Indian famine of 1899–1900
The Indian famine of 1899–1900 began with the failure of the summer monsoons in 1899 over west and Central India and, during the next year, affected an area of 476,000 square miles (1,230,000 km2) and a population of 59.5 million. The famine was acute in the Central Provinces and Berar, the Bombay Presidency, the minor province of Ajmer-Merwara, and the Hissar District of the Punjab; it also caused great distress in the princely states of the Rajputana Agency, the Central India Agency, Hyderabad and the Kathiawar Agency. In addition, small areas of the Bengal Presidency, the Madras Presidency and the North-Western Provinces were acutely afflicted by the famine.
The population in many areas had barely recovered from the famine of 1896–1897. As in that famine, this one too was preceded by a drought. The Meteorological Office of India in its report of 1900, stated, "The mean average rainfall of India is 45 inches (1,100 mm). In no previous famine year has it been in greater defect than 5 inches (130 mm). But in 1899 the defect exceeded 11 inches." There were also large crop failures in the rest of India and, as a result, inter-regional trade could not be relied upon to stabilise food prices.
The resulting mortality was high. In the Deccan, an estimated 166,000 people died, and in the entire Bombay Presidency a total of 462,000. In the Presidency, the famine of 1899–1900 had the highest mortality—at 37.9 deaths per 1000—among all famines and scarcities there between 1876–77 and 1918–19. Overall, in British areas alone, approximately 1,000,000 individuals died of starvation or accompanying disease; in addition, as a result of acute shortage of fodder, cattle in the millions perished. Other estimates vary between 1 million and 4.5 million deaths.
In the Central Provinces and Berar, an area that had suffered extreme distress during the famine of 1896–1897, the year 1898 had been favourable agriculturally, as was the first half of 1899; however, after the failure of the summer monsoon of 1899, a second catastrophe began soon afterwards. There was a rapid rise of prices and the autumn kharif harvest failed completely. After public criticism of the famine relief effort in the previous famine, this time an improved famine relief effort was organised; by July 1900, one-fifth of the province's population was on some form of famine relief. The summer monsoon of 1900 produced moderately abundant rainfall, and by autumn, agricultural work had begun; most famine-relief works were consequently closed by December 1900. Overall, the famine of 1899–1900 was less severe in this region than the famine of two years before. In the Bombay Presidency, the reverse was the case: the famine of 1899–1900, which affected a population of 12 million, was more acute, especially so in the Kathiawar Agency. The recovery from the famine in the Presidency was also very slow.
Both 1896 and 1899 were El Niño years—years in which the monsoon rainfall was considerably less than average. The year following the El Niño, also called a Niño+1 year, has historically been recognised to have not only higher than average rainfall, but also a much higher probability of malaria epidemics. For example in the Punjab province of British India, of the 77 years from 1867 to 1943, there were 21 El Niño years, 11 of whose Niño+1 years produced malaria epidemics; in contrast, there were only six malaria epidemics in the remaining 56 non-El Niño years. "Fever years follow famine years" had become a popular saying in the Punjab long before Sir Ronald Ross, working in the Presidency General Hospital in Calcutta, showed in 1898 that the malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, is transmitted by mosquitoes. It had also been noted, by R. Christophers in 1911, that years in which the monsoon was abundant, but which had not been preceded by famine years, were not likely to be epidemic years. These observations had prompted some scholars to theorise that the increased malaria mortality in a post-famine year was the result of lowered resistance to malaria caused by the malnutrition. However, it is now thought likely that the dry famine years decreased human exposure to mosquitoes, which thrive in stagnant water, and consequently to Plasmodium falciparum; the decreased exposure resulted in lowered immunity among the population, thereby making subsequent exposures all the more devastating.
In 1900, a Niño+1 year, malaria epidemics, occurred in the Punjab, Central Provinces and Berar, and the Bombay Presidency, with devastating results. In the Central Provinces and Berar, the death rates were initially quite low. The Report on the Famine in the Central Provinces in 1899–1900 noted the "extreme healthiness of the first four months of the famine, September to December 1899." The low mortality indicated the absence of malaria in 1899; however, by the summer of 1900, an epidemic of cholera had begun, and soon the monsoon rains of 1900 brought on the malaria epidemic. Consequently, the death rate peaked between August and September 1900, a full year after the famine began. In the Bombay Presidency, the same pattern of pre-monsoon cholera followed by post-monsoon malaria in 1900 was repeated. The Report on the Famine in the Bombay Presidency, 1899–1902 pronounced the epidemic to be "unprecedented," noting that "It attacked all classes and was by no means confined to the people who had been on relief works ..."
The British had established control over Western India in the early decades of the 19th century; this consisted of direct administration of the conquered territories in the expanded Bombay Presidency as well as in the British outpost of Ajmer-Merwara farther north. The middle decades of the 19th century saw not only the implementation of a new system of land revenue and land rights in these areas, but also the establishment of new civil law. Under the new land rights system, peasants could be dispossessed of their land if they failed to pay the land-revenue (or land-tax) in a timely fashion. The British, however, continued to rely on local Baniya usurers, or Sahukars, to supply credit to the peasants. The imposition of the new system of civil law, however, meant that the peasants could be exploited by the sahukars, who were often able, through the new civil courts, to acquire title-deeds to a peasant's land for non-payment of debt.
The mid-19th century was also a time of predominance of the economic theories of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, and the principle of laissez-faire was subscribed to by many colonial administrators; the British, consequently, declined to interfere in the markets. This meant that the Baniya sahukars could resort to hoarding during times of scarcity, driving up the price of food grain, and profiteering in the aftermath. All this occurred in Western India during the famine of 1899–1900.
