About Maximapedia


FAMINE (Lat. fames, hunger), extreme and general scarcity of food, causing distress and deaths from starvation among the population of a district or country. Famines have caused widespread suffering in all countries and ages. A list of the chief famines recorded by history is given farther on. The causes of famine are partly natural and partly artificial. Among the natural causes may be classed all failures of crops due to excess or defect of rainfall and other meteorological phenomena, or to the ravages of insects and vermin. Among the artificial causes may be classed war and economic errors in the production, transport and sale of food-stuffs.

The natural causes of famine are still mainly outside our control, though science enables agriculturists to combat them more successfully, and the improvement in means of transport allows a rich harvest in one land to supplement the defective crops in another. In tropical countries drought is the commonest cause of a failure in the harvest, and where great droughts are not uncommon - as in parts of India and Australia - the hydraulic engineer comes to the rescue by devising systems of water-storage and irrigation. It is less easy to provide against the evils of excessive rainfall and of frost, hail and the like. The experience of the French in Algiers shows that it is possible to stamp out a plague of locusts, such as is the greatest danger to the farmer in many parts of Argentina. But the ease with which food can nowadays be transported from one part of the world to another minimizes the danger of famine from natural causes, as we can hardly conceive that the whole food-producing area of the world should be thus affected at once.

The artificial causes of famine have mostly ceased to be operative on any large scale. Chief among them is war, which may cause a shortage of food-supplies, either by its direct ravages or by depleting the supply of agricultural labour. But only local famines are likely to arise from this cause. Legislative interference with agricultural operations or with the distribution of food-supplies, currency restrictions and failure of transport, which have all caused famines in the past, are unlikely thus to operate again; nor is it probable that the modern speculators who attempt to make "corners" in wheat could produce the evil effects contemplated in the old statutes against forestallers and regrators.

Such local famines as may occur in the 20th century will probably be attributable to natural causes. It is impossible to regulate the rainfall of any district, or wholly to supply its failure by any system of water-storage. Irrigation is better able to bring fertility to a naturally arid district than to avert the failure of crops in one which is naturally fertile. The true palliative of famine is to be found in the improvement of methods of transport, which make it possible rapidly to convey food from one district to another. But the efficiency of this preventive stops short at the point of saving human life. It cannot prevent a rise in prices, with the consequent suffering among the poor. Still, every year makes it less likely that the world will see a renewal of the great famines of the past, and it is only the countries where civilization is still backward that are in much danger of even a local famine.

Great Famines. - Amongst the great famines of history may be named the following: -

B.C. 436 - Famine at Rome, when thousands of starving people threw themselves into the Tiber.

A.D. 42 - Great famine in Egypt.

650 - Famine throughout India.

879 - Universal famine.

941, 1022
and 1033 - Great famines in India, in which entire provinces were depopulated and man was driven to cannibalism.

1005 - Famine in England.

1016 - Famine throughout Europe.

1064-1072 - Seven years' famine in Egypt.

1148-1159 - Eleven years' famine in India.

1162 - Universal famine.

1344-1345 - Great famine in India, when the Mogul emperor was unable to obtain the necessaries for his household. The famine continued for years and thousands upon thousands of people perished of want.

1396-1407 - The Durga Devi famine in India, lasting twelve years.

1586 - Famine in England which gave rise to the Poor Law system.

1661 - Famine in India, when not a drop of rain fell for two years.

1769-1770 - Great famine in Bengal, when a third of the population (10,000,000 persons) perished.

1783 - The Chalisa famine in India, which extended from the eastern edge of the Benares province to Lahore and Jammu.

1790-1792 - The Doji Bara, or skull famine, in India, so-called because the people died in such numbers that they could not be buried. According to tradition this was one of the severest famines ever known. It extended over the whole of Bombay into Hyderabad and affected the northern districts of Madras. Relief works were first opened during this famine in Madras.

1838 - Intense famine in North-West Provinces (United Provinces) of India; 800,000 perished.

1846-1847 - Famine in Ireland, due to the failure of the potato-crop. Grants were made by parliament amounting to £10,000,000.

1861 - Famine in North-West India.

1866 - Famine in Bengal and Orissa; one million perished.

