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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.

In this article, you'll learn all about the Bihar Famine of India, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson's response to it, PL-480 and more.

In this article, you'll learn all about the Bihar Famine of India, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson's response to it, PL-480 and more.

Reflections on 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 the 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 the 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 the 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 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 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 raise doubts over its existence, while others rebuff it as a mere political construct. Besides, the case study provides context for 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 the precedent for the future course of Indo-U.S. relations and the tilt towards the Soviet sphere. The one takeaway in all this is, India strived hard and achieved self-sufficiency in food production within a short period of time. That being said, the war on hunger is still far from 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 Public Law 480 Aid

As the young democracy of India was ushered into a new era under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru, much of its capital was invested in industrial development. Agricultural output increased despite challenges and a lack of indulgence and incentives from the government. However, it failed to match the growing demands of a booming population.

The United States Government (USG) 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 the Kennedy administration, it entered the foreign policy space with 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 PL-480 Meant for the 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 of the surplus produce that was a 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
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What PL-480 Meant for India

PL-480 supplies proved to be both a boon and a bane. On the 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). On the other, 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 things Indian, the politicians and bureaucracy became habitual.

From Eisenhower through the initial period of the 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, the Government of India announced that it had decided to cancel all grain imports from the US. This came even before the expiration of the existing PL-480 agreement. The decision followed as a response to the US suspension of economic aid to India in the aftermath of the '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 main precursor to the major Indian famines. Adherence to traditional methods and overreliance on monsoons have led to crop failures and a massive decline in food productivity. Even though that's just one aspect of a complicated story, the Bihar famine was no different in this regard.

After the failure of two consecutive summer monsoons or rainy seasons in the years 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 back-breaking droughts were a recipe for certain chaos. Furthermore, socioeconomic factors, mismanagement and apathy of government added to the woes of the suffering populace.

The Situation on the 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 than 30 % of normal. The impact on the livestock had been equally worst. Let alone the farming needs, there was a 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 the 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, similar 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 the 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, the 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 a crucial difference. Help also poured in from Australia, Canada and even the Soviet Union.

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 fertilizer 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 HYV were imported from Mexico. Under the leadership of Food and Agriculture Minister C. Subramaniam, the foundation of India's Green Revolution had been laid, which 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 things began to change. The 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 the PL-480 program had ended. But when the time for renewal arrived the next year, the 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, thereby bringing the routine supply to a halt.

The abrupt policy change was not just a major shift but rather a drastic measure that was likely to have serious ramifications, especially considering the prevailing drought situation that the 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 a monthly basis. A nearly '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 hardball and holding onto the shipments in order to push India towards adopting agricultural reforms.


Strategic Withholding of Supplies

From November 1965 onwards the presidential approval of aid on a month-to-month basis was put in place, which saw a temporary relaxation in March o the following year. The change followed PM Gandhi's visit to Washington in March 1966. Things looked up as she returned to securing the additional grain supplies along with commitments (supposedly on a quid pro quo basis) that were to pave the path for India's economic progress. This was a 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 Congress to approve additional aid to the tune of 3.5 million tons, but he 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 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.

On August 23, 1966, US Aid Administrator Bell, as well as Secretaries Freeman and Rusk, urged the release of 2.5 million tons of wheat to avoid breaks in the supply. The President refused to act, and 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, he also paid no heed, after being informed of a possible break in the food supply in early 1967. Even the American press – including the New York Times and Washington Post – criticised the US pressure tactics on a country facing a famine situation.

On November 4, 1966, the 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 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

On November 25, 1966, the 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. This was how the Treaty of Rome was inked. It outlined the steps India would take to boost its food production. The treaty was kept under secrecy to avoid any further complications, in particular the suggestion of the United States pressuring India.

Later that November, Johnson also sent a hand-picked team of agricultural experts (mostly senators and congressmen) to make an assessment of the 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. The President was happy with the turnaround and approved 1.5 million tons of wheat in an agreement, along with a 50 million USD fertilizer commodity loan.

On December 22, 1966, Johnson authorized the release of 900,000 tons of PL-480 wheat. Even though it was four months after the initial memorandum recommending the same, this was crucial to ensure a break in the supply chain. The timing couldn't have been better, considering it was just two months until the great Indian showdown. It was also PM Gandhi's first electoral battle.

Early the following year, keeping in line with the commitments ahead, Johnson even had the World Bank organize the Food for India Consortium to push possible donors. The critical phase had eventually come to pass and the crisis had been averted. There were 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."

In another instance, he also quotes the 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 of whether or not there was actually a famine situation provides for further case studies by scholars/academics as well as political scientists/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 the view that this was a success story of the 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 state leadership seem to have taken priority. As political scientist Paul R. Brass in his 1986 study, stressing the politicisation aspect, explained, "conflict between the central and state governments provided grounds for a food scarcity and deprivation to be identified as a famine."

Bihar had its own Bihar Famine and Flood Relief Code of 1957. It states that '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 desperately. Emotional appeals are always the most impactful. Johnson's short tether and later freeze in the supply reiterates the extent of dependence.

The hard-handed approach adds to the emotional appeal aspect, as it reminds the populace of the British Raj. The successful negotiation comes as a welcome move but the liberalisation exercise fails in garnering mass support, and on the contrary, draws flak. The print media at both national and regional levels further aids in the politicisation as election season kicks off towards the last quarter of 1966.

Eventually, the economic difficulties, handling of the 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. They can be 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 and 66 droughts acted as the precursor, leading to productivity decline especially in Bihar state that was the hardest hit.
  3. Entitlement Failure – Poor policies, lack of proper distribution mechanism, socioeconomic 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 the get-go. Further complications in relief and other measures
  5. Politicisation of Famine – It's evident that famine was used as a political tool for eyeing the upcoming elections. On an international level as well the coercive diplomacy of President Johnson contributed to the same

Final Comments

Of all that went down in the history of the two democracies' estranged relationship, President Johnson's coercive diplomacy, the short-tether in particular, dealt a serious blow not just to popular opinion but the relationship in its entirety. Perhaps domestic compulsions, as well as taking the heat of the Vietnam War, would have been underlying factors.

However, raising the anxieties of the masses at a critical time was uncalled for and it rightly drew the ire of the 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. This was a highly unpopular move that too became part and parcel of the diplomacy. All these events deepened 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 a political tool by the administrations of both Indira Gandhi and Lyndon B. Johnson. On the POTUS's part, the obvious conclusion was that 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 the 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 of 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.

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.

Office of the Historian. USAID and PL–480, 1961–1969.

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].

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.

Indian States Face Famine, Need 7 Million Tons of Grain. (1966, October 31). The New York Times.

Parasuram, T. V. (1966, November 22). Johnson Orders freeze on food aid commitments; Arm-twisting for privileges? The Indian Express.

Lukas J. (1966, December 4). U.S. Delay on Food Puzzles Hungry India; Delay's Danger Influences on Johnson. The New York Times.

Lukas J. (1966, December 23). 200,000 Tons From Moscow; SOVIET PROVIDING WAEAT FOR INDIA. The New York Times.

Malhotra, I. (2010, July 12). Swallowing the humiliation. The Indian Express.

Sharma, R. (2019, March 27). Explained: How researchers used science to show Bengal famine was man-made. The Indian Express.

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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