Bengal: Famines, 1769-1899

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Note: National, provincial and district boundaries have changed considerably since 1908. Typically, old states, ‘divisions’ and districts have been broken into smaller units, and many tahsils upgraded to districts. Some units have since been renamed. Therefore, this article is being posted mainly for its historical value.


In an agricultural country like Bengal the failure of the crops must always cause considerable distress, the degree of which varies with the nature and extent of the failure, the material condition of the people, and their character, and lastly the accessibility or otherwise of the tract affected.

The great cause of deficient harvests is insufficient or badly distributed rainfall. Sometimes much damage is done by floods, and sometimes, though more rarely, by blight or locusts ; but in such cases the area affected is generally limited.

The crop which is most sensitive to a short or badly distributed rain- fall is the winter rice, which requires copious showers in May and a punctual commencement of the monsoon, but is especially dependent on the continuance of the rainfall throughout September and the early days of October ; it is this crop which is most liable to fail in adverse seasons. It follows that, if the rainfall is uncertain, the tracts most liable to famine are those in which the winter rice is most largely grown. In the favoured Districts of Eastern Bengal the winter rice is the staple crop ; but there a serious failure of the annual rains is unknown, and the subsoil water-level is so high that, in years when the rainfall is only moderately deficient, the ground retains sufficient moisture to prevent anything approaching a total loss of the crops.

The whole of the Dacca* and Chittagong* Divisions are therefore excluded from the list of tracts liable to famine. Here the only danger of disaster arises from the cyclonic storm-waves which, at intervals, burst over the country and carry in their train widespread ruin and desolation. In other parts of Bengal proper, where also the winter rice is as a rule the principal crop, the immunity from famine is less complete ; but the rainfall is usually ample, and the areas liable to famine are less extensive than in the other sub-provinces. From time to time the submontane tracts have been swept by disastrous floods ; and, when the embankments on the left bank of the Bhaglrathi give way, floods occasionally break across Murshidabad and Nadia Districts. The Damodar also sometimes inundates the country on its right bank.

In Bihar the conditions north and south of the Ganges differ con- siderably. The latter has a more scanty rainfall ; but it enjoys an extensive system of irrigation, partly from the Son Canals constructed by the Government, and partly from reservoirs constructed by the ryots themselves on the slopes of the undulations which characterize that part of the country. A great variety of crops are grown, and it rarely happens that famine obtains a grip over any considerable area. North of the Ganges the rainfall is more copious than on the south bank, but it is more capricious than in Bengal proper. In Saran and the south of Muzaffarpur there is a good deal of irrigation from wells or streams, and the crops are divided almost equally among the three great harvests of the year, so that a total crop failure is practically impossible. Elsewhere, and especially in the northern part of Champaran, Muzaffarpur, and Darbhanga Districts, which borders on the Nepal tarai, winter rice is the main crop. In normal years the fertile soil yields bountiful crops without irrigation, which has not been adequately provided and which is necessary only in seasons of drought ; but the population is dense, wages are low and rents high, and when the rains fail the distress is great. This is the zone described by Sir Richard Temple as the ' blackest of black spots on the famine map.' There has scarcely ever been a year of distress or scarcity in any part of Bengal when North Bihar did not bear the brunt of it. Orissa suffered terribly from famine in 1866 and 1867; but, since the construction of the canals now in existence, there has been nf) widespread crop failure, and it is only in Purl District that famine on a large scale is at all likely to occur. Chota

Nagpur is a sparsely populated region, inhabited by wild tribes ; and its liability to famine is due mainly to its inaccessibility, which makes it difficult to import food-grains, and to the suspicious and restless nature of the ignorant aborigines, who shun relief works as they would the plague.

The danger of widespread famine is gradually being reduced, owing to the improvement in the material condition of the people, the growing demand for labour in the coal-mines, jute-mills, and other non-agricul- tural undertakings, the great improvement that has been made in com- munications, and especially the rapid growth of railways, which now tap nearly every District in the Province, and the construction of protective canals in the tracts where the danger of famine due to insufficient rain- fall is greatest. In the whole Province it is estimated that an area of 74,500 square miles is liable to famine ; and of this area 28,500 square miles are in the sub-province of Bihar, 27,000 in Chota Nagpur, 14,500 in Bengal proper, and 4,500 in Orissa. The population of this area is 29,000,000 ; and if all these tracts were simultaneously affected by severe famine, it might be necessary to provide relief for 2,000,000 persons.

