Famine policy

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the people of India were ravaged by a series of cataclysmic famines, precipitated less by failures of nature and more by colonial policies, such as of rack-renting, both legal and illegal, neglect of agriculture, “free-trade” policies and additional levies for wars. The famine codes of British had main objective to save lives at minimal cost to the colonial exchequer. There were 31 famines in 120 years of British Raj, the last one killed 4 million people in 1943.

Famines during pre-British era:

Famine in Indian sub-continent is a chronicle feature. Agriculture in India is heavily dependent on a suitable climate. A summer monsoon is a must for the irrigation of crops. Lack of rainfall and droughts had lead to several famines in India between 11th and 17th centuries severely. Draughts cause extreme scarcity of water and thus results in crop failure. On the other hand, floods and earthquakes can destroy the crops or food storage places. These all result in food scarcity and eventually famines. E.g.: Deccan Famine of 1630

Famines during colonial era:

India was hit by recurrent famine from 1760 AD to till 1943 AD. As per British sources, there were more than 85 million Indians died in these famines which were in reality genocides done by the British Raj.  E.g.: Doji Bara famine or Skull famine of 1788–94 killed around 11 million people. Bengal famine of 1943 killed more than 3 million people.

Apathy of British rulers was evident in their policies:

  • The famines were a product both of uneven rainfall and British economic and administrative policies.
  • Colonial policies:
    • Colonial policies implicated include rack-renting, levies for war, free trade policies, the expansion of export agriculture, and neglect of agricultural investment.
    • During the Bengal famine of 1770, East India Company raised taxes disastrously and exacerbated it, even if the famine was not caused by the British colonial government.
    • Indian exports of opium, rice, wheat, indigo, jute, and cotton were a key component of the economy of the British empire, generating vital foreign currency, primarily from China, and stabilising low prices in the British grain market.
    • Policy lapses such as prioritising distribution of vital supplies to the military, civil services and others as well as stopping rice imports
  • Policy of laissez faire:
    • The government’s policy of laissez faire in the trade of grain. For example, two of the worst famine-afflicted areas in the Madras Presidency, the districts of Ganjam and Vizagapatam, continued to export grains throughout the famine.
    • Export crops displaced millions of acres that could have been used for domestic subsistence, and increased the vulnerability of Indians to food crises.
    • Others dispute that exports were a major cause of the famine, pointing out that trade did have a stabilising influence on India’s food consumption, albeit a small one.
    • The large-scale loss of life due to the series of famines between 1860 and 1877 was the cause of political controversy.
  • Attitude of Viceroys:
    • Curzon stated that such philanthropy would be criticised, but not doing so would be a crime. He also cut back rations that he characterised as “dangerously high,” and stiffened relief eligibility by reinstating the Temple tests.[79] Between 1.25 and 10 million people died in the famine.
  • Infrastructure:
    • The failure to provide food to the millions who were hungry during the famines of the 1870s has been blamed both on the absence of adequate rail infrastructure and the incorporation of grain into the world market through rail and telegraph.
  • Famine codes:
    • British Codes were explicit in casting a duty on public officials to spend the minimum that was necessary, only to prevent the loss of lives, and nothing beyond that.
    • The Famine Codes of the past recognised that non-farm rural poor persons, like artisans and weavers, may be very hard hit by famine, but did little to address their food needs, although they were not equipped physically and culturally to participate in the kind of manual labour that is required in public relief works.
    • Those who are most vulnerable in times of food scarcity are old people, single women, disabled people and children. Colonial Codes contained niggardly provisions for them of “gratuitous relief”

The above conditions were worsened by rapidly growing population, increasing household debt, stagnant agricultural productivity, increased social stratification, and alienation of the peasant class from their landholdings. The natural disasters like cyclone, floods and droughts wreaked havoc at times.

During episodes of food scarcity caused by drought and failure of the rains of the kind that looms over large parts of India today, district authorities in India are still substantially guided by updated versions of Famine Codes that were initially developed by colonial administrators.


