Famine in India

phenomenon of famines in the Indian subcontinent

Famine had been a recurrent feature of life in the Indian sub-continental countries of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, most accurately recorded during British rule. Famines in India resulted in more than 30 million deaths over the course of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. Famines in British India were severe enough to have a substantial impact on the long-term population growth of the country in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Victims of the Great Famine of 1876–78 in India, pictured in 1877.


  • The mighty peril is the entire starvation of the country [India] by foreign exploiters and its complete and hopeless dependence on aliens for almost all articles of common use.
  • You see somewhere a man who is starving and if you misunderstand karma — as too many of you do, to the shame of India, in a land where this teaching is of immemorial antiquity — you turn aside from that starving man and say that it is his karma to starve and perish; in those hardened heart of yours you use the will of God as a cover for your lack of love. That man’s karma to starve? Aye, and therefore he is starving! But if a Deva guides you to the place where your brother is starving, it is because he would make you the agent of his beneficence to that man whose evil karma of the present moment has been exhausted by his suffering; the Deva thus says to you: “Man your brother man is starving give him the relief it is his karma to receive, and be my agent in carrying out the law.
  • Then comes a year of famine; but the nose-rings and gold elbow-bangles are gone and people starve by thousands. What matters it? They die in Christ, and Rome scatters her blessings over their corpses, of which thousands float yearly down the sacred rivers to the ocean.
    • Helena Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled
  • The Lieutenant Governor of Bengal was to the fullest extent responsible for not having made any preparation against the famine. ... The doctrines of political economy had been worshipped as a sort of "fetish" by officials who, because they believed that in the long run supply and demand would square themselves, seemed to have utterly forgotten that human life was short, and that men could not subsist without food beyond a few days. They mechanically left the laws of political economy to work themselves out while hundreds of thousands of human beings were perishing from famine.
  • He (George Curzon) was likewise determined to prevent famine from being used as a cause for reform. With hunger spreading on an unprecedented scale through two-thirds of the subcontinent, he ordered his officials to publicly attribute the crisis strictly to drought. When an incautious member of the Legislative Council in Calcutta, Donald Smeaton, raised the problem of over-taxation, he was (in Boer War parlance) prompdy "Stellenboshed." Although Curzons own appetite for viceregal pomp and circumstance was notorious, he lectured starving villagers that "any Government which imperilled the financial position of India in the interests of prodigal philanthropy would be open to serious criticism; but any Government which by indiscriminate alms-giving weakened the fibre and demoralised the self-reliance of the population, would be guilty of a public crime."
  • And what lesson did the British draw from these catastrophes? The most comprehensive official survey, the Report on the Famine in Bombay Presidency, 1899-1902, conceded that much of the excess mortality might have been avoided by "widespread gratious [home] relief from the beginning," but insisted that "the cost could have been such as no country would bear or should be called upon to bear"...
  • How do we weigh smug claims about the life-saving benefits of steam transportation and modern grain markets when so many millions, especially in British India, died along railroad tracks or on the steps of grain depots?
    • Author and political activist Mike Davis poses the question in his book, Late Victorian Holocausts
  • Sir William Hunter, estimated that 40,000,000 of the people of India were seldom or never able to satisfy their hunger. In 1901, 272,000 died of plague introduced from abroad, in 1902, 500,000 died of plague; in 1903, 800,000; in 1904, 1,000,000. We can now understand why there are famines in India. Their cause, in plain terms, is not the absence of food, but the inability of the people to pay for it. It was hoped the railways would solve the problem...the fact that the worst famines have come since the building of the railways...behind all these, as the fundamental source of the terrible famines in India, lies such merciless exploitation, such unbalanced exploitation of goods, and such brutal collection of high taxes in the very midst of famine....
    • (source: The Case for India - By Will Durant Simon and Schuster, New York. 1930 p.50-53).
  • "So great an economic drain out of the resources of the land," says Dutt, "would impoverish the most prosperous countries on earth; it has reduced India to a land of famines more frequent, more widespread, and more fatal, than any known before in the history of India or of the world."
    • Dutt quoted at [1]
  • According to British records, one million Indians died of famine between 1800 and 1825, 4 million between 1825-1850, 5 million between 1850-1875 and 15 million between 1875-1900. Thus 25 million Indians died in 100 years ! The British must be proud of their bloody record. It is probably more honorable and straightforward to kill in the name of Allah, than in the guise of petty commercial interests and total disregard for the ways of a 5000 year civilization. Thus, by the beginning of the 20th century, India was bled dry and there were no resources left.
