The Political Economy of Famines during the British Rule in India: A Critical Analysis


By Kalim Siddiqui

1. Introduction

The late nineteenth century was celebrated in the West as the golden period of global capitalism; while few will defend empire today, still we are encouraged to acknowledge its economic benefits. This is despite the fact that during the 200 years of British rule in India, there was no increase in India’s per capita income from 1757 to 1947, while occurrences of famines and mass deaths multiplied (Bagchi, 2014; Maddison, 2001).

In India, rainfall plays a very important role in determining crop yields and output, and supplies of food in the country. Since independence, India had virtually eliminated famines, which were supposed to be caused by crop failures. However, during colonial rule, the frequency of famines and deaths increased sharply (Siddiqui, 2017). Under such a situation, the colonial government strictly relied on ‘Malthusian ideas’ that famines were the natural outcome of overpopulation. The government’s faith in non-interference in the markets during famines made matters much worst. Malthus blamed corruption and poor governance, rather than public policy to mitigate famine. However, his opinion ignores mismanagement, the greed of speculators, and the ruling elites’ inaction (Daoud, 2018).

It is useful to distinguish clearly between two different ways in which an agricultural disaster like a drought or flood can cause economic difficulty. First, a drought or flood may destroy crops and devastate people’s incomes by slashing agricultural employment and wages. Second, it can reduce the markets for the goods and services such as from agricultural labourers to carpenters and many others. During droughts and crop failures, the worst affected are labourers, because demands for agricultural labourers and rural artisans declines. The adverse impact of droughts or floods far exceeds their direct impact on the food supply. Drought could result in a sharp reduction in agricultural output and lead to food shortages. However, mass deaths took place due to a number of reasons such as government policy failure or inaction and also a lack of preparation to combat this extraordinary situation.

The question therefore arises: why did food scarcities and famines occur in India (currently Bangladesh, India and Pakistan) during British rule? To answer this, it is important to delve deeper into the causes that led to the alarming increase in calamities in India over the span of about two hundred years. In fact, famine raises a deep question about the performance of the government administration. The question arises: did the colonial government protect people, during the period of sudden decline in output, from starvation? And why did famines keep on occurring, and what measures were taken to prevent them? A number of empirical studies have been done on famines which provide us with a very rich and deeper understanding of famines in South Asia (Shaw, 2011; Grada, 2008). Moreover, in UK universities, students who study economic degrees may still hardly understand the sources of capital accumulation and the important role that the colonies played in making Britain the first industrialised country in the world.

This study examines the nature of famines during the British Raj in India, in the light of a number of perspectives (Sheldon, 2009). In recent years, there have been a number of studies regarding this subject area; therefore, there is a need to revisit the causes and impact of famines in India. Moreover, there is also the severity of these famines, which has so far rarely been acknowledged by economists (Grada, 2008). The present research is an attempt to reduce this gap by critically analysing the evidences concerning loss of lives and famines in colonial India.

The structure of the article is as follows. Section 1 presents background and introduction. Section 2 analyses and criticise some existing theories. Section 3 discusses the policy of British imperialism and occurrences of famines. Section 4 surveys famines during British India. Section 5 analysis the exports of agricultural commodities and finally the conclusion section presents summary.

Prior to the mid-18th century, famine was seen as a natural calamity from which many European countries suffered. Only after the expansion of commercial and industrial activities was the problem of famines gradually removed in Europe and since the second half of the 19th century, Europe has not witnessed any major famine. However, in a number of Asian and African countries, especially under colonialism, famines have frequently taken place with great intensity. This was the direct result of colonial policy, which led to increased misery and a rise in the incidence of famines (Habib, 2017).

Under British pressure, the government in India allowed unrestricted exports of foodgrains even during times of famine. The government made sure that foodgrain prices were determined by the market forces of supply and demand. Nevertheless, the role of the commercialization of agriculture contributing to famines is widely debated among scholars. It is often argued that commercialization diverts resources away from domestic food production towards non-food crops for markets, and also agricultural output undergoes greater price fluctuations (Ravallion, 1997).

Dadabhai Naoroji (1901:212) thoroughly exposed the British colonial policy of exploitation, leading to the misery of Indian people. He noted, “How strange it is that the British rulers do not see that after they themselves are the main cause of all destruction that ensues from droughts; that it is the drain of India’s wealth by them that lays at their own door the dreadful results of misery, starvation, and the death of millions”. More recently Amartya Sen (1982) presented an economic perspective on famines and his key concept was individual’s entitlement, which is defined as all the commodity bundles that can be obtained from the resources at her/his command. According to him, starvation and lack of food availability arises from “entitlement failure”. This failure could be due to a loss of endowments or a change, such as through production and trade in which endowments are transferred into entitlements. (Siddiqui, 2018a) During starvation, certainly a large number of people experience entitlement failure due to the drought or flood and a sudden fall in food output. Some critics of Sens’ work emphasise that he has given too much importance to food, while given little attention to other factors such as diseases.

The colonial government was not prepared for the famine and displayed a lack of urgency in the beginning period of the famine. “[T]here was unusual bewilderment, the usual vacillations and it was not until the evil had reached the climax that it was seriously grappled with. When the Government understood finally what was required, there was no holding back, but by that time it was too late”. (Bhatia, 1991:97) With the onset of the famine instructions were given by the government that ‘no interference was to be permitted with prices of foodgrains’. The occurrence of famine after the expansion of railways and transportation, but was somehow ineffective to import foodgrains from other regions. It seems they tried to deal with ‘non-interference’ in the market and refused to take measures to increase supply and also to control the foodgrain prices during the famine.