The British had a ruthless economic agenda when it came to operating in India and that did not include empathy for native citizens. Under the British Raj, India suffered countless famines. But the worst hit was Bengal. The first of these was in 1770, followed by severe ones in 1783, 1866, 1873, 1892, 1897 and lastly 1943-44. Previously, when famines had hit the country, indigenous rulers were quick with useful responses to avert major disasters. After the advent of British rule, most of the famines were a consequence of monsoonal delays along with the exploitation of the country’s natural resources by the British for their own financial gain. Yet they did little to acknowledge the havoc these actions wrought.

Reasons of famine:

  • Under the Mughal rule, peasants were required to pay a tribute of 10-15 percent of their cash harvest. This ensured a comfortable treasury for the rulers and a wide net of safety for the peasants in case the weather did not hold for future harvests. In 1765, the Treaty of Allahabad was signed and the East India Company took over the task of collecting the tributes from the then Mughal emperor Shah Alam II. Overnight the tributes, the British insisted on calling them tributes and not taxes for reasons of suppressing rebellion, increased to 50 percent. The peasants were not even aware that the money had changed hands. They paid, still believing that it went to the Emperor.
  • Partial failure of crops was quite a regular occurrence in the Indian peasant’s life. That is why the surplus stock, which remained after paying the tributes, was so important to their livelihood. But with the increased taxation, this surplus deteriorated rapidly.
  • Underlying causes of the famine included inefficient agricultural practices, dense population, and de-peasantisation through debt bondage and land grabbing.
  • The colonial rulers continued to ignore any warnings that came their way regarding the famine.
  • Proximate causes of famine comprise localised natural disasters (a cyclone, storm surges and flooding, and rice crop disease) combined with the consequences of war such as:
  • Initial, general war-time inflation of both demand-pull and monetary origin
  • Loss of rice imports due to the Japanese occupation of Burma (modern Myanmar)
  • Near-total disruption of Bengal’s market supplies and transport systems by the preemptive, defensive scorched earth tactics of the Raj (the “denial policies” for rice and boats);
  • Massive inflation brought on by repeated policy failures, war profiteering, speculation, and perhaps hoarding.
  • The government prioritised military and defense needs over those of the rural poor, allocating medical care and food immensely in the favour of the military, labourers in military industries, and civil servants.

Consequences of famine:

  • The two waves – starvation and disease – also interacted and amplified one another, increasing the excess mortality. Widespread starvation and malnutrition first compromised immune systems, and reduced resistance to disease led to death by opportunistic infections.
  • The social disruption and dismal conditions caused by a cascading breakdown of social systems brought mass migration, overcrowding, poor sanitation, poor water quality and waste disposal, increased vermin, and unburied dead. All of these factors are closely associated with the increased spread of infectious disease.
  • Men sold their small farms and left home to look for work or to join the army, and women and children became homeless migrants, often travelling to Calcutta or another large city in search of organised relief leading to huge migration.
  • One of the classic symptoms of famine is that it tends to intensify the exploitation of women; sales of women and girls, for example, tend to increase. Even before the famine, sexual exploitation of poor, rural, lower-caste and tribal women by the jotedars had at times been socially sanctioned, and during the crisis, women turned to prostitution in great numbers.
  • Another severe hardship of the crisis – the “cloth famine” – left nearly the entire population of the immiserated poor in Bengal naked or clothed in scraps through the winter. The British military consumed nearly all the textiles produced in India by purchasing Indian-made boots, parachutes, uniforms, blankets, and other goods at steep discount rates.
  • The famines lead to widespread unsanitary conditions, catastrophic hygiene standards, and the spread of disease. The “cloth famine” saw a scarcity of clean clothing, or any clothing at all. Disposal of corpses in rivers and other water supplies contaminated drinking water. Large scale migration led to the abandonment of the utensils and facilities necessary for washing clothes, preparing food, and taking care of other necessities of life.

All this clearly indicate that we must not forget our past in this era of abundance of almost everything. There must be self-restrain at indivisual level to use food and other resources judiciously in order to make our own choice morally right as well.