    • (source: India's Self Denial - By Francois Gautier )
  • Inhabitants were reduced to the direst extremity. Life was offered for a loaf, but none would buy. Dog’s flesh was sold for goat flesh. The pounded bones of the dead were mixed in flour and sold. Men began to devour each other, and the flesh of a son was preferred to his love. The number of deaths caused obstructions in the roads. Those lands which had been famous for fertility and plenty of resources retain no traces of production.
    • Abdul Hamid Lahori, Badshahnama; Henry Miers Elliot (ed.), John Dowson, The History of India, as Told by Its Own Historians, London: Sh. Mubarak Ali, 1867–77, Vol. VII, p. 12. quoted in Aabhas Maldahiyar - Babur_ The Chessboard King-Vintage Books (2024)
  • During the first 80 years of the 19th century 18,000,000 of the Indian people perished of famine. In one year alone - the year when Her Majesty, Queen Victoria, assumed the title of the Empress, - 5,000,000 of the people of Southern India were starved to death. In the District of Bellary, with which I am personally acquainted - a region twice the size of Wales - 1/4 of the whole population perished in the famine of 1876-77. I shall never forget my own famine experience; how, as I rode out on horseback, morning after morning, I passed crowds of wandering skeletons, and saw human corpses by the roadside, unburied, uncared for, half devoured by dogs and vultures; and how - still sadder sight - children, 'the joy of the world' as the old Greeks deemed them, had become its ineffable sorrow there, forsaken even by their mothers, their feverish eyes shining from hollow sockets, their flesh utterly wasted away, only gristle and sinew and cold shivering skin remaining, their heads mere skulls, their puny frames full of loathsome disease engendered by the starvation... Everyone who has been in India in famine times, and has left the beaten track of western made prosperity, knows how true a picture this is.
    • Mr. W. S. Lily in his - India and Its Problems
  • Surat (Gujarat)- Great famine, highways unpassable, infested by thieves looking not for gold but grain; Kirka- Town empty. Half inhabitants fled. Another half dead; Dhaita- Children sold for 6 dams or given for free to any who could take them so they might be kept alive; Nandurbar (Maharashtra)-No space to pitch a tent, dead bodies everywhere. Noisome smell from a neighboring pit where 40 dead bodies were thrown. Survivors searching for grains in the excrement of men and animals. Highway stowed with dead bodies from Surat to Burhanpur... In Bazar lay people dead and others breathing their last with the food almost near their mouths, yet dying for want of it, they not having wherewith to buy, nor the others so much pity to spare them any without money. There being no course taken in this Country to remedy this great evil, the rich and strong engrossing and taking perforce all to themselves.
    • Peter Mundy, The Travels of Peter Mundy in Europe and Asia, 1608–1667. (ed.) Lt. Col. Sir Richard Carnac Temple. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1907. pp. 40–48. Vol. II. quoted in Aabhas Maldahiyar - Babur_ The Chessboard King-Vintage Books (2024)
  • ...in the name of civilizing our country [India] they exploited our country making us poorer day by day. There were perpetual famine and starvation in India. But the British had always been callous to it.
    • Swami Vivekananda, in "Swami Vivekananda: Messiah of Resurgent India (1 January 2003)", p. 185
  • Culturally it was a time of stagnation. Poverty and starvation were the common phenomenon in the society. The imperial power invested huge capital in India and made enormous profit. The British looked upon India as a place where capital could hope to maintain a heaven. But paradoxically enough, the Indian masses were rotting in poverty and starvation. Thus a great predicament, surrounded India in the 18th and 19th centuries.
    • Swami Vivekananda, in "Swami Vivekananda: Messiah of Resurgent India (1 January 2003)", pp. 205-06
  • They have sucked out blood, they have carried away with them millions of our money, while our people have starved.
    • Swami Vivekananda, in "Swami Vivekananda: Messiah of Resurgent India (1 January 2003)", p. 291
  • Twenty years from 1860-1908 were the years of famine. Nearly 29 million people died during famines from 1854-1901. These famines revealed that poverty and chronic starvation had taken firm roots in colonial India.
    • Swami Vivekananda, in "Swami Vivekananda: Messiah of Resurgent India (1 January 2003)", p. 291
  • ...the imperialistic drain of wealth from the backward parts of the globe and its piling up in capitalistic areas of the West that causes poverty and starvation in one part and plentitude in another part of the world.
    • Swami Vivekananda, in "Swami Vivekananda: Messiah of Resurgent India (1 January 2003)", p. 353
  • “The famine has wrought miracles. The catechumenates are filling, baptismal water flows in streams, and starving little tots fly in masses to heaven… A hospital is a readymade congregation. There is no need to go into the highways and hedges and ‘compel them to come in’. They send each other.”
