist, and author of books on public policy, traces the evolution of state responses to famines in India.
The first four decades after Independence saw the gradual expansion and democratisation of state obligations and responses to droughts and scarcities. Though public policy traversed in more progressive directions of protecting people from desperate want created by drought and food scarcities, paradoxically many unacceptable elements of public policy and practice continued to be carried over from colonial times. Post-liberalisation, the Indian state has gradually changed course and become entirely unconscionable towards its poorer and distressed citizens, in some instances more so than the colonial rulers.
The way forward is to create a more proactive state that recalibrates its warning systems and a well-geared administrative machinery that can reach out to those in distress.
The author can be contacted at [email protected]