Indian famine of 1899–1900

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Indian famine of 1899–1900
Total deaths1–4.5 million
Observationsfailure of the summer monsoon
Map of the British Indian Empire (1909), showing the different provinces and native states. The Central Provinces and Berar, Bombay Presidency, Ajmer-Merwara, and the Hissar district of the Punjab were especially hard-hit by the famine of 1899–1900.
Government famine relief, c. 1901, Ahmedabad

The Indian famine of 1899–1900 began with the failure of the summer monsoons in 1899 over Western and Central India and, during the next year, affected an area of 476,000 square miles (1,230,000 km2) and a population of 59.5 million.[1] The famine was acute in the Central Provinces and Berar, the Bombay Presidency, the minor province of Ajmer-Merwara, and the Hissar District of the Punjab; it also caused great distress in the princely states of the Rajputana Agency, the Central India Agency, Hyderabad and the Kathiawar Agency.[1] In addition, small areas of the Bengal Presidency, the Madras Presidency and the North-Western Provinces were acutely afflicted by the famine.[1]

The population in many areas had barely recovered from the famine of 1896–1897.[2] As in that famine, this one too was preceded by a drought.[2] The Meteorological Office of India in its report of 1900, stated, "The mean average rainfall of India is 45 inches (1,100 mm). In no previous famine year has it been in greater defect than 5 inches (130 mm). But in 1899 the defect exceeded 11 inches."[2] There were also large crop failures in the rest of India and, as a result, inter-regional trade could not be relied upon to stabilise food prices.[3]

The resulting mortality was high. 462,000 people died in the Bombay Presidency, and in the Deccan Plateau, the estimated death toll was 166,000.[4] In the Presidency, the famine of 1899–1900 had the highest mortality—at 37.9 deaths per 1000—among all famines and scarcities there between 1876–77 and 1918–19.[5] According to a 1908 estimate of The Imperial Gazetteer of India, in the British-administered districts alone, approximately one million people died of starvation or accompanying disease; in addition, as a result of acute shortage of fodder, millions of cattle also perished.[2] Other estimates vary between one million[6][lower-alpha 1] and 4.5 million[7] deaths.


In the Central Provinces and Berar, an area that had suffered extreme distress during the famine of 1896–1897, the year 1898 had been favourable agriculturally, as was the first half of 1899; however, after the failure of the summer monsoon of 1899, a second catastrophe began soon afterwards.[8] There was a rapid rise of prices and the autumn kharif harvest failed completely.[8] After public criticism of the famine relief effort in the previous famine, this time an improved famine relief effort was organised; by July 1900, one-fifth of the province's population was on some form of famine relief.[8] The summer monsoon of 1900 produced moderately abundant rainfall, and by autumn, agricultural work had begun; most famine-relief works were consequently closed by December 1900.[8] Overall, the famine of 1899–1900 was less severe in this region than the famine of two years before.[8] In the Bombay Presidency, the reverse was the case: the famine of 1899–1900, which affected a population of 12 million, was more acute, especially so in the Kathiawar Agency.[9] The recovery from the famine in the Presidency was also very slow.[9]


Both 1896 and 1899 were El Niño years—years in which the monsoon rainfall was considerably less than average.[10] The year following the El Niño, also called a Niño+1 year, has historically been recognised to have not only higher than average rainfall, but also a much higher probability of malaria epidemics.[10] For example, in the Punjab province of British India, of the 77 years from 1867 to 1943, there were 21 El Niño years, 11 of whose Niño+1 years produced malaria epidemics; in contrast, there were only six malaria epidemics in the remaining 56 non-El Niño years.[10] "Fever years follow famine years" had become a popular saying in the Punjab long before Sir Ronald Ross, working in the Presidency General Hospital in Calcutta, showed in 1898 that the malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, is transmitted by mosquitoes.[11] It had also been noted, by R. Christophers in 1911, that years in which the monsoon was abundant, but which had not been preceded by famine years, were not likely to be epidemic years.[12] These observations had prompted some scholars to theorise that the increased malaria mortality in a post-famine year was the result of lowered resistance to malaria caused by the malnutrition.[11] However, it is now thought likely that the dry famine years decreased human exposure to mosquitoes, which thrive in stagnant water, and consequently to Plasmodium falciparum; the decreased exposure resulted in lowered immunity among the population, thereby making subsequent exposures all the more devastating.[11]

