“Akka,” Umesh began, making eye contact through the rearview mirror as he expertly chauffeured the car down the highway, and I sat in the back seat, “there are no earthworms in our fields anymore.” Turning his eyes back to the road, he continued: “We have burned them all out with fertilizers.” Months after Umesh and I talked about dying earthworms, in 2018, I read newspaper reports on farmer suicides in Mandya villages. The small-scale sugarcane farmers who, according to Umesh, had killed off the earthworms were now killing themselves. Mandya district, especially the irrigated belt running through it, is among the most prosperous agrarian regions in the state of Karnataka, but it had witnessed the highest rates of farmer suicides that year. The local state-supported sugar factory had stopped buying the farmers’ cane, or had not paid for the cane procured from farmers. Moreover, water had not been released from the nearby Krishna Raja Sagar Dam to flow into the canals that irrigated the cane and rice fields of Mandya. Even if the water had been released, the canals had fallen into disrepair, far less effective than they were a decade earlier. The farmers, unable to finance their high-interest loans serviced by private money lenders, now faced the loss of their agrarian holdings that had been secured as debt collateral. Rather than lose face and give up their ancestral property, they had begun to kill themselves with the very chemicals they used on the sugarcane fields.
While I have no skills or interest in verifying declining earthworm populations as fact, I am far more interested Umesh’s narration of agrarian devastation. It wasn’t just the earthworms that were dying. Umesh was expressing that a whole life he had once known, and possibilities for other worlds, were fading. But this way of life that is dying is a product of modernization. Much of the modernization efforts in South India focused on fertility interventions on the land and people, in an effort to reach an equilibrium between agricultural productivity and population growth. These efforts, while briefly successful, have been counter-productive to the extent that Umesh is no longer able to farm the fields that belong to his family, and instead services Bangalore’s precarious upper-middle class, now driving that car with me in the backseat, chauffeured around to do fieldwork.
The 1876–1878 South Indian Famine
Between 1876 and 1878, the south Indian peninsula experienced a famine that, even by disaster-ridden eighteenth- and nineteenth-century colonial Indian standards, was unprecedented in its devastation. By 1879, anywhere from five-and-a-half to ten million persons were dead across Bombay and Madras presidencies and the princely states of Mysore and Hyderabad. According to some estimates, Mysore lost twenty percent of its population. The Bangalore-Mandya-Mysore districts, under differential colonial and princely state administrations, were hit particularly hard. Situated in a dry agrarian zone, these villages typically received only twenty-five to thirty-five inches of rain annually, and a delay or failure of the annual monsoons could be devastating. The river Cauvery, originating in the mountainous Western Ghats and flowing for nearly 800 kilometers into the Bay of Bengal, does not irrigate vast areas in Karnataka. Instead, farmers have historically relied on the monsoons, using a series of tanks that are replenished by the annual rains.
In 1874, rainfall in the Bangalore-Mandya-Mysore districts was unseasonably heavy, at forty-three inches. Farmers’ storage pits, where ragi (finger millet) was stored, were flooded, depleting a staple source of starch for the population. The following year, however, with just twenty-two inches of rain distributed unseasonably over the year, crops withered and farmers petitioned for relief from land taxes. The monsoons failed for the second consecutive year in 1876. By then villages were in acute distress. Merchants had started hoarding grain reserves, resulting in extraordinarily high food prices that exacerbated food shortages. Frederick Goodall, a contemporary observer, wrote that the first to be affected were landless laborers who arrived at the soup kitchens organized in the cities of Bangalore and Mysore. Subsequently, village artisans were affected. “The weaver had to put away his loom, the barber’s razor could not be employed.” The last to leave the villages were the farmers. On every road of the affected districts, hundreds lay dead by the wayside. Entire villages were emptied out and depopulated. In order to relieve population pressures and diseases from spreading in Bangalore, a “relief” camp was set in place, four miles from the city on the Madras road, to stop the hungry masses from coming into town. That, however, was ineffective. William Digby, secretary for the Indian Famine Relief, wrote that in Bangalore:
whichever way the eye turned, dead bodies were to be seen…When troops were marched to the shooting butts for rifle practice the soldiers were horrified with the sight of bodies of men, women and children, lying exposed and partly devoured by dogs and jackals.
