The Killing Season

Hartosh Singh Bal 0

A failure of the monsoon has always brought India to its knees, writes Hartosh Singh Bal. It was true in the time of the epics, and it’s certainly true now.

Dry Days A parched field in Punjab indicates the geographic spread of the drought of 2002

Dry Days A parched field in Punjab indicates the geographic spread of the drought of 2002

Image courtesy: Getty Images

It was sometime in the first week of September 2002 that the divisional commissioner of Kota toured the Shahbad subdivision of Baran district in Rajasthan. The monsoons were about to end, and he was in Shahbad to determine the quantum of drought-related relief work to be sanctioned for the subdivision.

Perhaps the commissioner did not take the tour as seriously as he should have. The word Baran—which came to Urdu from Persian—means rain; the district, which borders Sheopur in northwest Madhya Pradesh, records the second highest rainfall in Rajasthan.

A month after the commissioner’s day-long tour I met the Shahbad sub-divisional officer, Behrulal Verma, who told me, “We got 16mm of rain that day; it was the last shower of the season. Perhaps he thought there was no drought here. And it is true the crop was standing. Had we got just one more bout of rain before the harvest it would have made it. But it didn’t happen.”

The commissioner sanctioned no more than 175 drought relief jobs for the nearly 100,000 rural inhabitants of the subdivision. The crop failed. The Sahariyas, a tribe of hunter-gatherers now reduced to working as agricultural labourers, were badly hit. They made up the bulk of Shahbad’s inhabitants, and depended on the work that became available at harvest time to make it through the rest of the year. The landowners, Jat Sikhs and Rajputs who were later arrivals to the region, owned most of the fields which had replaced the forests that once sustained the Sahariyas. The landlords ploughed the parched crop back into the earth, or let their cattle graze in the fields.

I was then posted in Bhopal as the Madhya Pradesh correspondent for The Indian Express. My colleague in Rajasthan had been posted out, and no one had taken over when TV channels started reporting the deaths from Baran. I travelled through the night to get to Baran once the news broke.

It was about 9am when I finally reached Suans, one of the villages mentioned in the news reports. A “village” here was actually several hamlets spread out over an area of several square kilometres. At times even a Tata Sumo couldn’t make it, so we had to trek a kilometre or two to verify several of the reported cases of starvation deaths. Even in October, the sun was unrelenting.

I found things were worse than the news reports had led me to believe. The officials had already settled into an attitude of defensive callousness aimed at forestalling any blame. Among those reported dead at Suans was one-year-old Sarma, son of Rooplal. But Rooplal’s son was named Dilip on the aanganwadi (village-level childcare and basic health centre) list for the village. The discrepancy was enough for the administration to assert no such death had taken place.

Rooplal told me his one-year-old son, Dilip Sarma, had died because he had nothing to feed him.


If death could be so easily wished away, starvation was even less of a problem. Verma dismissed the possibility of starvation by saying that the tribals spent all their money “on liquor. They don’t spend it on the children. There was no shortage of jobs in September. There is no malnutrition”.  This didn’t explain why his administration increased the number of drought relief jobs from 175 to 4,879 once reports of the deaths started appearing. This also did not explain why the dead in the village of Bhilkheda Mal were not Sahariyas but Jatavs, who apparently did not share the same habits.

As I spoke to people in the villages, sarpanches and other officials, it became clear that people had died not because of a lack of grain with the government, but because the grain had arrived at the panchayat hall without reaching those who needed it most. The upper-caste sarpanches of Suans and Bhilkheda Mal didn’t know that the Sahariyas or the Jatavs in their respective villages were starving. Given the hierarchy of caste and the prevailing power equations, it was simply inconceivable for either the Jatavs or the Sahariyas to demand food from their sarpanches as a matter of right.


Soon after returning to Bhopal, I learnt that the trail of death didn’t stop at the state boundary. What I had just written about in Baran was now being replayed in Shivpuri. Ten days later, I was reporting much the same story among the Sahariyas of Madhya Pradesh. Once again, the failure of the rain and the government went together.

In Baran, amid the collation of facts about the deaths and the government’s apathy, I was careful to avoid descriptions of what I had seen with my eyes. Somehow, among the people I knew in Bhopal and Delhi, such images tended to exoticise what was taking place; they situated it in the context of Ethiopia and National Geographic, rather than the here and now of our shared reality.

In Shivpuri, I was accompanied by my friend, the photographer Prakash Hatvalne. Each time I would note down the name of a child who had died from an emaciated parent, I would walk away as he took his photographs. It was a process that took its toll on both of us, though we could never bring ourselves to discuss it.

One night, returning from Chharch, the worst affected region of Shivpuri, we rushed to the government hospital in Shivpuri town, where some persons from a village we had visited had just been admitted. The overfull wards had forced the doctors to line up some beds along the long, dark hospital corridor that ran the length of the building. A nurse had guided us to a bed and disappeared into the darkness. A woman and her child lay there, lit up intermittently by a flickering tube-light. The child was no more than a few months old. Her eyes appeared enormous against her face, her head gigantic atop her frail body. Each rib stood out, each ligament on her emaciated limbs visible through the sagging parchment of her skin. The mother, in contrast, had the haunted beauty of an anorexic model. Both had IV fluid draining into their bodies, the needle in the child’s wrist visible through the skin.