In Khaira District in present-day Gujarat, many peasants were forced to hand over their lands to the sahukars as security for meager loans that not only didn't grant them much relief, but that they later couldn't repay on account of exorbitant interest. The sahukars were to foreclose on these loans in the years after the famine; in the princely state of Baroda, for example, the recorded land-transfers were to jump from an average of 13,000 per year during the decade of the 1890s, to over 65,000 during the year 1902–1903.
The sahukars, in their effort to drive up prices, were even able to export grain out of areas of scarcity using the faster means of transport that came in with British rule. Here again the colonial administrators declined to intervene, even though they themselves often disapproved of the practice. This happened, for example, in the Panchmahals—one of the worst famine-afflicted areas in 1900—where a railway line had been built in the 1890s. A British deputy district collector recorded in his report, "The merchants first cleared large profits by exporting their surplus stocks of grain at the commencement of the famine, and, later on by importing maize from Cawnpore and Bombay and rice from Calcutta and Rangoon." He went on to record that the sahukars were building new houses for themselves from these windfall profits. The blatant profiteering, however, led to grain riots in the Panchmahals by Bhil tribals, and grain riots became a feature of other British-ruled areas during times of famine. This contrasted markedly with the princely states, where the authorities often did intervene. For example, in Jodhpur State, a famine-stricken area in Rajputana, in August 1899, the state officials set up a shop to sell grain at cost price, forcing the Baniya merchants to eventually bring down their prices.
The Indian famine of 1899–1900 was the last of the all-India famines. (The war-time Bengal famine of 1943 was confined mainly to Bengal and some neighbouring regions.) The famine proved to be a watershed between the overwhelmingly subsistence agriculture economy of 19th century India and a more diversified economy of the 20th century, which, by offering other forms of employment, created less agricultural disruption (and, consequently, less mortality) during times of scarcity.
The construction of the Indian railways between 1860 and 1920, and the opportunities thereby offered for greater profit in other markets, allowed farmers to accumulate assets that could then be drawn upon during times of scarcity. By the early 20th century, many farmers in the Bombay presidency were growing a portion of their crop for export. Wheat, both food and cash crop, saw increased production and export during this time; in addition, cotton and oil-seeds were also exported. The railways also brought in food, whenever expected scarcities began to drive up food prices.
There were other changes in the economy as well: a construction boom in the Bombay presidency, in both the private and public sectors, during the first two decades of the 20th century, created a demand for unskilled labour. There was greater demand for agricultural labour as well, brought on both by the planting of more labour-intensive crops and the expansion of the cropped area in the presidency. Real agricultural wages, for example, increased sharply after 1900. All these provided farmers with greater insurance against famine. During times of drought, they could now seek seasonal non-agricultural employment; alternatively, they could temporarily move to areas where there was no drought and work as agricultural wage labourers.
According to (McAlpin 1979, p. 156), "Famines in the nineteenth century tended to be characterized by some degree of aimless wandering of agriculturalists after their own supplies of food had run out." Since these migrations caused further depletion among individuals who were already malnourished and since new areas exposed them to unfamiliar disease pathogens, the attendant mortality was high. In the 20th century, however, these temporary migrations became more purposive, especially from regions (in the Bombay Presidency) that were highly drought prone. A greater availability of jobs throughout the presidency and a better organised system of famine relief offered by the provincial government allowed most men in afflicted villages to migrate elsewhere as soon as their own meager harvest had been collected. McAlpin further notes:
Villages are reported to have housed only women and children, and old men in some years of crop failure. Those left behind could tend the livestock, live off the short harvest, and expect that the government would step in to provide relief—including grain sales or gratuitous relief—if necessary. With the beginning of the next agricultural season the men would return to the village with some earnings from their outside employment which could be used to resume agricultural operations. In most cases, the livestock would also have been preserved through the actions of women and children.
In the Deccan, an estimated 166,000 people died, and in the entire Bombay Presidency a total of 462,000. In the Presidency, the famine of 1899–1900 had the highest mortality—at 37.9 deaths per 1000—among all famines and scarcities there between 1876–77 and 1918–19. According to the Imperial Gazetteer of India, overall, in British areas alone, approximately 1,000,000 individuals died of starvation or accompanying disease; in addition, as a result of acute shortage of fodder, cattle in the millions perished in the famine. According to author David Fieldhouse, over 1 million people may have died during the famine of 1899–1900; according to anthropologist Brian Fagan, up to four and a half million people may have died during the famine .
|Estimate of famine deaths (in millions) between 1896 and 1902||Done by||Publication|
|19||The Lancet||The Lancet(Issue dt. 16 May 1901)|
Ronald E. Seavoy
|The Demography of Famines: An Indian Historical Perspective, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996[page needed]
Famine in Peasant Societies (Contributions in Economics and Economic History), New York: Greenwood Press, 1986[page needed]
|6.1||Cambridge Economic History of India||The Cambridge Economic History of India, Volume 2, Cambridge University Press, 1983 (pp. 530–31)|
The Lancet's estimates were criticised by writer and retired Indian Civil Servant Charles McMinn, arguing that it was based on a mistake of the population increase in India from 1891-1901.
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- Indian famine of 1896–1897
- Famines, Epidemics, and Public Health in the British Raj
- Timeline of major famines in India during British rule (1765 to 1947)
- Company rule in India
- Famine in India
- Drought in India