The 1876–1878 famine was extensively photographed, and these photographs were key to the humanitarian efforts organized by a network of Indian Famine Relief Committees throughout cities in England, Scotland, and Australia. The most popular photographs of the famine were taken by William Willoughby Hooper, a minor British official previously employed by the Viceroy of British India to contribute to the ethnographic visual survey The People of India (1868–1875). In photographing famine victims, he herded “together starving, emaciated people for group photographs.” He allegedly posed unrelated people together, and upon completing his documentation, sent them away without providing assistance or participating himself in any relief effort. There is no information on the people who came to the relief camps or where they came from; the rural hinterlands, and by extension the people themselves, coalesce into one gigantic undifferentiated zone of retrograde and irreversible depredation.
In spite of the passivity implicit in the photographs, I am compelled by one of Hooper’s photographs, titled “Inmates of a Relief Camp in Madras (during the famine of 1876–1878).” It comprises eight nameless people—two women on a bench with a child each, a child seated on the floor, two men who sit upright, and a fourth so worn down that he lies on the floor, eyes staring into his palm upturned at his face. The two women, two men, and one child stare head-on at the camera. How did Hooper choose this group of individuals? What choreographic instructions did they receive from Hooper? Where was this photograph taken? Like the millions of South Indians victimized by the famine, these individuals remain without individuality. Who were they, and where did they come from? Did they survive, and where did they go? The archive is silent. There are no answers.
The woman at the center of the photograph haunts me. The haunting I experience resonates with sociologist Avery Gordon’s description of grappling with modern forms of dispossession, exploitation, and repression. Haunting, she says:
alters the experience of being in linear time, alters the way we normally separate and sequence the past, the present, and the future. These specters or ghosts appear when the trouble they represent and symptomize is no longer being contained or repressed or blocked from view…[The] whole essence…of a ghost is that it has a real presence and demands its due, demands your attention.
In Gordon’s formulation, the appearance of specters informs us that what is being suppressed or concealed is very much alive and present. The woman at the center of Hooper’s photograph looks indignant. She seems angry that she and her loved ones have suffered. She is angry at being photographed, and refuses the objectification of her suffering. Arms bending at the elbow, she rises from the bench on which she is seated to walk into my head, unbidden, furiously challenging me: You have shared my image. You have stared into my eyes and gazed at my emaciated body. Now that you have looked, what will you do? I am silent. I have no answers.
The famine was a humanitarian disaster initiated through the active implementation of laissez-faire policies. Instead of directing food to famine-stricken areas, colonial state liberal policies encouraged the export of food grains because they believed the best way to avert disaster was to deepen the free market. At the height of the 1876–1878 famine, as Mike Davis scathingly writes, “Londoners were in effect eating India’s bread.” Moreover, colonial administrators believed that relief camps nurtured dependence among the indigent. Richard Temple, as part of the famine delegation, recommended decreasing state spending because he believed that displaced persons employed in public works were receiving inordinately high wages, which had not attracted persons in a state of destitution, but rather those who wanted to take advantage of the largess of the colonial government. Food rations to famine victims were reduced to one pound of grain per day, on the supposition that “offering over-generous wages would ‘demoralize,’ and reduce people’s inclination to industry.” Davis incredulously notes that the reduced ration was even less than what was provided to those imprisoned in Buchenwald concentration camps.
Though contemporary commentators noted the failures of the colonial state in ameliorating the effects of monsoon failures, the widely-accepted understanding was that famine, disease, and death were an endemic part of Indian existence, and mass death was more visible only because of India’s overpopulation. By the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, millions of Indians had died. In addition to the South Indian famine of 1876–1878, the 1896 bubonic plague resulted in twelve million deaths by the late 1920s, and in the 1918–1919 influenza epidemic, upwards of twelve million people (and possibly as many as eighteen million) died from influenza or pneumonia and respiratory complications. In his confidential memorandum on famine expenses, dated June 24, 1881 and submitted to the Indian Viceroy Lord Ripon, Sir George Couper averred that famines were positive population checks that affected only the “lower” twenty percent of the population, composed of laborers, beggars, potters, and weavers. Although these classes died faster than any other segments of society, Couper writes that “still they reproduce themselves with sufficient rapidity to overcrowd every employment that is opened to them.” Couper predicted dire consequences if attempts were not made to provide “safeguards against their reproduction.”
As the famine began making headlines in the British popular press, some commentators turned to Malthusian explanations, believing that exponential growth in Indian population could not be adequately supported by food production. Famine death was cast not as a problem of resource distribution and free-market enterprise, but rather as the result of an over-abundance of people. Theosophist and women’s rights activist Annie Beasant, for example, said the famine “offered a glimpse of a dystopian global future,” which turned birth control into Britain’s “imperial responsibility to the world.”
