1902 Encyclopedia > India > Famines

(Part 13)



As the agriculture of India is mainly dependent upon the boundary of nature, so is it peculiarly exposed to the vicissitudes of the seasons. In any country where the population is dense and means of communication backward, the failure of a harvest, whether produced by drought, by flood, by blight, by lo custs, or by war, must always cause much distress. Whether that shall develop into famine is merely a matter of degree, depending upon a combination of circumstances—the comparative extent of the failure, the density of the population, and the practicability of imports.

Drought, or an inadequate supply of rain, is undoubtedly the great cause of wide-spread famine. No individual foresight, no compensating influences, can entirely prevent those recurring periods of continuous drought with which large provinces of India are afflicted. An average rainfall, if irregularly distributed, may affect the harvest to a moderate degree, as also may flood or blight. The total failure of a monsoon may result in a general scarcity, sufficiently severe to arouse the solicitude of Government. But famine proper, or wide-spread starvation, is caused only by a succession of years of drought. The cultivators of India are not dependent upon a single harvest or upon the crops of one year. In the event of a partial failure, they can draw for their food supply either upon their own grain pits or upon the stores of the village merchants. The first sufferers, and those who suffer most in the end, are the class who live by daily wages. But small is the number that can hold out, either in capital or credit, against a second year of insufficient rainfall ;a and not impossibly a third season may prove adverse. All the great famines in India of which we have record have been caused by drought, and usually by drought repeated over a series of years.

This being so, it becomes necessary to inquire into the water supply, which varies extremely in different parts of the country. It can be derived only from three sources—(1) local rainfall, (2) natural inundation, and (3) artificial irrigation from rivers, canals, tanks, or wells. Any of these sourced may exist separately or together. In only a few parts of India can the rainfall be entirely trusted, as both sufficient in its amount and regular in its distribution. Those favoured tracts include the whole strip of coast beneath the Western Gháts, from Bombay to Cape Comorin ; and the greater part of the provinces of Assam and Burmah, together with the deltaic districts at the head of the Bay of Bengal. There the annual rainfall rarely, if ever, falls, below 100 inches ; artificial irrigation and famine are alike unknown. Th whole of the rest of the peninsula may be described as liable, more or less, to drought. In Orissa, the scene of one of the most severe famines of recent times, the average rainfall exceeds 60 inches a year ; in Sind, which has been exceptionally free from famine under British rule, the average falls to less than 10 inches. The local rainfall, therefore, is not the only element to be considered. Broadly speaking, artificial irrigation has protected, or is now in course of protecting, certain fortunate regions, such as the eastward deltas of the Madras rivers and the upper valley of the Ganges. The rest, and by far the greater portion, of the country is still exposed to famine. Nor is it easy to see any remedy. Meteorological science may teach us to foresee what is coming ; but it may be doubted whether it is in our power to do more than alleviate. Lower Bengal and Oudh are watered by natural inundation as much as by the local rainfall ; Sind derives its supplies mainly from canals filled by the floods of the Indus ; the Punjab and the North-West Provinces are dependent largely upon wells ; the Deccan with the entire south is the land of tanks and reservoirs. But in all these cases, when the rainfall has failed over a series of years the artificial supply must likewise failf after no long interval, so that irrigation becomes a snare rather than a benefit. Water works on a scale adequate to guarantee the whole of India from drought are not only above the possibilities of finance ; they are also beyond the reach of engineering skill.

Taking the example of the famine of 1876-78, the most wide spread and the most prolonged that India has yet known, we say that the drought commenced in Mysore by the failure of the monsoon in 1875, and that all fear of distress in the North-West Provinces did not pass away until 1879. But it will always be known in history as the great famine in the south. Over the entire Deccan, from Poona to Bangalore, the south-west monsoon failed to bring its usual rainfall in the summer of 1876. In The autumn of the same year the north-east monsoon proved deficient in the south-eastern districts of the Madras presidency. The main food crop, therefore, entirely perished throughout an immense tract of country ; and, as the harvest of the previous year had also been short, prices rapidly rose to famine rates. In November 1876 it was first officially recognized that starvation was abroad in the land, and that Government must adopt measures to keep the people alive. From that time until the middle of 878, a period of more than eighteen months, the campaign against famine was strenuously conducted, with various vicissitudes. The summer monsoon of 1877 proved a failure ; some relief was brought in October of that year by the autumn monsoon ; but all anxiety was not removed until the arrival of a normal rainfall in June 1878. Meanwhile the wave of drought had reached northern India, where it found the stocks of grain much depleted to meet the famine demand in the south. Bengal, Assam, and that disastrous year. The North-West Provinces, the Punjab, Rájputána, and the Central Provinces alike suffered from drought through all the summer of 1877, and from its consequences well into the following year. When once famine gets ahead of relief operations, all is over. The flood of distress bursts through the embankment. Starvation and all the attendant train of famine diseases sweep away their thousands. The total expenditure of Government upon famine relief on this occasion may be estimated at about 8 millions sterling, not including the indirect loss of revenue nor the amount debited against the state of Mysore. For this large sum of money there is but little to show in the way of works constructed. The largest number of persons in receipt of relief at one time in Madras was 2,591,900 in September 1877 ; of these only 634,581 were nominally employed on works, while the rest were gratuitously fed. From cholera alone the deaths were returned at 357,430 for Madras, 58,648 for Mysore, and 57,252 for Bombay. Dr Cornish, the sanitary commissioner of Madras, well illustrated the effects of the famine by contrasting the returns of births and deaths over a series of years. In 1876, when famine with its companion cholera was already beginning to be felt, the births registered in Madras numbered 632,113 and the details 680,381. In 1877, the year of famine, the births fell to 477,477, while the deaths rose to 1,556,312. In 1878 the results of the famine showed themselves by a still further reduction of the births to 348,346, and by the still high number of 810,921 deaths. In 1879 the births recovered to 476,307, still considerably below the average, and the deaths diminished to 548,158. These figures are, of course, not accurate ; but they serve to show how long the results of famine are to be traced in the vital statistics of a people._