In 1900, a Niño+1 year, malaria epidemics, occurred in the Punjab, Central Provinces and Berar, and the Bombay Presidency, with devastating results. In the Central Provinces and Berar, the death rates were initially quite low. The Report on the Famine in the Central Provinces in 1899–1900 noted the "extreme healthiness of the first four months of the famine, September to December 1899."[13] The low mortality indicated the absence of malaria in 1899; however, by the summer of 1900, an epidemic of cholera had begun, and soon the monsoon rains of 1900 brought on the malaria epidemic.[14] Consequently, the death rate peaked between August and September 1900, a full year after the famine began.[14] In the Bombay Presidency, the same pattern of pre-monsoon cholera followed by post-monsoon malaria in 1900 was repeated.[9] The Report on the Famine in the Bombay Presidency, 1899–1902 pronounced the epidemic to be "unprecedented," noting that "It attacked all classes and was by no means confined to the people who had been on relief works ..."[15]

Parts of Punjab region, specially Bagar tract, were also affected.[16]


A map of the northern Bombay Presidency showing the districts of Khaira, Panchmahals, and the princely state of Baroda (bottom right). The princely state of Jodhpur is shown at the top right.

The British had established control over Western India in the early decades of the 19th century; this consisted of direct administration of the conquered territories in the expanded Bombay Presidency as well as in the British outpost of Ajmer-Merwara farther north.[17] The middle decades of the 19th century saw not only the implementation of a new system of land revenue and land rights in these areas, but also the establishment of new civil law.[17] Under the new land rights system, peasants could be dispossessed of their land if they failed to pay the land-revenue (or land-tax) in a timely fashion.[17] The British, however, continued to rely on local Baniya usurers, or Sahukars, to supply credit to the peasants.[18] The imposition of the new system of civil law, however, meant that the peasants could be exploited by the sahukars, who were often able, through the new civil courts, to acquire title-deeds to a peasant's land for non-payment of debt.[18]

The mid-19th century was also a time of predominance of the economic theories of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, and the principle of laissez-faire was subscribed to by many colonial administrators; the British, consequently, declined to interfere in the markets.[18] This meant that the Baniya sahukars could resort to hoarding during times of scarcity, driving up the price of food grain, and profiteering in the aftermath.[18] All this occurred in Western India during the famine of 1899–1900.[18]

In Kaira District in present-day Gujarat, many peasants were forced to hand over their lands to the sahukars as security for meager loans that not only didn't grant them much relief, but that they later couldn't repay on account of exorbitant interest.[19] The sahukars were to foreclose on these loans in the years after the famine; in the princely state of Baroda, for example, the recorded land-transfers were to jump from an average of 13,000 per year during the decade of the 1890s, to over 65,000 during the year 1902–1903.[19]

The sahukars, in their effort to drive up prices, were even able to export grain out of areas of scarcity using the faster means of transport that came in with British rule.[19] Here again the colonial administrators declined to intervene, even though they themselves often disapproved of the practice.[19] This happened, for example, in the Panchmahals—one of the worst famine-afflicted areas in 1900—where a railway line had been built in the 1890s.[19] A British deputy district collector recorded in his report, "The merchants first cleared large profits by exporting their surplus stocks of grain at the commencement of the famine, and, later on by importing maize from Cawnpore and Bombay and rice from Calcutta and Rangoon."[20] He went on to record that the sahukars were building new houses for themselves from these windfall profits.[19] The blatant profiteering, however, led to grain riots in the Panchmahals by Bhil tribals, and grain riots became a feature of other British-ruled areas during times of famine.[21] This contrasted markedly with the princely states, where the authorities often did intervene.[21] For example, in Jodhpur State, a famine-stricken area in Rajputana, in August 1899, the state officials set up a shop to sell grain at cost price, forcing the Baniya merchants to eventually bring down their prices.[21]