Modernization of Mysore, 1880–1931
In the four years since I have become familiar with Hooper’s South Indian famine photographs, I have asked friends and family in Bangalore about the famine. No one remembers. In spite of the wide circulation of these photographs, there is no popular memory of the famine. When I visit Bangalore, I look for commemorations, memorials, and other sorts of markers. I find none. The commemoratives and memorials to the famine, I now realize, are the modernization projects that were rolled out after the famine. Like colonial state administrators, the Wadiyar ruling family of the Mysore princely state recognized that something had to be done to ameliorate the immensity of human suffering. Mysore’s modernization projects targeted land, cattle, and people. This culminated in 1930–1931 with the inauguration of the Krishna Raja Sagar (KRS) dam, scientific agriculture, the first cattle-breeding station, and four birth control clinics.
To modernize its infrastructure, the princely state of Mysore recruited Sir M. Visvesvaraya in 1909. Originally from the district of Mandya, where Umesh and his family now live, Visvesyaraya was enticed to return home to exercise his engineering genius. Building on his extensive experience with gravity masonry dams—including projects in Aden, Yemen, the Bombay Presidency, and the princely state of Hyderabad, in addition to his in situ studies of the Aswan Low Dam in Egypt—Visveswaraya drew plans for the KRS dam. First, however, he had to raise funds for the dam’s construction, and lobby British colonial administrators who worried that the dam would negatively affect Madras Presidency further downstream on the Cauvery river.
Construction of the dam began in November 1911 with 10,000 workers, many of whom were displaced farmers from Mandya and Mysore, who had once again suffered as a result of failed monsoons in 1910–1911. They were employed in the public relief efforts to build the dam that was supposed to eventually redeem them from the vagaries of the weather. Completed in 1931, the KRS dam was subsequently described by Visveswaraya as a miniature Tennessee Valley Authority Scheme. It supplied electricity to the Kolar gold fields, cotton mills, and other industries in Bangalore and Mysore; electricity for homes in a large number of towns and villages in southern Karnataka; irrigation for an additional 100,000 acres of land, which led to the extensive cultivation of sugarcane; and, finally, the establishment of the Mysore sugar mill, at that time one of the largest mills of its kind in India.
If the KRS dam was to fulfill its potential, it had to be accompanied with other modernizing interventions, including converting masses of tradition-bound peasants into forward-thinking farmers, who would practice scientific agriculture and participate robustly in land and agricultural markets. Princely state officials perceived villagers as having irrational “attachment to estates acquired by ancestors.” For agriculture to be modernized, farmers had to be taught to see land as an asset that could be bought and sold, in order to use that cash for other productive activities. Similarly, they were urged to be rational about their fruit trees and livestock. As Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV, the raja of Mysore, maintained, the farmer needed to learn the lesson of selection. He had to understand “that it pays him better to feed one good cow than two poor ones, when he learns to select his seed, his poultry, his fruit trees and his implements, we shall be one great step forward on the road of rural reconstruction.” A cattle-breeding station was established in 1930 to scientifically breed bulls for the benefit of the farmers. The newly established Department of Agriculture recommended the replacement of “scrub cattle” with the carefully cultivated Amrit Mahal breed. It was not quantity but quality that mattered—and that quality was to be achieved through modern scientific methods.
Ideas of science pervaded not just agricultural and industrial practices but also human reproduction. Dewan Rangacharlu, chief minister of the Mysore princely state, tied overpopulation to hampered production in his address to the very first session of the Mysore State Representative Assembly in 1881. By 1930 three birth control clinics were established in the towns of Bangalore, Mandya, and Mysore, making the Mysore government the first in the world to sponsor birth control clinics. These birth control clinics were not standalone buildings, but were accommodated within larger government hospitals. Given the rubric of selection in all other aspects of life, it should come as no surprise that the history of birth control advocacy in India is intimately tied to eugenics. Widely popular around the world in the early 1900s, eugenics was the distinguished new science of human improvement. Feminist movements, progressive causes, and various social reformers around the world also averred that populations of people could be improved to advance humankind. The Maharaja of Mysore, given his reformist and scientific proclivities, generously donated to the Eugenics Education Society in London in May 1920. Prominent Indians founded associations, such as the Madras Neo-Malthusian League in 1928, and promoted eugenic contraceptive use among their members. The princely state’s birth control clinics were embedded in a network of societies, such as the Indian Eugenics Society, the Sholapur Eugenics Education Society, and the Society for the Study and Promotion of Family Hygiene, which concerned themselves with eugenic education and provision of birth control to their members.
