Loot Unlimited

Famines in British India

Chiranjit Ghosh

The history of British rule in India is the history of destruction of one of the richest economies of the contemporary world and the consequent pauperisation of its masses, of food scarcities and repeated famines, of deaths and devastations unprecedented in the history of this country and rarely witnessed in any part of the world. The British colonial rule of India began with the famine of 1769-70 in the Bengal presidency that claimed the lives of a third of the population and ended with another famine, again in Bengal, in 1942-43 that took a toll of at least three million.

Among the major causes of repeated famines under the colonial rule was the boundless greed of the foreign rulers, and the hoarding and speculation of food grains by them for inordinate profits. In fact, the colonial rulers created famines consciously and calculatedly for creating a condition favourable for their unlimited exploitation. “Between 1769 and 1770”, wrote Karl Marx, “the English manufactured a famine by buying up all the rice and refusing to sell it again, except at fabulous prices.”

The famine of 1769-70, known as the Great Bengal Famine, was the first severe famine in India after the assumption of revenue powers by the East India Company in 1765 that killed 10 million or a third of the population. But in such a condition of severe economic distress, the pressure of land revenue was unrelenting; even it was increased, according to one estimate, “from Rs 2.26 crore in 1765-66 to Rs 3.7 crore in 1778-79. Such was the pressure that a famine which in 1769-70 carried off a third of the cultivators of Bengal caused no decline in revenue assessments.”

Along with the exploitation by the Company in the form of land revenues, there were personal plunders by its employees and officials. “…in 1770-71,” a modern historian has written, “at the height of the Bengal famine, an astounding £1,086,255 was transferred to London by Company executives—perhaps £100 million in modern currency.”

For similar reasons of unlimited greed and inhuman cruelty of the British rulers another devastating famine occurred in Orissa and adjoining regions in 1866-67, just a few years after the abolition of the Company’s rule and the taking over of the administration by the Imperial government, in which more than a million people died in Orissa alone and an astounding 4 to 5 million perished in other areas. “In the year 1866”, Marx wrote ,exposing the ruthless character of the colonial exploitation as the root cause of the famine, “more than a million Hindus died of hunger in the province of Orissa alone. Nevertheless, the attempt was made to enrich the Indian treasury by the price at which the necessities of life were sold to the starving people.”

In the pre-colonial era maintaining the irrigation system indispensable for agriculture in this country was the responsibility of the state. All oriental governments had, for centuries, borne this responsibility for the steady maintenance of the agricultural economy of their countries. But the British, for the first time in the history of this country, refused the responsibility. As the result of neglect over a long period of time, irrigation system deteriorated leading to frequent failures of crops and widespread famines. “There have been in Asia,” recorded Karl Marx, “generally, from immemorial times, but three departments of Government: that of Finance, or the plunder of the interior; that of war, or the plunder of the exterior; and finally, the department of Public Works.…

“Now, the British in East India accepted from their predecessors the department of finance and of war, but they have neglected entirely that of public works. Hence the deterioration of an agriculture which is not capable of being conducted on the British principle of free competition,…”

Marx explained further,
“One of the material bases of the power of the State over the small disconnected producing organisms in India was the regulation of water supply. The Mohamedan rulers of India understood this better than their English successors. It is enough to recall the famine of 1866, which cost the lives of more than a million Hindus in the district of Orissa, in the Bengal presidency.”

Besides taking care of the irrigation system the rulers in pre-British India, in cases of failure of crops due to natural calamities, adopted measures as controlling the market and regulating the price of food grains, free distribution of food, tax exemption and the like. But under the British rule there were no provisions for such measures; and this explains why famines one after the other ravaged the country to the amazing extent that had no precedence in Indian history. “The incidence of famine expanded dramatically,” writes an eminent modern historian,“first under the Company and then under the British crown. In fact, British control of India started with a famine in Bengal in 1770 and ended in a famine—again in Bengal— in 1943. Working in the midst of the terrible 1877 famine that he estimated had cost another 10 million lives, Cornelius Walford calculated that in the 120 years of British rule there had been 34 famines in India compared with only 17 recorded famines in the entire previous two millennia. One of the factors that explained this divergence was the Company's abandonment of the Mughal system of public regulation and investment. Not only did the Mughals use tax revenues to finance water conservation, thus boosting food production, but when famine struck they imposed embargos on food exports, anti-speculative price regulation, tax relief and distribution of free food.”