It took an enormous effort of will for me to stand there and ask the mother her name, the child’s name, the name of their village. She answered slowly, each answer an effort, only volunteering the simple fact that her breasts had run dry. The doctors said they would be fed only after the drip had injected some strength into their bodies. They were hopeful the child would survive. But that was later. I fled down the corridor, leaving Prakash to his job. The flash darting out from the camera surrounded them in a bubble of light, a grotesque Madonna and child. He worked with the same fevered hurry as I had, and as he turned to leave, he took out his wallet. Hurriedly extracting all the money he could find, he left it by the mother’s outstretched arm.

Representations of famine in the late 19th century

Representations of famine in the late 19th century

Six months later, I was back in Sahariya territory—the Kharral block of Sheopur district, which is sandwiched between Baran and Shivpuri. After the news reports in October, the governments of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh had reacted swiftly, arranging food grains for those affected most by the drought. This helped the Sahariyas stave off death, but with nothing saved from the harvest, they had no resources left to save their only possessions—cattle.

Their cattle were never a burden on the Sahariyas. They survived on whatever little there was to graze on, and the milk they provided was a necessary supplement to the Sahariya diet. But by May 2003, there was nothing left standing in the scrub jungles for the cattle to graze on. Already weakened,with their owners unable to help in any way, the cattle were dying in their hundreds.

After the initial novelty of dead cattle lying by the wayside, I soon stopped registering the carcasses. They were everywhere, already stripped to the bone by the drought before their death. On the outskirts of Panvada village, I stopped at the sight of a man working in the shade of a tree, a half-skinned carcass lying before him. Suresh was a Jatav from Kharral. He had won the contract for dead cattle in Panvada through an open auction, where the bidding had been fierce because everyone knew what was coming. The theka eventually went for 60,000 rupees—more than three times the amount shelled out the year before. He had got the contract the previous month; he’d already skinned more than a hundred cattle.

After I filed the report, there was the usual flurry of activity with officials being rushed to the district. A few weeks later I got a call from the chief minister’s office. Two senior officials were flying out to survey the relief work and the CM wanted me to accompany them. It took less than an hour to make the journey in his helicopter.

We inspected several sites. Thousands of people—in the main, emaciated Sahariyas—were toiling at the earthworks, constructing roads and ponds. The procedure was simple; for each dug up 10 x 10 x 1-foot pit, 10kg of wheat was handed out. Enough work had been sanctioned to ensure each family would be allotted roughly 10 such pits a month, which in effect meant 100kg of wheat.

Some of the families working at the site confirmed what I had learnt earlier. Many of them would not consume 100kg of wheat in a month, and were bartering it for fodder to save their dying cattle. As a result, middlemen had stepped in. Fodder had become more expensive than wheat.

I only had one suggestion to make at the end of my helicopter ride. Instead of allotting a fixed 10kg of wheat for each pit, each family should be allowed to choose a mix of fodder and wheat worth the same value. The suggestion was implemented, and worked well. Or so I was told. As a journalist, it was my sole intervention in public policy.

A few years later, while writing my account of a journey along the Narmada, Waters Close Over Us (Fourth Estate, 2013), I came across descriptions of the famines of 1896 and 1899 in central India, both of which were triggered by drought.

Those readings gave me a clear sense of what had changed in the course of a century. A million people died in the famine of 1896; well under a hundred died in the drought of 2002, even allowing for the government’s attempt to under-report figures. But even with this awareness, the descriptions of the circumstances, the engravings from the time, they all gave me the sense of a reality I had personally encountered.

The truth was that what I had witnessed and reported in 2002 and 2003 was a reality that we have come to believe is far from us, whether geographically, or in time. But the truth is different. We may no longer experience famines, but the slow death that comes from malnutrition is our reality even here and now. We wish it away until a sudden drought, or even a bad year of rain, erases the nebulous divide between malnutrition and starvation. This is when the media descends on the corpses, forcing the government to act and the rest of the country to take notice.

As I read through the accounts of the famines of 1896 and 1899, and studied the possible causes for the failure of the monsoon, something became clear to me. Such droughts and famines must have always been part of our reality.

Given the nature of our classical literature, which deals largely with the idealised preoccupations of the caste elite, there was no reason to expect detailed accounts of droughts and their consequences. Yet, even in this rarefied world, it was impossible to completely escape the effects of a failure of the rain. One of the most powerful accounts of a drought I have read is in the Mahabharata. Clearly it was taken note of because, unlike the drought of 2002, it lasted long enough to erase the distance between the ruling elite and everyone else.

