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The Bihar Famine (1966-67) - Beyond Politics, Aid and Diplomacy

The writer is a history enthusiast who likes to explore the various perspectives of past events that shaped the future landscape.

Reflections of the Past

Famines are not unfamiliar to the Indian landscape. They have been experienced, feared and like all bad things – forgotten. Be it the two centuries of British occupation or the period prior to that, famines have hit the Indian subcontinent hard and certain regions in particular even harder. While war on famine picked pace post independence, it has however been a bumpy ride with plentiful challenges.

The latter half of British rule in India saw at least six major famines (1873-74, 1876, 1877, 1896-97, 1899, 1943) with fatalities mounting in millions. And the one that makes a prominent appearance as perhaps one of the worst famines of twentieth century came piggybacking the second Great War (WWII). This was the Bengal Famine of 1943, where imperial policies, inaction and draining of resources as part of war effort led to food shortages and massive inflation. Millions were deliberately starved to death, making them indirect casualties of the war. The death toll skyrocketed further as epidemics took a toll on the malnourished lot.

Less than two decades post India's independence, a similar crisis was shaping up in the eastern state of Bihar as well as parts of eastern Uttar Pradesh. It was bad enough and made worst due to both the domestic politics as well as the larger geopolitics of cold war era in the region. India was down to literally counting grains in silos and sending SOS to the rain gods and to the leaders of the world. Eventually the immediate crisis was averted by securing foreign imports of critical food supply. And while the physical damage may not have reached extreme proportions (based on the assessments & the available data sets), the trauma has certainly lasted. Especially one that draw parallels from the starvation during British rule and ultimately shaped the discourse.

The Bengal and Bihar famines do certainly stand miles apart based on just the scale of impact. However they provide certain common grounds for further case study especially when the scholarly debates get charged up around the Bihar famine. Some even raising doubts over its existence, while some rebuffing it as a mere political construct. Besides, the case study provides context to how President Johnson's action of holding the grain supplies comes across as a stark reminder of the imperial age for a populace that witnessed their leader beg for grains. Furthermore these events coupled with some other factors set precedent for the future course of the Indo-U.S. relations and the tilt towards the Soviet sphere. The one take away in all this is, India striving hard and achieving self sufficiency in food production within a short period. That being said the war on hunger is still far from been won - Massive population, complex demographics and limitations of public distribution systems are some of the many factors that continue to pose a serious challenge.

Famines are easy to prevent if there is a serious effort to do so, and a democratic government, facing elections and criticisms from opposition parties and independent newspapers cannot help but make such an effort.

Not surprisingly, while India continued to have famines under British rule right up to independence they disappeared suddenly with the establishment of a multiparty democracy and a free press.

— Amartya Sen, Democracy as a Universal Value

The Bihar Famine of 1966-67- Coverage in The New York Times & The Indian Express

The Bihar Famine of 1966-67- Coverage in The New York Times & The Indian Express

The Public Law 480 Aid

As the young democracy of India ushered into a new era under the under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru, much of its capital was invested in the industrial development. The agricultural output increased despite challenges, and the lack of indulgence and incentives from the government. However it failed to match the growing demands of a booming population. The United States Government was more than willing to fill in that gap and simultaneously expand its sphere of influence in this strategically important region of South Asia. India as a non-aligned democracy bordering communist China and flirting with the Soviet bloc was a worthy investment amidst the cold war hostilities. And what better than 'food for peace' to make a head start.

Food for Peace
The Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act of 1954, commonly known as PL–480 or Food for Peace was signed into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. PL-480, then administered by the Departments of State and Agriculture and the International Cooperation Administration, permitted the president to authorize the shipment of surplus commodities to friendly nations, either on concessional or grant terms. It also allowed the federal government to donate stocks to religious and voluntary organizations for use in their overseas humanitarian programs. Under Kennedy administration it entered the foreign policy space with the Executive Order 10915. Then in the Johnson administration it was further molded into a diplomatic tool to pursue US foreign policy goals as President Johnson attempted to balance or rather pursue the global narrative of his Great Society vision. In particular vis-à-vis India, the PL-480 aid also became a tool for coercive diplomacy.

