Were the famines that hit India in the 19th and 20th centuries the products of British Imperial rule? (by William Miles)

Were the famines that hit India in the 19th and 20th Centuries the products of British Imperial rule? (by William Miles)

Famines result from changes in weather patterns coupled with poor insurance against crop failures. These two factors are intertwined and neither can be said alone to cause famine. Both factors existed during the nineteenth and twentieth century famines that hit India. There were freak weather conditions, such as the 1942 Bengali cyclone which destroyed the livelihoods of 2.5 million peasants and caused their crops to fail, but these alone cannot be blamed for the famines because, for a famine to occur, one needs the second factor of poor contingency plans to come into play and this is where blame can be laid at the door of the British government in India. Had their policies been sound, they would have been able to deal with a sudden shortfall in crops in a particular area. However, Britain adopted policies which sacrificed the periphery for the core. Even when policies were aimed at helping the periphery, they were often poorly planned and lacked the correct information to benefit the peasantry. However, Britain’s earlier failures were corrected by the later twentieth century, with the construction of railways and transportation for goods around India so that Britain both failed and succeeded when it came to dealing with famine control.

Weather conditions play a crucial role in the emergence of famines. The 1880 Famine Commission Report wrote “The devastating famines to which the provinces of India have from time to time been liable are in all cases to be traced directly to the occurrence of seasons of unusual drought” . This is true. For centuries, a significant proportion of Indian agriculturists have lived in drought prone areas, such as Ahmednagar and Bijapur which receive as little as 24.41 and 22.33 inches of annual rainfall respectively . With such little rainfall, these areas are finely balanced and any change may affect agricultural production so, when the monsoon deviates from its normal pattern, agricultural operations are disrupted to such an extent that, if the early rains do not come, then the khartif may not even begin. During the nineteenth and twentieth century, this finely balanced system was often disrupted; for example, the 1943 Bengali famine was preceded by a cyclone which hit Western Bengal on the 16th October 1942, bringing with it three tidal waves estimated at sixteen feet high, inundating over 3,200 square miles of land . In Midnapur the winter rice crop was destroyed along with reserve stocks, whilst the harvest provided 32% less than the year before and was seen by many as the root cause for the famine the following year. Another example of a cyclone causing famineis the 1876 monsoon, described as “the worst within memory of the oldest inhabitant in the district” . These weather changes provide clear evidence of food shortages being caused by natural occurrences.

However, such occurrences were predictable and so some historians argue that the famines were not attributed to food scarcity via natural processes but rather by the failures of the British administration. Amartya Sen believed the 1943 famine not to be the result of food scarcity, claiming that food availability was in fact 9% higher in 1943 than in 1941 (when there was no famine) so that the famine could not be linked to natural processes. However, his evidence has since been called into question. It is widely regarded that the 1941 census used by Sen was poorly conducted and the data considered unreliable , whilst the Famine Inquiry Commission data Sen used was vague in its minimum per capita food grain consumption. Using similar data, Goswami concluded that “aggregate as well as per capita food grain availability was significantly less in 1943 than it was in 1941” . The data backs up Goswami’s argument as per capita grain availability dropped from 0.26 tons in 1941 to 0.24 tons in 1943 . Further, in 1941 there was enough stock to survive the shortfall; 2.57 million tons in December 1940 yet only 672,000 tons in December 1942 . Although historians such as Sen are wrong to claim weather does not play a role, they are right to suggest there are other factors at play as although weather conditions were poor during times of famine, there were also times of bad weather when no famine ensued, such as in 1870 when only ten inches of rain fell, the same amount as in the 1876 famine, and yet there was no famine . Clearly there is another factor, poor insurance, and I will explore this in the next paragraph.

Poor insurance against crop failure comes about due to poor agricultural policies and so blame must lie at the door of the British. The concept that Britain lacked coherent knowledge of the peasantry and failed to solve their problems can be seen by K.C. Neogy’s comment that “The famine is primarily a State industry, and to my mind, in certain aspects it bears the hallmark of a genuine British manufacture”. The Statesman described the Bengal famine as “the worst and most reprehensible administrative breakdown in India since the political disorders of 1930-31” . In the light of such comments, one can’t help but question the British role. Looking at the Bengal famine, there was a clear breakdown in Britain’s ability to support the peasantry. When famine struck, the Bengali government immediately set out their priorities; to keep Calcutta operating. The British did not want the “second city of the Empire to fall” for both pride and support in the War and so prioritised Calcutta.

