Oct 2, 2020 in History

Late Victorian Holocausts

In the late 19th century, England had a considerable number of colonies, which provided the empire with the raw materials needed for its continued growth. In these colonies, the viceroys were various Englishmen under the overall rule of Queen of England. They were responsible for the various policies, created in their colonies with an aim to run them. One of these colonies was India.   In this part of the century, India was hit by widespread famine, which destroyed the human resources that were the main labor force in the colony. Moreover, this famine became one of the greatest humanitarian disasters experienced in the century and led to the death of a large population of India. This paper discusses the issues and the policies that arose during the famine and made it extremely severe. 


The monsoon was the major climatic condition relied upon in the sphere of agriculture throughout the whole India. In summer of 1876, the monsoon had given very low precipitation, and, therefore, the considerable amount of  precipitation was expected in winter. However, this was not the case. Drought and crop shortage led to massive grain riots in various regions of India. Furthermore, nationwide outbursts happened because of the high prices of food. The semi-arid interior of the country became set for the disaster: peasants who have waited for winter rains now began fleeing their homes. In the districts of Deccan, the worsening of trade started spreading misery and, consequently, extreme discontent among the citizens. Lastly, local food security had also been reduced by forests’ enclosing and the displacement of the gram by cotton. 

Various anomalies existed in the system led to further development of the famine in India. Thus, despite good harvest in the previous three years, no stock was kept in case of famine: much of the surplus was exported to England. In addition, the railroads that had been built to safeguard against famine were used by the merchants to move grains from famine-stricken provinces to their central depots. This was done for hoarding the harvest as well as protecting the grain from the rioting population. Moreover, the telegraph, a new technology that enabled communication, allowed the merchants in many different towms to raiseup the prices for food simultaneously, regardless of local market needs. Lastly, the British system allowed various stakeholders to control the prices, and, therefore, anyone with the capital could join the grain speculation. All mentioned-above anomalies have led to high food prices, crossing out displaced weavers, outcast laborers, poor peasants and sharecroppers, who could not purchase food anymore. This inability to purchase food was also aided by the depreciation of the rupee due to the new International Gold standard that India was yet to adopt. This raised the cost of imports and the price explosion inside the country, which finally resulted in the massive starvation of the poor.

Another reason for the massive starvation in India was the improper policy of the central government headed by Lord Lytton. The government under his leadership opposed Buckingham’s moves, and, thus, its officers had to gather large amounts of grain in stores, which affected the situation in the market even more. Moreover, Lord Lytton was completely absorbed in organizing the Imperial Assembly to proclaim the Queen of England new Empress of India. In doing so, the viceroy conducted a great feast for sixty-eight thousand maharajas, satraps, and officials, lasting for a week. This celebration was so expensive that by its end, approximately ten thousand people had starved to death. 

After the celebration, Lord Lytton finally noticed the famine but regarded it as the distraction from the plan to preempt Russia and start a war with the Emir of Afghanistan. Furthermore, Lytton had a burning desire to put his name in a great war and wanted his plan to be funded by Indian taxpayers instead of English ones. Importantly, most of the policies set by the viceroy were attributed to opium usage and incipient insanity: since a nervous breakdown in 1868, the leader of the central government started experiencing the regular lapses of despair and megalomania. Mentally ill Lytton lectured Buckingham that to save the situation, the export had to be stimulated as well as the market forces manipulation and limit consumption instead of stocking grain had to be adopted. Therefore, between 1877 and 1878, grain merchants preferred exporting grain to selling it to the starving population. Lord Lytton believed that he was balancing budget against already doomed lives and those devalued of any civil human quality. Moreover, to have his actions supported in England, he argued that India had a habit of growing its population more than the food it produced. Thus, the famine was the effective cure for overpopulation in India, and its mitigation would have enhanced the evils brought by overpopulation. 

