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Famines and British Rule in India

The recurring famines of 19th century were the inevitable consequences of the British policies and exposed the real character of the British administration for Indian peasantry. Famine refers to the condition of large scale mortality due to the non availability of food to the people .The history of British rule in India was characterized by number of recurring famines and these famines were the essential consequences of character of British rule in India.

The British rulers emphasized on the concept of white man’s burden in a number of ways to justify their colonial rule in India. They emphasized that the British policies and programmes would benefit the Indian peasantry along with various Indian groups. A number of land reforms were introduced with the expectation that these reforms would help peasants in different ways. But all these reforms produced negative consequences and resulted in large-scale exploitation of peasants.

In the beginning the colonial rulers did not accept the responsibility of these famines though the process of the emergence of famines had started with the establishment of British rule in Bengal but for almost 100 years the British rulers never tried to understand the causes of these famines and did not formulate any policy to check the recurrence of these famines.

When a serious famine struck Delhi – Agra region in 1860-61 the government appointed Col Baird Committee to investigate the causes of famine but this committee performed no function and did not put forward any significant recommendation because of this basic factors and forces responsible for the famine remained intact.

In 1866 a great famine struck many parts of India but its impact was felt in Orissa. The Government appointed George Campbell Commission to investigate the causes of famine and to recommend measures to prevent recurrences in future.

The Committee held government system responsible for creating the famine like conditions and suggested that the government during famine times must organize the relief measures. The committee also recommended that steps should be taken for employment generation immediately so that the impact of famine could be mitigated.

The recommendations of Cambell committee were not given much attention and consequently a serious famine reoccurred in many parts of country including Punjab, UP and Madras in 1876.Its maximum impact was felt in Madras Presidency. The government appointed another commission in 1880.The Commission recommended

  1. A famine code should be formulated.
  2. Irrigation facilities should be developed.
  3. Collection of land revenue should be suspended immediately during famines and land revenue should be remitted.
  4. Data should be collected about the conditions of Indian peasantry and agriculture.
  5. A famine fund should be set up.

In accordance with the recommendation of Strachey Commission a famine fund with amount Rs 1 crore was set up and famine code was also formulated in 1883.This code has 4 parts. The first part of the code dealt with the government measures during the normal times. The second part dealt with relief campaign. The third part dealt with the duties of officials during relief measures. The fourth part dealt with the division of famine-affected areas.

In spite of the formulation of famine policy and its implementation a number of famines struck India repeatedly. A severe famine occurred in 1896-97 and another famine occurred in 1899-1900.The government of Lord Curzon appointed Anthony McDonald Committee in 1900 to suggest measures to counter the famine effectively.

The Committee recommended the famine code should be revised, transportation facilities should be improved, and irrigation network should be developed. A famine commissioner should be appointed and the government should take moral responsibility of the welfare of people during famine times. In accordance with these recommendations steps were taken to improve irrigation to increase the agricultural production.

In 1942-43 a severe famine struck the Bengal region. The government appointed John Woodhad Committee. The Committee recommended that all Indian Food Council should be set up. The dept of food and agriculture should be merged and steps should be taken to increase agriculture production.

Though British government initiated number of steps but these steps failed to improve the condition of Indian masses in any way.