What it meant for U.S.
It's essential to point out that PL-480 aid to India as well other nations did serve or at some point came to serve certain specific foreign policy goals for the USG:

  • Primarily the objective was to dispose the surplus produce that was direct result of domestic price support policy
  • Advantage as a foreign policy tool to push soft diplomacy
  • Economic and trade benefits
  • Provided a boost to the American agricultural exports and shipping industry

What it meant for India
PL-480 supplies proved to be both a boon and a bane. On one hand it provided for a free flow of grain supply at a concessional rate to India which was also paid for in Indian rupees (INR). While on the other hand it made the Government of India more reliant on the US food aid as its limited capital instead of providing incentives for the farmers got invested in heavy industries. The US farms particularly the mid-west produced in plenty ensuring the grains set sail under US labels to the economically backward nations like India. The smooth ride wasn't meant to last forever but like most thing Indian, the politicians & bureaucracy became habitual.

From Eisenhower through the initial period of Johnson era the transition was smooth but then the strings were set loose. As Johnson pushed India for agricultural reforms and PM Gandhi eventually obliged or succumbed to liberal economic reforms alongside the push for self sufficiency. The coercion and flip-flops carried on throughout the Johnson administration with notable ones coinciding with the Bihar droughts that culminated into a famine.

Finally during the Nixon administration India managed to officially put an end to PL-480 dependence. On December 29, 1971, Government of India announced that it had decided to cancel all grain imports from the US. This came even before the expiration of existing PL-480 agreement. The decision followed as a response to the US suspension of economic aid to India in the aftermath of '71 Indo-Pak war.

Today when we talk of famine it is not in the sense in which we knew of these words before independence. There is an acute shortage of food in our country in specific scarcity areas. There are no people dying of starvation

— Indira Gandhi

The Bihar Drought of 1965-66

Droughts have pretty much been the precursor to the major Indian famines. Adherence to traditional methods and over reliance on monsoons have lead to crop failures and massive decline in food productivity. Even though that's just one aspect of the complicated story, but the Bihar famine was no different in this regards. After failure of two consecutive summer monsoons or rainy seasons in the year 1965-66, the drought situation in Bihar and parts of Eastern UP had worsened. The scarcity of resources, a booming population (in excess of 50 million) and the back breaking droughts were certainly a recipe for chaos. Furthermore the socio-economic factors, mismanagement, and apathy of government added to the woes of the suffering populace.

The Situation on Ground

The dry spell was a disaster. With the primary grain crop paddy solely reliant on monsoons, the produce plummeted. As drought progressed into the second year the fields almost lay barren. Food shortage was significant in 17 out of 17 districts of Bihar, with 9 districts, namely Patna, Gaya, Shahabad, Darbhanga, Hazaribagh, Ranchi, Palamau, Dhanbad, and Singhbum producing less than 50 % of normal output. Five of these districts produced less that 30 % of normal. Impact on the livestock had been equally worst. Let alone the farming needs, there was scarcity of drinking water. The wells and natural reservoirs that had been the chief source of drinking water and irrigation, felt the brunt too. The scarcity led to massive domestic and international relief operations in the summer of 1966. UNICEF at the request of Indian Prime Minister provided drilling rigs to accelerate the government's efforts in providing access to safe drinking water. Its partners as well as independent agencies and various volunteer groups managed to drill hundreds of bore wells over the course of 3 months.

Meanwhile the political ruckus had been growing. The media had been active too, flashing graphic images. A UK based television Production Company ITN, in a short film showed how a land tiller had been left to fend for himself and his impoverished family. And how they were forced to feed on the seeds that were meant for sowing. Propaganda or not, similiar images had certainly been flashing across.

Beyond doubt the state had been an outlier; and the famine threat, the US restrictions on food grains supply and the upcoming elections had only made things worst. The drought situation was worsening and short supply of food grains had become an existential threat to be dealt with asap. The Indian Government then started reaching out to foreign governments, United States in particular, to buy or secure more food grains in case things went south. Despite how the episode played out especially with Johnson's arm twisting tactics, India managed to stave off the famine. Undoubtedly the US grain made the crucial difference. Help also poured in from Australia, Canada and even Soviet.

Things also seemed to be moving on the ground. On the agriculture side too the reforms had kicked in. Awareness was being spread on effective farming techniques vis a vis the resources available. Increased fertilized use was being pushed and so was the adoption of Norman Borlaug's high yielding variety of seeds (HYV). Several Tons of the first few batches of which were imported from Mexico. Under the leadership of Food & Agriculture Minister C. Subramaniam, the foundation of India's Green Revolution had been laid, that was to make the nation self sufficient and provide for the needs of the booming population.

