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The Great Famine of 1876–78 (also the Southern India famine of 1876–78 or the Madras famine of 1877) was a famine in India that began in 1876 and affected south and southwestern India (Madras, Mysore, Hyderabad, and Bombay) for a period of two years. In its second year famine also spread north to some regions of the Central Provinces and the North-Western Provinces, and to a small area in the Punjab. The famine ultimately covered an area of 670,000 square kilometers (257,000 sq. mi) and caused distress to a population totaling 58,500,000. The death toll from this famine is estimated to be in the range of 5.5 million people.

Great Famine of 1876–78

In part, the Great Famine may have been caused by an intense drought resulting in crop failure in the Deccan Plateau. But, the regular export of grain by the colonial government; during the famine, the viceroy, Lord Lytton, oversaw the export to England of a record 6.4 million hundredweight (320,000 ton) of wheat, this weakens the rich cultural and economic strength especially of southern India. However, the cultivation of alternate cash crops, in addition to the commodification of grain, played a significant role in the events.

The famine occurred at a time when the colonial government was attempting to reduce expenses on welfare. Earlier, in the Bihar famine of 1873–74, severe mortality had been avoided by importing rice from Burma. However, the Government of Bengal and its Lieutenant-Governor, Sir Richard Temple, were criticized for excessive expenditure on charitable relief. Sensitive to any renewed accusations of excess in 1876, Temple, who was now Famine Commissioner for the Government of India, insisted not only on a policy of laissez-faire with respect to the trade in grain but also on stricter standards of qualification for relief and on more meager relief rations. Two kinds of relief were offered: “relief works” for able-bodied men, women, and working children, and gratuitous (or charitable) relief for small children, the elderly, and the indigent.

The insistence on more rigorous tests for qualification, however, led to strikes by “relief workers” in the Bombay presidency. Furthermore, in January 1877, Temple reduced the wage for a day’s hard work in the relief camps in Madras and Bombay—this ‘Temple wage’ consisted of 450 grams (1 lb) of grain plus one anna for a man, and a slightly reduced amount for a woman or working child, for a “long day of hard labour without shade or rest.” The rationale behind the reduced wage, which was in keeping with a prevailing belief of the time, was that any excessive payment might create ‘dependency‘ (or “demoralization” in contemporaneous usage) among the famine-afflicted population.

Temple’s recommendations were opposed by a number of officials, including William Digby and the physician W. R. Cornish, Sanitary Commissioner for the Madras Presidency. Cornish argued for a minimum of 680 grams (1.5 lb) of grain and, in addition, supplements of vegetables and protein, especially if the individuals were performing strenuous labor in the relief works. However, Lytton supported Temple, who argued that “everything must be subordinated to the financial consideration of disbursing the smallest sum of money.”

Eventually, in March 1877, the provincial government of Madras increased the ration halfway towards Cornish’s recommendations, to 570 grams of grain and 43 grams of protein in the form of daal (pulses). Meanwhile, many more people had succumbed to the famine. In other parts of India, such as the United Provinces, where relief was meager, the resulting mortality was high. In the autumn and winter of 1878, an epidemic of malaria killed many more that were already weakened by malnutrition.

By early 1877, Temple proclaimed that he had put “the famine under control.” Digby noted that “a famine can scarcely be said to be adequately controlled which leaves one-fourth of the people dead.”

All in all, the Government of India spent Rs. 8 1/30 million in relieving 700 million units (1 unit = relief for 1 person for 1 day) in British India and, in addition, another Rs. 7.2 million in relieving 72 million units in the princely states of Mysore and Hyderabad. Revenue (tax) payments to the amount of Rs. 6 million were either not enforced or postponed until the following year, and charitable donations from Great Britain and the colonies totaled Rs. 8.4 million. However, this cost was minuscule per capita; for example, the expenditure incurred in the Bombay Presidency was less than one-fifth of that in the Bihar famine of 1873–74, which affected a smaller area and did not last as long.

The mortality in the famine was in the range of 5.5 million people. The excessive mortality and the renewed questions of “relief and protection” that were asked in its wake, led directly to the constituting of the Famine Commission of 1880 and to the eventual adoption of the Provisional Famine Code in British India. After the famine, a large number of agricultural laborers and handloom weavers in South India immigrated to British tropical colonies to work as indentured laborers in plantations. The excessive mortality in the famine also neutralized the natural population growth in the Bombay and Madras presidencies during the decade between the first and second censuses of British India in 1871 and 1881 respectively. The famine lives on in the Tamil and other literary traditions. A large number of Kummi folk songs describing this famine have been documented.

The Great Famine was to have a lasting political impact on events in India. Among the British administrators in India who were unsettled by the official reactions to the famine and, in particular by the stifling of the official debate about the best form of famine relief, were William Wedderburn and A. O. Hume. Less than a decade later, they would found the Indian National Congress and, in turn, influence a generation of Indian nationalists. Among the latter were Dadabhai Naoroji and Romesh Chunder Dutt for whom the Great Famine would become a cornerstone of the economic critique of the British Raj.


