Chapter 10 Famines and the Famine Policy in India – Indian Economy


Famines and the Famine Policy in India

The Nature of Famines and their Effects

Famines recurred frequently in India and they were chiefly due to the vagaries of the monsoons, resulting in untimely, excessive or inadequate rainfall. The absence of easy means of communication in the past meant more or less absolute scarcity of food, starvation and death or migration. With the growth of the railways, the nature of the famines has been modified. It is now, not so much a lack of food, as a lack of employment and scarcity prices. Even when mortality rate due to starvation is prevented, undernourish ment weakens the people so much that the epidemics that follow in the wake of famines carry away considerable numbers. The general level of efficiency is lowered, cattle perish and cultivation is hampered. The diminution of the purchasing power in the hands of the people affects trade and industry adversely. The revenues of the government also suffer for, while the income from the land revenue shrinks, the expenditure on famine relief increases. Above all, the frequency of famines saps the enterprise of the peasants, discourages improvements in tillage and investment of capital and makes agriculture a mere gamble. In the fight against famines, two sets of measures have been adopted, namely, remedial and preven tive, i.e., measures for the relief of the famine-stricken people and measures for the protection of the land from famines in future. India has undergone this ordeal of famines several times in her history. Between 1770 and 1900 alone, there were 22 major famines, the chief of which are mentioned below with the measures taken to combat them.

The Famine Relief Policy

Before 1857

In the pre-British period, the system of famine relief was inevitably less effective than at present, for the means of communi cation were very defective, if not altogether absent. There were central granaries at the capitals, originally maintained as war chests but used to relieve distress during famines. The surplus grain stored in villages played a key role since transport was undeve loped. Trade in corn was regulated and remissions of land revenue made. The construction of public works such as canals, tanks and wells, and the erection of temples and mosques, forts and palaces at public expense gave employment to the affected population. Private charity supplemented public efforts. But the effectiveness of the measures adopted was necessarily limited by the difficulties of communication and the character of the monarchs and their subordinates.

In the early British period from 1760 to 1857, the East India Company could not and did not pay any great attention to this calamity. The Company was busy making profits for its shareholders in England or preoccupied with the various wars and the general disorder during the transition period. Nor had it any administrative machinery experienced enough and capable of coping with the sudden problems arising out of a widespread failure of rainfall. In the later years of its regime, the Company tried, in some slipshod and spasmodic manner, to help the famine-stricken people. Their efforts were of the old type. Up to 1812 they prohibited export of corn and tried to import it into the famine-affected areas. Only in 1838, it was recognized that work should be provided to all who sought for it. Relief to the helpless and the infirm was left to the charity of the public. But these efforts were disconnected and no systematic policy was developed.

After 1857

From 1857, the responsibility for famine relief fell upon the Imperial government and after a series of experiments a regular system of famine relief was evolved.

A famine affected North India in 1860. The Mutiny and the retribution that followed it had greatly interfered with cultivation and, when there was a failure of rain in 1860, it was followed by a famine.

The population was divided into three classes and corresponding treatment given: those capable of work were employed in large public undertakings; those who were not capable of any work were given some work, for moral rather than economic reasons, in the poor houses in which they were fed; and those who, on account of their caste or decrepitude were unable to leave their homes were left to private charity. Colonel Baird-Smith, who was deputed to enquire into the famine, reported that the famine of 1860 was less severe than that of 1837 on account of the more lenient land assess ments and recommended a permanent settlement of land revenue on the Bengal model. In 1866, there was a terrible famine in Orissa. Then came two others—the Rajputana famine of 1868–69 and the Bengal famine of 1873–74. In 1867, there was a general famine affecting Southern India, the Central and the United Provinces and some parts of the Punjab. Galvanized by the terrible loss of men and cattle in Rajputana, the Government of India determined to save human life at all costs, and relief was administered extrava gantly, and a heavy expenditure was incurred. A reaction set in during the famines of 1876–78 affecting a large part of India. The toll of life was heavy and the relief inadequate.