The British government abandoned pre-colonial policies to combat natural calamities and food scarcity in India. They were more interested in the implementation of non-interference in the market. Adam Smith’s laissez-faire approach, i.e. the principle of non-intervention, was firmly laid down as a part of state policy (Siddiqui, 2015a), and therefore was strictly implemented in all subsequent famines. It was said that in the past during the natural calamities, the previous rulers undertook harsh measures to persecute traders and fixed maximum selling prices for foodgrains, which were seen by the colonial government as unhelpful and as interfering in the operations of the markets. As (Bhatia, 1991: 106-107) noted, “The Government of India persistently refused to control or interfere with prices. And it went to the other extreme of giving an absolutely free hand to the trader and discouraged local administration and its officers from interferences in his activities. Any attempt to control the price in the district, ban exports or arrange for imports on Government account was not only deprecated but was even punished. It was repeatedly pointed out to the local administrations that absolute non-interference with the operation of private commercial enterprise must be the foundation of our present famine policy”.

During the famines, it was repeatedly witnessed that food scarcity and death tolls became much higher due to the state refraining from intervening in the free operation of the market. This non-interference policy seems to be a useful tool to stay away from financial responsibility and avoid spending money to feed people, which is financially less burdensome for the government.

In contrast, during the pre-colonial period for instance, the state regulated the food commodities supply, controlled the prices and also took actions against hoardings. The credits and state support was extended in the post-famine period to peasants for the cultivation of crops. This was a widely practiced policy in the past. As Moreland noted, “[T]he successful use of price control and regulation of supplies by Allaudin Khilji for a period of 12 or 13 years in Delhi to control inflation… the regulation consisted of (i) control of supplies and (ii) control of transport with (iii) rationing of consumption when necessary, the whole system on (iv) a highly organised intelligence and (v) drastic punishment for evasions. The period of 12 years included years of dearth and unsatisfactory seasons.” (Moreland, 1968:36)


2. Scholarly Debate

I analyse here some of the prominent opinions and arguments on the issues of famine during the colonial period. Very prominent among them was the 19thcentury academic, namely Thomas Malthus, who argued famines were a natural measure through which populations are ultimately capable of maintaining a balance between population and natural resources. According to him, large numbers of deaths were the last resort for a population that had exceeded its resource base. The Malthusian view has been challenged by those who doubted that famines were a consequence of over-population relative to available resources. During the famines in the colonies in the 19th century, the ideas of Malthus, Smith and Mill of laissez-faire and of non-interference policy were imposed with respect to the market (Daoud, 2018; Ravallion, 1997).

Dadabhai Naoroji (1901) emphasised the chronic famine situation in India and blamed this situation on “the continuous drain of wealth year after year in the form of payments that this country was obliged to make annually to England for the discharge of her obligations most of which had their origin in the political relations between the two countries…by the constant drain of wealth of that country [India]… whether it is possible for any nation on the face of the earth to live under these conditions” (Cited in Bhatia, 1991:270).

Another economic historian, namely R.C. Dutt (1901), criticised the very high revenue imposed on Indian peasantry. According to him, the heavy enhancement of revenue, particularly in the Royatwari areas, was the main reason for the extreme poverty and lack of power among the cultivators to withstand the vicissitudes of the seasons of India (Siddiqui, 1990). Dutt criticised the colonial government for high land revenue charges. The government had fixed revenue of 50% of the net produce in areas under the royatwari system. And one-half of the produce was taken in zamindari areas by the landlords; however, the actual amount paid by the cultivators was often more than this amount. As a result of high revenue demand, the peasants were not left with any surplus to help them or to provide any insurance in the lean harvest years. Therefore, the land revenue policy of the government was the root cause of poverty, indebtedness, famines and mass deaths in India. Dutt said that ten major famines took place between 1860 and 1900, where the total deaths were 15 million people (Dutt, 1901). He argued that the famines were not caused by a lack of food, but instead were caused by inadequate transportation and the government’s inaction regarding taking concrete policy measures to end it. The money and resources required to combat famines in the second half of the 19th century were being diverted towards activities like paying for the British imperial war efforts in Afghanistan and in East Asia (Siddiqui, 2018b).

Amartya Sen (1982) argued that the people very rarely die simply because there is not enough food to go round at the time of droughts. However, it is economic structures, social networks and political decisions that aggravate food crises and famines. He argued the causation of famines in terms of the collapse of the ‘entitlements’ of particular occupation groups. The concept of entitlements is a set of alternative commodity bundles that the person can command. The set of alternative bundles of commodities over which a person can establish such command will be referred to as this person’s entitlement. Sen’s study (1982) on the Bengal famine of 1943-44 had emphasised that the famine was not preceded by any natural disaster, but rather because the agrarian economy of Bengal was highly commercialised and a large area was under cultivation for non-food crops for exports (Sen, 1982; 1977).

Drought reduces the employment entitlements of agricultural labourers, which also reduces their capability to buy food. A drop in agricultural output also means a decline in demand for non-food items and services. This would also mean the ability of those who work in non-food sectors would be adversely affected, because their income depends on factors such as employment entitlements, wages and the price of food. These three factors constitute Sen’s “exchange entitlements” (Sen, 1977; also see 1982). The employment entitlements and food prices are crucial factors to determine food availability and starvation. A drought or crop failure deprives some sections of people of their ability to acquire foods but does not, as often assumed, lead to an absolute shortage of food. Moreover, due to a sudden rise in food prices, the incomes of large farmers, who produce surplus food, will rise, whilst incomes of those who have to acquire food will be reduced. (Patnaik, 1991)

In fact, not all people starve to death during a famine and not everyone in the famine area suffers from losses, in fact, some sections of the population are able to benefit during a famine. In the period of crop failure, those medium farmers who had produced enough to survive at the level of subsistence in a normal year, while rich farmers who produced a large surplus, but still produce some surplus in drought. A crop failure most likely leads to a reduction in income for large farmers who previously hired labourers, meaning less employment and income for agricultural labourers.

Famine is generally seen as ‘too many mouths and too little food’. The problem of famines had been that they were viewed as serious food deficient (Sen, 1982). A household’s ability to buy food depended on the labour and commodities in its possession which could be exchanged for food. In an exchange economy, whether the family will starve depends on its possessions and the price of foodgrains. The exchange also depends on market imperfections and other institutional barriers. Sen (1982) found that the famines during British rule were not due to a lack of food but due to inequalities in the distribution of food. Famines are not caused by food shortages as some might believe. In fact, Bengal state highly connected with roads and railways and the state was not a closed economy and was actively involved in trade. Therefore, a decline in food production does not necessarily lead to a decline in food availability. There are various examples in the past when crop failure did not lead to starvation and mass deaths in that country (Patnaik, 1991).