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To ensure their survival during continued drought and crop losses, Indian peasants started selling their belongings, which included field implements, bullocks, and parts of houses such as doors, roofing and window frames. Due to the sale of all means of production, the peasants in Deccan became unable to take advantage of the rain that fell in April and May in 1877. Most of them died in August, and millions more were acutely malnourished. Another reason of starvation was the high taxation and the extortionate debt facing the peasants. To curb the effects of the famine, the governing body organized the relief works for malnourished people who already could not do hard manual labor being too weak because of the lack of food.. However, the wages in these sites were too low. In other districts, the people willing to work were unemployed, and no fodder was stockpiled to feed the cattle. Finally, no grain was stored to feed the young and aged population. 

Due to the high unemployment level and the high price of grain, the hunger started being experienced even in the areas where precipitation was considered normal. This resulted in peasants being in the relief works provided by the government. In the previous years, Sir Richard Temple had combated starvation by importing rice and offering relief works to the population. Nevertheless, Temple came under severe criticism for extravagance and allowing the wages paid to the laborers to be dictated by the market food prices and the laborers’ food needs instead of the government’s directions. To save his image, Temple started using Lytton’s method of ‘proper management of money during famine.’ Thus, in eastern Deccan, Sir Temple removed about half a million people from relief work. He also forced Madras to require the starving laborers to walk to the relief camps, which were far away from their localities to provide labor for canals and railroad projects. Additionally, famished people were prohibited from seeking relief until they could be able to perform a range of works. Temple also necessitated the cutting of the laborers’ food rations. Apart from the rationed food not providing enough energy to the workers, proteins in these meals were absent, which led to the body degeneration. This came to be known as the “Temple Wage.” Finally, private relief donations that could fix the market price of grain were also prohibited. In essence, the heavy labor, the failure of the monsoon and high grain prices transformed the relief camps into the extermination camps filled with starvation and disease. 

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To show resistance against the distance test, the reduction of rice and the policies set by Lytton and Temple, many laborers and peasants started protesting in the relief camps. It began in January 1877 by some families refusing to march to the newly developed relief camps where men were separated from their wives and children. Afterward, huge numbers of protesters left the camps due to mistreatment by the supervisors and low wages. People called their move the “relief strike.” Other classes of Indian society, such as merchants and other professionals, joined the countrywide protests. The Indian press also took up the issue and wrote about huge starvations and relief strikes that continued to happen in the country. This made the government relax its measure and allowed loopholes such as reduced workloads and bigger food rations that allowed reducing the mass mortality. 

The entitlement approach is a strategy employed to explain how famine occurs. This approach consists of three categories. Firstly, the endowment set refers to a set of resources legally owned by a specific member of the society; that conforms to established practices and norms. These resources are either tangible assets such as farming equipment, land, and domestic animals, or intangible assets such as labor and skills possessed by the mentioned party. Secondly, the entitlement set refers to the combination of all possible resources that a member of the population can acquire using his/her endowment set. This can be in the form of exchange of resources or services offered by the said party. Lastly, entitlement mapping refers to the relationship between the entitlement set and the endowment set. 

According to the entitlement approach, famine is not caused by food shortage but rather the lack of entitlement. Thus, the Indian famine was caused by the following reasons: production failure, loss of endowment, failure of exchange, and failure of the transfer. Due to the lack of monsoon precipitation, the crops planted did not do well, and consequently, there was no harvest. Therefore, peasants did not have the minimum amount of grain to conduct any exchange. Another reason that caused the famine in India was the loss of endowment. After a failed harvest, peasants started selling their property such as farming equipment, bullocks, and building materials, and, thus, became unable to gather harvest when heavy rains finally came. Another reason of starvation was the failure of the exchange: due to the high prices of grain, the peasants could not afford to buy grain having little wages that they got as the payment for their services. Finally, the last reason for the massive famine in India was a failure of the transfer. The peasants were unable to buy food and, later, started starving. As a result, they were unable to render any services to other people requiring them.

In conclusion, India underwent a massive famine in the last part of the 19th century due to several reasons. The main reason was the poor policy set and employed by the central government. Policies primarily included famine that was seen as the cure for Indian overpopulation and the means to decrease  wages. To clearly understand the steps of the development of the famine, the endowment approach can be used. It states that famine is not caused by the lack of food but by the lack of endowment.


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