1869 - Intense famine in Rajputana; one million and a half perished. The government initiated the policy of saving life.

1874 - Famine in Behar, India. Government relief in excess of the needs of the people.

1876-1878 - Famine in Bombay, Madras and Mysore; five millions perish. Relief insufficient.

1877-1878 - Severe famine in north China. Nine and a half millions said to have perished.

1887-1889 - Famine in China.

1891-1892 - Famine in Russia.

1897 - Famine in India. Government policy of saving life successful. Mansion House fund £550,000.

1899-1901 - Famine in India. One million people perished. Estimated loss to India £50,000,000. The government spent £10,000,000 on relief, and at one time there were 4,500,000 people on the relief works.

1905 - Famine in Russia.

Famines in India. - Owing to its tropical situation and its almost entire dependence upon the monsoon rains, India is more liable than any other country in the world to crop failures, which upon occasion deepen into famine. Every year sufficient rain falls in India to secure an abundant harvest if it were evenly distributed over the whole country; but as a matter of fact the distribution is so uneven and so uncertain that every year some district suffers from insufficient rainfall. In fact, famine is, to all intents and purposes, endemic in India, and is a problem to reckon with every year in some portion of that vast area. The people depend so entirely upon agriculture, and the harvest is so entirely destroyed by a single monsoon failure, that wherever a total failure occurs the landless labourer is immediately thrown out of work and remains out of work for the whole year. The question is thus one of lack of employment, rather than lack of food. The food is there, perhaps at a slightly enhanced price, but the unemployed labourer has no money to buy it. The problem is very much the same as that met by the British Poor Law system. Every year in England a poor rate of some £22,000,000 is expended for a population of 40 millions; while it is only in an exceptional year in India that £10,000,000 are spent on a population of 300 millions.

Famines seem to recur in India at periodical intervals, which have been held to be in some way dependent on the sun-spot period. Every five or ten years the annual scarcity widens its area and becomes a recognized famine; every fifty or a hundred years whole provinces are involved, loss of life becomes widespread, and a great famine is recorded. In the 140 years since Warren Hastings initiated British rule in India, there have been nineteen famines and five severe scarcities. For the period preceding British rule the records have not been so well preserved, but there is ample evidence to show that famine was just as frequent in its incidence and infinitely more deadly in its effects under the native rulers of India. In the great Bengal famine of 1769-1770, which occurred shortly after the foundation of British rule, but while the native officials were still in power, a third of the population, or ten millions out of thirty millions, perished. From this it may be guessed what occurred in the centuries under Mogul rule, when for years there was no rain, when famine lasted for three, four or twelve years, and entire cities were left without an inhabitant. In the famine of 1901, the worst of recent years, the loss of life in British districts was 3% of the population affected, as against 33% in the Bengal famine of 1770.

The native rulers of India seem to have made no effort to relieve the sufferings of their subjects in times of famine; and even down to 1866 the British government had no settled famine policy. In that year the Orissa famine awakened the public conscience, and the commission presided over by Sir George Campbell laid down the lines upon which subsequent famine-relief was organized. In the Rajputana famine of 1869 the humane principle of saving every possible life was first enunciated. In the Behar famine of 1874 this principle was even carried to an extreme, the cost was enormous, and the people were in danger of being pauperized. The resulting reaction caused a regrettable loss of life in the Madras and Bombay famine of 1876-1878; and the Famine Commission of 1880, followed by those of 1898 and 1901, laid down the principle that every possible life must be saved, but that the wages on relief works must be so regulated in relation to the market rate of wages as not to undermine the independence of the people. The experience gained in the great famines of 1898 and 1901 has been garnered by these commissions, and stored up in the "famine codes" of each separate province, where rules are provided for the treatment of famine directly a crop failure is seen to be probable. The first step is to open test works; and directly they show the necessity, regular relief works are established, in which the people may earn enough to keep them from starvation, until the time comes to sow the next crop.