People died in large numbers during the famines and under the new economic regimes precisely because of the decline of the traditional systems of rural self-help and protective security. This arrangement had the effect of undermining the traditional sharing arrangements that had existed before. However, traditional systems typically do not include enough economic opportunities for all that can effectively employ the poor in a society. Famines were not unknown in pre-British India, but a number of measures were taken to mitigate it such as, government distribution of food, differing land revenue, and relief works such as building of palaces, roads and ponds. However, in the colonial period, such polices were abandoned during the calamities. It is important to analyse the relationship between grain dealers-cum-rich-peasants and poor peasants; the latter sections were largely low-caste peasants who were already in subordinate relationships (Siddiqui, 2018c). The key factor in this relationship was the loans and advanced money they had taken from the landlords-cum-rich-peasants, which forced them to sell their produce to the grain merchants. The famine moved the entitlement relationship in favour of landlords, rich peasants and merchants. While the poor, such as labourers, artisans, and low castes possessed few resources (Drèze, 1991).

Paul Greenough also emphasised that in the second half of the 18th century the agrarian economy in Bengal had been interrupted in terms of a breakdown of the traditional system of subsistence economy, which was associated with traditional food security. The rural rich i.e. zamindars, were seen as patrons with a social duty to provide food to the local people. Such views were criticised by Ray (2013:3) “subsistence crises in this period were cases of major entitlement failure. The origin of these crises should be traced to the structural contradictions of the Bihar peasant society, where dominant peasant groups controlled land and owned capital at the expense of increasing subordination of the poor peasantry and rural indebtedness. The poor peasantry had to depend on loan to carry out agricultural operations, to meet the revenue demands and for their subsistence needs…, caused the entitlement relations to shift steadily overtime in favour of the rich peasants and grain dealers, and against the poor peasantry. Even small changes in the agricultural output during a period of drought/flood affected their entitlement badly, and it collapsed totally during famine and starvation deaths resulted.”

Others, like Tirthankar Roy (2006) suggested that the famines were due to environmental factors and inherent in India’s ecology. Roy argues that massive investments in agriculture were required to break the economic stagnation; however, these were not forthcoming owing to scarcity of water, poor quality of soil and livestock, and a poorly developed input market which guaranteed that investments in agriculture were extremely risky. After 1947, India focused on institutional reforms to agriculture; however, even this failed to break the pattern of stagnation. It wasn’t until the 1970s when there was massive public investment in agriculture that India became free of famine.


3. British Imperialism and Occurrences of Famines

In the 19th century, India became the largest source of tribute for Britain, and India’s economic policies were formulated to be suitable to British interests. India had to pay the costs of British possession in Asia and East Africa (Bagchi, 2014; Siddiqui, 2019). Moreover, Lord Selborne, who succeeded the free trader Lord Lucas acknowledged (Cited in Bagchi, 2014:7): “it was only the import of Indian wheat that had saved the food situation in Britain in 1915; but she failed to inquire as to what happened to the Indians, whose land had sent both soldiers in increasing numbers and large quantities of wheat for use by British civilians and military personnel”. Bagchi (2014: 19) also found: “in the last stages of War, when the British wanted to buy Canadian wheat, the Canadians were unwilling to deliver it without assured down payment. Ultimately, negotiations at the highest level allowed the British to use part of a large US loan to buy Canadian wheat… On the other side, wheat was simply exported from India, and the payment was part of the colonial tribute, without any nonsense about consulting the Indian.”

During periods of food scarcity, governments should effectively install regimes of rationing of essential goods. For instance, during the Second World War in Britain, the essential food rationing was implemented so that poorer sections of British society were fed. In contrast to this, in Bengal in 1943 for instance, only a few cities were covered by rationing, where less than 10% of the population lived, not in rural areas where a very large number of people lived. Rationing covered a very small proportion of people, whilst a large proportion of people in rural Bengal were left to the mercy of the market to purchase foodgrains. The rise in prices adversely affected those with fixed incomes, such as workers lose, while the merchants, hoarder gains and those who were net purchasers of food, meaning they had to cut down their essential consumption, due to higher prices of food items.

Mike Davis (2001) argues that famines are the product of both environmentally determined food shortages and the failure of government and social systems. As Davis (2001:50) stressed, the famines in the 19th century were the result not only of the failure of the government, but their effectiveness. “[D]rought was consciously made into famine by the decisions taken in places of rajas and viceroys”. According to him, it was powerfully true of the late Victorian “El Nino famines”. People died in their millions not just because their crops failed, but because the colonial government was incompetent, uncaring, and racist. Such policies intended to dominate and legitimise exploitation, colonialism and occupation. Davis (2001: 26–27) further stresses that, “[T]he newly constructed railroads landed as international safeguards against famine, were instead used by merchants to ship grain inventories from outlying drought-stricken districts to central depots for hoarding …” The increased communications and transportation did not result in reducing the food grain prices and did not increase availability of food to the poor at the end of the 19th century in India.

Mike Davis concluded that British imperial policy exacerbated the drought problem. According to him (2001:32), “those with the power to relieve famine convinced themselves that overly heroic exertions against implacable natural laws, whether of market prices or population growth, were worse than no effort at all”. He found that famines were products of the deliberate policies of colonizers to starve people into submission and control. According to him, it was the very process of incorporation into a global capitalist economy that gave the famines their terrible impact. Davis (2001) argues that the seeds of underdevelopment in the colonies were sown during the European colonisation, and the capitalist expansion and imposition of free market policy in the colonies took the lives of millions of people (Siddiqui, 2010). He calls this an act of genocide in the 19th century (Shaw, 2011).