Economic changes[edit]

The Indian famine of 1899–1900 was the last of the all-India famines.[22] (The war-time Bengal famine of 1943 was confined mainly to Bengal and some neighbouring regions.) The famine proved to be a watershed between the overwhelmingly subsistence agriculture economy of 19th century India and a more diversified economy of the 20th century, which, by offering other forms of employment, created less agricultural disruption (and, consequently, less mortality) during times of scarcity.[22]

The construction of the Indian railways between 1860 and 1920, and the opportunities thereby offered for greater profit in other markets, allowed farmers to accumulate assets that could then be drawn upon during times of scarcity.[23] By the early 20th century, many farmers in the Bombay presidency were growing a portion of their crop for export.[23] Wheat, both food and cash crop, saw increased production and export during this time; in addition, cotton and oil-seeds were also exported.[23] The railways also brought in food, whenever expected scarcities began to drive up food prices.[23]

There were other changes in the economy as well: a construction boom in the Bombay presidency, in both the private and public sectors, during the first two decades of the 20th century, created a demand for unskilled labour.[23] There was greater demand for agricultural labour as well, brought on both by the planting of more labour-intensive crops and the expansion of the cropped area in the presidency.[23] Real agricultural wages, for example, increased sharply after 1900.[24] All these provided farmers with greater insurance against famine.[25] During times of drought, they could now seek seasonal non-agricultural employment; alternatively, they could temporarily move to areas where there was no drought and work as agricultural wage labourers.[25]

According to (McAlpin 1979, p. 156), "Famines in the nineteenth century tended to be characterized by some degree of aimless wandering of agriculturalists after their own supplies of food had run out." Since these migrations caused further depletion among individuals who were already malnourished and since new areas exposed them to unfamiliar disease pathogens, the attendant mortality was high.[25] In the 20th century, however, these temporary migrations became more purposive, especially from regions (in the Bombay Presidency) that were highly drought prone.[25] A greater availability of jobs throughout the presidency and a better organised system of famine relief offered by the provincial government allowed most men in afflicted villages to migrate elsewhere as soon as their own meager harvest had been collected.[25] McAlpin further notes:

Villages are reported to have housed only women and children, and old men in some years of crop failure. Those left behind could tend the livestock, live off the short harvest, and expect that the government would step in to provide relief—including grain sales or gratuitous relief—if necessary. With the beginning of the next agricultural season the men would return to the village with some earnings from their outside employment which could be used to resume agricultural operations. In most cases, the livestock would also have been preserved through the actions of women and children.[25]


Group of men and children suffering from famine in India.

Estimates of the excess mortality during the famine vary widely. According to historian David Fieldhouse, over 1 million people may have died during the famine of 1899–1900.[26] However, according to anthropologist Brian Fagan, "No one knows exactly how many perished in the great famine, but it could have been as many as four and a half million people."[7] In her study of famines in the Bombay Presidency during the period 1860–1920, South Asianist, Michelle McAlpin estimated the famine of 1899–1900 to have had the highest mortality—at 37.9 deaths per 1000—among all famines and scarcities there between 1876–77 and 1918–19.[5] Anthropologist Daniel W. Attwood asserts that in the Deccan an estimated 166,000 people may have died, and in the entire Presidency a total of 462,000.[4] Historian Ronald E. Seavoy, in his 1986 study on famine in peasant societies, estimates the mortality in the famine to be 3.2 million,[27][28] whereas historian Aroop Maharatna, in his historical retrospective of the demography of Indian famines, estimates the mortality to be between 3 million and 4.4 million.[29][28] Archaeologist Daniel T. Chamberlain, citing Maharatna, points out that in Berar Province, the overall mortality rate in 1900 was 150% higher than the baseline rate,[30] and further, also citing Maharatna, that the famine's effect can be seen in the sharp increase in crude death rate (to approximately 9%) in 1900, a sharp drop in the crude birth rate (down to 3%) in 1901, and a "compensating" increase in the birth rate (to approximately 5.5%) in 1902.[31] Public health physician Mark E. Keim considers the mortality in India in the year 1900 to be 1.25 million, and the drought in India that year to be the fifth worst by mortality in the 20th century.[32] Environment and development scholar Arun Agrawal argues that on account of the more liberal government relief in 1898 and 1899, "the number of people who died was far fewer" than in the famine of 1896–97 (whose mortality he puts at nearly 5 million).[33] However anthropologist Fagan considers the famine in 1899–1900 to be the worst on record, suggesting that although the viceroy, Lord Curzon "led the public appeals for humanitarian aid, ... (t)he initiatives from his government ... were grossly inadequate."[34]