The First Famine Commission 1880

The Commission, under the presidency of Sir Richard Strachey, formulated the general principles of the famine policy and suggested preventive and protective measures. While recognizing the duty of the government towards the famine-stricken areas, it disapproved of mea sures discouraging thrift and self-help among the people. The Commission warned the government against ill-directed and excessive distribution of relief, as such indiscriminate help led to demoralization. On this basis a famine code was framed; work was to be provided to the able bodied but the wages were to be just sufficient for food; gratuitous relief was to be given to the infirm in their own villages; takavi loans were to be granted to landowners for purposes of cultivation; suspension and remission of land revenue were to be liberal; and private trade in corn was to be free. This famine code was put to a crucial test during the disastrous famine of 1896–97 affecting North India, Bengal, Burma, Madras and Bombay. This is said to be the severest famine that ever visited the country.

The Second Famine Commission 1898

The severity of the famine led to the appointment of a new Commission under the presidency of Sir James Lyall, which excepting in some minor details, adhered to the principles laid down by the earlier Commission. It recommended a freer grant of gratuitous relief in the villages, a more liberal remission of land revenue and special attention to certain classes, such as the weavers and the hill tribes.

The Third Famine Commission 1901

In 1899–1900, another famine occurred and the Third Famine Commission was set up with Sir  Antony Mac Donnell as chairman. The Commission emphasized the importance of moral strategy, that is, putting heart into the people by assisting the people immediately the danger is scented, by prompt and liberal distribution of takavi loans, early suspension of land revenue etc. It declared that, as a whole, the relief granted, was excessive and advocated ‘prudent boldness’, involving the preparation of a large and elastic plan of relief, constant vigilance, enlistment of non-official support, etc. Besides, it urged the necessity for tackling fodder famine to avoid cattle mortality. The introduction of cooperative societies and the extension of State irrigation works and railways of a protective character were some of the other recommendations of the Commission.

The effectiveness of these methods and suggestions was proved in subsequent famines in the UP during 1907–1908, and particularly in the more serious and widespread famines of 1918–21 in Bombay, Hyderabad, Madras, the C.P., Bengal, Rajputana and Baluchistan.

The Woodhead Famine Inquiry Commission 1944

The great Bengal famine of 1943 led to the setting up of the Woodhead Commission. It declared that the State should recognize its ultimate responsibility to provide food for all and recommended an All-India Food Council to tackle the food problem, State monopoly of procurement and distribution of foodgrains and maintenance of a fair price for both the producers and consumers.

These recommendations guided the Indian government in the post-war food crisis and by setting up control over procurement and distribution and subsidizing food imports, the government authorities succeeded in bringing the food crisis under control.

The Modern Indian Famine Campaign

As it is impossible to prevent drought altogether, the present famine campaign has been evolved to mitigate its resultant sufferings. The present machinery for famine relief centres round preparedness, for the first danger is the danger of unpreparedness. Standing preparations are made on a large and flexible scale, based on an efficient system of intelligence regarding climate, rainfall, conditions of crops and prices. Suitable programmes of relief works are kept ready, with reserves of tools and implements in the various circles into which the country is divided for the purpose. The symptoms of famine such as the failure of rainfall, rise in prices, contraction of credit and private charity and increase in petty thefts are closely watched.

At the first danger signal, the government launches its preli minary action of strengthening the morale of the people, by enlisting non-official cooperation through the formation of committees, by suspending land revenue and issuing loans for agricultural improvements. Villages are inspected and lists of helpless persons are prepared.

The next step is to open pest relief works and, if the number seeking employment is large, they are converted into work. Relief camps, relief works, employing all the people that seek regular general are opened in villages to distribute gratuitous relief to the infirm and children, and poor houses are opened in towns.

When the monsoons break, the large relief works are closed down and people are moved, in batches, to smaller works near their villages to help the restoration of normal agricultural condi tions as soon as possible. Liberal advances are made to agriculturists for the purchase of cattle, ploughs and seed. When the principal crop is ripe, the remaining relief works are gradually closed down and gratuitous relief is stopped. All the time, the members of medical staff are kept ready to deal with outbreaks of cholera which so often accompanies famines, and malaria which appears when the rains set in.

The Famine Protection Policy

Protection against famines is better than the provisions of relief. In general, the best insurance against famine is the building up of the material prosperity of the land with a view to increasing the power of resistance. This has been sought by the collection of an accurate knowledge of the country and its economic conditions, by an efficient system of agricultural intelligence, by development of mycology to fight locusts and other insect pests that destroy the crops and, above all, by the introduction of agricultural improvements.

