Famines, epidemics, and public health in the British Raj
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Among the common features of famines, epidemics, and public health in the British Raj during the 19th century were:
- There was no aggregate food shortage in India, although there were localized crop failures in the affected areas. Crop failures were essential for the occurrence of the famine.
- The starvation deaths occurred among certain economic classes; landless laborers, artisans and petty traders, which constituted anywhere between 35% and 50% of the rural population. India's agrarian economy during this time was still a non-monetised exchange economy. Agricultural laborers were either paid in kind (foodgrains) or partly in kind and partly in cash; similarly, artisans and service-workers were regulated by the Jajmani system, a reciprocal social and economic arrangement between different castes in a village, in which payments were made in the form of a fixed share in the harvest. Consequently, for a large proportion of the rural population, food supply depended on their "employment entitlements," or the demand among the primary (landed) food producers for their services and this demand was the first to be affected in times of food shortage. A crop failure could create a famine, not because it led to an aggregate shortage of food but because it deprived a significant proportion of the population of the means to acquire food.
- In some cases, foodgrains were still being exported from the famine affected region during the time leading up to (and sometimes after) famine began.
- Foodgrain prices during the famine years in the affected areas were higher, but not spectacularly higher, than during normal years.
The evidence from 19th-century data suggests that local crop failures led to famines not because they created aggregate food shortages but because they drastically reduced the demand for the services of certain segments of the population, consequently deprived them of the means to acquire food. According to (Ghose 1982, p. 380), famines were not natural phenomena but rather a result of the breakdown, in the wake of local crop failures, of social and economic networks in these regions. The Famine Commission of 1880, appointed by the Government of British India, described the situation with clarity and poignancy:"
"The first effect of a drought is to diminish greatly, and at last to stop, all field labour, and to throw out of employment the great mass of people who live on the wages of labour. A similar effect is produced next upon the artisans, the small shop-keepers, and traders, first in villages and country towns, and later on in the larger towns also, by depriving them of their profits, which are mainly dependent on dealings with the least wealthy classes; and, lastly, all classes become less able to give charitable help to public beggars, and to support their dependents. Such of the agricultural classes as possess a proprietary interest in the land, or a valuable right of occupancy in it, do not require as a rule to be protected against starvation in time of famine unless the calamity is unusually severe and prolonged, as they generally are provided with stocks of food or money, or have credit with money-lenders. But those who, owning only a small plot of land, eke out by its profits their wages as labourers, and rack-rented tenants-at-will living almost from hand-to-mouth, are only a little way removed from the class of field-labourers; they possess no credit, and on them pressure soon begins."
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