Other estimates are by nonfiction-ecology author Michael Allaby who states that 1.25 million starved and 2 million died of disease in the famine of 1899–1900;[35] and by historian Martin Gilbert, who in his Routledge Atlas of British History puts the mortality for this famine in northern India to be 2 million.[36] Among contemporaneous accounts, a 1901 estimate published in The Lancet, put the excess mortality, from "starvation or to the diseases arising therefrom," in India in the decade between 1891 and 1901 to be 19 million.[37][38] The last estimate has been cited by scholar Mike Davis, who further interprets a number of sources, including Lancet, to estimate the total famine mortality in India between 1876 and 1902 to be between 12.2 million and 29.3 million.[39] However, historian Vasant Kaiwar, interprets many of the same sources, but not the Lancet, to estimate the famine mortality for the period 1876–1900 to be between 11.2 million and 19.3 million.[28] According to poverty and development scholar Dan Banic, it was felt after the famine that the Indian famine codes from the 1880s were inadequate,[40] and a new famine commission, appointed after the famine, brought out a revised famine code in 1901.[41] This code was used in one form or another for many decades of the 20th century.[42]

According to the Imperial Gazetteer of India, published in 1907, by the British government's India Office, overall, in British areas only, approximately one million individuals died of starvation or accompanying disease; in addition, as a result of acute shortage of fodder, cattle in the millions perished in the famine.[2] The devastation of livestock was more specifically recorded in regional official estimates. These, according to economic historian Neil Charlesworth, in western India, during the famine of 1899–1900, put cattle deaths at 2 million.[43] As, in some parts of western India, it typically took eight to ten oxen to plough and harrow the hard ground, both cultivation capacity and agricultural income were drastically reduced for many years afterward.[44] Consequently, unlike after the Great Famine of 1876–78, the population, both human and livestock, did not quickly bounce back after the famine of 1899–1900.[45] In the description of Charlesworth, "In Dholka taluk of Ahmedabad, for example, the population in 1911 was lower than at any previous census since the middle of the nineteenth century, whilst, at the other end of the Presidency, in Belgaum taluk the population of 1911 was lower by over 8,000 than that of 1891. These falls, however, were typically matched, and even exceeded, in the worst hit areas of the Deccan, by heavy decline in numbers of agricultural stock. ... The consequences of this for cultivation may have been grave."[45]


A memorial plaque is erected in a compound of I P Mission church in Prantij, Gujarat which cites a well in which 300 children who died in famine were buried. The plaque reads, "the children will be never hungry again".[46]

In popular culture[edit]

Manvini Bhavai (1947), a Gujarati novel by Pannalal Patel, is set in the period of famine, locally known as the Chhappaniyo Dukal (The Famine of Samvat 1956).[47] It was adapted into Gujarati film in 1993.[48]

See also[edit]