The place of irrigation as a means of securing protection against famines was recognized as early as 1880. Much has been done in regard to irrigation, though the practice, in the past, of dividing irrigation works into productive and non-productive ones, handicapped constructions. Railways have increased production and easy distribution and have helped the mobility of labour. Other methods of insuring the country against famines are moderate assessments, protection of tenants from arbitrary enhancements of rents, grant of State loans at low rates of interest and easy terms of repayment, the organization of rural credit on a cooperative basis, etc.

The Efficacy of the Measures Adopted

The system of famine relief and protection outlined above has been attended with much success. All classes of society have been assisted and due regard has been paid to social susceptibilities in the granting of relief. Forest and hill tribes, weavers and other artisans, deserted children, the infirm and the decrepit have been specially provided for.

The various sources of famine relief such as direct State aid, non-official cooperation, private charity and the help of the Native States and the different parts of the British Empire have been co ordinated in a joint endeavour to relieve distress. Relief has been brought to the affected areas promptly and the flexibility of the system has stood the test of several famines. The power of resistance to famines has increased as a result of increased irrigation facilities, greater industrial development improved rural credit, better means of transport and the various activities of the Departments of Agricul ture which have helped to increase the productivity of the land. The effect of all these is reflected in the steady decrease of expenditure on relief and in the fall in the number of deaths due to starvation.

The Policy of Famine Finance

It was from 1878 that the Government of India made a regular provision for a Famine Fund. From that year, an annual Famine Relief and Insurance Grant of Rs 1.5 crores was made. The first charge on this grant was famine relief, the second, protective works, and the third, avoidance of debt. Out of this grant, the Central Government used to allot funds to the provinces at two-thirds of the expenses incurred by the Provincial Governments. After the Reforms of 1919, famine relief became a provincial subject and each province was required to establish and maintain a Famine Relief Fund by annual assignments from their revenue according to a scale laid down in proportion to their liability to famine. This Fund was invested with the Central Government, which paid interest on it. It was available for expenditure on famine relief (and flood or cyclone relief from 1929) for the construction of protective works and for granting loans to cultivators.

The Act of 1935 contained no provision, for a separate Famine Fund but all the provinces, except Assam and the Punjab, have instituted Funds on the old lines.

Outside the official programme, private philanthropy has instituted a Fund called the ‘Indian Peoples’ Famine Trust’. This began with the donation of Rs 15 lakhs by the Maharaja of Jaipur in 1900 and, it has an invested capital of Rs 32.8 lakhs. This fund is administered by a Board of 13  members appointed by various provinces and States. Income from this fund is utilized for charitable relief in times of general distress. In years when famine demands on it have been small, the income has also been used to assist the victims of floods and earthquakes.

The Recent Food Crisis and Famines

The famine relief organization in India is based on the notion that famines are local scarcities and therefore, the efforts to meet the situation must be mainly, the movement of food supplies from surplus areas to the famine areas and the provision of employment through a system of public works. This system has worked quite satisfactorily during several famines, including the one, in 1943, in the Bijapur district of Bombay, the Ceded districts of Madras, and Orissa. But the famine code failed in the great Bengal Famine of 1943–44, for the code never envisaged conditions when difficul ties of obtaining supplies or transporting them to the affected areas would be as great as in 1943 in Bengal. The mortality due to starvation and cholera, malaria, smallpox, etc., was very heavy and has been estimated to be more than 5 million. For severity and death, roll, the Bengal Famine was unequalled in the 20th century.

Already, before the Second World War, India had become a net deficit area, and the shortage was made up by imports from Burma and Siam. During the first two years of the war, conditions were not normal. Prices were rising because of the heavy block purchases by the government for military purposes and the inflation of the currency. In December 1941, Japan entered the war and the difficulties increased, for the import of foodgrain into India was affected, while the export of foodgrain from India continued, and the stocks were getting depleted fast. The high price of corn and the difficulties of obtaining supplies were held by the government to be merely a temporary stringency and hence the demand by the public that the export of grain should be completely stopped was not heeded. The government contented itself with the price control of foodgrains, rationing in urban areas and the Grow More Food Campaign in the summer of 1942. But the shortage of grain, in spite of the assurances of the government to the contrary, became more serious than before.