Indians were active consumers of mass-produced contraceptives advertised to affluent couples from the 1920s onwards. Some Indian eugenicists used the new science for anti-colonial purposes, asserting that “Indians could manage their own reproduction and in so doing breed a better India.” To be clear, eugenic practices at that time were not directed towards poor and marginalized castes. Instead, eugenics focused on improving human “quality” among educated, privileged Indians through the practice of birth control. The modern Indian wife was to limit and space out the birth of her children in order to maximize parental efforts to raise the best possible modern citizens of a new India.
Post-Independence India and Problematic Populations, 1947–1978
While ideas of scientific progress and human advancement had recently been used in place of political change to deal with the threat of widespread death, India’s independence in 1947 was heralded with a series of “natural” disasters. England’s colonial World War II policies resulted in widespread famine and death in Bengal in 1943 and 1946, and the monsoons failed in the early 1960s. Once again, as in the 1876–1878 famine, India’s population became the center for global concern. This time around, however, eugenics had faded from popular discourse in the wake of Nazi atrocities during World War II. Instead, “eugenics in South Asia…simply started calling itself by a new name: ‘population control.’”
For US national security officials, the main concern was that food shortages, coupled with India’s overpopulation, would make conditions ripe for the rise of communism. Between 1954 and 1965, India received $30 billion in agricultural assistance from US President Lyndon Johnson, following a “short leash” protocol in which every shipment of food had to be approved on a monthly basis and only if certain parameters, including progress on population control, were met. By the 1960s, with the support of the Population Council, the Ford Foundation, and the World Bank, India instituted the world’s largest state-sponsored family program. The first large-scale effort to control population was initiated through widespread distributions of intrauterine devices. In spite of cash incentives, Indian women were unwilling to accept the risks posed by facilities and inadequately-trained medical providers, which had caused large numbers of treated women to suffer intense pain, prolonged bleeding, severe pelvic infections, ectopic pregnancies, and infertility. In the 1970s, vasectomies were the preferred method for population control because of the comparative ease of the surgery.
In 1975–1977, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency and suspended India’s constitution. Along with widespread political repression, large numbers of Muslim men were rounded up and forcibly sterilized. Post-emergency, from 1977 onwards, the Indian state no longer subsidized vasectomies, as sterilization of men had become politically sensitive. Instead, tubal ligation for women became the preferred method for controlling population. Bangalore’s public health administrators explained how sterilization camps operated:
government-run schools in small towns were converted into temporary medical camps for fifty to one hundred women, who were then bused in from surrounding villages. To increase acceptance rates, women were given incentives in either cash or kind such as kitchen utensils. The women were sterilized serially in temporary operation rooms that were essentially classrooms for schoolchildren. Generators too were bused in to provide electricity needed in the makeshift operation room. After surgery the women rested in the camp for a couple of days in order to be observed for any complications that might develop, and then bused back home. The camps were then disbanded and reopened elsewhere to access a new group of rural women.
India’s development paradigm during the 1970s was neatly captured in the Hindi phrase “Garibi Hatao,” or “Eradicate Poverty.” Launched as the theme of Indira Gandhi’s 1971 election campaign, the slogan came to stand for a series of anti-poverty programs envisioned in India’s fifth Five Year Plan (1974–1978). But instead of working as an anti-poverty measure, India’s population control policies acted as measures against poor people. Instead of eradicating poverty, population programs focused on eradicating the poor.
Population control was coupled with a focus on increased food production through Green Revolution interventions. Beginning in Punjab, hybrid varieties of wheat were introduced in the 1950s and 1960s. Green Revolution agricultural interventions came later to the Mandya region in the 1970s and 1980s, with a focus on rice cultivation. The International Rice Research Institute, headquartered in the Philippines, drew from varieties in China, Taiwan, Japan, and Indonesia to develop hybrid rice varieties suitable for the tropical conditions of India. Today, researchers conclude that the adoption of Green Revolution agrarian principles (relying on hybrid varieties that are resource-hungry and pesticide-dependent) has resulted in the loss of indigenous crops and varieties, loss of soil nutrients, increased use of pesticides, shifts to unsustainable farming practices, debt accumulation by farmers to finance the high input demands of hybrid cultivars, and farming community crises when crops fail and debts cannot be repaid. Some observers note that farmer suicides are far higher in regions targeted for Green Revolution developments than in other parts of India.
