The famine syndrome

THE DEMOGRAPHY OF FAMINES: AN INDIAN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE·Arup Maharatna· Oxford University Press· 1996·Price Rs 545

By Bhanusingha Ghosh
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

INADEQUATE access to sufficient food has been a persistent problem faced by humankind through the ages, so much so that famines and the calamities associated with them find mention in the mythologies and folk tales of almost all countries. The situation is no different today. Starvation reports from places like Kalahandi and Bolangir in Orissa continue to be filed in by newspapers despite all efforts at controlling famines and all the conferences.

It is impossible to understand the significance, causes and ramifications of famines without reference to the ecological, economic, social and political conditions of the specific region. Famine is a complex syndrome of multiple interacting causes and diverse manifestations. However, it is generally agreed that demographic considerations are important in understanding famines. Though death or mortality rate is one of the prime indicators of the severity of a famine, the effects of famines are varied and prevail upon a society for varying periods of time and include, apart from mortality, changes in fertility patterns both during the famine as well as in the postfamine periods, inter-regional or even international migration, morbidity (suppression of the immune system due to malnutrition, which makes the body more susceptible to illness) and consequent decrease in production, and so on.

Though independent India has been relatively free of large-scale and severe famines in comparison to the not too distant past and some sub-Saharan countries, yet the picture is not all that good, especially if one con July 15,1997 Down To Earth siders the per -capita food consumption, the status of food reserves ok the number of starvation deaths in Bolangir. And it would be important to note that most deaths during a famine are not starvation deaths but deaths related to diseases which take on epidemic proportions under the conditions.

In this book, Arup Maharatna examines demographic impacts, the causes of and the relief measures to contain famines in the Indian subcontinent since 1870 (that is' since the establishment of the census and the vital registration). He has broadly categorised the famines according to their severity and has examined their impacts and causes separately. The book lays considerable stress on the Bengal famine of 1943-44, which, unlike most other famines, was unique in the sense that, though it was precipitated by a cyclone in October 1942, it was not ecological in nature - there had been no drought - but was driven by the market. The cyclone gave the middlemen an opportunity to hoard foodgrains, which caused an artificial scarcity in the market. In the post-independence era, Maharatna examines the Bihar famine of 1966-67 and the Maharashtra famine of 1972-73. Though both these famines were less severe than the Bengal famine, both cases generated considerable controversy. Both cases also served to point out the level of India's capability (or lack of it) in hazard management.

Maharatna writes lucidly, examining the nuances of the changes in the different demographic parameters like fertility, age pecific mortality, sex ratio, migration and so on. He has managed to avoid the pitfalls of over simplification of the issues. Perhaps he could have dealt with morbidity more extensively, as morbidity has very serious consequences of not only determining mortality but also determining the production levels in the post-famine situation or, for that matter, life expectancy of the future generations. Nonetheless, this is a well- researched book with detailed tables and graphs and relevant discussion on the methodology used. This book is an important addi- tion to the study of historical demography in India.

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