Some have argued that drought may not to lead to famine. According to them, well-stocked inventories and effective distribution can limit the damage (Shaw, 2011). It seems that in the 19th century the drought was seen by the colonial administrators as an opportunity to control the people. The construction of Indian railways from 1860 onwards offered opportunities for greater profit in other markets. It allowed farmers to sell their produce in other provincial markets and large farmers were growing a portion of their crops for export. The railways also brought in food whenever expected scarcities began to drive up food prices (Siddiqui, 2014). The colonialist apologists portrayed India as a land of too many people and too little resources, resulting in famines.


4. A Survey of Famines in British India

Under British rule, India witnessed a number of large-scale famines. For instance, the first famine took place in 1770 in Bengal province, where according to the government’s official estimates, about 10 million people died, i.e. one-third of the population of Bengal province. Among the large sections of the rural population in Bengal that perished in the famine of 1770, it was reported that half of those who were paying the revenues and cultivating the land had died, while those remaining were unable to carry on due to the lack of seeds and farm animals. It also meant that in order to cultivate the land again, the peasants had to borrow money from the big land owners and merchants, which led to their increased indebtedness.

The Bengal famine of 1770 led to a massive decline in the province’s population. Hundreds of villages were deserted and unoccupied, and also a large area of arable land remained uncultivated for many years. As a result, the land turned barren or into forests and remained that way for several decades. As an eyewitness then noted, “The people either perished or went elsewhere for subsistence … the land is now really waste for want of inhabitants …. the consumption of grain in the town, has declined greatly by reason of the considerable decrease of inhabitants during the last famine – a great part of the town having become a jungle, and literally a refuge for wild beasts.” (Cited in Ray, 2013: 8) A number of Bihar districts were depopulated due to famine of 1770 and these were Patna, Shahabad, Monghyr, Purnea, Tirhut, Champaran and Bhagalpur. (Ray, 2013)

The government was reluctant to ‘interfere’ with the grain market for various political and economic reasons. The colonial government were less prepared to accept any responsibility for the welfare of the Indian people. In fact, once food output declines, leading to a food crisis, the access to food is determined by the market. In some places, wages were paid in cash, but not everywhere (Ray, 2013). In this situation, the merchants and traders dictated and influenced the foodgrain prices in the provinces affected by famines and food shortages. As Ray (2013: 6) noted, “Due to the uneven spatial characteristic of monsoon crop failure never occurred simultaneously all over the province and food could be procured from elsewhere in the province even during the famine. The grain merchants-cum-rich peasants bought grain from the areas that had relatively greater surplus and sold it at a very high price in the affected region, especially in the towns. The producers in the relatively unaffected regions had no option but to sell their produce to the rich peasants-cum-grain merchants as they were bound to them through the credit mechanism and their produce was already mortgaged to the grain merchants-cum-rich even before the harvest.” For instance, in Purnea district in Bihar, during the famine of 1770, while the district was witnessing a sharp drop in food availability and under acute famine distress, foodgrain was still being sent out of the district. As the prices rose suddenly in the famine affected region, the poor people could not afford to buy it, which resulted in starvation and deaths.

The intensity and frequencies of famines did not relent. The most prominent famines were: 1784 (north India), 1803-06 (Bombay), 1831 (north India), 1854 (Madras), 1865 (Orissa), and 1876-78 (North-east and South). Cornelius Walford, the Victorian demographer, calculated that during the colonial period India witnessed 34 separate famines compared with only 17 recorded instances of the past two thousand years of Indian history (Sheldon, 2009).

Soon after the Indian mutiny was suppressed in 1858, the British came back to north India with a vengeance, which was the centre of the rebellion, and attacked a number of villages which they suspected of supporting the rebellion. In 1858, the villages of the North West Province were plundered and burnt down along with foodgrains. The villagers were punished for siding with the rebellion, and as a result agriculture cultivation was disrupted for two years. There was also a food deficient for over two years preceding the famine. Due to all these factors, famine took place in 1860-61. Furthermore, the deficiency in rainfall in 1860 resulted in drought and poor agricultural output, and the calamity and intensity could be compared to the earlier famine of 1837-38. After the famine began, then there was a sharp rise in the prices of foodgrains, not only in the affected area but also in the neighbouring districts. The rise in prices was speculative and was not associated with the supply of foodgrains in the famine affected districts. The government did not make any attempt either to control the activities of speculators and foodgrain prices, or increase employment opportunities or minimum wages (Sheldon, 2009).

The famine of 1865-66 simultaneously affected a number of provinces such as Orissa, Bihar, Bengal and Madras. In Orissa, the famine of 1865-66 killed about a third of Orissa’s population. The rains in Orissa in 1865 were 25% below the normal rain and as a result, the foodgrain output was adversely affected, and similar situation occurred in other eastern and southern provinces. This created a worrisome situation regarding food safety among the people. The government had refused to import food and did not take any policy measures to stabilise the food prices in the market, while merchants bought and stored foodgrains in a hope that their hoarding activities would bring higher profits, during the post-harvest and in an acute food scarcity situation, there would be a steep rise in prices and thus they would be able to make huge profits. The important factor was that the export of rice from Orissa rose and the total exports of rice from the state amounted to an unusual 33,000 tons as compared to the averages of the previous five years 1859-64 of 17,400 tons. Rice was the main staple food of the people in the province and in severely famine affected districts of Orissa. During this period, the price of rice rose sharply in the markets and the foodgrain disappeared from the markets in the famine affected region.

Under this critical situation in the famine stricken provinces, the provincial governments did not take the situation seriously and did not make any policy attempting to deal with the critical situation. There was the issue that accepting the critical situation would have meant importing food into the famine stricken province of Orissa. In May 1866, in Orissa, the colonial authorities found in the town Cuttack that their own officials and their families were unable to feed themselves. The severe famine forced the people to leave and many villages were deserted and totally wiped out. According to the estimations, three districts of Orissa suffered a loss of at least one-quarter of their population. Food scarcity and stress were also witnessed in a number of districts of Bihar in 1866, with the most severe in the districts of Champaran, Tirhut, Bhagalpur, Shahabad, Saran, Gaya and Monghyr. The relief work by the Government was also extremely belated, inadequate and ill-organised (Attwood, 2005).

