Recurrence of Famines in 19th Century: Factors responsible and Remedial measures adopted by British

Prior to the establishment of British Rule in India, famine was an extreme occurrence but with the establishment of British rule, famine became a regular phenomenon. More than 40 major and minor famine took place during British rule and millions of Indians lost their life. Death and devastation caused by these recurring famine was a characteristic feature of British rule in India.

Famines refer to a situation of large scale physical degeneration and death caused by the non-availability of food material.

The first major famine took place in 1769 which wipe-out one-third of the population. In 1832-33, the infamous Guntur famine took place which wipe-out 40% of population.

Factors Responsible Recurrence Of Famines

Factors like new land tenure system, commercialization of agriculture, a decline of handicraft, one-way free trade; contributed to the impoverishment of rural masses. Therefore, whenever food production declined, a severe famine struck. Sometimes, commissions were appointed to recommend measures, which were half-heartedly implemented by the British government.

The destruction of handicraft and the absence of modern industries to absorb this displaced labor had a tremendous impact on agriculture. A kind of one way free trade imposed on India since the Charter Act of 1813 further aggravated this problem.

Under the new Land revenue system, agriculture was running again under excessive land revenue demand. A racket of money lenders, administrations and landlords gave rent to the farmers. The commercialization of agriculture without any improvement in productivity meant a decline in grain production.

All these factors led to a huge decline in the real income of farmers. Therefore, whenever there was a drought in agriculture, it caused a severe famine.

No famine-relief measures were initiated, starting with the Bengal famine of 1769–70. The situation often worsens in the company’s business.

Famine Remedial Measures

  1. During the East India Company rule, no effort of any kind was made to take steps to eliminate the causes of famine or to help the famine-affected people.
  2. After 1858, when direct British Rule commenced in India, some commissions and committees were appointed by the government. Steps were taken to formulate famine policy, but since the British rule was colonial in character the half-hearted British initiative failed to benefit Indians, death and devastation caused continuously by famines.
  3. In 1860-61, the Delhi Agra region was struck by a severe famine. The government appointed, Baird Smith committee. In spite of the fact that two million lives were lost, no serious steps were taken to prevent recurrence of similar famine.
  4. Under Crown rule, famine relief measures began with the expansion of railways. The first famine commission under George Campbell was appointed after the Orissa famine of 1866. It said that the government should expand railways and canals to protect against famines and the district administration should try to save the lives of more and more people.
  5. Nevertheless, the famine of 1876–78 killed about 5 million people. Subsequently, the Strachey Commission appointed under Sir Richard Strachey in 1878. This Commission suggested that:
    • A famine code should be formulated,
    • A famine relief fund should be created,
    • Collection of land revenue should be stopped in famine affected area,
    • Food clothing and money should be distributed as relief measures,
    • Loan should be provided to purchase food grains and cattles
    • Collection of information about present conditions.
  6. The famine code was formulated in 1883 and implemented in 1886. It had four major parts:
    • Precaution during normal times
    • Relief campaign
    • Duty during relief work
    • Division of famine affected area.
  7. During 1896-97, many parts were affected by severe famine in which about 34 million were affected and more than 5 million lives were lost. The British government appointed James Lyall Commission to look into causes of famine. The commission suggested that famine relief measures should be initiated actively.
  8. During 1899-1900, India was struck by another massive famine where about 28 million people affected and more than 1 million lost. Lord Curzon appointed Anthony McDonnel Commission which suggested that:
    • The government should initiate relief measures by accepting moral responsibility,
    • Famine code should be revised,
    • Foodgrains and other assistance should be provided without any delay,
    • A famine Commissioner should be appointed,
    • Irrigation facilities should be developed,
    • Agriculture bank should be established to provide assistant to people
    • A non-official assistant should be mobilized on a large scale
  9. Often, state policy was the direct cause of famine, e.g. The Great Bengal Famine of 1943 was the result of Churchill’s policy where more than about 5 million lives were lost. The Government appointed John Woodhead Commission which recommended:
    • The amalgamation of the Department of food and irrigation,
    • An All-India food Council should be established,
    • Steps should be taken to increase food grain production.

In this way, the half hearted initiative undertaken during British rule failed to benefit Indians in any real way and millions of Indians continued to die during the British rule.

Therefore, the changes induced by India’s colonization were behind recurring famines and the state’s response to it was late, inadequate, and malicious.

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