On Relief Operations

"Bihar and U.P. are the two most backward and poorly administered states in India. Nevertheless the government employees in that area, ably supported by the volunteer agencies and by steadily increasing numbers of dedicated volunteers, students and others, have been putting on a really remarkable performance in the face of enormous difficulties."

- Chester Bowles

(Former U.S. Ambassador to India)

Short-Tether Policy

Since their inception, PL-480 agreements had been term bound. For over a decade their execution and subsequent rollover had been a business as usual affair for bureaucracy on either side. With Lyndon Johnson taking the reigns thing began to change. U.S. Treasury Department among others had already raised concerns as to how the PL-480 shipments were a drain. In September 1964, President Johnson agreed to a new one year food aid commitment as the previous four year term of PL-480 program ended. But when the time for renewal arrived the next year, POTUS opted for a change in the status quo by calling off any new aid commitments without a stringent re-assessment of the existing aid program vis a vis the benefits. There by bringing the routine supply to a halt. The abrupt policy change was not just a major shift but rather a drastic measure that was ought to have serious ramifications, especially considering the prevailing drought situation that President was fully aware of.

In an unprecedented move the President had taken the charge of overseeing the aid supplies, almost becoming a desk officer reviewing the grain shipments on monthly basis. A pretty much 'ship-to-mouth' regimen had been imposed with these checks and short supplies. Simply put, with short-tether at play the supply lines had been tightened ensuring only enough grains be released to last about a month's supply. This was POTUS playing the hard ball holding on to the shipments, in order to push India towards adopting agricultural reforms.


Strategic Withholding of Supplies

November 1965 onwards the presidential approval of aid on month-to-month basis was put in place, which saw a temporary relaxation in march next year. The change followed PM Gandhi's visit to Washington in March 1966. Things looked up as she returned securing the additional grain supplies along with commitments (supposedly on quid pro quo basis) that were to pave the path for India's economic progress. The game-changer for the lack of better words. A series of liberalization reforms were undertaken, that among other things included a new agricultural policy, delicensing of various industries, ease on imports and a massive 37% devaluation of the Indian rupee. Johnson was impressed - Not only did he ask the Congress for approving additional aid to the tune of 3.5 million tonnes but also reached out to world leaders to help India during these critical times of food shortages.

But by July the relations were already strained as Johnson was livid with India's strong stance on US actions in Vietnam. When told that the Indians were saying exactly the same thing as the UN Secretary-General and the Pope were, Johnson had retorted: "The Pope and U Thant don't need our wheat." What set things in motion was the 16th July joint communiqué. PM Gandhi had attempted to keep peace with Moscow and simultaneously pacify her critics back home.

August 23, 1966 - US Aid Administrator Bell as well as Secretaries Freeman & Rusk urged the release of 2.5 million tons of wheat to avoid break in the supply. The President refused to act, in response he wrote, "We must hold onto all the wheat we can. Send nothing unless we break an iron bound agreement by not sending."

In September and October too he paid no heed, when informed of a possible break in the food supply early 1967. Even the American press - New York Times and Washington Post criticised the US pressure tactics on a country facing a famine situation.

November 4, 1966 - US Ambassador to India Chester Bowles sent a 10 page cable to the President and Secretaries Rusk and Freeman explaining the “critical Indian food situation”. In the cable, Bowles stressed on the need for U.S. help to avert a tragedy. While crediting the Indian Government for its strenuous efforts to improve agricultural output, Bowles expressed his reservations on the short-tether policy governing U.S. food shipments.

Treaty of Rome

November 25, 1966 - Indian Agriculture Minister Chidambram Subramaniam and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman met on the sidelines of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) meeting in Rome and Treaty of Rome was inked. It outlined the steps India would take to boost its food production. The same was kept under secrecy to avoid any further complications, in particular the suggestion of the United States pressuring India.

Later in November itself, Johnson also sent a hand-picked team of agricultural experts (mostly senators and congressmen) to make an assessment of progress of the self-help measures undertaken by India. They acknowledged India's progress story and gave a positive review of the government's efforts. President happy with the turn-around, approved a 1.5 million tons of wheat agreement along with a USD 50 M fertilizer commodity loan.