The famine of 1866-67 also spread to Southern region of Madras Presidency, the impact of famine and food scarcity was particularly severe in some districts such as Bellary, Coimbatore, South Arcot and Madurai. The rainfall in Madras Presidency was delayed in 1866, and began in late July. The poor agricultural output in 1866 led to a rise in foodgrain prices, but at the same time, food exports continued from the province. Moreover, Madras imported rice from the neighbouring province of Orissa, but due to the sudden decline of food production, rice supplied from Orissa was disrupted. For example, the total imports in 1864-65 amounted to 1,400,000 cwts, but it declined to 1,100,000 cwts in 1865-66 (Samal, 1990).

The Famine Commission enquired into the Famine of 1866 in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa and described the situation as “suffering from hunger on the part of large classes of the population” (Cited in Bhatia, 1991: 8). The Commission further added, food was “always purchasable in the market though at high price and in some remote places at excessively high prices” (Cited in Bhatia, 1991: 8).The Orissa famine also became an important turning point in India’s political development, stimulating nationalist discussions on Indian poverty. Naoroji said that if India had enough food supplies to feed the starving population, then why did so many people die of famine in 1866 in Orissa? He further noted that India had actually exported over £200 million of rice to Britain (Naoroji, 1901). With the development of railways, the famine problem witnessed a huge change. In the latter half of the 19th century, the food situation had changed due to transportation and increased supplies of food from other regions. For instance, regarding the Bengal, Bihar and Orissa famine of 1866, a lack of purchasing power rather than a decline in food supply was seen as an important contributing factor to famines. The development of increased transportation and communication led to more trade in agricultural commodities including food gains, leading to a rise in prices which rendered food beyond the reach of poorer sections of the population (Siddiqui, 2015b; Samal, 1990).

Another famine struck in Bihar in 1873-74. But soon after, the Lieutenant-Governor of Bihar, Sir Richard Temple, imported rice, although a little late, from Burma, but still many lives were saved. However, he was criticized for excessive expenditure on relief (Drèze, 1991). Later on, Mr. Temple became Famine Commissioner for the Government of India, then he took a u-turn, and insisted not only on a policy of ‘laissez faire’ with respect to the trade in grain, but also adopted more strict standards of qualification for relief and on more meagre relief rations (Attwood, 2005).

The crucial September-October 1873 rainfall failed in large parts of Bengal and Bihar. As a result, the drought adversely affected the cultivation of the winter crop including winter rice. The total area affected was 40,000 square miles, and due the crop failure, the deficit in the food supply was estimated at nearly 4 million tons. However, this time the government took steps to stop the exports of foodgrains and made sure that the Burmese rice supply was not hampered. The imports from Burma did help to reduce the number of deaths. In the beginning of the famine, the prices rose sharply but once rice arrived from Burma, the market prices of rice came down. The government intervention was a bit late, but still proved to be helpful to reduce mass deaths.

There was a failure of summer rain in 1876 over a large part of the southern India i.e. Madras Province, also in Mysore and Hyderabad. In all, a total area of 205,600 square miles, which then covered 36.4 million peoples were affected. The monsoon was also less than average in 1875. Food output continued to be less than average until 1878. As Bhatia (1991: 91) noted, “there was acute scarcity of foodgrains which expressed itself in an extraordinary rise in prices … The deficiency in food supply was accompanied during the famine, as was usual, by the outbreak of cholera and the epidemics of smallpox and fevers. The excess of mortality in 1877 over the normal death rate of 3.5 percent per annum for this area was 8 lakh lives.”

Between 1876 and 1878, during the Madras famine, five million people died after the viceroy, Lord Lytton, adopted a hands-off approach similar to that earlier employed in Ireland and Orissa. The famines which occurred before 1870, when there was an absence of transportation and less developed communications in Orissa, hampered the movements of grain to the famine-stricken population. By 1870, the railway tracks were laid out to almost all regions in India and thus grains could be moved from one to other region. This means that famines took place after the availability of the improved transportation in a very different situation, and local production became less important (Ghose, 1982).

The Bombay famine of 1876-78 caused a large number of migrations of the rural poor from this province to British colonies in the Caribbean islands, Fiji and Mauritius, as indentured labour, where the British owned plantations. In this famine nearly 10.3 million people died (Siddiqui, 2020a). The huge death toll led to pressure being put on the British government to form the ‘India Famine Commission’. The Commission Report (1880) suggested the establishment of the Indian Famine Code. However, hardly any major change in policy was witnessed and the next Indian famine took place in 1896-97 in Madras Presidency, which began with a drought, while the government determined to continue the ‘laissez faire’ policy in food products. For instance, during the drought year, the province continued to export food and the famine took place, which was followed by a number of infectious diseases such as influenza and diarrhoea, which attacked the already weakened and starving population of the Madras Presidency.

Moreover, after the 1880s there was an increasing foreign demand for foodgrains, this also led to scarcity in domestic markets, which resulted in a price rise. While at the same time, peasants did not benefit from the price increase, there was no improvement in land productivity, and there was no increased investment in agricultural technology. The exports of foodgrains, pulses, hide, skins, jute, tea, opium and indigo experienced substantial increases. The increase in exports of foodgrains needs to look more closely, because this was also the time of the rise in the occurrences of famines and huge increases in prices. For example, the average annual exports of foodgrains and pulses increased from Rs 15.3 crores in 1881-85 to Rs 20.6 crores in 1894-95. The total exports of two foodgrain commodities, namely wheat and rice, in 1879-80 amounted to 1.25 million tons, while it rose in 1895-96 to 2.25 million tons. It did help India to earn more foreign exchange and enabled the country to acquire a sufficient exchange balance, not only to pay for imports, but also to provide foreign exchange to help Britain, which had a balance of payment deficit with other major economies during that period. The rise in prices and the shortages of foodgrains, which Dutt pointed out in the 1890s as the commercial “advantage” of a favourable trade balance, was thus obtained by India at the cost of a rise of prices and a fall in supplies for domestic consumption (Dutt, 1901).

