A famine refers to a situation where there is a scarcity of the basic amenities of life. There can be many reasons for a famine-inflation, government policies, war, failure in crop seasons, high poverty rates or imbalances in population. Mostly, it is combined or results in an epidemic, high rates of mortality and malnutrition. The Indian people were ravaged by famines one after another during the 19th century. This resulted from the colonial policies, including the tack-renting, freer trade, neglect of agriculture and high levies. As a total, there were 31 famines during the British Raj, with the last one-The Bengal Famine, leading to the death of 4 million people.
Understanding the Timelines of Major Indian Famines During the British Era
From 1760 to 1943, the Indian economy witnessed a major downfall, and about 85 million Indians died due to massive famines. These were consequences of the economic policies undertaken under British rule. Below is a list of these famines in respect to region, consequences and the governors-general-
Famine in Bengal of 1770
The regions covered under the famine were primarily Central Bengal and Bihar. It was under John Cartier, and about one-third of the total population in the area died as a result of the famine.
The famine of Chalisa 1782
The regions covered under this famine were Punjab, Kashmir, Delhi and Rajputana. It was under Warren Hastings, leading to the death of 11 million people.
The famine of Doji Bara in 1788
Marwar, Hyderabad, Gujarat, and the Deccan, are the regions covered under this famine. It was under John Shore and Charles Cornwallis, and it led to the death of about 11 million people.
The famine of Agra of 1837
The regions covered under this famine were regions of Jumna districts and Central Doab. It lasted for a year and ended in 1838. It was under George Eden, and about 0.8 million died due to it.
The famine of Upper Doab of 1861
The regions affected by the famine include Punjab, Delhi, and Agra areas. Like the former, this famine lasted for a year and led to the death of 2 million people. The region was under Lord Canning.
The famine of Orissa 1866
The affected regions include Bihar and Orissa. The area was under Lord John Lawrence and led to the death of about 1 million people.
Impact of Poverty and Famine
- Rising mortality due to diseases and hunger:
Two huge problems are starvation and the spread of diseases combined, which led to increased mortality rates. This also resulted in malnutrition which affected the immune system, further weakening the body to resist the conditions, which in turn resulted in death because of infections.
- Disruption of social systems and widespread infections:
Due to the breakdown and disruption of the social systems, there is enormous migration along with poor facilities for sanitation as well as water disposal. This made a very close link with the rise of infectious diseases.
- Women and children’s migration:
Due to the famine, men started selling off their lands to go forward and participate in the army. They kept travelling from place to another in the hunt for relief. Due to this, the women and their children were left homeless.
There was intensified exploitation of women during the famine. However, before the famine, there was also sexual exploitation for the lower caste and poor people, and there were times when they were also socially sanctioned.
- Cloth famine:
One of the most severe conditions resulting from the famine was the cloth famine. The entire community of poor people living in poverty was left naked or wrapped with clothes just in scraps during winter. The British military bought the textiles manufactured in India at low prices, be it parachutes, blankets, boots or uniforms.
- Huge fall in hygiene standards:
This famine led to degraded sanitary conditions, which drastically affected the hygiene standards. Cloth famine led to a scarcity of clothes. All the bodies were disposed of in water, degrading drinking water quality. Many utensils and necessary facilities required to prepare food and maintain a basic standard of living were abandoned due to widespread migration.
India was a self-sufficient economy that was hampered under British rule. The local artists, craftsmanship, and industry witnessed a significant decline as Britishers shifted the Indian population to agriculture to earn their daily bread. As more and more people depended on agriculture, the dependence on monsoons increased, leading to widespread poverty, droughts and famines.