On Late 19th Century Indian Famines under British Rule

I’ve been researching this topic intensively over the past couple days and feel as though if I don’t type a post on it today, all my work shall be for nought, as my browser is piling up with tabs at a pace sufficient to prevent me from typing this post after today.

From some point in the first half of the twentieth century to 1990, Great Britain’s GDP (PPP) exceeded that of India. This was despite a much larger population and stronger population growth in the latter than in the former, the latter being ruled by the former, and a re-industrialization in the latter following an 18th and early 19th century de-industrialization. This curious absence of economic development despite the presence of British institutions shows the truth of Adam Smith’s claim that “The difference between the genius of the British constitution which protects and governs North America, and that of the mercantile company which oppresses and domineers in the East Indies, cannot perhaps be better illustrated than by the different state of those countries”. For reasons behind this, see Acemoglu 2001. In the late 19th century British Raj, tax revenues as a percentage of income were twice as high as in the U.K. And, indeed, during the first half of the British Raj, India was wreaked with famine so severe, the only only reliable source of food men had was in prison.

Which makes it all the more interesting why, even during the darkest days of the Indian famines of 1876-9, 1896-1897, and 1900-1901, Indian exports of foodgrains to the U.K. continued to constitute roughly 2% of total Indian grain production -enough to feed six million Indians per year in the same quantity they were commonly fed at the time. This was greater than the amount they are fed by foodgrains today, though India has been a consistent net exporter of foodgrains since about 1990 after being a consistent net importer of the same since independence, part of this, obviously, being a result of a dietary shift towards superior goods. The gap between deaths and food exports in the 1876-9 famine was even greater than that in the more severe ones of the 1890s and 1900s. Indian per capita foodgrain production also rose strongly during decades characterized by famine while declining in the decades after 1920, when Indian famines also disappeared, reaching a nadir in the years around independence. Several things may account for this phenomenon- the transformation of India from a net exporter to a net importer of foodstuffs by the 1930s, the revival of the Indian manufacturing sector, the end of the strong El Nino disasters, and the end of the process of the expansion of the cultivation of famine-vulnerable marginal lands.

No doubt this export of grain when there should have been imports took place due to lack of sufficient industrialization -anecdotally, despite British rule, it was still difficult for Indians to acquire European capital. The debt payments to Britain, which hurt, but did not totally prevent, equalization of Indian with world grain prices via inflow of specie, something essential to prevent some grim humor, also couldn’t have helped. Aid to the poor for the whole of India was generally less than half that for the U.K. in nominal currency, despite the latter having less than a sixth of the population of the former. And the vast majority of the British famine aid was spent not on actually delivering any food, but on building railroads. And, indeed, the Indian famines were perfectly soluble by a sufficient amount of British aid; the main victims of the famine were those unemployed by lack of employment opportunities to work the land or to supply those refocusing their purchases on consumption of foodgrains with their goods and services. This manifested itself as both a labor supply shock due to a rising reservation wage and a labor demand shock due to reduced nominal demand for farm and artisan labor.

The effect of the British railroads on Indian famines was decidedly mixed. While the rise of the railroad did lead to increased co-movement of prices throughout India, which might well have made famine toll more severe by raising prices strongly throughout the land, rather than to near-infinite heights in only some parts of it, as well as the elimination of actual shortages (in the economist’s sense) of grain, it also permitted the grain export trade out of India to rise, expand, and continue, even during times of the most dire famine. There were no foodgrain exports out of India before the rise of the railroads. Indian wheat exports, constituting 13% of Indian wheat production and 23% of British wheat imports in 1886, were quite significant, even in the famine of 1876-79. Indian rice exports and internal rice production, however, were much greater at the time, with Indian rice, due to its low price and quality, constituting the majority of rice sold in Europe, nearly half of it being used to produce alcohol, and much of the rice sold in South America during the famine of 1876-9. The rise of the railroads also permitted grain to be exported from already famished Indian provinces to others, with more purchasing power and different comparative advantages.

The stupidity of wasting food by making work a requirement for receiving welfare in order to prevent sloth does not need to be pointed out, of course. Especially in the 1876-9 famine, British famine aid was marked by stupidity.