Between the Treta-yuga and Dvapara-yuga, there was a great drought that lasted 12 years. Rivers shrank, lakes dried up. Brahmanas gave up the performance of their ritual duties.

There were heaps of bones everywhere. Elderly people were thrown out of their homes. Maddened by hunger, men began to eat each other. Even the rishis abandoned their ashrams in search of food.

Vishwamitra was one such sage. Leaving his wife and son, he roamed the earth. He came across a village of hunters, with dog skins everywhere. He begged from door to door but found nothing. He saw the meat of a freshly killed dog on the floor of the hut of a chandala, and determined to steal and eat it. He was entitled, he reasoned, to steal from one below him in the caste hierarchy. So he broke into the chandala’s house, who challenged him. Ashamed, Vishwamitra identified himself and his great hunger.

The chandala sought to protect the great ascetic from breaking his vows, but the sage told him that hunger had already destroyed “all of my righteousness For the preservation of my life, I am justified in adopting any means, without consideration of propriety”. Just let him live by eating the forbidden meat, Vishwamitra asked; survival would enable him to perform the requisite purificatory rituals. But the chandala was adamant. Dog meat wasn’t for brahmanas

Finally, pleaded Vishwamitra: “I have no other alternative. In my helpless condition, this dog meat appears just like nectar.”

(Adapted from “Bhishma Instructs Yudhisthira Maharaj, Part 10” by Isvara Dasa, the Sampradaya Sun’s translation of the “Santi Parva” of the Mahabharata)

For all the destruction that floods wreak in India, an above-average monsoon is never feared. The toll can be enormous, but once the floodwaters subside, the silt and fertility they leave behind guarantee a bumper crop. For those who survive its fury, the flood augurs a good year ahead. A bad monsoon offers no such redemption. Its impact extends far beyond a single season. A bad harvest, the failure of a crop, the lack of a surplus, all render the population vulnerable to any mild shocks that might follow, shocks they might ordinarily have survived. And the one thing we have been unable to foretell through our history is a bad monsoon.

The need to be able to cope with bad monsoons was one of the main motivations for setting up the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD). The IMD website has a succinct description of its beginnings: “A disastrous tropical cyclone struck Calcutta in 1864 and this was followed by failures of the monsoon rains in 1866 and 1871. In the year 1875, the Government of India established the India Meteorological Department, bringing all meteorological work in the country under a central authority.”

Sure enough, another bad monsoon struck India in 1877. The first meteorological reporter, Henry Francis Blanford, started looking at the possibility of using climatic information from around the subcontinent to predict the monsoon. By 1885, IMD began issuing regular forecasts, which made extensive use of data relating to snowfall in the Himalayas in the months preceding the monsoon.

Over the next decade, it became clear the model was not doing a good forecasting job. A dismal failure at predicting the disastrous monsoon of 1899 forced the colonial government to keep the forecasts confidential. In 1904, Gilbert Walker was recruited as the director general of IMD. He had no training as a meteorologist, but had an outstanding record as an applied mathematician.

Soon enough, he realised a theory of weather was a distant, if not impossible, dream. It did not seem possible to write down a set of equations that would neatly predict the weather. Instead, he started searching for correlations between the huge amount of data being accumulated by the IMD and the strength of the monsoons.

Over the next 20 years, he produced a steady stream of work, mapping out correlations between weather systems and variations in temperature and pressure around the globe. After his retirement in 1924, he began publishing a remarkable set of papers, setting down the results he had arrived at. Chief among them was what is now called the Walker Circulation, which determines the pattern of air flow in the lower atmosphere over the tropics.

This pattern of air flow differs from ocean to ocean. Perhaps the most important of these is the flow over the Pacific. High pressure over the eastern Pacific and low pressure over Indonesia drive this system. But the system is not the same year-on-year, and is affected by variations in high pressure over the eastern Pacific. This variation, called the Southern Oscillation, correlates with some of the most disruptive changes in world weather.

Walker determined that lower than normal pressures over the eastern Pacific—associated with warmer than normal water temperatures—usually resulted in below-normal monsoons: a phenomenon we know today as El Niño. Above-normal pressures—which are associated with La Niña—result in better than normal monsoons.

While not every El Niño year results in a bad monsoon, most of the years with particularly bad monsoons have been El Niño years. This is, of course, very far from a predictive theory of weather. But Walker’s work is now key to understanding a phenomenon that warns us of the possibility of that which we fear most: a bad monsoon.

The famines of 1896 and 1899 both occurred in El Niño years. The drought and the deaths I reported took place in 2002, also an El Niño year. It is now clear that 2015 is also an El Niño year; weak, but one none the less. The IMD has already predicted a deficient monsoon. Experts are already expressing apprehensions about its possible impact on the economy. It is an apprehension that connects us to every inhabitant of the subcontinent through its long history.

Hartosh Singh Bal is the political editor at The Caravan, and is the author of Waters Close Over Us: A Journey Along the Narmada. He was formerly the political editor at Open magazine and has co-authored A Certain Ambiguity: A Mathematical Novel.

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