The famine of 1896-97 took place in north India i.e. in the regions of Bundelkhand and Allahabad Division where food production was already lower than the average of previous years, due to low rainfall, acute food scarcity was already felt in this region before the famine. Moreover, the famine of 1896-97 affected most provinces, and the heavily affected provinces were: Bihar, Bombay, Deccan, Madras, North Western Provinces and Oudh. The food scarcity was also severe in the North Western Provinces of Bombay and Deccan. According to an official estimation, the famine affected a total area of 504,940 square miles with the population of 97 millions (Bhatia, 1991).

Due to over exploitation of soil and hardly any investment to improve fertility, the quality of the land became poorer in nutrients and less rainfall adversely and dramatically affected the output. In 1896, the important reason for famine seemed to be the failure of autumn rains over most parts of India; there was no rainfall between August and November, while on average the country normally the region gets one-third of its rainfall at this time. As a result, the land was dry, and autumn crops such as pulses, autumn rice, gram, peas, and millet could not be planted. Some cultivators planted these crops with irrigation water, but the yields varied among provinces between 45% and 75% of the normal. The loss of agricultural output was huge. Again the monsoon was deficient in 1899, but limited to western and central regions of the country. In Gujarat, for example, total rainfall in 1899 was only 7.3, as against the normal average of 33.02 inches. Sindh received only 0.77 inches as against previous average of 8.26, Hyderabad 16.33 against 33.54 inches and Central regions received 24.29 inches against the previous average of 43.40 inches, Rajputana 11.9 inches against 26.98 and Punjab 8.95 inches against 21.28 inches (Bhatia, 1991).

In the last two decades of the 19th century, India witnessed six major famines, an average of one famine every three years. With the exception of Punjab province, hardly any region escaped from famine and mass deaths caused by hunger. The major provinces which suffered the most were: North Western provinces, Bombay Deccan, Madras Presidency, Orissa, Bihar, Oudh, and Rajputana.

George Blyn’s study (1966) found that between 1891 and 1917 the rate of growth of foodgrains was higher than the population in all regions of India except Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. However, Bengal province was producing surplus foodgrains even as late as 1880. Based on Blyn’s findings, all major famines had taken place during the period when India was still producing surplus food. However, with the expansion of railways and roads after 1880s, the foodgrains could be sold to possible other markets. As Ghose (1982: 378) noted that “there is a clear evidence to suggest that none of the famines was caused by an absolute food shortage. Almost all the official enquiry reports note that even during the worst phase of the famines no absolute food shortages were experienced.”

The 1943-44 the Bengal famine killed nearly 4 million people and it was said that the responsibility could be placed on circumstances created by the war, and the government not taking any emergency measures to tackle this severe problem. Bengal province grows seasonal crops annually, which include, Aman (winter) which is harvested in December and contributes a large proportion of the annual output. The Boro crop (spring) is harvested in February and March, which is a much smaller proportion of the total annual production. Aus (autumn) crop is harvested in September and its production is quite substantial in the total annual agricultural output. The Aman harvest of 1942 was a bumper harvest, but this good output did not lead to any food stocks. However, the 1943 crop turned out to be a poor harvest. The production of Aman in 1943 was 6 million tons as against the previous year’s output of 8.9 million tons. There was a shortfall of 2.9 million tons. The foodgrains in 1943 were only enough for 49 weeks’ worth of requirements for the population. If the war had not taken place, then the number of deaths would have been much less. However, a few months later, in December 1942, the price of rice doubled compared to ten months previously. Then again in February 1943, the prices had nearly tripled compared to January 1942. In the summer of 1943, the price of rice had quadrupled. This sharp increase in prices was aggravated by the government’s lack of effective policy. The situation became worse due to the ineffective coordination of the administration and the need for the imperial war economy (Daoud, 2018).

In February 1942, Singapore was occupied by the Japanese army and Burma was occupied in March 1942. The government of India did not prepare itself with food stocks and used ‘denial policy’. Then there was surplus rice in Bengal and the government put restrictions on boats or other transportations, so if the Japanese entered, they would not benefit from resources. Due to the war, in the close vicinity of Bengal at the Burmese border, the food supply from Burma was ceased. The government in Bengal put up barriers against the movements of foodgrains and other essential supplies due to the fear that it might fall into the enemy’s hands. There was also a huge influx of refugees from Burma into Bengal. At the same time there was an increase in demand for foodgrains by the army and also Burmese refugees needing to be fed. However, there was a total lack of preparedness from the government, and no planning was done at the beginning regarding the potential food scarcity situation. All these developments led to a sharp rise in prices and a decline of food supplies in the province.

The Bengal famine required a large supply of food in the public distribution system. A large food stock would have helped in undermining or minimising the speculation in food prices during the famine. Thus, there was a failure by the government to anticipate the famine and prepare for it (Sheldon, 2009).War preparation, including an increase in food stocks for the population, would have helped to face this critical situation. The government’s refusal to permit more food imports into India to tackle the famine led to mass deaths.

Bengal produced rice and other food grains not only for domestic consumption and exports, but also during the war they were seen as a core factor for military logistics. The British thought to keep food away from the Japanese military in case they invaded Bengal. There was a decline of food output, which resulted in food shortages that also coincided with disruptions of the food supply. But at the same time, merchants found this an opportunity to maximise their profits by raising prices. In July, prices remained the same, but soon afterwards climbed upwards rapidly and reaching beyond where the poor could buy, resulting in mass starvation and deaths. For instance, Yasmin Khan (2007:17) on the Bengal Famine of 1943-44 found, “the Bengali public had been left starving to death, and perhaps as many as three millions died because of shoddy government food allocation and skewed political priorities”.

The expansion of commercial crops forced the farmers to abandon, directly or indirectly, who earlier had cultivated subsistence crops and thus increased vulnerability among the poor peasants.

