Chronicles Of Starvation & Death

Victims of the Madras famine by Willoughby Wallace Hooper, 1877 (Images: Public Domain)
India has 196.4 million undernourished people, the highest in the world. It's a hidden humanitarian crisis.

Nearly 140 years ago, Willoughby Wallace Hooper, a British officer and photographer, wielded his camera, documenting the Great Famine of 1876-78. His photographs, documenting death and starvation, are difficult and devastating. Below are a few of his photographs. 




Hooper’s ‘subjects’ all look emaciated. On the verge of death, their bones are more visible than the rest of their features. But the extreme starvation depicted in the photographs was not the outcome of a natural calamity. It resulted from flawed colonial policies – food grains were exported to Britain and taxes were increased on food grains. As a result, the prices of food grains went up drastically, leaving millions of poor Indians starving.

Dr William Cornish, the Surgeon General of Madras, had publicly criticized the government. Lamenting about its inaction, he wrote:

Words could only ‘feebly represent the actual facts’, but a photograph would help members of the government to ‘see the living skeletons assembled at feeding houses as I see them’.

Hooper’s photographs documenting the Madras Famine seem staged and were unlikely to be taken for humanitarian reasons. But they evoked a strong sense of repugnance amongst the conscientious. A letter published in the Melbourne daily ‘The Argus’ illustrated how people were reacting to Hooper’s images.

Some of them are almost too painful to look upon. They are eloquent in proof of the worst we have yet heard of this dreadful calamity. I do not think, Sir, that the most tenacious money-lover could look upon these indisputable evidences of human suffering without experiencing the impulse to do something in the way of alleviation.

Despite this, the governor-general, Lord Lytton, chose to have a ‘hands-off approach’, discouraged relief work and announced:

There will be no interference of any kind by the part of Government with the object of reducing the price of food.

The enormous cost of human suffering was borne by the poor and the marginalised. Resigned to their fate, their flesh decimated by hunger, their skeletons visible through their skin, they starved to death because of an indifferent colonial government, apathetic to the suffering of millions of people.

Around ten million people died in the famine, largely as a result of cholera and starvation.


Two centuries later, history repeats itself, over and over again. In September 2017, during the Durga Puja, while the country celebrated the conquest of good over evil, 11-year old Santoshi Kumari from Simdega district of Jharkhand starved to death.

Eight days of holidays meant Santoshi did not have access to free food offered to her at school as part of the Government’s mid-day meal programme. With no rice in the house, Santoshi and her family had no food to eat for nearly six days. Begging her mother for a morsel of food, she died of extreme hunger and starvation. Her last words were ‘Bahat, Bahat’ (meaning food, food).

Santoshi’s mother, Koyli Devi, lives in dire poverty. Her husband, a mentally disabled person, is unable to work. Along with her twenty-year-old daughter, Koyli Devi tries to find manual work in the village, earning about 80-90 ($2) rupees a week. With no job opportunities or land, extreme poverty is a constant companion to Koyli’s family.

The family were entitled to receive basic rations, guaranteed under the National Food Security Act, through the Public Distribution System, a programme set up to ensure food security for those living in extreme poverty. But the family had not received the rations for months. On top of that, on July 22, 2017, the family’s ration card was cancelled. The reason – their ration cards were not “seeded” or linked to their Aadhaar, a twelve digit biometric authentication number that the Government of India wants every resident to have.

The Government and the ruling party, the BJP, made their best efforts to obfuscate the facts, claiming that Santoshi had died of malaria. But, in a series of video interviews linked below, an emaciated Koyli Devi held her child in her hand and narrated her tragic loss.

Insisting that Aadhaar be mandatorily linked to ration cards is a flawed policy. Many villages across India are not able to link their Aadhaar to ration cards due to lack of electricity and insufficient networks.

The lack of a biometric identification starved a child to death. This is not an isolated incident. In Jharkhand alone, over one million families are deprived of their food entitlements each month because of not linking their Aadhaar to their ration cards.

India’s insensitive, inept bureaucracy and apathetic policies continue to deprive millions of poor people of their food entitlements. Apathy to marginalised sections of the society is not restricted to the bureaucracy alone. It runs deep in the Indian society. Instead of empathising with the Koyli Devi for losing her child due to starvation, people in Koyli Devi’s village hounded her out of her house and threatened her with dire consequences. The reason – she defamed the village by speaking to the media. Koyli sought refuge at an activist’s home.


Seventy years after Independence, despite being self-sufficient in food production, India has 196.4 million undernourished people, the highest in the world, according to a 2015 report by Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations. The 2017 Global Hunger Index ranks India 97 out of the 118 countries.

Despite having the largest child-nutrition programme in the world, over a third of the world’s malnourished children live in India. Nearly half the children under three weigh less than they should. Two decades of economic growth have failed to secure better nutrition for its children. Over 3000 children die in India every day due to malnutrition. India faces a serious hunger problem. It’s a hidden humanitarian crisis. Yet, it is a reality that many are reluctant to talk about. As a cacophony of voices praises economic growth, lamentations for social justice are muffled.

Much like Hooper, today’s profit-driven corporate media reports on the story for a few days and moves on to another. Much like the starving poor in the Hooper’s photograph, Santoshi Kumari’s story will be relegated to the archives of history as chronicles of starvation and death continue – unabated.

This is the state of the nation. Does the nation want to acknowledge?


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