  1. "In the later nineteenth century there was a series of disastrous crop failures in India leading not only to starvation but to epidemics. Most were regional, but the death toll could be huge. Thus, to take only some of the worst famines for which the death rate is known, some 800,000 died in the North West Provinces, Punjab, and Rajasthan in 1837–38; perhaps 2 million in the same region in 1860–61; nearly a million in different areas in 1866–67; 4.3 million in widely spread areas in 1876–78, an additional 1.2 million in the North West Provinces and Kashmir in 1877–78; and, worst of all, over 5 million in a famine that affected a large population of India in 1896–97. In 1899–1900 more than a million were thought to have died, conditions being worse because of the shortage of food following the famines only two years earlier. Thereafter the only major loss of life through famine was in 1943 under exceptional wartime conditions.(p. 132)"[6]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Imperial Gazetteer of India vol. III 1907, p. 491
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Imperial Gazetteer of India vol. III 1907, p. 492
  3. Drèze 1995, p. 75
  4. 4.0 4.1 Attwood 2005, p. 2072
  5. 5.0 5.1 McAlpin 1979, p. 146
  6. 6.0 6.1 Fieldhouse 1996, p. 132.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Fagan 2009, p. 13.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 Dyson 1991a, p. 15
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Dyson 1991a, p. 17
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Bouma & van der Kay 1996, p. 90
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Bouma & van der Kay 1996, p. 93
  12. Christophers, R. (1911) "Malaria in the Punjab" in Scientific memoirs by officers of the medical and sanitary departments. Government of India, Superintendent Government Printing, Calcutta., quoted in Bouma & van der Kay 1996, p. 93
  13. Report on the Famine in the Central Provinces in 1899–1900, volume 1, Nagpur (1901)., quoted in Dyson 1991a, p. 16
  14. 14.0 14.1 Dyson 1991a, p. 16
  15. Report on the Famine in the Bombay Presidency, 1899–1902, volume 1, Bombay (1903)., quoted in Dyson 1991a, p. 17
  16. C.A.H. Townsend, Final repor of thirds revised revenue settlement of Hisar district from 1905–1910, Gazetteer of Department of Revenue and Disaster Management, Haryana, point 22, page 11.
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 Hardiman 1996, p. 125
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 18.3 18.4 Hardiman 1996, p. 126
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 19.3 19.4 19.5 Hardiman 1996, pp. 133–134
  20. Quoted in Hardiman 1996, p. 133
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 Hardiman 1996, pp. 145–146
  22. 22.0 22.1 McAlpin 1979, p. 157
  23. 23.0 23.1 23.2 23.3 23.4 23.5 McAlpin 1979, pp. 153–155
  24. Findlay-Shirras, G. (1924) Report on an Enquiry into Agricultural Wages in the Bombay Presidency, Government of Bombay, Labour Office, pp. 64–66. quoted in McAlpin 1979, p. 156
  25. 25.0 25.1 25.2 25.3 25.4 25.5 McAlpin 1979, p. 156
  26. Fieldhouse 1996, p. 132
  27. Seavoy 1986, p. 242.
  28. 28.0 28.1 28.2 Kaiwar 2016, p. 100.
  29. Maharatna 1996, p. 15.
  30. Chamberlain 2006, p. 72.
  31. Chamberlain 2006, pp. 72–73.
  32. Keim 2015, p. 42.
  33. Agrawal 2013, p. 415.
  34. Fagan 2009, p. 12.
  35. Allaby 2005, p. 21.
  36. Gilbert 2003, p. 89.
  37. The effect of famines on the population of India, The Lancet, Vol. 157, No. 4059, 15 June 1901, pp. 1713–1714;
    Davis, Mike (2001). Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World. Verso. p. 7. ISBN 978-1859847398.
  38. Sven Beckert (2015). Empire of Cotton: A Global History. Random House Incorporated. p. 337. ISBN 978-0-375-71396-5.
  39. Davis 2001, p. 7.
  40. Banic 2007, p. 56.
  41. Banic 2007, pp. 56–57.
  42. Banic 2007, p. 57.
  43. Charlesworth 2002, p. 158.
  44. Charlesworth 2002, pp. 156–157.
  45. 45.0 45.1 Charlesworth 2002, p. 156.
  46. પ્રાંતિજ ખાતે છપ્પનીયા દુષ્કાળની યાદ તાજી કરાવતુ સ્મારક [A memorial in Prantij remembering the famine of Samvat fifty-six] (in ગુજરાતી). Divya Bhaskar. 25 February 2017. Retrieved 28 May 2021.
  47. Yôsepha Mekavāna; Rita Kothari (2004). The Stepchild. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-566624-3.
  48. Nalini Natarajan; Emmanuel Sampath Nelson (1996). Handbook of Twentieth-century Literatures of India. London: Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 117. ISBN 978-0-313-28778-7.

