AAS Annual Meeting

South Asia Session 742

[ South Asia Sessions, Table of Contents | Panels by World Area Main Menu ]

Session 742: Revisiting Famines in British India

Organizer: Vijay Kumar Thangellapali, Independent Scholar, India

Chair: Laxman D. Satya, Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania, USA

Contrary to the arguments presented by the imperialist historiography, the papers in this panel will show how the colonial state policies substantially contributed to creating conditions for frequent famines in British India. Contradicting the colonial association of famines with India’s climatic factors, the data and studies have revealed that there was no major long-term shift in the rainfall pattern during the period of British rule. Instead, it is seen how the colonial policies, not only created social, economic, and ecological disruptions but also divorced the population from their means of survival, leading to large-scale pauperization. Hence, the most vulnerable and marginalized groups in society registered the worst impact of famines. The exchange entitlements of these groups failed because of the inflation of prices and stagnation of wages. These papers will argue that mass poverty and hunger that was created during the long period of colonial rule was a direct consequence of British imperial policies. And it was precisely these policies that created a congenial atmosphere for the repeated occurrence of famine, disease and death. These studies also notice, the inadvertent and inadequate relief measures of the colonial state. Strongly under the influence of laissez faire and Malthusian ideology, the colonial state remained mostly indifferent to the needs of people for relief. Hence these papers will see how the British imperial policies created conditions of large-scale impoverishment, and how famines were the direct outcome of these conditions in different regions of the British Empire in India.

Nature and Causes of Famines in Colonial India
Brahma Nand, University of Delhi, India

The famines in pre-modern world were mostly local phenomena arising from natural and climatic conditions. But with the advent of the industrial revolution in England in the 18th century, the nature of famines changed throughout the world. The industrial nations of Europe acquired immunity from famines despite their chronic shortage of food production in domestic economy. The famines increasingly became confined to agrarian societies colonized by the Europeans, despite the fact that agriculture was the mainstay of their economy. According to colonial officials, famines were simply natural phenomena. The rain failures resulted in crop failures, which in turn caused scarcities, starvation and deaths. Harold Mann concluded from a study of rainfall pattern in Western India during 1865 to 1938 that rainfall was not the real cause of famines. R. C. Dutt argued that land revenue burden under British rule was excessive, fluctuating and uncertain. It paralyzed agriculture, prevented saving and kept the cultivator in a state of poverty and indebtedness, and was a primary cause for the increasing frequency and intensity of famines under colonial rule. Lord Curzon argued otherwise. B. M. Bhatia has argued that the long-term structural changes in the colonial economy were responsible for famines. George Blyn and Paul Greenough emphasized that famines resulted from a long-term decline in food grain output and availability. This paper examines various sets of arguments against the historical evidence available from official and non-official sources on the nature and causes of famines.

Famines in British India: A Tool of Imperial Politics
Swati Prakash, Jawaharlal Nehru University, USA

India witnessed about 14 major famines from the eleventh century to the end of the eighteenth century, which on an average translates to roughly two per century. Under the East India Company from 1765-1858 there occurred 16 major famines, a rate eight times higher than what had been common before. Then under the British Crown Raj, there was a major famine, scarcity, and/or drought every two years or 25 times the historical rate before the British rule. Not only did the famines occur with alarming frequency, they wreaked havoc on an unprecedented scale and affected a much wider region than what had been witnessed historically. Moreover, the British famine relief efforts also left much to be desired. The inefficient famine relief exercise is usually portrayed as one of constrained optimization - necessary adherence to the accepted ideologies, paucity of resources coupled with an inefficient administration limited more liberal relief efforts. This paper seeks to discuss whether other more binding constraints such as the lack of will at the top, might have been more relevant. The paper actively considers whether the occurrence of famines could have been more than a mere phenomena of the weather Gods playing truant. Could the dismal famine relief efforts of the British have had their genesis in imperial considerations? In that scenario traditionally accepted famine relief 'constraints' may have actually provided a convenient facade behind which the British could continue the pursuit of imperial goals unhindered.

Laissez-Faire and Famines in 19th-Century British India: A Case Study of the Deccan Plateau
Laxman D. Satya, Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania, USA

This paper investigates the political economy of famines in the Deccan plateau during the British colonial period in the nineteenth century. It proposes to analyze the relationship between the state control of civil society, economy and its policies with food shortages and famines in this region. Such aspects as the close link between famine and colonial policies will be dealt with in great depth. Especially the impact of British policies towards land, water, pastures, forests, flora, fauna, people i.e., peasants, pastoralist, and forest dwellers, that led to catastrophic famines. The fact that the region was exporting food grains even during times of acute distress brings into sharp focus the colonial state’s non-intervention policy towards distribution, price control, and relief. At the same time the imposition of the colonial infrastructure of rigid revenue collection, railways, markets, and the denial of people’s access to natural resources even during acute distress, created ripe conditions for the occurrence of repeated cycles of famines from mid-19th century, decimating millions of lives. Hence the consequences of colonial policies on the social and material life of people and cattle will be analyzed in great detail in this paper.

The Nature of Famines and Droughts in Colonial Andhra 1858-1900
Vijay Kumar Thangellapali, Independent Scholar, India

This paper proposes to map out the British policies that contributed substantially to create famines and droughts, which became an endemic feature in Andhra during the second half of the nineteenth century. This was often manifested in the perennial food insecurity and debilitating hunger that came in its trail. During the second half of the nineteenth century, Andhra region experienced several major famines, including the devastating famine of 1876-78, which caused much distress and panic among the peasantry. Under the influence of Malthusian theory, the British colonizers understood famines as starvation and death due to food shortages caused by over population. Besides, a staunch adherence to laissez faire doctrine became an excuse for the colonial state not to intervene in the grain trade or its distribution. The cumulative effects of the colonial agrarian policy were evident in the recurrent droughts and famines that took a heavy toll of human lives. The pressures of colonial taxation, commercialization, rural indebtedness and the advent of railways had not only thrown the peasantry at the mercy of the markets but also made them paupers by drastically reducing their purchasing power in terms of real wages. All these had profound sociological implications in the form of distress migration, rising destitution, and crime rate among small peasantry, agricultural laborers, artisans, and urban poor. The state took some inadvertent measures, but given the enormity of the crisis such colonial measures proved insufficient and counterproductive.