Orissa famine of 1866
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The Odisha famine of 1866 affected the east coast of India from Madras upwards, an area covering 180,000 miles and containing a population of 47,500,000; the impact of the famine, however, was greatest in Odisha, which at that time was quite isolated from the rest of India.
Like all Indian famines of the 19th-century, the Odisha famine was preceded by a drought: the population of the region depended on the rice crop of the winter season for their sustenance; however, the monsoon of 1865 was scanty and stopped prematurely. In addition, the Bengal Board of Revenue made incorrect estimates of the number of people who would need help and was misled by fictitious price lists. Consequently, as the food reserves began to dwindle, the gravity of the situation was not grasped until the end of May 1866, and by then the monsoons had set in. Indeed, there are complex factors that contributed to the Orissa famine of 1866. In terms of fictitious price lists, one may find that the idea may be in itself fictitious. J K Samal, in Economic History of Orissa 1866-1912, indicates that a British official chose to assume fictitious price lists, because the prices for rice were very high, thinking that the capitalists were just inflating prices to make more profits. Yet, there was an actual lack of crops due to the drought, and the British government chose to remain passive about it (p. 9). In essence, the causes of the famine are drought, the takeover of Orissa's main industry by the colonialists, lack of food storage, isolation of Orissa geographically, and mishandling of the crisis by the English administration. Another great source of information on this crisis is the book Salt: A World History, by Mark Kurlansky.
Course and relief
Efforts to ship the food to the isolated province were hampered because of bad weather, and when some shipments did reach the coast of Odisha, they could not be moved inland. The British Indian government imported some 10,000 tons of rice, which reached the affected population only in September. Although many people died of starvation, more were killed by cholera before the monsoons and by malaria afterwards. In Odisha alone, at least 1 million people, a third of the population, died in 1866, and overall in the region approximately 4 to 5 million died in the two-year period.
The heavy rains of 1866 also caused floods which destroyed the rice-crop in low-lying regions. Consequently, in the following year, another shortfall was expected, and the Government of British India imported approximately 40,000 tons of rice at four times the usual price. However, this time they overestimated the need, and only half the rice was used by the time the summer monsoon of 1867, followed by a plentiful harvest, ended the famine in 1868. In the two years of the famine, the Government of British India spend approximately Rs.9,500,000 on famine relief for 35 million units (i.e. one person per day); a large proportion of the cost, however, was the high price of the imported grain.
- Timeline of major famines in India during British rule (1765 to 1947)
- Famines, Epidemics, and Public Health in the British Raj
- Company rule in India
- Famine in India
- Drought in India
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