The first great famine of which we have any trustworthy record is that which devastated the lower valley of the Ganges in 1769-70. One-third of the population is credibly reported to have perished. The previous season had been bad ; and, as not uncommonly happens, the break-up of the drought was accompanied by disastrous floods. Beyond the importation into Calcutta and Murshidábád of a few thousand maunds of rice from the fortunate districts of Bákarganj and Chittagong, it does not appear that any public measures for relief were taken or proposed. The next great famine was that which afflicted the Carnatic from 1780 to 1783, and has been immortalized by the genius of Burke. It was primarily caused by the ravages of Hyder Ali’s army. A public subscription was organized by the Madras Government, from which sprang the "Monegar Choultry," or permanent institution for the relief of the native poor. In 1783-84 Hindustan Proper suffered from a prolonged drought, which stooped short at the frontier of British territory. Warren Hastings, then governor-general, advocated the construction of enourmous granaries, to be opened only in times of necessity. One of these granaries or golás stands to the present day in the city of Patná, but it was never used until the scarcity of 1874. In 1790-92 Madras was again the scene of a two years’s famine, which is memorable as being the first occasion on which the starving people were employed by Government on relief works. No useful lesson of administrative experience is to be learned from the long list and scarcities which afflicted the several provinces of India at recurring periods during the first half of the present century. In 1860-61 a serious attempt was made to alleviate an exceptional distress in the North-Provinces. About half a million persons are estimated to have been relieved at an expenditure by Government of about three quarters of a millions sterling. Again, in 1865-66, which will ever be known as the year of the Orissa famine, the Government attempted to organize relief works and distribute charitable funds. But on neither of these occasions can it be said that the efforts were successful. In Orissa, especially, the admitted loss of one-forth of the population proves the danger to which an isolated province is exposed. The people of Orissa died because they had no surplus stocks of grains of their own, and because impotation was absolutely impracticable. Passing over the prolonged drought of 1868-70 in the North-West Provinces and Rájputána, we come to the Behar scarcity of 1873-74, which first attracted the interest of England. Warned by the failure of the rains, and watched and stimulated by the excited sympathy of the public at home, the Governement carried out in time a comprehensive scheme of relief. By the expenditure of 6 _ millions sterling, and the importation of one million tons of rice, all risk even of the loss of life was prevented. The comparatively small are of distress, and the accomplishment of the fect, which remains unparalleled in the annals of famine. During the recent famine in southern India the authorities worked with no less energy, and charitable bounty was far more conspicuous, yet the conditions of the case predestined failure. The stricken tract was many times larger than Behar. No early warning was given. The rainfall failed, not once, but for three successive seasons, and, above all, adequate importation of grain were physical impossibilities. The people were dying while the grain that could have kept them alive was rotting on the beach of Madras or on the railway sidings of Upper India. What administrative enterprise can accomplish where the circumstances are within the compass of human control may be learned from the case of Bombay. In that presidency the famine affected about 34,000 square miles of country, with a population of about 5,000,000 souls. The highest number of persons in receipt at one time was 529,000 in June 1877, of whom the great majority were employed on remunerative works. The importations of grains was left entirely free ; and within twelve months 268,000 tons were brought by rail and 166,000 tons by the sea into the distressed districts. The total gross cost to Government was estimated at 1 1/2 millions, of which about 1 million will be returned.


767-1 With regard to the deaths caused by the famine and the diseases connected with it, the Famine Commissioners thus report :--"It has been estimated, and in our opinion on substantial grounds, that the mortality which occurred in the provinces under British administration during the period of famine and drought extending over the years 1877 and 1878 amounted, on a population of 197 millions, to 5 _ millions been ordinarily healthy ; and the statistical returns have made certain what has long been suspected, that starvation and distress greatly check the fecundity of the population. It is probable that from this cause the number of births during the period has been lessened by 2 millions ; the total reduction of the population would thus amount to about 7 millions. Assuming the ordinary death roll, taken at the rate of 35 per mille, on 190 millions of people, the abnormal mortality of the famine period may be regarded as having increased this total by about 40 per cent." But when estimated over a period of years the effect of famine as a check upon the population is small. The Famine Commissioners calculate that, taking the famines of the past thirsty years, as to which alone an estimate of any value can be made, the abnormal deaths caused by famine and its diseases have been less than 2 per mille of the Indian population per annum. As a matter of fact cultivation quickly extended after the famine of 1877-78, and there were in Bombay and Madras 120,000 more acres under tillage after the long protracted scarcily than before it.

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