During the World War II, the Bengal province saw one of the deadliest famines in Bengal of British India during 1943-44. People were all dead and the number got an increment with time. On an estimate almost 2.1 million were dead, the deaths first occurring from starvation and then from various kinds of diseases including malaria, smallpox, cholera, kala-azar, dysentery, etc. Not only this, many died because of unitary conditions, lack of treatment, malnutrition and population displacement. As the diseases and famine were increased to more areas, all this led to the economic inequality.


The people of Bengal were dependent on farmland and producing, storing and maintaining various kinds of crops. Since almost 10 years people were in a crisis and a few had started to starve because of improper food and malnutrition. Almost half of them had lost their crops and farmland. There was some cause behind this including dense population, land grabbing by powerful and bad agricultural practices. Peasants were forced to work without any payment and the one who refused to do so was brutally beaten and threatened by the British officials.

Other than the government threatening and de-peasantisation there was some natural disaster on a small scale that caused damage to crops and economy. In a short span of time, the natural disasters namely cyclone, flood, storm surges and rice crop disease and five consequences of war were responsible for this famine.

The economy faced the loss of rice crops due to natural disasters and some diseases and simultaneously when Japanese conquered Burma (present Myanmar) that led to destruction and disruption of market supplies and many means of transport were shut down.

Later, massive inflation brought on by repeated policy failures, war profiteeringspeculation, and perhaps hoarding. Finally, the government prioritized military and defense needs over those of the rural poor, allocating medical care and food immensely in the favor of the military, laborers in military industries, and civil servants.

All of these factors were further compounded by restricted access to grain: domestic sources were constrained by emergency inter-provincial trade barriers, while access to international sources was largely denied by the War Cabinet of Great Britain. The relative impact of each of these contributing factors to the death toll and economic devastation is still a matter of controversy. Different analyses frame the famine against natural, economic, or political causes.

The government was slow to supply humanitarian aid, at first using propaganda to discourage hoarding. It attempted to drive rice paddy prices down through price controls and a series of procurement schemes. Price controls merely created a thriving black market and encouraged cautious sellers to withhold their stocks; moreover, prices soared when the controls were abandoned. Relief efforts in the form of gruel kitchens, agricultural loans and test works were both insufficient and ineffective through the worst months of the food crisis phase.

Despite having a long-established and detailed Famine Code that would have triggered a sizable increase in aid, the provincial government never formally declared a state of famine. Relief efforts increased significantly when the military took control of crisis relief in October 1943, and more effective aid arrived after a record rice harvest that December. Deaths from starvation began to decline, but “very substantially more than half” of the famine-related fatalities were caused by disease in 1944, after the food security crisis had subsided.

Despite the organized and sometimes violent civil unrest just prior to the famine, there was no organized rioting when the famine took hold. However, social disruption was deep and widespread: families disintegrated, with cases of wives and children being abandoned, child-selling, infanticide, and both voluntary and forced prostitution. Lines of small children begging could stretch for miles outside of cities; at night, children could be heard “crying bitterly and coughing terribly … in the pouring monsoon rain … stark naked, homeless, motherless, fatherless and friendless. Their sole possession was an empty tin”. A schoolteacher in Mahisadal witnessed “children picking and eating undigested grains out of a beggar’s diarrheal discharge”. Author Freda Bedi wrote that it was “not just the problem of rice and the availability of rice. It was the problem of society in fragments.’’

Until the military assumed control of relief efforts in September 1943, government aid seldom provided much help to the rural poor, directing most of its cash and grain supplies instead to the relatively wealthy landowners and urban bhadraloks. After an initial spate of humanitarian aid for the cyclone-stricken areas around Midnapore in October 1942, the government response was slow, and relief efforts were very limited until April 1943. The response was slowed both by a failure to grasp the nature and scope of the problem and by political factors brought on by a public propaganda campaign declaring “sufficiency” in Bengal’s rice supply, denying that there had been any significant crop shortfall, and blaming rising prices on war profiteering and hoarding.

In April, more cash and grain began to flow to the outlying areas, but relief efforts were misdirected. Famine relief came in three major forms: agricultural loans (for the purchase of paddy seed, plow cattle, and maintenance expenses), gratuitous relief, and test works. Agricultural loans offered no assistance to the large numbers of rural poor who had little or no land. Grain relief was divided between cheap grain shops and the open market, with far more going to the markets. Supplying grain to the markets was intended to lower grain prices, but did not accomplish that aim, instead of putting rural poor in direct competition with wealthier Bengalis at greatly inflated prices.

As the depth and scope of the famine became unmistakable, the government began setting up gruel kitchens in August 1943; the gruel, which often provided barely a survival-level caloric intake, was sometimes unfit for consumption – moldy or contaminated with dirt, sand, and gravel. Despite a long-established and detailed Famine Code that would have triggered a sizable increase in aid, and a statement privately circulated by the government in June 1943 that a state of famine might need to be formally declared, this never happened. Significant aid was not provided until the military took over crisis relief in October 1943, especially after November. In particular, grain was imported from the Punjab, and medical resources were made far more available. However, effective relief from the food crisis came from a record rice harvest that December