In 1943, with the Japanese established in Burma, and the cyclone in the Midnapore district, and the floods in the Damodar river, the situation got out of hand in Bengal. Public nervousness over the fall of Burma, the ‘denial’ policy and large stocks of rice removed from East Bengal to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Japanese and the general shortage of food in the country aggravated the distress. The effects of the shortage in Bengal were intensified by speculation and hoar ding. Large supplies were not available in the Indian grain markets, and the movement of supplies into Bengal was rendered difficult by the congested state of the railways. The complacency of the Bengal government at the beginning of the famine was matched by their inefficiency in organizing the distribution of relief. The exodus of the rural population towards Calcutta began and thousands upon thousands died like fleas in the streets of Calcutta and along the roads leading to the city. In November 1943, the army authorities began to assist the civil authorities in providing famine relief and a record rice crop which became available in January and February 1944 helped to overcome the immediate crisis.

Now that all the sources of external supplies were cut off, the government largely concentrated on the equitable distribution of all the available internal food supplies. The policy of price control, rationing and procurement under the aegis of the government began to work with considerable success once the appropriate machinery was organized, and, till 1947, the efforts of the Government were mainly directed towards this end. The Grow More Food Campaign also was attended with a fair degree of success. But large supplies had to be imported every year from outside and, in 1947 it went up to Rs 100 crores. The next year it was Rs 130 crores. The widespread dissatisfaction with control and corruption, and the support of Gandhiji to the growing public opinion in favour of decontrol, led to the removal of rationing except in some urban areas. Once again control was reimposed in October 1948. The Madras government abolished rural rationing in 1951 and all rationing was removed in June 1952. But so long as the effects of currency inflation continued, famine conditions continued to prevail.

Ultimate Causes and Remedies

Whatever be the immediate causes of famine and the effec tiveness of the remedies adopted to meet the situation, unless the underlying causes were, tackled successfully, security from famines was impossible. The intense poverty of the people is the fundamental cause of the tragic effects of famine. The vast majority of the people live merely on the margin of subsistence, their power of resistance is almost nil and any slight disturbance in the normal economic life, due to the failure of the monsoons or natural calamities such as floods and earthquakes, is bound to affect them seriously. The comparative lack of thrift, the expensive social customs, the age-long indebtedness, the uneconomic holdings, the growth of population and the increasing pressure upon the land in the absence of alternative sources of employment prevented all attempts at improvements. Besides, with the decay of the old cottage industries, the cultivators had lost their bye employment. All these causes rendered the peasant incapable of resetting the vicissitudes of the seasons.

The removal of these difficulties and defects by measures such as an effective organization of rural credit, the establishment and development of large-scale industries, the encouragement of cottage industries, the construction of irrigation works and the adoption of an all-round programme of rural education and regeneration have to on extent protected the country from the evil effects of these seasonal visitations.

At present, famines and their ill effects have been totally eliminated thanks to the Green Revolution and the integration of all regions of the country into one economic unit thanks to railways and road transport. If some people still suffer from lack of food, it is more because of lack of incomes, more importantly unequal distribution of income. Nowadays, foodgrains production has exceeded our requirements. According to the Economic Survey 2011–12, India’s foodgrains production has increased from 52 million tonnes in 1951–52 to 244.78 million tonnes in 2010–11. Between 1960– 61 and 2010–11, foodgrains production has grown at compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of around 2 per cent. In 2011–12, foodgrains production was 257.4 million tonnes and the country has become a net exporter, especially the superior quality of rice such as Basmati variety. The average annual growth in agriculture and allied sectors realized during the first your years of the 11th Plan period (2007–08 to 2010–11) registering 3.5 per cent growth. It is important that achieving minimum agricultural growth is a prerequisite for inclusive growth, reduction of poverty levels, development of the rural economy and enhancing of farm incomes.

Discussion Questions

10.1. What was the nature of famines, in India before independence? To what extent the poor people suffered because of them?

10.2. Trace the evolution of the Famine Policy in India before independence.

10.3. Discuss the factors that caused the disappearance of famines in the country, especially after independence.

Suggested Reading

10.1. Economic Survey 2011–12, Government of India. (