Bihar Famine (1951) through the Eyes of Werner Bischof

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    As the government jeep made its way into a village in North Bihar in April 1951, an emaciated old woman called out helplessly, "Baba morecho?" ("Sir, we are dying"). It was a moment Werner Bischof carried with him for the rest of his life.

    Bischof, a Swiss photographer and founding member of Magnum Photos, built a formidable reputation when he documented the devastation in Europe after the Second World War. He was now in India on assignment for Life magazine, which had asked him to report on the famine in Eastern India.

    In letters to his wife Rosellina, he wrote how the accounts of people starving in Bihar had disturbed him. He was convinced that a photographic report on the famine would alert the public and, perhaps, help in some way: "On Monday, I start working on the famine story – not an easy task because the government doesn't like having this documented. In the long run, I don't think anyone can overlook these images of hunger, that people can ignore all my pictures – no, definitely not. And even if only a vague impression remains, in time, this will create a basis that will help people distinguish between what is good and what is objectionable."

    One of Bischof's most iconic photographs of the famine was of a mother with a child in her arms. It spoke of quiet despair and utter hopelessness. The image prompted a letter from Edward Steichen, then the curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, who thought the picture would prompt politicians to act.

    Bischof had done his research on the economy and lives of the people in the region before coming to Bihar to document the calamity. The photographs he took illustrated both the grief-stricken people and the movement of food grains – from their unloading at the Calcutta dockyard to their journey to Patna via railroad and finally to the province's interiors via bullock cart.

    Taking food grains to North Bihar, a region prone to recurrent floods, and where Bischoff had shot most of his photographs, was even more difficult as there was no bridge over the Ganga, which divided North and South Bihar. The food grains had to be unloaded from the railway near Mokama Ghat in Patna district, carried across the Ganga on small boats to the Simaria Ghat in Begusarai. They would travel further via rail to Samastipur and finally to Muzaffarpur and Darbhanga.

    Bischof's photographs, published with an article in the May 1951 issue of the Life magazine, brought to light these difficulties, especially in the context of the impending monsoon that further complicated transport routes. In the context of the Cold War, the article showed the strategic intentions of America, which sought to counter the communist influence in India as much as it sought materials like monazite (to be used in atomic research) in return for food grains.

    In Delhi, the government did not want to spend its foreign reserves buying food grains from the United States and Russia. Furthermore, the Partition of India had led to the transfer of parts of Punjab and Bengal which were significant for wheat and rice production to Pakistan. And, there was a growing pressure for land reforms. The national planning, in order to confront these problems, however, concentrated more on infrastructural improvements and technological advancements. It sought to deal with the scarcity of food by regulating markets and rationing food.

    Unlike the Bengal famine of 1943, when the crisis in food sufficiency had become a rallying cry for national independence, in the new postcolonial regime, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and K M Munshi, Food Minister at the beginning of 1951, were urging people to skip meals and change their dietary patterns.

    The government’s shaky response, when people were being forced to grind jute leaves to feed themselves, was attracting much criticism in the media. An editorial in The Times of India sarcastically remarked that the starvation deaths in Bihar were the victims' fault because they refused to change their dietary habits and refused to eat grass and leaves. Shankar's Weekly, a New Delhi-based satirical magazine, showed a caricature of K M Munshi surveying skeletal Biharis as they gnawed on trees, holding a proclamation to "eat more vegetables".

    Bischof's photographs of thin and emaciated men sleeping on the pavement and despairing women waiting to hear their name on the ration list represented the stark realities on the ground. One can perhaps also see these photographs in conjunction with Hindi writer Phanishwar Nath Renu's article Haddiyon ka Pul, published in Janata magazine in 1950, which showed people's fraught relationship with the new independent India. The winding movement of a train on a distant bridge in Renu's narrative came as both hope and despair as the grain barely reached those who needed it.

    In many cases, starvation deaths were followed by the visit of government officials and a surgeon, who conducted an autopsy on the deceased. The discovery of even an ounce of grain in the stomach meant that the person had not died of starvation!

    In the decades leading to Indian independence, when the problem of food sufficiency and hunger was so acute in Bihar, John Houlton, a retired ICS officer, in his book Bihar: The Heart of India (1949) was writing about the region's rich historical antiquities and its potential to become an industrial hub. Another major book, Bihar Through Ages (1957), published under the editorship of then Governor of Bihar R R Diwakar, while recounted Bihar’s history from ancient to modern times, and touched on the aspects of famines during colonial times, it said nothing about the looming famine on the cusp of independence.

    In addition, it is ironic that many government reports and enquiries have stated Bihar as the second-best governed state in 1950.

    The statement is generally attributed to one Paul Appleby, a consultant to the Ford Foundation, who had visited India in 1950. But, as Bibek Debroy has shown in an article there was no mention of Bihar as the second-best governed state in any of Appleby’s reports (1953 and 1956) or research papers.

    Given this amnesia and the fact that many economists claim that Bihar has one of the highest child malnutrition rates in the world, it is reason enough to revisit Werner Bischof's photographs that he took just after India’s independence. A group of boys and girls running after a government jeep - the subject matter of one of Bischof's photographs - is a scene you might encounter even today in the state's interiors. It speaks of the distance and disparity between the world of privilege and one of exploitation that was as much a part of Bihar as it is today.

    All photos courtesy of Werner Bischof Estate

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