    • About the sudden jumps in the number of Christian converts during famines. Archbishop of Pondicherry, ‘Spiritual Advantages of Famine and Cholera’, India and Its Missions, 1823. cited in Arun Shourie, Missionaries in India, New Delhi, 1994 quoted from Madhya Pradesh (India), Goel, S. R., Niyogi, M. B. (1998). Vindicated by time: The Niyogi Committee report on Christian missionary activities. (RIFT IN THE LUTE) ISBN 9789385485121
  • “Between 1387 and 1395 the Deccan was visited by a severe famine, and Muhammad’s53 measures for the relief of his subjects displayed a combination of administrative ability, enlightened compassion, and religious bigotry. A thousand bullocks belonging to the transport establishment maintained for the court were placed at the disposal of. those in charge of relief measures, and travelled incessantly to and fro between his dominions and Gujarat and Malwa, which had escaped the visitation bringing thence grain which was sold at low rates in the Deccan, but to Muslims only.”
    • Cambridge History of India., III, p.385. quoted from K.S. Lal, Indian Muslims who are they, 1990.
  • The greater part of the soil is under irrigation, and consequently bears two crops in the course of the year. . . . It is accordingly affirmed that famine has never visited India, and that there has never been a general scarcity in the supply of nourishing food.
    • Megasthenes Quoted in Durant, Will (1963). Our Oriental heritage. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • Nixon bitterly said, “The Indians need—what they need really is a—” Kissinger interjected, “They’re such bastards.” Nixon finished his thought: “A mass famine.”
    • Richard Nixon, FRUS, vol. E-7, White House tapes, Oval Office 505-4, 26 May 1971, 10:38 a.m. quoted in Bass, G. J. (2014). The Blood telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a forgotten genocide. ch 9
  • It is true that lack of rain causes famine but it is also true that the people of India have not the strength to fight the evil. The poverty of India is wholly due to the present rule. India is being bled till only the skeleton remains…all the vitality of the people is being sapped and we are left in an emaciated state of slavery.
  • Famine is India's specialty. Elsewhere famines are inconsequential incidents — in India they are devastating cataclysms; in one case they annihilate hundreds; in the other, millions.
  • How marvellous are the Lord’s way? One might almost say that the divine intention has been to make the parents disappear in order that their children might be led to the mission……… The last two periods of famine have brought to the Catholic Mission thousands of orphans………
    • “Hospital Conscience” of the standard Bishop-the Catholic Bishop of Lahore. quoted in A Mid-Victorian Hindu: A Sketch of the Life and Times of Rakhal Das Haldar, and quoted in Young India, 13 -14: 2, in : Madhya Pradesh (India), Goel, S. R., Niyogi, M. B. (1998). Vindicated by time: The Niyogi Committee report on Christian missionary activities. ISBN 9789385485121
  • The famine of 1769-70 in India, under the East India Company, appalled Horace Walpole and made him feel ashamed of his countrymen: "We have outdone the Spaniards in Peru. They were at least butchers on a religious principle, however diabolical their zeal. We have murdered, deposed, plundered, usurpednay, what you think of the famine in Bengal in which three millions perished being caused by a monopoly of the servants of the East India Company."
    • H. Walpole quoted in Ibn Warraq, Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said's Orientalism. Ibn, W. (2009). Defending the West: A critique of Edward Said's Orientalism. Amherst, N.Y: Prometheus Books.
  • In the great famine which raged through Indostan in the year 1770, and the ravages of which were particularly felt in every part of Bengal, the Jungleterry is said to have suffered greatly. I have understood that it was before this time highly cultivated, and filled with industrious husbandmen and manufacturers, and the population was estimated at more than eighteen thousand people. It is, however, at present reduced to a few hundreds, great numbers having been cut off by famine, and others having migrated in search of food.