Works cited[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Ambirajan, S. (1976), "Malthusian Population Theory and Indian Famine Policy in the Nineteenth Century", Population Studies, 30 (1): 5–14, doi:10.2307/2173660, PMID 11630514
  • Arnold, David; Moore, R. I. (1991), Famine: Social Crisis and Historical Change (New Perspectives on the Past), Wiley-Blackwell. Pp. 164, ISBN 0-631-15119-2
  • Baker, David (1991), "State policy, the market economy, and tribal decline: The Central Provinces, 1861–1920", Indian Economic and Social History Review, 28: 341–370, doi:10.1177/001946469102800401
  • Bhatia, B. M. (1991), Famines in India: A Study in Some Aspects of the Economic History of India With Special Reference to Food Problem, 1860–1990, Stosius Inc/Advent Books Division. Pp. 383, ISBN 81-220-0211-0
  • Dutt, Romesh Chunder (2005) [1900], Open Letters to Lord Curzon on Famines and Land Assessments in India, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. Ltd (reprinted by Adamant Media Corporation), ISBN 1-4021-5115-2
  • Dyson, Tim (1991b), "On the Demography of South Asian Famines: Part II", Population Studies, 45 (2): 279–297, doi:10.1080/0032472031000145446, JSTOR 2174784, PMID 11622922
  • Ghose, Ajit Kumar (1982), "Food Supply and Starvation: A Study of Famines with Reference to the Indian Subcontinent", Oxford Economic Papers, New Series, 34 (2): 368–389
  • Hall-Matthews, David (2008), "Inaccurate Conceptions: Disputed Measures of Nutritional Needs and Famine Deaths in Colonial India", Modern Asian Studies, 42 (1): 1–24, doi:10.1017/S0026749X07002892
  • Hill, Christopher V. (1991), "Philosophy and Reality in Riparian South Asia: British Famine Policy and Migration in Colonial North India", Modern Asian Studies, 25 (2): 263–279, doi:10.1017/s0026749x00010672
  • Klein, Ira (1973), "Death in India, 1871-1921", The Journal of Asian Studies, 32 (4): 639–659, doi:10.2307/2052814, JSTOR 2052814
  • Klein, Ira (1984), "When the rains failed: famines, relief, and mortality in British India", Indian Economic and Social History Review, 21: 185–214, doi:10.1177/001946468402100203
  • McAlpin, Michelle B. (1979), "Dearth, Famine, and Risk: The Changing Impact of Crop Failures in Western India, 1870–1920", The Journal of Economic History, 39 (1): 143–157, doi:10.1017/S0022050700096352, JSTOR 2118916
  • Roy, Tirthankar (2006), The Economic History of India, 1857–1947, 2nd edition, New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Pp. xvi, 385, ISBN 0-19-568430-3
  • Sen, A. K. (1982), Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, Oxford: Clarendon Press. Pp. ix, 257, ISBN 0-19-828463-2
  • Tomlinson, B. R. (1993), The Economy of Modern India, 1860-1970 (The New Cambridge History of India, III.3), Cambridge and London: Cambridge University Press., ISBN 0-521-58939-8
  • Washbrook, David (1994), "The Commercialization of Agriculture in Colonial India: Production, Subsistence and Reproduction in the 'Dry South', c. 1870–1930", Modern Asian Studies, 28 (1): 129–164, doi:10.1017/s0026749x00011720, JSTOR 312924