The government had focused on the global war efforts and ignored the food situation in Bengal. As Economist acknowledged British War time priorities. “The best way to end the famine is speedy victory and, however hard the decision, food ships must come second to victory ships” (Cited in Grada, 2008: 30). Shashi Tharoor (2018) blames Winston Churchill, the former British Prime Minister, as being responsible for the Bengal famine in India due to his role in the 1943-44 Bengal famine, where four million people were starved to death. Tharoor has put Winston Churchill in the same category as some of “the worst genocidal dictators” of the 20th century because of his complicity in the Bengal Famine. In 1943, Churchill diverted food to British soldiers and countries such as Greece while a deadly famine swept through the Bengal province.  According to him, the Bengal province was not at the border of the Second World War, but sill more than seven times the number of people died compared to Britain. (Tharoor, 2018)

Two aspects are crucial to examine, namely, the expansion of commercial crops, and at the same time, neglect in investment in the agriculture sector (Siddiqui, 2020b). The exports of opium, cotton, indigo, jute, wheat and rice were the main priority of the government with the aim to earn maximum foreign currency, including from China, and also to supply cheap food to Britain. The expansion of commercial crops forced the farmers to abandon, directly or indirectly, who earlier had cultivated subsistence crops and thus increased vulnerability among the poor peasants.


5. Exports of Agricultural Commodities

There were three key factors which initiated changes in India during the colonial period, namely: 1) the expansion of commercial crops for exports, 2) the land revenue collection system and 3) the destruction of indigenous industries (Siddiqui, 1996). Indian peasantry was forced to produce opium, cotton, and indigo to export to China to pay for Britain’s imports (Trocki, 1999). The constant need for ‘tribute’ and increasing costs of imperial wars required India to raise exports and also increase in land revenue, which resulted in frequent famines, and a large number of deaths.

In pre-colonial India, the land rent was collected after the harvest, which meant that if there was a poor harvest due to floods or droughts, then the rent charges were lowered. The land revenue i.e. agricultural surplus was distributed among the ruling elites, and they spent it on local consumption, as then there was no demand for European goods in India. The high land rent and extraction of surplus was so high that peasants’ indebtedness and hunger rose to an unprecedented level, which was unknown in the past. For instance, Ahuja notes (2004:151) “rudimentary ‘famine policy’ practised in Mughal North India that relied on the prohibition of food exports from famine-stricken areas and on the regulation of food prices in urban markets… Nawab Asaf ud-Daula reportedly gave employment to 40,000 people on construction sites in Lucknow during the ‘Chalisa’ famine…” No such evidence is available for the establishment of similar ‘famine works’ by the colonial authorities.

Moreover, there was a sharp increase in the amount of the land-rent payment, which was collected before the harvest, which ignored the uncertainty in agricultural output due to natural disasters such as floods and droughts. During droughts or floods, peasants did not receive any relief from the government (Ahuja, 2004). Therefore, they were left with no choice, but to borrow against the security of their land. As a result, peasants had little capital to make long term investments in the land, while the absentee land owners found higher returns in money lending rather than long-term improvements in land productivity. Exorbitant interest charges by private money lenders not only impoverished the peasantry but undermined long term investment in the agricultural sector.

The high land revenue charges increased money lending and rent seeking activities, and the land appropriation by absentee landowners rose sharply as was never seen before the pre-colonial period. Under British rule, land assumed the position of a capital asset and a new concept of English landlordism was imposed. With the introduction of railways in the mid-19th century, the trade in agricultural commodities increased, but at the same time food prices rose sharply during that period. As land became private property and more valuable, landowners could borrow money. These developments led to a sharp rise in peasants’ indebtedness in the 19th and early 20th century. However, the high interest rates charged by the private money lenders, in a situation of uncertain crop production and prices, made it very difficult to repay the loans. As a result, there was also a huge increase in dispossession of land and the land ownership of absentee landlords-cum-merchants rose. There was a huge transfer of land from peasants to non-cultivating money lenders.

By the mid-19th century, the Indian economy had been fully transformed into a colonial trade pattern, where its export consisted mainly of agricultural commodities such as foodgrains, and the home charges were met by exporting such commodities, while the imports consisted of manufactured goods, especially cotton textiles and machinery (Siddiqui, 2015c). After the 1880s, the trade imports became more diversified, due to the growing penetration of foreign manufactured goods such as cotton textiles, capital goods, machinery etc. (Siddiqui, 1996) This in turn further undermined the position of the local producers and hastened the decay of indigenous industries and handicrafts.

These changes took place with the decline of handicraft industries and during changes in agriculture when lands under cultivation of food crops were reduced to give way for expansion of commercial crops. The colonial government destroyed India’s once-flourishing textile industries, and forced more people into agriculture for their survival. This, in turn, made the Indian economy much more dependent on the whims of seasonal monsoons. This also coincided with a rapid increase in land revenue to finance Britain’s military overseas ventures. And also food exports to Europe were increased to earn foreign exchange to benefit the colonizers. Table 1 shows trade between 1859-60 and 1879-80. Both exports and imports rose during this period. Table 1 indicates a trend in continuous rise in exports over the whole period. Another important point is that exports have risen faster than imports. Table 2 shows the exports of goods from India. Among the exports of agricultural products, most prominent were wheat, opium, raw jute and tea, as indicated in Table 2. Rising exports of agricultural commodities also meant more land was transferred from cultivation of food crops to non-food crops. As a result, the ground was prepared not only for a change in the nature of famine in India, but also an increase in its frequency.

Table 1: India’s Foreign Trade (value in crores of Rs, 00000000,s)

Year Total Exports Total Imports Total Trade
1859-60 28.9 40.7 69.6
1864-65 69.5 49.5 119.0
1869-70 53.5 46.9 100.4
1874-75 58.0 44.3 102.3
1879-80 69.2 52.8 122.0

Note: 1£ = Rs 10.

Source: Bhatia, 1991, pp. 36, Table 2.


Table 2: Exports of goods from India (value in crores of Rs, 00000000,s)

Year Foodgrains Opium Raw Cotton Raw Jute Tea Animal Skins & Hides Indigo
1859-60 3.6 9.0 5.6 0.62 0.13 0.44 2.0
1864-65 6.0 9.9 37.5 1.4 0.3 0.37 1.9
1869-70 3.2 11.7 19.0 2.0 1.0 1.7 3.2
1874-75 5.5 12.0 15.3 2.7 2.0 2.7 2.6
1879-80 9.9 14.3 11.1 4.3 3.0 3.7 2.9

Note: 1£ = Rs 10.

