Great Famine of 1876–78

Great Famine of 1876–78

The Great Famine of 1876–78 (also the Southern India famine of 1876–78 or the Madras famine of 1877) was a famine in India that began in 1876 and affected south and southwestern India (Madras, Mysore, Hyderabad, and Bombay) for a period of two years. In its second year famine also spread north to some regions of the Central Provinces and the United Provinces, and to a small area in the Punjab.Harvnb|Imperial Gazetteer of India vol. III|1907|p=488] The famine ultimately covered an area of 257,000 square miles and caused distress to a population totaling 58,500,000. The death toll is estimated to be between 6.1 million to 10.3 million people. Davis, Mike. Late Victorian Holocausts. 1. Verso, 2000. ISBN 1859847390 pg 7]

Preceding events

The "Great Famine" was preceded by an intense drought (or "crop failure") in the Deccan Plateau. [Harvnb|Roy|2006|p=361] Earlier, after the Bihar famine of 1873–74, in which mortality was avoided, the Government of Bengal and its Lieutenant-Governor, Sir Richard Temple, were criticized for excessive expenditure, which had included the costs of importing rice from Burma and providing generous charitable relief. [Harvnb|Imperial Gazetteer of India vol. III|1907|p=488, Harvnb|Hall-Matthews|1996|pp=217-219] Sensitive to any renewed accusations of excess in 1876, Temple, who was now Famine Commissioner for the Government of India, insisted not only on a policy of "laissez faire" with respect to the trade in grain, [Harvnb|Hall-Matthews|1996|p=217] but also on stricter standards of qualification for relief and on more meager relief rations. Two kinds of relief were offered: "relief works" for able-bodied men, women, and working children, and gratuitous (or charitable) relief for small children, the elderly, and the indigent. [Harvnb|Imperial Gazetteer of India vol. III|1907|pp=477–483]

Famine and relief

The insistence on more rigorous tests for qualification, however, led to strikes by "relief workers" in the Bombay presidency. Furthermore, in January 1877, Temple suggested that in Madras and Bombay, a reduced wage (the "Temple wage") be adopted in the relief works;Harvnb|Hall-Matthews|2008|p=5] this consisted of Lb to kg|num = 1|abbr=no|precision=2|wiki=yes of grain plus one anna for a man, and a slightly reduced amount for a woman or working child, [Harvnb|Washbrook|1994|p=145, Harvnb|Imperial Gazetteer of India vol. III|1907|p=489] for a "long day of hard labour without shade or rest."Harvnb|Hall-Matthews|1996|p=219] The rationale behind the reduced wage, which was in keeping with a prevailing belief of the time, was that any excessive payment might create "dependency" (or "demoralization" in contemporaneous usage) among the famine-afflicted population.

However, Temple's recommendation was opposed by W. R. Cornish, a physician who was the Sanitary Commissioner for the Madras Presidency.Harvnb|Arnold|1994|pp=7-8] Cornish had investigated prison diets in India a decade earlier and was of the view that a minimum of convert|1.5|lb|kg|2|abbr=off|lk=on of grain and, in addition, supplements in the form of vegetables and protein were needed for a healthy diet, especially if, in return, the individuals were performing strenuous labor in the relief works. Eventually, in March 1877, the provincial government of Madras, moved by Cornish's argument, agreed on a compromise ration of convert|1.25|lb|kg|2|abbr=off|lk=off of grain and convert|1.5|oz|g|0|abbr=off|lk=on of protein in the form of "daal" (pulses), but not before more people had succumbed to the famine. In other parts of India, such as the United Provinces, where relief was meager, the resulting mortality was high. Harvnb|Imperial Gazetteer of India vol. III|1907|p=489] In the autumn and winter of 1878, an epidemic of malaria killed many more who were already weakened by malnutrition.

All in all, the Government of India spent Rs. 8 1/3 crores in relieving 700 million units (1 unit = relief for 1 person for 1 day) in British India and, in addition, another Rs. 72 lakhs in relieving 72 million units in the princely states of Mysore and Hyderabad. Revenue (tax) payments to the amount of Rs. 60 lakhs were either not enforced or postponed until the following year, and charitable donations from Great Britain and the colonies totaled Rs. 84 lakhs. However, this cost was small "per capita"; for example, the expenditure incurred in the Bombay Presidency was less than one-fifth of that in the Bihar famine of 1873–74, which affected a smaller area and did not last as long.


The "Great Famine" was to have a lasting political impact on events in India; among the British administrators in India who were unsettled by the official reactions to the famine and, in particular by the stifling of the official debate about the best form of famine relief, were William Wedderburn and A. O. Hume.Harvnb|Hall-Matthews|2008|p=24] Less than a decade later, they would found the Indian National Congress and, in turn, influence a generation of nationalists such as Dadabhai Naoroji and Romesh Chunder Dutt for whom the "Great Famine" would become a cornerstone of the economic critique of the British Raj.


The resulting mortality was exceedingly high; in the British areas alone, 5,250,000 people died of starvation or disease and between 6.1 million to 10.3 million people died, in total. Davis, Mike. Late Victorian Holocausts. 1. Verso, 2000. ISBN 1859847390 pg 7] . The overall death toll is estimated to be between 6.1 million to 10.3 million people. Davis, Mike. Late Victorian Holocausts. 1. Verso, 2000. ISBN 1859847390 pg 7] The excessive mortality of the "Great Famine" and the renewed questions of "relief and protection" that were asked in its wake, led directly to the constituting of the Famine Commission of 1880 and to the eventual adoption of the Provisional Famine Code in British India. After the famine, a large number of agricultural laborers and handloom weavers in South India emigrated to British tropical colonies to work as indentured laborers in plantations. [Harvnb|Roy|2006|p=362] The excessive mortality in the famine also neutralized the natural population growth in the Bombay and Madras presidencies during the decade between the first and second censuses of British India in 1871 and 1881 respectively. [Harvnb|Roy|2006|p=363]

ee also

*Famines, Epidemics, and Public Health in the British Raj
*Timeline of major famines in India during British rule (1765 to 1947)
*Company rule in India
*Famine in India
*Drought in India



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