A Historical Look at the Famines in India During the British Rule

famines in india

The British ruled India from 1858 to 1947 and during these two significant centuries, India faced almost 12 major famines. These famines include widely known ‘The Bengal Famine’- the British engineered worst genocide the country ever faced. This happened because the British took complete dominance over the country’s assets and imposed direct rule. India during the time of invasion was not a strong united nation but was divided into different sects ruled by different rulers. Thus, it became facile for the invaders to take possession of the entire nation.  

During the struggle for independence, India was highly stigmatized by the British. Worst famines and mass slaughter became an everyday story for the typical Indian newspaper, yet the world remained nonchalant about the misery of the neighbor. While many argue, British brought economic benefits; the fact suggests no increase in India’s per capita income from 1757 to 1947. Florence Nightingale, the English social reformer urged that the famines in India during the British raj were not caused by the lack of food but due to inadequate transportation of food.  The first of these was in 1770, followed by severe ones in 1783, 1866, 1873, 1892, 1897, and lastly 1943-44. These very much suggest the then political and social reform of the country.

Timeline of Famines in India during the British Rule

“They are beastly people with a beastly religion. The famine was their own fault for breeding like rabbits.” – Winston Churchill.

The Bengal Famine

The countless famines under British Raj include the worst-hit Bengal famine. The 1770 famine was ghastly brutal resulting in a mortality of 2-10 million. Warren Hastings’s report in 1772 suggests that the third of the population of Bihar to West Bengal were starved to death, more than the Jews in the holocaust of Germany. Yet the world remained ignorant till date. It was a famine triggered epidemic impoverished overwhelmed India completely for the 18th and 19th century. While most of the famines are the result of crop failure or monsoonal delays the Bengal famine was caused by the lack of system in the British. Limited access to food and high taxation made the poverty-stricken Indians ripped off the right to eat. The media coverage on the famine was also hampered by the authority that strictly prohibited the word ‘FAMINE’. It was not until the 1940’s that Indian newspapers started to feature detailed accounts of the famine.  

Chalisa famine

The Chalisa famine of 1783 to 1784 was an unusual famine that caused drought in several Indian regions, starting from 1780. The famine covered parts of Northern India, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Rajputana, and Kashmir. It is estimated that the Chalisa famine triggered 11 million deaths, and a large area was depopulated. 

famines in india

Doji bara famine or Skull famine

The Doji bara famine lasted for a year (1791-1792) hitting Hyderabad, Southern Maratha Kingdom, Deccan, Gujarat, and parts of the Madras Presidency. The famine forced the kingdoms to sign a treaty with the British and handed all powers to the latter which spiraled grain prices. According to William Roxburgh, the famine was the result of monsoonal delays for four consecutive years starting in 1789. The widespread famine also triggered smallpox and cholera that resulted in the mortality of 11 million including starvation. The huge number of deaths also outnumbered the places of burial.  The folklore ‘skull famine’ also means “bones of the victims which lay unburied whitening the roads and the fields.”

Agra famine

The Agra famine lasted from 1837 to 1838. The famine was the last of the number of droughts and near-famine episodes since the onset of the 19th century. The number of scarcity and economic depression includes 1803–1804, 1813–14, 1819, 1825–26, 1827–28, and 1832–33. Almost 8 million people were starved to death in the Agra famine. Some relief was provided for few months of 1837, however, the large-scale relief was only provided from the start of February 1838. According to the Imperial Gazette of India, a total of Rs. 2,300,000 was spent on relief funds.

Upper Doab Famine

The Upper Doab famine lasted from 1860 to 1861. The famine hit provinces of Ganga- Yamuna, areas of Rohilkhand, Awadh, Delhi, and Hissar of Punjab. Almost 2 million estimated people have been died by the end of the famine. This repeated refrain of Famine in the British raj not only suggests the lack of system but also the inadequate supply structure of the country.