December 22, 1966 - Johnson authorized release of of 900,000 tons of PL 480 wheat. Even though it was four month after the initial memorandum recommending the same, this was crucial to ensure break in supply chain. Timing too couldn't have been better considering it was just two months to the great Indian showdown. It was also PM Gandhi's first electoral battle. Early next year keeping in line with the commitments ahead, Johnson even had the World Bank organize Food for India Consortium to push possible donors. The critical phase had eventually come to pass and criais had been averted. There have been hits and misses too. Ambassador Dennis Kux in his Estranged Democracies quotes the then Indian Agriculture Minister, Subramanium - "We were working in an emergency period then, even a week's failure in supply would have created grave difficulties." He further adds, "That's why I have said the United States always gives but does not give graciously." At other instance he also quotes PM's press advisor Sharda Prasad recalling a helpless Mrs. Gandhi as she ended her plea for release of wheat over the phone with President Johnson and in frustration uttered, "I don't ever want us ever to have to beg for food grains.

In his memoirs, President Johnson later argued in favour of the move being carried out in good faith to push India to self sufficiency. However many scholars and critics have been of the firm view that it was LBJ's subtle retaliation as he held on to the supplies till the last moment.

We must hold onto all the wheat we can. Send nothing unless we break an iron bound agreement by not sending.

— President Lyndon Johnson

Politicisation of Famine

The differing opinions on the cause, extent and the very fact that whether or not there was actually a famine situation provides for a further case study for scholars/academics as well as political scientist/commentators and critics. From the standpoint of exploiting the famine threat, the discourse often hovers around the fact that the chaos or political instability could have been managed for consolidation of power. Eyeing the upcoming elections the rhetoric of 'crisis' and use of 'hunger' for propaganda seemingly plays out well too. Economist Jean Drèze expresses his reservation on view that this was a success story of war on famine stating, “there is precious little evidence to support the self-congratulatory statements that have commonly been made about the Bihar famine.”

There's no doubt that the extended droughts presented as a crisis for the fairly new government under the leadership of Indira Gandhi. With a famine threat looming and polls due early next year, there was an opportunity even a rookie politician might have felt tempted to exploit (in good faith if nothing more) to make inroads and consolidate power. Governments both at the state and the centre were failing in doing the needful to mitigate the crisis. In fact the internal conflicts and the growing factionalism in the state leadership seems to have taken the priority. As political scientist Paul R. Brass in his 1986 study, stressing on the politicisation aspect explained, "conflict between the central and state governments provided grounds for a food scarcity and depravation to be identified as a famine."

Bihar had it's own Bihar Famine and Flood Relief Code of 1957, that states, 'if existing measures are inadequate to cope up with the distress in a crisis situation then vulnerable districts should be declared famine affected in order to trigger increased relief intervention from the state.' In the summer of '66 such demands were increasing however they met deaf ears. On the flip side though declaring a famine before elections could have left a negative impression in the minds of voters.

The rhetoric seems to have focused on the aspect of projecting the leader as she reaches out to the world, sometimes even desperate. Emotional apoeals are always most impactful as it is. Johnson's short tether and later freeze in the supply reiterates the extent of dependence. While the hard handed approach adds to emotional appeal aspect, as the populace is reminded of the British Raj. The successful negotiation come as welcome move but the liberalisation exercise fails in garnering mass support, on the contrary draws a flak. The print media both national and regional further aids in the politicisation as election season kick off towards the last quarter of 1966.

Eventually the economic difficulties, handling of food crisis and the unpopular devaluation of the rupee caught up with Congress as it suffered severe losses barely managing a majority at 283 of 520 seats. In 8 of 17 states including Bihar, Congress lost control of state governments to the opposition.

The Weather Diplomacy of United States - From 'Grains to the Rain'

Exploring the Root Causes

The factors that led to or played out during the Bihar famine (1966-67) have been more or less discussed so far. The same can broadly be summed up as follows:

  1. Demand Vs. Supply - The 60s saw a massive 23% increase in the population. To meet that kind of demand there was almost negligible progress in the agricultural sector at least in the first half, even though the productivity levels gradually rose.
  2. Successive Droughts - 1965 & 66 droughts acted as the precursor, leading to productivity decline especially in Bihar state that was hardest hit.
  3. Entitlement Failure - Poor policies, lack of proper distribution mechanism, socio-economic factors and eventually the food shortage and inflation
  4. Centre-State Disconnect - Failure of both the state and the central authorities to make timely amends or even acknowledge the problem from get-go. Further complications in relief and other measures
  5. Politicisation of Famine - It's evident that famine was used as a political tool eyeing the upcoming elections. On international level as well the coercive diplomacy of President Johnson contributed to the same

