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.
  • 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"...
  • ...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.

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