Orissa Famine

The Orissa famine of 1866 resulted in mortality of one million, a third population of the stricken provisions.  It hit major parts of Madras covering a population of 47,500,000. The monsoon stopped prematurely in 1866 which led to crop failure and also the Bengal Board of Revenue made incorrect numbers of the needy leading to a falsie prices list.  The British Indian government sent 10,000 tons of rice but by the time help reached, more people have died of starvation or other famine-stricken diseases.

Rajputana famine

The Rajputana famine of 1869 hit the eastern provinces of the country including Rajputana and Ajmer.  Other regions include Bundelkhand, Jubbulpore, Gujarat, and Agra. Almost 1.5 million people lost their lives in this famine, mostly from the princely states of Rajputana. The cause of famine was the late monsoon which led to a shortage of food in many regions, along with water shortages. There was no harvest until the spring of 1869 till when a major population died due to famine-stricken diseases like malaria.

famines in india

Bihar famine

The Bihar famine lasted for a year (1873-1874). A major population was hit in this famine, yet the relief service by Sir Richard Temple prevented huge mortality. Perhaps the only famine of India when the British had done a commendable job.  The sum of 40 million was spent and 450,000 tons of rice was delivered instantly to the famine stuck population.  Not only this, an extra amount of 22 million was spent on relief of 300 million units. Aids were served to the people who were unemployed and also the construction of roads started in the area. Sir Richard Temple’s relief project remains a success story in the British Raj.

Southern India Famine of 1876–78

The southern Indian Famine was one of the greatest famines in Indian History. Millions die due to starvation, cholera, malaria, or any other diseases. The mortality rate was excess, 5.5 million within British territories, 6.2 to 10.3 million in the Indian villages whereas the mortality rate in the princely states remained unknown. The cause of famine was intense drought led to multiple crop failures for the next two years. Yet the growing famines, export of grains were continued and viceroy, Lord Robert Bulwer-Lytton overlooked the entire situation. The situation was handled by the then Famine Commissioner for the Government of India- Sir Richard Temple who implemented “relief works” and provided aid to the needy.

Indian Famine

The Indian famine of 1896 first occurred in Bundelkhand and lasted till 1897. The famine struck areas include Madras, Bombay Deccan, Bengal, United Provinces, Central Provinces, and some parts of Punjab. Relief was provided in accordance with the Provisional Famine Code of 1883, but almost 1 million people have thought to be dead by then. The reason still remained the same- drought. It was during this time when the bubonic plague occurred in Bombay, an epidemic that spread to the rest of India in the following year.

Indian famine 1899-1900

The Indian famine of 1899 struck Bombay, Central Provinces, Berar, Ajmer provinces of British territory, and princely states Hyderabad, Rajputana, Central India, Baroda, Kathiawar, and Cutch. The mortality was high, 166,000 people succumbed to starvation. Whereas other studies suggest that almost 4.5 million people died in this famine. Due to the highly criticized relief of the last famine, a better relief was provided during this famine.

The Bengal Famine 1943

The Bengal famine of 1943 is widely recognized in Indian history that occurred during World war two. Almost 1.5 million people died from starvation and 2.1 to 3 million include deaths from the following epidemics. More recent studies suggest that Churchill’s policies too had a share in the famine. Rice shares persevered to leave India whilst London too was denying pressing requests from India’s viceroy for greater than 1m tonnes of emergency wheat grains in 1942-43. Boats carrying rice to Bengal were also confiscated denying resources to the Japanese army in case of future invasion. Churchill also quoted that the famine was caused by Indians for “breeding like rabbits”.

The numerous famines led the colonial government to rely on ‘Malthusian ideas’ that famines were the natural outcome of overpopulation. This sounds funny, as a number of famines have been eliminated since India got independence. The famine, in fact, was the result of corruption, politics, and poor governance.  However, till the end of the British Raj, they relied on ‘Malthusian ideas’ discarding themselves from taking any responsibility for the same.


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