The first great famine of which we have any trustworthy record is that which devastated the Province in 1769-70, when Bengal, though under British control, was still under native administration. Eastern Bengal alone escaped, and, except for the importation of a small quan- tity of rice from this favoured tract, it does not appear that any public measures for relief were taken. One-third of the population of Bengal is believed to have perished in this terrible catastrophe. The next really serious scarcity in Bengal was the memorable Orissa famine of 1865-7. The full extent of the crop failure consequent on the scanty rainfall of 1865 and the exhaustion of the local food supplies was not realized by the authorities in time; and when at last, in June, 1866, an effort was made to provide the starving people with food, the south-west monsoon prevented the ships, lying laden with grain in the port of Calcutta, from reaching the stricken people ^. It is said that a quarter of the population died of starvation and of the diseases which resulted. This disaster, appalling as it was, had one good result — it led to a firm determination to prevent all similar occurrences in future, and from that time dates the earnest watchfulness which has never since been relaxed. At the next serious crop failure in 1874 scarcity prevailed chiefly in North Bihar and also, in a lesser degree, in South Bihar and North Bengal. On this occasion relief measures were undertaken in ample time, and all serious loss of life was prevented. The defect, if any, in the administration of this famine was that money was expended too

The monsoon of 1886 was as licavy as that of the previous year liad been light, and in low-lying tracts tlie rice was destroyed by lloods. On this occasion amjile relief was given. lavishly, and the object in view might perhaps have been effected at a lower cost than the 6 crores actually spent.

In 1 89 1 the early close of the monsoon and the absence of the cold- season rains caused much damage to the winter rice and rabi crops, and relief operations were necessary in parts of Muzaffarpur, Darbhanga, Monghyr, Bhagalpur, Purnea, and Dinajpur*, The largest number on relief works on any one day was 83,000, and on gratuitous relief 4,700 ; the total cost of the operations was rather less than 5 lakhs.

The famine of 1896-7 was far more serious. The causes of the crop failure were a very unfavourable distribution of the rainftill early in 1896 and its entire absence after the early part of September. There had been a very poor harvest of winter rice in 1895, and in 1896 it was again this crop that suffered most. The brunt of the famine fell upon the Districts of Champaran, Muzaffarpur, Darbhanga, and Saran, and especially upon the tracts near the Nepal frontier, where the proportion of rice cultivation is highest. In the Chota Nagpur plateau, Palamau, Hazaribagh, Manbhum, and two tracts in the Santal Parganas were seriously affected. Relief works were opened in November, 1896, and by the close of the year 45,000 persons were employed on them. In March, 1897, the distress deepened rapidly, and the numbers on relief rose steadily until May, when 402,000 persons were employed on famine works, and 426,000 were in receipt of gratuitous relief. As soon as the monsoon had fairly set in, the numbers quickly diminished, and during September and October relief operations were brought to a close. The total expenditure was nearly no lakhs, in addition to advances to cultivators aggregating nearly 3 lakhs, donations of nearly 20 lakhs from the Charitable Relief Fund, the outcome of voluntary subscriptions in India, England, and other countries, and private relief by zamlndCirs and others. The measures adopted were most successful in saving life ; and the vital statistics, which are confirmed by the results of the last Census, show that, except in the wilder parts of Chota Nag- pur, the mortality was actually below the normal during the famine year\ The birth-rate was very little affected; it fell slightly in 1898, the year after the famine, but rose so much higher than usual in the following year, that the mean birth-rate of the two years taken together was considerably above the average for the decade.

In 1899 the monsoon was very capricious in parts of Chota Nagpur and Orissa. There was excessive rain in July, but exceptionally litde in August and September. The crops were very poor throughout the area affected, but actual famine supervened only in about half of Ranch! and a small part of Palamau District.

See also

For a large number of articles about Bengal, extracted from the Gazetteer of 1908 (as well as other articles on Bengal) please either click the 'India' link (below, left) and go to Bengal (under B) or enter 'Bengal' in the 'Search' box (top, right). Bengal, 1908 Bengal: A history, by British Raj writers Bengal: Agriculture in A.D. 1900 Bengal: Arts and manufactures, 1908 Bengal: Commerce and trade, c. A.D. 1900 Bengal: Famines, 1769-1899 Bengal: Forests, c. A.D. 1900 Bengal: Mines and minerals, c. A.D. 1900 Bengal: Physical aspects, c. A.D. 1900 Bengal: Population, A.D. 1901

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