** economics : Indian famines

Indian Famine: The British Era (1763-1948)

Figure 1.--One of India's most deadly famines was the Great Famine of 1877-78. Unlike most Indian famines, photography existed to depict the victims, in this case in Madras. This is a cabinet card that was being sold in America to obtain funds for famine relief. In this case for the Foreign Missionary Work of the Luthern Church.

Only with the beginning of British rule do we have detailed reporting on famines in the subconinent. This has caused many Indians to blame rhe famines in India on the British. The simple fact is that famines were endemic in India for millennia before the British arrived. The British can be criticised for inaction, but not causing the famines. And in fact, by the end of the 19th century the British for the first time had begun to bring famine under control, the 1943 Bngal Fanmine being the only major exception. For nearly a century, the British in the guise of the British East India Company, lrgely comntrolled India, while the Delhi Muughal Emperor and Indian princes were the official ruling powers. There were some Mughil and British reports. The oldest famine in Deccan with surviving local documentation for real detailed analysis is the Doji bara famine (1791-92). Peshwa Sawai Madhavrao II orgasnized relief efforts for the population. He restricted the export of grain and imported rice in large quantities from Bengal. This involved private trading. The information during this period, however, is still very limited and inadequate to assess the famines and relief efforts. The Mughal overlapped with Brittish control until the mid-19th century. Mughal and Afghan rulers to fight famine in Kashmir were inadequste. The Mughal authorities according to one historian faced serious geographic obstacles as well as wll as being hampered by endemic corruption. [Kaw] Of course the the BEIC was steadily undermining the resources and the reach of the Delhi Mugal empeor. And the BEIC did not intervene seriously with famine relief efforts. The Doji bara famine was in the south nd the Khassmor famine in he north, but the most servere famine problem was in Bengal (modern Bangledesh). Mughal officials and other potentates took no long term measures to fight famines. The traditionsl land tax system throughout India were a factor in famine disasters. The system deprived the Indian peasantry of much of their boutiful harvest in the good year. They were this unble to build up stocks and wealth so they could survive famine years. [Kaw, 65–68.] Actual British rule began after the Great Mutiny (1857). The British Crown began firect rule known as the Raj (1858). One of he the justifications of British rule was a more systematic administration. Nothing could be done about the weather wehich affected harvests, but policies could be implemented that prevented famine and death. In this regard, the British absolutely failed (19th centutry). Laissez-faire attitudes like those associated with the Irish Potato Famine were a major part of the problem. A series of 19th century famines during the British Raj were caused by harvest failure. This only began to change in the late-19th crntury. The Great Famine of 1876-77 appears tio have spurred the Britisdh to action. The British had been pursuong policies similar to the Irush Poltao Famine. The Indian Famine Codes (1883) anf the development of a modern rail system began to end the tragedy of famine. Finally the British managded effective famine relief measures. There was, however, one last devestaing famine--the World War II Bengal Famine (1943). Here it was not a failure of the summer monsoon, but the Japanese seizure of Burma which bad been supplying rice to Bengal. The failure of the British authorities to action is one of the great inditments of the Raj and Britain's World War II effort. In fairness to the British, the Congress Party's focus on independence and its Quit India effort was not helpful. It is rather disingenuous to disrupt the British admministration and then complain that the British failed.


Kaw, Mushtaq A. "Famines in Kashmir, 1586–1819: The policy of the Mughal and Afghan rulers," Vol. 33 Indian Economic Social & History Review Vol. 33 (1996). .


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Created: 2:30 AM 8/30/2021
Last updated: 2:30 AM 8/30/2021