Source: Bhatia, 1991, pp. 37, Table 4.


On the question of development of handicrafts and commercial organisations, during the last decade of the 18th century Vera Anstey (1929: 5) noted “that the economic condition of India was relatively advanced and Indian methods of production and of industrial and commercial organization could stand comparison with those in any other part of the world”. After the colonisation of India, Britain imposed heavy tariff duties on Indian imports to protect her textile industry, and began to seek markets for her manufactured products in India. For example, Britain’s cotton export to India rose from £0.11 million in 1813 to £3.86 million in 1840, and further rose to £5.22 million in 1850 and again to £6.35 in 1856. The expansion of railways and roads further helped to expand cheap imports from Britain. It was not only the textile industry which suffered similar turns were seen in shipping, in paper, shoe making and many other industries. For instance, in Azamgarh district in 1837-38, the number of those who used of foreign clothes, was negligible, but by 1860-61, about 77% of the population in the district were buying British clothes. As Sheldon (2009:75) emphasis, “around 1750, Britain was an importer of Indian textile, but a century later India was clothed by Britain, entirely to loss of the Indian producers. By 1900 India had been eclipsed in world markets largely due to the aggressive protectionism of the colonial state. Britain did invest in infrastructure that would eventually assist Indian development; roads railways, telegrams and electric grids were all financed under British rule, but not of course, without a downside, and not always to the advantage of the India people as a whole. For the mid-Victorian generation there was no more vivid marker of European progress and Asiatic backwardness than the railways”.

The white settler colonies such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada enjoyed dominion status from the mid-19th century onwards and were given the freedom to enact their own economic policies to suit their domestic interests. As a result, they were able to impose tariffs on import manufactures to protect their domestic industries. Such economic freedom was denied in non-white colonies such as India.

The railways served the strategic purpose of the empire and the profits were not invested to build related industries and technology towards its advancement. The improved communication and transport helped to enhance British military and imperial supremacy to use against its rivals e.g. Germany, who were threatening domination. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 was helpful to Britain when other major world powers erected tariff barriers against British goods. Then Indian colonial markets integrated by railways became more important for British industrialists to sell their products. The roads and railways also facilitated the exploitation of raw materials and food products in favour of Britain.


The British government believed in free-trade and non-interference in the market (Siddiqui, 2016) and did nothing to check the huge hikes in foodgrain prices.

6. Conclusion

During the drought and less rainfall, the land became dry, hard, and difficult to plough and sow seed; as a result, agricultural output was reduced further. It caused food shortages, starvation and famines. Furthermore, it also led to the death of a large number of animals and it became difficult to carry on agricultural operations in the next few years after the occurrence of famine. On the other hand, during the famine, the rise in foodgrains prices, decline in rural employment and stagnant wages, along with the decline in handicraft industries and de-population of the cities left little scope for employment outside the agricultural sector. As Ghose (1982: 374) noted, “There were numerous famines and scarcities during the whole period of British colonial rule in India. The first of these, the Bengal famine of 1770 in which an estimated over ten millions died, was essentially the consequence of plunder by the undisciplined colonialists of the East India Company. The last famine in British India, the Bengal famine of 1943, was unique in that it was not precipitated by any natural disaster. With these two exceptions, all the other famines that occurred during this period were preceded by drought”.

Similarly, on famines in British India, Ray (2013:5) comments, “A crop failure leading to a starvation deaths during a famine or hardship among the victims during times of scarcity, because the relationship of people to food was not that direct, and the manner of its internal distribution played a very important role in the causation of famine and death… low-caste peasantry and agricultural labourers with insufficient land or with no land at all was loss of employment, as bad weather made agricultural operations impossible and there was a tendency to cut down the number of labourers as grain became increasingly costly.”

The British government believed in free-trade and non-interference in the market (Siddiqui, 2016) and did nothing to check the huge hikes in foodgrain prices. The government policy encouraged households to sell surplus foodgrains to central depots using recently built railroads and most of it was exported to Britain. Relief funds were scant because the government was eager to finance overseas military campaigns. The administration firmly believed in the Malthusian idea that famine was nature’s response to Indian over-breeding. Millions of people perished when severe droughts turned into famines due to the government policy of exporting food, while adhering to laissez-faire and non-intervention policies. In contrast, during the per-colonial period, in the famines the Mughal rulers clearly recognised that their legitimacy would be tested, and charity works such as distribution of food to the poor was seen as the most common response. They were local rulers and in order to rule, the perception of their subject was seen as crucial to stay in power.

This study has found that failures of both markets and state institutions lay at the heart of the famine causation and mass deaths. There were wide ranging policy failures and complex relationships to famine-related deaths during the colonial government in India. The colonial government strictly relied on ‘Malthusian ideas’ that famines were the natural outcome of overpopulation. The government’s faith in non-interference in the markets during famines made matters much worst.

Moreover, the government allowed unrestricted exports of foodgrains even during times of famine, and also government made sure that foodgrain prices were determined by the market forces of supply and demand. Furthermore, the commercialization diverted resources away from domestic food production towards non-food crops for markets, and also agricultural output underwent greater price fluctuations. Finally, during the British colonial rule the frequency of famines and deaths increased sharply and mass deaths took place due to a number of reasons such as government policy failure or inaction and also a lack of preparation to combat this extraordinary situation.

This article was originally published on July 20 2020

About the Author

Dr Kalim Siddiqui is an economist, specialising in International Political Economy, Development Economics, International Trade, and International Economics. His work, which combines elements of international political economy and development economics, economic policy, economic history and international trade, often challenges prevailing orthodoxy about which policies promote overall development in less developed countries. Kalim teaches international economics at the Department of Accounting, Finance and Economics, University of Huddersfield, U.K.. He has taught economics since 1989 at various universities in Norway and U.K.


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The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.