Final Comments

Of all that went down the history of the estranged relationship of the two democracies - President Johnson's coercive diplomacy, the short-tether in particular dealt a serious blow not just to the popular opinion but the relationship in it entirety. Perhaps the domestic compulsions as well as well taking the heat of the Vietnam war would have been the underlying factors. However raising the anxieties of the masses at a critical time was uncalled for and rightly so it drew the ire of public and helped shape a more pro Soviet stance. Surely there were other factors that coincided with the critical period like the massive devaluation of the Indian currency - A highly unpopular move that too became part and parcel of the diplomacy. All these events deepened the mistrust in U.S. policies and also set the tone for the future Indo-US relations at least while Prime Minister Gandhi remained at the helm.

Though beyond an iota of doubt, the threat of an impending famine seems to have been equally utilized as political tool by the administrations of both Indira Gandhi and Lyndon B. Johnson. On the POTUS' part the obvious conclusion was, the benefits reaped out of the prolonged transactions of food for peace were far too little. India's population was growing at an exponential rate while the U.S. farm outputs had begun to shrink.

The idea of stressing on jargon of self-help, asking other nations to share the burden made it appear like an American strategy for humiliating India. At least that's how it was perceived and it also became the undertone of the political rhetoric, especially when the electioneering kicked off.

Ultimately India made it through to the 1967 monsoons. It rained plenty and the famine was averted. What made the crucial difference was the millions of tons of American wheat (by some est. 20% of the produce). So while the strings were seen as an imperialist plot, the fact is that they also steered the titanic away from the iceberg. How did we end up in that situation? Again that's a slippery slope with a whole lot introspection.

References and Further Reading

Brass, P. R. (1986). The Political Uses of Crisis: The Bihar Famine of 1966–1967. The Journal of Asian Studies, 45(2), 245–267. https://doi.org/10.2307/2055843

Myhrvold-Hanssen, T. L. (2003). Democracy, News Media, and Famine Prevention: Amartya Sen and The Bihar Famine of 1966-67

Dreze, J. (1991). Famine Prevention*. Disasters, 15(3), 265–270. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-7717.1991.tb00460.x

Office of the Historian. USAID and PL–480, 1961–1969. https://history.state.gov/milestones/1961-1968/pl-480

UNICEF India. (1966). Bihar Drought [Press Release]

Kux, D. (1994). Estranged Democracies: India and the United States, 1941-1991 (First ed.). SAGE Publications Pvt. Ltd.

Cullather, N. (2013). The Hungry World: America’s Cold War Battle against Poverty in Asia (Reprint / 1st Harvard University Press Pbk. Ed) (Illustrated ed.). Harvard University Press.

ITN. (1967, April 12). ITN Reporting 67: Famine in Bihar [Video]. https://www.gettyimages.in/detail/video/famine-in-bihar-shots-of-an-untouchable-villager-called-news-footage/827563978

Canada Sending More Food Aid To Help Avert Famine in India; Shipments of $15-Million Will Raise Value of Help Since '65 Began to $70-Million. (1965, December 30). The New York Times.https://www.nytimes.com/1965/12/30/archives/canada-sending-more-food-aid-to-help-avert-famine-in-india.html

Indian States Face Famine, Need 7 Million Tons of Grain. (1966, October 31). The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/1966/10/31/archives/indian-states-face-famine-need-7-million-tons-of-grain.html

Parasuram, T. V. (1966, November 22). Johnson Orders freeze on food aid commitments; Arm-twisting for privileges? The Indian Express. https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=P9oYG7HA76QC&dat=19661122&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

Lukas J. (1966, December 4). U.S. Delay on Food Puzzles Hungry India; Delay's Danger Influences on Johnson. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/1966/12/04/archives/us-delay-on-food-puzzles-hungry-india-delays-danger-influences-on.html

Lukas J. (1966, December 23). 200,000 Tons From Moscow; SOVIET PROVIDING WAEAT FOR INDIA. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/1966/12/23/archives/200000-tons-from-moscow-soviet-providing-waeat-for-india.html

Malhotra, I. (2010, July 12). Swallowing the humiliation. The Indian Express. http://archive.indianexpress.com/news/swallowing-the-humiliation/645168/

Sharma, R. (2019, March 27). Explained: How researchers used science to show Bengal famine was man-made. The Indian Express. https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/how-researchers-used-science-to-show-bengal-famine-was-man-made-5644326/

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Ashutosh Joshi

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