Hung Out to Dry: Famines and the Culpability of the State


The Discussion Map charts important debates from the pages of EPW.


In a special article in the 26 June 2021 issue of EPW, Tirthankar Roy argues that famine studies in India have been too preoccupied with the Bengal famine of 1943 which has produced a skewed view that the primary cause of the Bengal famine was imperial rule. He supports this argument by comparing the Bengal famine to those in the Deccan where water scarcity figures more prominently as the cause of deaths. He argues that the colonial state was, in fact, sensitive to the threat of dry land famines caused by the tropical climates in the Deccan but their efforts at widespread water distribution were thwarted by social structures that kept water sources in control of the propertied upper castes—a reality that only changed on account of uncoordinated social movements and, in particular, the success of B R Ambedkars’s Mahad Satyagraha. He concludes that the causes of famines should be attributed to climatic and environmental changes more so than the state,  colonial or otherwise. Roy further points out that those factors that have worked to increase supply and democratise access to water—building dams and canals, use of groundwater, irrigation projects, urban water supply systems, increasing legal access to water through courts and sociopolitical movements—thus preventing or mitigating famine, specifically water famine, have simultaneously put enormous stress on water resources. Roy warns that this is an environmental disaster in the making.

Vishal Singh Deo disagrees with Roy’s assertion that the cause of famines should primarily be attributed to the environment. Deo sees this as an absolution of governments that might play a role in worsening the incidence and impact of famines. He raises three issues with Roy’s arguments. First, he argues that Roy ignores the  link between colonial property and famine distress. Second, he highlights the local caste structures that deprived lower castes of water but sees them as being independent of the complex land relations of the wide colonial matrix. Third, he points out that, while Roy commends the water-distribution efforts of the colonial state, these interventions in property sometimes resulted in disrupted social relations and displaced people thus further exacerbating the impact of famines rather than ameliorating them.



For more on this theme please see the reading list titled ‘Starving an 'Inconsequential' Race: Looking at the Bengal Famine 75 Years On


Ed: To contribute to a more comprehensive discussion map, please share links to other relevant articles by writing to us at with the subject line—“Famine, Environment, and the State”


Curated by johann []


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