Famine in India
In the 1870s while under British rule, India was swept with several famines which led to the deaths of over five million of its people. Simultaneously with these deaths from starvation, malnutrition, and disease India’s exports of grain to the rest of the world, ordered and supervised by officials of the British Empire, increased, in some cases to record levels. Under British rule India provided food to the rest of the world as its own people starved. While the direct cause of the famine was weather related, the British response and the policies they enacted created the conditions which allowed for the death of millions, while British officials did little to alleviate the suffering.
Since grain exports increased during the famines it is evident that the problem was not the availability of food but its distribution. Another major contributor to the famines was the British mandated shift of millions of acres of land to other crops, grown specifically for export, much of it intended for China. These exports generated hard cash for the British treasury, needed to support colonial wars around the globe. Rather than producing food for the starving Indian population, these acres produced opium, indigo, cotton, and jute, as well as wheat and rice for export primarily to China.
The leading British colonial official adopted a hands-off policy towards the ravages of the famines which occurred under his administration. Although there was sufficient food available in many areas affected by the famine the Indians had little money – due to oppressive British taxation policies – with which to purchase it, and the British offered little in the way of relief. The Viceroy, Lord Lytton, let it be known that, “…there is to be no interference of any kind on the part of Government with the object of reducing the price of food.” Lytton directed officials in the affected districts not to provide additional relief.
Despite Lytton’s obvious unconcern with the state of the starving Indian people (he held a banquet with 60,000 guests during the height of the famine, to celebrate the anniversary of the Queen), several British colonial officials took some steps to ease the suffering. Sir Richard Temple supervised the relief in the Mysore state, where relief kitchens were established. Those who resorted to them for food were required to work on the Bangalore Mysore Railway then under construction. Earlier Temple had reduced wages in Madras for residents of the relief camps, reducing the amount of food available to them with the argument that it necessary to do so to “reduce dependency.”
The British Colonial Office’s attitude toward the Indian people as demonstrated by Lytton and Temple’s callous behavior towards them was best expressed by another British government authority, during a much later famine in 1943. Then again, food needed to feed the starving Indian people was exported to other areas, to feed British troops fighting in Europe and Africa, and the supporting Empire troops around the globe. In response to pressure to do more to alleviate the situation in India, where millions were again dying, Winston Churchill remarked, “Famine or no famine, Indians will breed like rabbits.”