Another important reason for food scarcities and famines in India under the British was the excessive use of arable land for growing commercial crops (e.g. opium, indigo, jute, cotton etc.) leading to the lack of production of sufficient food grains and frequent suffering of the people from scarcity of food. Researchers claim that,

“…export crops displaced millions of acres that could have been used for domestic subsistence, and increased the vulnerability of Indians to food crisis.”

On the other hand, Indian exports of these commodities 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 market.

The unprecedented pressure of foreign exploitation, the draining of wealth and resources of the once rich country, known as Tribute, drowned the masses into poverty to such an extent that providing the minimum necessities of life became impossible. “Quite apart from what they appropriate to themselves annually within India,” wrote Marx, “speaking only of the value of commodities, the Indians have gratuitously and annually to send over to England what amounts to more than the total sum of income of the sixty millions of agricultural and industrial labourers of India! This is a bleeding process, with a vengeance! The famine years are pressing each other and in dimensions till now yet unsuspected in Europe.”

The process of de-industrialisation of India started by the British conquerors from the very first days of its rule wrought havoc with the economy of the country. Millions of workers engaged in industry and manufacture who were thrown out of their professions had no way of escaping starvation and death, and they did die in millions together with their families and children. In 1834-35, Lord William Bentinck, the then Governor General of India wrote in his report to the Board of Directors,

“The misery hardly finds a parallel in the history of commerce. The bones of the cotton-weavers are bleaching the plains of India.”

The number of famines that ravaged India under the British was highest in number in the last half of the 19th century. There were 24 major famines during these fifty years, unforeseen in any chapter of India’s past. Historians testify that,

“Between 1850 and 1899 India suffered 24 major famines, a number higher than in any other recorded 50-year period, resulting in millions of deaths.”

According to a 1901 census estimate published in the ‘The Lancet' (The effect of famines on the population of India: The Lancet, vol.157, No. 4059, June 15, 1901. pp.1713-1714), famines in India between 1891-1901 caused 19 million deaths from “starvation or to the disease there-from”.

During the Bengal Famine of 1943 which claimed the lives of nearly 3 million victims, tens of thousands of rural families were turned into beggars who had to leave their homes and flock into the city streets begging for crumbs of food. In an already critical economic condition due to the war, its consequent inflation and sharp rise in the price of commodities, the food situation rapidly deteriorated with the Japanese occupation of Burma. As the supply of rice from the neighbouring country was cut off, the scared British government devised a Foodstuff Scheme to stock rice for a steady supply to the European settlers, rich urban natives and those in service in the armed forces, war industries, civil service and other high-priority jobs. The situation aggravated still more as domestic supply of food grains was further restricted by inter-provincial trade barriers imposed as emergency measure, but the government continued to buy up all the rice from the local market and even export them to other parts of the empire. When the War Cabinet of Churchill refused to approve the minimum amount of food grains (Churchill blamed the famine as the result of Indians “breeding like rabbits”), another famine became inevitable in the land of natural plenty. It is now widely known and admitted that, “the British Cabinet met only 25 percent of Delhi's requested food deliveries. This was a travesty when British rations remained incomparably generous. Indians were dying on the streets of Calcutta, while in its British clubs members had access to unlimited bacon and eggs.”

Far from taking measures to forestall the famine or provide relief to the victims, the British government denied the deaths till photographs of heaps of dead bodies lying on the streets of Calcutta were published in the newspapers. After a bumper harvest of rice in December 1943 deaths from starvation began to decline, yet about half of the mortality occurred in the next year due to epidemics and diseases that followed the famine.


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Vol 54, No. 50, Jun 12 - 18, 2022