Not so long ago, a Congress MP demanded reparations from the British for the exploitation of India that they rampantly carried out in their 190 odd years of rule in India but can any reparation offset the criminality with which the British murdered the Indians in manually perpetrated famines? The answer is a no because millions of Indians were wiped out due to the sheer lack of interest and respect towards the Indian lives.
From 1773 to 1900 there were as many as 22 great famines which killed Millions of Indians. The famines were a result of the British greed and insensitivity towards India in general. The great Bengal Famine of 1770 wiped off 1/3 of the Bengali population which was roughly a crore back then. The impact was so devastating that the British passed the Regulating Act of 1773. Then came the great Madras Famine of 1783 which was the consequence of the British imperial greed for more land. The Anglo-Mysore wars perpetuated the famine. The number of casualties remains unknown yet. Then came the great famine of 1784 which was a result of the use of the revenues for private use by the British Residents in the court of Oudh. Even Warren Hastings accepted the cause to of the famine to be defective administration. The British were forces to pass the Pitt’s India Act for better governance.
The great famines of Bombay and Madras forced Cornwallis to come up with the permanent settlement of Bengal and the start of the Zamindari system in India. The system was a boon in disguise for the Indian farmers as famines stopped in Bengal till 1943 when it was caused because of the Second World War.
After that there was the great famine of Bombay in 1803 which was caused as a result of the wars between Maratha and the British. The marauding troops of the Pindaris and the British ransacked the crops and the arable land. Wellesley, however checked the exports of grains and even imported them and sold them at a fixed price to save the face if the East India Company in India. Some relief labour works also started during his tenure.
However, when the great famine of 1813 struck Bombay, EIC did not stop any grains export neither did it take any measures to start its import.
The famine of 1823 in Madras started the Ryotwari system but it failed to have any impact on the occurrence of famines in the Madras presidency. It was because unlike in the permanent settlement of Bengal, the ryot were not given the land titles for a period as long as 30 years.
The settlement was revised almost every 8-10 years and the rentals were as high as 18% to 31% of the produce. By 1855, the rate of settlement had touched as high as 66% of the produce in the Agra Presidency.
The great famine of Northern India in 1837 was so devastating that the Governor General had to appoint officers for removing corpses from the rivers in Agra and Fatehpur. Animals devoured upon the rotting human dead bodies.
Baird Smith, an English official placed the figure of dead at 8 lakhs.
- Then the great famine of Northern India killed some 1.5 lakh people in 1860.
- Orissa famine killed 4.5 lakh in 1866 despite of the relief works.
- The famine in Rajputana coupled with cholera and locust attacks killed 12. lakhs.
- The Bengal Famine in 1879 did not see any loss of life, albeit there was shortage of edible grains.
- The Madras famine of 1877 saw fresh bout of British cruelty when the wages of the people employed in compensation works was reduced to below subsistence levels. The help was just a farce. As a result, despite of the relief, some 5 million people got killed. This was during the tenure of Lord Lytton. His successor, Lord Ripon fixed that there would be no upwards revision of the rentals till there is a rise in grain prices but the Secretary of State rejected this small step of benevolence from the Viceroy.
One thirds of the revenues from the rentals was sent out of India to England. The over assessment of the rentals killed the farmer and the Zamindar alike.
In Bombay presidency, the rate of rentals was fixed at 75% of the assets of the Malguzars. The fixation of the rentals however let the tenants to bring in more land under cultivation and gave them time to experiment and save something for their personal use.
To make the matters worse there was a compulsory water tax levied in the Madras presidency irrespective of whether the tenant used the water supplies from the state. The rental enhancements were exempted from the judicial checks. British started a relief component of 1.5 crore in their annual budget of 1878-79 which was suspended the very next year to finance construction of Bengal- Nagpur Railways.
The wrath of the great famines was not the work of nature, it was not a natural calamity. The British perpetrators are responsible for the brutal killings of Indians.
Sadly, our history books again go silent on how the British developed at the cost of our blood and sadly no amount of money can remove this guilt that they have at their hands.