Now, how, exactly, would Britain have been able to prevent the famines that afflicted India during the late 19th century? Firstly, ban food exports. That would have kept enough food in the country to save millions of lives without even much of an effort on Britain’s part. But, to prevent that food from being consumed solely by the unfamished,  Britain needed to do much more than just ban food exports; prices would have still skyrocketed even with this action due to internal crop failure. Consumption-side cash grants to the unemployed might have been disastrous and counterproductive, as would have price controls, which, while raising affordability of food for the poor, would have resulted in shortages (in the economist’s sense). What needs to be understood is that the demand for food in India was highly price-insensitive -the nominal revenue of able producers strongly spiked with price increases resulting from food supply shocks. The price sensitivity of Indian food supply is less clear. What was needed was to pay more producers to import grain into the famished provinces to sell at a price level set by the British government. This supply-side subsidy would have successfully lowered prices and prevented Indian famines by lowering producers’ marginal cost.

faminesd
A supply and demand graph of a typical late 19th century Indian famine.

Obviously, structural changes, especially superior institutions, greater market integration, and faster industrialization, would have been superior to all this. But the conditions were not yet ripe for massive outsourcing and offshoring to be profitable for British business and the British government. Had they been, it would have led to changing government policy to promote export-led industrialization and economic development, as actually happened in Puerto Rico and other territories imperialist powers held on to in the age of independence from imperialism.

How does one rank the cruelty of these famines in comparison to those of the Communists? I believe that, overall, the British famines in India were comparable to those of Stalin in the southern Soviet Union. While Stalin did more for the Soviet Union than the British did for India (the Soviet economy was roughly twice the size of that of India at Indian independence; they were roughly comparable in size when Stalin came to power), and the famines under him were smaller than those of British India terms of pure human cost, the famines under Stalin did end up killing a larger proportion of the population in the affected areas than those under the British Empire (with exceptions in the 18th century). Stalin does get a demerit for covering up the famines going on under him in order to avoid embarrassment, while the British at no point did anything of the sort. The 1959-61 famine of Mao, meanwhile, was completely inexcusable; it took place during the early phases of the Green Revolution, when China could have imported millions of tons of grain, it took place over a background of declining mortality since the founding of the PRC, it was covered up by Mao in order to avoid embarrassment, and it was partly caused by Mao’s Great Leap Forward, which should have received special scrutiny of its results from the Chinese leadership, not the cover-up of its failures that it did. Those of Hitler were certainly worse, if not in raw human cost, then in intent. Those of Pol Pot, imperial Japan, and Kim Jong-Il deserve their own special place in hell.

 

Author: pithom

An atheist with an interest in the history of the ancient Near East. Author of the Against Jebel al-Lawz Wordpress blog.

7 thoughts on “On Late 19th Century Indian Famines under British Rule”

  1. Amateur economic historian pseudoerasmus pointed me to the papers Railroads and the Demise of Famine in Colonial India and CAN OPENNESS MITIGATE THE EFFECTS OF WEATHER SHOCKS? EVIDENCE FROM INDIA’S FAMINE ERA, which show districts being connected to railroads did have an effect of reduction in famine intensity in those districts: “But after a district
    obtained railroad access, famine intensity fell significantly (ie, γ2 < 0)
    and the responsiveness of famine intensity to rainfall fell significantly (ie, γ3 > 0) to a level that is precisely estimated yet economically insignificant.” However, these papers focus on the much more boring fact that railroads lead to a strong reduction of the correlation between local rainfall and local famine, but we already knew that -would you believe that railroads are successful at moving things? Did I not explicitly write in this post

    While the rise of the railroad did lead to increased co-movement of prices throughout India, which might well have made famine toll more severe by raising prices strongly throughout the land, rather than to near-infinite heights in only some parts of it, —>as well as the elimination of actual shortages (in the economist’s sense) of grain<—, it also permitted the grain export trade out of India to rise, expand, and continue, even during times of the most dire famine.

    ?

    Rather, if railroads led to more famine (more verifiable form of hypothesis), we would find an increase in famine intensity after a district obtained railroad access, but a collapse of the correlation between local famines and local rainfall, with famines now being a result of external market prices, not internal production.

    In the less verifiable form of the hypothesis, we would find a decrease in famine intensity after a district obtained railroad access, but the nationwide market integration would result in higher prices resulting from a supply shock in one region spreading throughout India, resulting in more famine deaths throughout India than had no market integration occurred, although in the vast majority of cases fewer deaths in the regions suffering directly from the supply shocks. The exceptions to this rule would occur if the region still had a comparative advantage in exporting grain even when it was especially wreaked by famine, which would be a plausible scenario in only a minority of cases, to put it mildly.