    The country I had passed through from Allahabad to Lucknow, and thence to Fyzabad, has the same general character, and there are very few elevations to be seen in it that are considerable. It is in a moderate state of cultivation, in some parts better than others; but where it is neglected, it is evidently more from the want of property in the people, than the natural fertility of the country, which, on the contrary, I believe to be capable of producing the finest crops. The villages, of which there are many, some are comfortable in their appearance, and others apparently distressed. After leaving the flourishing district of Benaras, I could not help viewing with a melancholy concern the miserable appearance of all the territories which were under the absolute direction of Mussulman tyrants…
    The country from Lucknow to Etaya is in a moderate state of cultivation, but the villages are poor.… The country from Etaya to this place [Jeswotnagur] is very little cultivated; the villages are not populous, and the few inhabitants appear very wretched. On the 16th we halted at O’Kraine, six coss further, almost at the termination of the Nabob of Oud’s country. Through the whole of the last day’s journey I observed scarcely a spot in cultivation; the villages, of which there are several, were in ruins, and the whole presented almost on uninterrupted scene of desolation. On the last day’s march we met a few unfortunate people passing down into the provinces, in order actually to avoid being starved, begging their way.… Between Shekoabad and Fyrozabad are a few spots of cultivated ground. This village takes its name from the Purgunnah, which is a small district within a larger: it was at this time in the hands of a Gosine, or Hindoo Religious; and as the spirit of the Hindoo government is favourable to agriculture in the highest degree, this spot appeared a perfect garden. It must, indeed, be observed, that although the Hindoo governors or proprietors, from the principle of avarice, may sometimes distress, they do not destroy the endeavours of the poor, as the Mussulmans.…
    • Famine of A.D. 1770, poor state of the countryside, William Hodges Hodges, William, Travels in India During the Years 1780, 1781, 1782, and 1783, Munshiram Manoharlal, 1999.quoted from Jain, M. (editor) (2011). The India they saw: Foreign accounts. New Delhi: Ocean Books. Volume IV Chapter2
  • Maharajpore. We now pass through every day, the finest country for dust that it is possible to imagine and there is nothing else to be seen, not a blade of grass – the cattle are to be fed by Oude grass, just as we are to be fed by Oude cooks. We shall not pass through the distressed districts but the famine on one side of the country round Cawnpore, where we shall be the day after tomorrow, is very frightful now. A man was here the other day who had just travelled though that part and said the people were dying in hundreds by the roadside. He had sometimes seen twenty and thirty bodies lying close together.…
    My dearest, I am sick at heart with all this starvation we see about us. Now we are only upon the outskirts of the country where famine is raging but we are among those who have only wandered from it to die, and even here some of the villages are depopulated, the crops are dying fast for want of rain. As yet there are funds at all the civil stations for giving food to all who want it but many die upon the road and everyday we see those who do not seem to have an hour’s life left in them. Every evening all who come are fed with rice but even these were more than three hundred and it was found difficult to prevent them tearing the rice from each other. Some scarcely look human, particularly the children. It made me shudder yesterday to see one little wretch who was lying alone in the middle of the camp tear bread off the loaf with his teeth which it had hardly strength enough to swallow. The mothers offer to sell their skeletons of babies for a rupee. The fathers seem to get what food they can for themselves and to leave women and children for starve – but many men too quietly lie down and die. If rain would come during the next fortnight, the crops for the next year might be saved and then the rich natives who have grain in their granaries might sell it, but it is generally during the Xmas week that the rain comes and there is no appearance of it. Already I feel as if we were only giving a few more days of misery to those we feed, for they must die of hunger at last. Three or four days will take away from the sight of all this suffering but I am sure I will never forget it…
    January 7th1836 Kanonze. I have not really had the heart to write the last three days – we have been surrounded by people dying of starvation. Some hundred came for food yesterday, a thousand were fed today, but many of them are still lying round the camp, children who have not many hours of life left in them – some of the grown-up people too are nothing but skin and bone, their faces like skulls. Captain Cunningham found many more today, one woman dead and a man and woman dying, many sitting round but taking no notice. There is plenty of grain too in the granaries but the rich natives, from fear of a greater scarcity next year, will not sell it. The distribution of food is grown very difficult, they will not wait for their turns but rush forwards to tear it from each other and the children are nearly crushed. Almost all our native servants have adopted either orphans or children they have bought for a rupee or two – a very common thing in these times of distress – and they generally keep them for the rest of their lives. We are now within three days of Futteghar and there work is provided for all who can work and funds to support the women and children who cannot…
    January 9th Our poor people are improving a little and have been much less vociferous today. I saw a gentleman today who has come from that part of the country from which these have wandered, and he says the sights there are horrible – hundreds dead and he saw many as he passed stripping bark off the trees and cooking it. Our French servant went out to look for cantaloupes by the side of the river, and found above a hundred lying together and some skeletons upright in the water and passed through a village where but two inhabitants were left. My dearest, I am longing to be away from all these horrors, where I feel that we can do but little good – all that is consumed by man and beast comes to us from Oude. The country is bare even of grass – at the best it is thinly inhabited. But it is no affectation to say that when we sit down to dinner with the band playing and all the pomp and circumstances of life about us, which is just as much kept up in a tent as anywhere else, my very soul sickens at the cries of the starving children outside which never seem to cease.
    • (b) Famine and starvation deaths, 19 December 1835, Fanny Eden Eden, Fanny, Tigers, Durbars And Kings, Fanny Eden’s Indian Journals, 1837-1838, Ed., Janet Dunbar, John Murray, 1988. quoted from Jain, M. (editor) (2011). The India they saw: Foreign accounts. New Delhi: Ocean Books. Volume IV Chapter2

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