Further evidence of sacrificing the periphery for the core can be seen through the boat denial scheme which destroyed Indian boats in order to halt the advance of the Japanese towards the city; 66,500 boats were destroyed, ruining the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of peasants . We see this again when in 1943; the Government had failed to get enough rice to provide for Calcutta, (14,000 tons rather than the 40,000 tons needed) and so declared “free trade” for two months to combat it. During this period, 91,000 tons of rice was brought into Calcutta, 40% of which was bought by the Government. This over-provided for Calcutta but little of the supplies made it to the periphery where demand had become desperate . Therefore, British policies were targeted at maintaining cities that benefited Britain rather than the general welfare of the people, and by prioritising some areas they guaranteed famine for others; Greenough wrote “Famine in Calcutta was being averted only by imposing famine prices on the rest of Bengal” .

Also, where the Government did attempt to help the periphery it ultimately failed. In Bengal “union relief committees” were set up to try and help collect stock for relief and were given the right to threaten the “well-off” with raised union rates if they refused to donate. However, the intimidation did not work and mortality rates continued to soar . Government gruel kitchens were also inadequate, offering little nutritional benefit and only 600-800 calories a day for adults . Here we see the British prioritising the core over the periphery and failing even when concentrating on the poor. One reason for this is the lack of knowledge due to the rapid turnover of local officers; “in the entire period only two officers submitted more than one annual Collector’s Administration report.” This led to complaints by Boswell (one of the two) saying “These constant changes are a great hindrance to work and a still greater evil is that they leave no one in the District who really knows the country or its people”. This lack of information and poor planning left a country susceptible to famine if the freak weather conditions occurred and for this susceptibility the British are to blame.

However, to reach a fair verdict on the British impact on famines, it is important to study Britain’s long term role. Michelle McAlpin argues that British policies helped India combat famine and “Overall the economy of Western India had become more diversified and better able to survive adversity” . There is evidence for this argument as the construction of railways throughout India improved the collection of information on crops which meant it became possible to mitigate against even the largest shortfalls by using surpluses from other regions. This capability did not exist prior to the 19th Century as India did not have the facilities for rapid transportation of grain supplies large enough to provide for a population facing famine . McAlpin also argues that British policies helped the peasants not only survive the crop failure but also prepare for the next monsoon .

Although there is evidence of some success through the lending of the dole, (172,000 peasants were on the dole between 1899-1900), it soon becomes evident that this policy was not as successful as McAlpin likes to think as it was exploited by farmers who pretended to be less prosperous than they were and there was no uniform administration, with some local officers being too lenient and others too harsh. Although misguided in some of her views, McAlpin was correct in her belief that the railway network helped eradicate famines from India; G.W. Vidal, Acting Chief Secretary to the Bengali Government, wrote “in the future a true famine, that is the absence of foodstuffs, is scarcely possible in an area so well served by railways as this was” . There is support for this theory in the 1912-1913 famine when the Collector at Admednagar wrote “I have never seen so severe a famine attended with so little human distress” . Here there is evidence that, in the end, British policies in fact reduced the chances of famines, so although in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries blame can be placed on poor British policies, it is important to remember that the absence of famines in the later twentieth century was also as a result of the British.

As stated above, famines need both changed weather patterns and poor contingency arrangements. Disastrous weather conditions did arise but there were also periods of drought when no famine was experienced such as in 1870 when just 10 inches of rainfall was recorded at Ahmednagar and yet there was no famine. Similarly, there is substantial evidence of Britain’s prioritisation of certain ‘jewels in the crown’ over the periphery and often poorly planned and incoherent policies for the poor but, were it not for the freak weather conditions which brought about food shortages, the policy failures would have had no effect. Therefore, the two work in tandem. Britain is to blame for failing initially to plan adequately for the famines but, equally, natural events over which the British had no control were the cause of the emergencies. In any event, Britain ultimately created the solution to nature’s perils through the construction of the railway. McAlpin points out that before 1850 “for large parts of India largely dependent on overland trade, the costs and physical limits of this trade made it impossible to move so bulky a commodity as grain in amounts large enough to relieve a widespread crop failure” . However, once the construction of railways began, India began to get this capability to such an extent that commissioners talked of famine as a thing of the past, evidence of which can be seen in the fact that India has not had a major famine since..


Goswami, Omkar, ‘The Bengal famine of 1943: re-examining the data’, Indian Economic and Social History Review 27, 1990 pp445-64

Greenough, Paul, Prosperity and misery in modern Bengal: the famine of 1943-44 (Oxford, 1982)

Hall-Matthews, David, Peasants, famine and the state in colonial Western India (Basingstoke, 2005)

McAlpin, Michelle, Subject to famine: food crises and economic change in Western India, 1860-1920 (Princeton, 1983)

Rajasekhar, D., ‘Famines and peasant mobility: changing agrarian structure in Kurnool district of Andhra, 1870-1900’, Indian Economic and SocialHistory Review 28, 1991, pp121-50


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