As a result of the severe famine of 1878-1879, Lord Lytton's government instituted a form of insurance against famine known as the Famine Insurance Grant. A sum of Rs. 1,500,000 was to be yearly set aside for purposes of famine relief. This scheme has been widely misunderstood; it has been assumed that an entirely separate fund was created, and that in years when the specified sum was not paid into this fund, the purpose of the government was not carried out. But Sir John Strachey, the author of the scheme, explains in his book on India that the original intention was nothing more than the annual application of surplus revenue, of the indicated amount, to purposes of famine relief; and that when the country was free from famine, this sum should be regularly devoted to the discharge of debt, or to the prevention of debt which would otherwise have been incurred for the construction of railways and canals. The sum of 1 crores is regularly set aside for this purpose, and is devoted as a rule to the construction of protective irrigation works, and for investigating and preparing new projects falling under the head of protective works.

The measures by which the government of India chiefly endeavours to reduce the liability of the country to famine are the promotion of railways; the extension of canal and well irrigation; the reclamation of waste lands, with the establishment of fuel and fodder reserves; the introduction of agricultural improvements; the multiplication of industries; emigration; and finally the improvement where necessary of the revenue and rent systems. In times of famine the function of the railways in distributing the grain is just as important as the function of the irrigation-canals in increasing the amount grown. There is always enough grain within the boundaries of India for the needs of the people; the only difficulty is to transport it to the tract where it is required at a particular moment. Owing to the extension of railways, in the famines of 1898 and 1901 there was never any dearth of food in any famine-stricken tract; and the only difficulty was to find enough rolling-stock to cope with the demand. Irrigation protects large tracts against famine, and has immensely increased the wheat output of the Punjab; the Irrigation Commission of 1903 recommended the addition of 6 million acres to the irrigated area of India, and that recommendation is being carried out at an annual cost of 1 millions sterling for twenty years, but at the end of that time the list of works that will return a lucrative interest on capital will be practically exhausted. Local conditions do not make irrigation everywhere possible.

As five-sixths of the whole population of India are dependent upon the land, any failure, of agriculture becomes a national calamity. If there were more industries and manufactures in India, the dependence on the land would not be so great and the liability to lack of occupation would not be so uniform in any particular district. The remedy for this is the extension of factories and home industries; but European capital is difficult to obtain in India, and the native capitalist prefers to hoard his rupees. The extension of industries, therefore, is a work of time.

It is sometimes alleged by native Indian politicians that famines are growing worse under British rule, because India is becoming exhausted by an excessive land revenue, a civil service too expensive for her needs, military expenditure on imperial objects, and the annual drain of some £15,000,000 for "home charges." The reply to this indictment is that the British land revenue is £16,000,000 annually, whereas Aurangzeb's over a smaller area, allowing for the difference in the value of the rupee, was £110,000,000; though the Indian Civil Service is expensive, its cost is more than covered by the fact that India, under British guarantee, obtains her loans at 3% as against 10% or more paid by native rulers; though India has a heavy military burden, she pays no contribution to the British navy, which protects her seaboard from invasion; the drain of the home charges cannot be very great, as India annually absorbs 6 millions sterling of the precious metals; in 1899-1900, a year of famine, the net imports of gold and silver were 130 millions. Finally, it is estimated by the census commissioners that in the famine of 1901 three million people died in the native states and only one million in British territory.

See Cornelius Walford, "On the Famines of the World, Past and Present" (Journal of the Statistical Society, 1878-1879); Romesh C. Dutt, Famines in India (1900); Robert Wallace, Famine in India (1900); George Campbell, Famines in India (1769-1788); Chronological List of Famines for all India (Madras Administration Report, 1885); J.C. Geddes, Administrative Experience in Former Famines (1874); Statistical Atlas of India (1895); F.H.S. Merewether, Through the Famine Districts of India (1898); G.W. Forrest, The Famine in India (1898); E.A.B. Hodgetts, In the Track of the Russian Famine (1892); W.B. Steveni, Through Famine-stricken Russia (1892); Vaughan Nash, The Great Famine (1900); Lady Hope, Sir Arthur Cotton (1900); Lord Curzon in India (1905); T.W. Holderness, Narrative of the Famine of 1896-1897 (c.8812 of 1898); the Indian Famine Commission reports of 1880, 1898 and 1900; report of the Indian Irrigation Commission (1901-1903); C.W. McMinn, Famine Truths, Half-Truths, Untruths (1902); Theodore Morison, Indian Industrial Organization (1906).

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

Privacy Policy | Cookie Policy | GDPR