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There were 14 famines in India between 11th and 17th century (Bhatia, 1985). For example, during the 1022-1033 Great famines in India entire provinces were depopulated. Famine in the Deccan and Gujarat killed at least 2 million people in 1630-32. Drought in India has resulted in tens of millions of deaths over the course of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Indianmarker agriculture is heavily dependent on the climate of India: a favorable southwest summer monsoon is critical in securing water for irrigating Indian crops. In the past, droughts have periodically led to major Indian famines, including the Bengal famine of 1770, the Chalisa famine, the Doji bara famine, the Great Famine of 1876–78; and the Bengal famine of 1943. "The prospect of a devastating famine every few years was inherent in India's ecology"

The last near-famines were the Bihar starvation in December 1966 and a drought in Maharashtramarker in 1970-1973. Green Revolution has since improved yields significantly.

Famines under British rule

From the earliest endeavours of the British East India Company on the Subcontinent but especially since 1857—the year of the first major Indian rebellion against British rule—the British Raj, as the British governing body was known after 1857, had instituted a widespread series of mercantilist economic rules intended to foster a favourable balance of trade for Britainmarker relative to the Subcontinent as well as other colonies, which had a dramatic impact on the economic milieu within India. Because of these effects and the Raj's role as the supreme governing body within India, contemporary scholars such as Romesh Dutt in 1900—who had himself witnessed the famines first-hand—and present-day scholars such as Amartya Sen agree, that the famines were a product both of uneven rainfall and British economic and administrative policies. These policies had, since 1857, led to the seizure and conversion of local farmland to foreign-owned plantations, restrictions on internal trade, heavy taxation of Indians to support British expeditions in Afghanistanmarker like the Second Anglo-Afghan War, inflationary measures that increased the price of food, and substantial exports of staple crops from India to Britain. (Dutt, 1900 and 1902; Srivastava, 1968; Sen, 1982; Bhatia, 1985.) In the century preceding, the first Bengal famine of 1770 is estimated to have taken nearly one-third of the population. In 1865-66, severe drought struck Orissamarker and was met by British official inaction. Secretary of State for India Lord Salisbury later regretted,

Some British citizens such as William Digby agitated for policy reforms and famine relief, but Lord Lytton, the governing British viceroy in India, opposed such changes in the belief that they would stimulate shirking by Indian workers. Reacting against calls for relief during the 1877-79 famine, Lytton replied, "Let the British public foot the bill for its 'cheap sentiment,' if it wished to save life at a cost that would bankrupt India," substantively ordering "there is to be no interference of any kind on the part of Government with the object of reducing the price of food," and instructing district officers to "discourage relief works in every possible way.... Mere distress is not a sufficient reason for opening a relief work." (quoted in Davis 2001:31, 52) The Famine Commission of 1880 observed that each province in British India, including Burmamarker, had a surplus of food grains, and the annual surplus amounted to 5.16 million tons (Bhatia, 1970). At that time, annual export of rice and other grains from India was approximately one million tons. At about the same time the British devised the first ever famine scales and engaged themselves in a series of canal building and irrigation improvements. The results were that the mortality rate decreased rapidly. There was the threat of famine but after 1902 there was no major famine in India until 1943. In 1907 and in 1874 the response from the British was better: in both cases rice was imported abroad and famine was averted.

The famines continued until Independence in 1948, with the Bengal famine of 1943-44 being among the most devastating, killing 6-7 million during World War II [174514].

British response

The first major famine that took place under British rule was the Bengal Famine of 1770. About a quarter to a third of the population of Bengal starved to death in about a ten month period. East India Company's raising of taxes disastrously coincided with this famine and exacerbated it even if the famine was not caused by the British regime .

Following this famine ‘’Successive British governments were anxious not to add to the burden of taxation” .