    And, in any case, it’s clear from pseudoerasmus’s links that in the 1896-1901 period, the five-year period in Indian history which had the most famine deaths (IIRC), there were plenty enough railroads to relieve the most famine-wreaked regions of India, which were located just East of Goa, in the middle of plenty of railroad connections. Though I do see a clear visual correlation of Indian famine expansion and Indian railroad network expansion, the papers pseudoerasmus referenced do make me accept that this correlation is, at least mostly, not, in fact, causation.

  2. “we would find an increase in famine intensity after a district obtained railroad access, but a collapse of the correlation between local famines and local rainfall, with famines now being a result of external market prices, not internal production.”

    No. Empirically, 19th century Indian famines were induced by a combination of local nominal wage collapses and grain price rises. None took place purely as a result of national price rises.

    we would find a decrease in famine intensity after a district obtained railroad access, but the nationwide market integration would result in higher prices resulting from a supply shock in one region spreading throughout India, resulting in more famine deaths throughout India than had no market integration occurred

    No. Famine deaths became more concentrated geographically over time (from the 1870s to 1890s).

    And, in any case, it’s clear from pseudoerasmus’s links that in the 1896-1901 period, the five-year period in Indian history which had the most famine deaths (IIRC), there were plenty enough railroads to relieve the most famine-wreaked regions of India

    No. Look again at the 1900 rail map and the 1890s famine map. In the most famine-intense areas, there are clusters of districts completely unserved by rail. This means, even if the grain were released at the nearest depot, it would have to travel by bullock carts to the actual famine areas.

    1. “No. Empirically, 19th century Indian famines were induced by a combination of local nominal wage collapses and grain price rises. None took place purely as a result of national price rises.”

      -Plausible, and I defer to your expertise on this. Though I would have preferred a source.

      “No. Famine deaths became more concentrated geographically over time (from the 1870s to 1890s).”

      -Even relative to no-railroad counterfactual? And how do you explain this?

      “In the most famine-intense areas, there are clusters of districts completely unserved by rail.”
      -Where, specifically?

      And how long would the transport by ox carts taken? Oxen move ~12 miles per day IIRC, less if the terrain’s worse.

  3. Famine was also related to the failure of cash crops such as cotton, particularly in western India. The collapse in local income which preceded famine was usually caused either by a poor local cotton harvest, or a decline in world cotton prices.

    There were 2 major grain staples (rice and wheat) and 2 minor staples (millet and sorghum). The minor staples were more important in western and central India and the least important in the eastern states. Also, the poorer sections of society tended to have a larger share of the minor staples in their diet.

    In famine years, the prices of all 4 food grains would rise across the country, but at quite different rates and with quite different patterns.

    What ever the national average price, wheat in districts without rail was on average more expensive than in districts with rail. However, the opposite pattern held for rice until 1900: rice prices were higher in districts with rail than without, until the pattern flipped after 1900.

    Railway access allowed a district to engage in substitution of the relatively less expensive grain for the relatively more expensive one.

    Moreover, exports were sensitive to fluctuations in the ratio of local to foreign prices. When there was a fall in domestic output, exports would in fact fall — just not enough and not fast enough. (This was the same in the Irish famine.) See Ravaillion (1987).

    1. “Famine was also related to the failure of cash crops such as cotton, particularly in western India. The collapse in local income which preceded famine was usually caused either by a poor local cotton harvest, or a decline in world cotton prices.”

      -Isn’t that a point for the view that India’s globalization on the UK’s terms helped exacerbate famine? And I’ll have to look into that; looks interesting.

      And, it’s true, the most famine-ridden areas in the 1890 and 1870s seem to be outside the core rice and wheat growing areas and produced a greater percentage of sorghum than the rest of the country.

      “What ever the national average price, wheat in districts without rail was on average more expensive than in districts with rail. However, the opposite pattern held for rice until 1900: rice prices were higher in districts with rail than without, until the pattern flipped after 1900.”

      -Why do you think that was?

      “When there was a fall in domestic output, exports would in fact fall — just not enough and not fast enough.”

      -True. But you’d expect exports to be much more responsive to falls in domestic production than they actually are, wouldn’t you? Why the non-responsiveness? Currency scarcity in India?

  4. tangential, but related: I need narrative (other than CHURCHILL’s CHOICE) and firsthand sources on the 1942-43 Terror Famine in Assam/E. Bengal. Anyone know of such? Any leads much appreciated

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