The Mandya-Mysore-Bangalore region had come full circle, from the 1876–1878 famine to the eventual economic wreckage apparent in rural communities due to the Green Revolution; subsequently, structural adjustment programs were inaugurated in India in the 1990s. Growing up in Bangalore in the 1970s and 1980s, my cousins and I went on vacations to the mountains of Coorg, where our extended family grew coffee. On our slow and drawn-out car rides to the mountains, we passed through Mandya’s lush green rice and sugarcane fields, the property lines dotted with coconut palms. Depending on the season and the time of the day, off in the distance from the highway, we’d see smoke rising into the evening skies, as the air filled with the sweet fragrance of cane juice cooked into jaggery.
Like most farming families in Mandya district, Umesh’s extended family grew sugar cane and rice in a village beyond the national highway I traversed as a child. Umesh’s father was an engineer and worked in Bombay in the 1980s, but upon his mother’s death, heartbroken that he was unable to make it to her cremation on time, he quit his job. He related to me that his heart belonged in Mandya. Just like Sir M. Visveswaraya, who left Bombay to return to his home in Mandya and work for Mysore in 1909, Umesh’s father also left Bombay for his native lands. When he returned, he inherited six acres of irrigated, and therefore valuable, land, which he believed was adequate to support himself, his wife, and their children, Umesh and his sister. Umesh’s father could not have predicted, however, the structural adjustment programs that would be implemented in India in 1990.
By the 1990s, import substitution development policies were replaced with export-oriented growth national policies. Over the next decade, Bangalore’s information sector grew exponentially, and Mandya’s lush agricultural fields withered under economic reforms meant to finance India’s debt. Along with the devaluation of the rupee and reductions in public investment, subsidies for food and fertilizers were slashed, while high-tech productive activities, namely software engineering and information technology, became the economic lodestars in India’s new export-intensive growth. Agricultural inputs, so essential for the hybrid crops introduced since the Green Revolution, were no longer subsidized. The Mysugar factory, planned by Sir M. Visveswaraya and built in 1931 to buy cane from the farmers in Mandya and make sugar, was reduced by the 1990s to only erratic production, and had already ceased to buy locally-grown sugarcane. Today, it is no longer in operation, and the Karnataka government is planning to lease out the factory to a local politician.
While many towns and villages in India have a statue of Mahatma Gandhi, in almost every Mandya village there is a statue of Visveswaraya’s likeness with the Mysore peta (turban) on his head. For Mandya farmers, Sir M. Visveswaraya is a revered figure, a local man who traveled the world and triumphantly returned home to make life better for all of them. His statue almost always sits by the village temple, freshly and vibrantly painted, often decorated with flowers for annual festivals. But Visveswaraya’s visions for a modernized and self-sufficient Mandya have faded. The irrigation canals from the KRS dam have run dry. The sugar factory, once the largest of its kind in India, lies in disrepair.
Recent studies using satellite imagery and socioeconomic variables reveal declines in cultivated land in and around rural Bangalore. Built environments have increased, and the water bodies that mark rural landscapes in Bangalore-Mandya-Mysore have shrunk over time. Young people like Umesh find that farming is no longer economically viable. Umesh’s parents could not finance his education beyond high school. After working in the fields alongside his father, who had trained as an engineer, Umesh migrated to Bangalore, approximately one hundred kilometers away. Umesh often tells me that he still wants to be a farmer, but he cannot support his family on what he earns on the farm. His wife and child stay back in Mandya, while he is employed as a chauffeur for various upper-middle class families to supplement his household income. Our paths cross because of his work. He drives the car, and I sit in the backseat. As he drives, he tells me stories of agrarian decline, inevitably the stories of his own family’s economic decline—dying earthworms, no markets for the cane his family grows, and farmers who commit suicide in desperate attempts to avoid losing their ancestral farms to money lenders.
Exhausted is a collaboration between SALT and e-flux Architecture, supported by L’internationale and the Prince Claus Fund.
Sharmila Rudrappa is professor of Sociology and director of the South Asia Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. She is author of Discounted Life: The Price of Global Surrogacy in India (New York University Press, 2015).