In 1866 the rains failed again in Bengal and Orissa. Food was rushed into the famine stricken zones. The result of which was that the famine was alleviated in Bengal although a Monsoon in Orissa forced the closure of the harbour. As a result food could not be imported into Orissa as easily as Bengal

In 1874 the response from the British authorities was better. Famine was completely averted. Then in 1876 a huge famine broke out in Madras. Lord Lytton's administration believed that 'market forces alone would suffice to feed the starving Indians' . Beatty Balfour wrote in her book, Lord Lytton's Indian Administration that:

In the despatch addressed to the Duke of Buckingham, in which the Viceroy announced his intention of visiting the famine districts of Madras and Mysores, the general principles for the management of famine affairs were once more laid down. After stating that the Government of India, with approval of Her Majesty’s Government, were resolved to avert death by starvation by the employment of all means available, the Viceroy first expressed his conviction that ‘absolute non-interference with the operations of private commercial enterprise must be the foundation of their present famine policy.’ This on the ground that ‘free and abundant trade cannot co-exist with Government importation’ and that more food will reach the famine stricken districts if private enterprise is left to itself (beyond receiving every possible facility and information from the government) than if it were paralysed by Government competition.

The results of such thinking proved fatal (some 5.5 million starved ) and so such a policy was abandoned. Lord Lytton established the Famine Insurance Grant, a system in which, in times of financial surplus, Rs. 1,500,000 would be applied to famine relief works. The results of this were that the British prematurely assumed that the problem of famine had been solved forever which made future British viceroys complacent (which proved disastrous in 1896) . Lord Curzon tried to alleviate the famine, he spent Rs. 68,000,000 (about £10,000,000) to try and reduce the effects of the famine and, at its peak, 4.5 million people were on famine relief. However, Curzon did state that:

Any government which imperiled the financial position of Indiamarker in the interests of prodigal philanthropy would be open to serious criticism; but any government which by indiscriminate alms-giving weakened the fiber and demoralized the self-reliance of the population, would be guilty of a public crime.

He also cut back rations that he characterized as "dangerously high" and stiffened relief eligibility by reinstating the Temple tests. In total, between 1.25 to 10 million people were killed in the famine..

The Famine during WW2 lead to the development of the Bengal Famine Mix this would later save tens of thousands of lifes at the liberated concentration camps such as Belsenmarker


See also


  • Bhatia, B.M. (1985) Famines in India: A study in Some Aspects of the Economic History of India with Special Reference to Food Problem, Delhi: Konark Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
  • Bhattaharyya B. 1973. A History of Bangla Desh. Dacca.
  • Davis, Mike. Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famine and the Making of the Third World. London: Verso, 2001.
  • Dutt, Romesh C. Open Letters to Lord Curzon on Famines and Land Assessments in India, first published 1900, 2005 edition by Adamant Media Corporation, Elibron Classics Series, ISBN 1-4021-5115-2.
  • Dutt, Romesh C. The Economic History of India under early British Rule, first published 1902, 2001 edition by Routledge, ISBN 0-415-24493-5
  • Dyson, Tim, "On the Demography of South Asian Famines: Part I," Population Studies, Vol. 45, No. 1. (Mar., 1991), pp. 5-25.
  • Sen, Amartya, Poverty and Famines : An Essay on Entitlements and Deprivation, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1982
  • Srivastava, H.C., The History of Indian Famines from 1858-1918, Sri Ram Mehra and Co., Agra, 1968.
  • Roy, Tirthankar The Economic History of India, 1857-1947


  2. .
  3. .
  4. Niall Ferguson, British Imperialism Revised: The Costs and Benefits of 'Anglobalization' ,
  5. Empire by Niall Ferguson
  6. A History of Britain volume two by Simon Schama
  7. Robert Johnson, British Imperialism page 30
  8. The Unseen World, and other essays, by John Fiske (chapter9)
  9. Niall Ferguson, Empire
  10. Lady Beatty Balfour, Lord Lytton's Indian Administration, p. 204
  11. John Keay, India: A Concise History
  12. "The Ruling Caste: Imperial Lives in the Victorian Raj" by David Gilmour page 116
  13. Lawrence James, Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India
  14. Davis, Mike. Late Victorian Holocausts. 1. Verso, 2000. ISBN 1859847390 pg 162
  15. Davis, Mike. Late Victorian Holocausts. 1. Verso, 2000. ISBN 1859847390 pg 164
  16. Davis, Mike. Late Victorian Holocausts. 1. Verso, 2000. ISBN 1859847390 pg 173
  17. JM Nash, El Niño: Unlocking the Secrets of the Master Weather Maker
  18. The Relief of Belsen, Channel 4 Television

Further reading

  • Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World (2001), ISBN 1-85984-739-0
  • Romesh C Dutt, Economic History of India (1900), is available on

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