Southern India Famine – 1876-1878

For two years in the 1870s over 58 million people in the Bombay, Madras, Mysore and Hyderabad areas of southern India endured famine that eventually blighted an area of 670,000 sq km (257,000 sq mi). The specific cause was crop failure, but the decision of British authorities to deny a serious relief effort was the reason that huge numbers actually died.

Earlier in the decade a potentially disastrous famine in Bengal had been ameliorated by a massive program of food imports, mainly rice from Burma (now Myanmar), supported by a public works program to build roads. There was little loss of life but this successful humanitarian effort was roundly criticized on cost grounds. It had been organized by Bengal’s Lieutenant Governor, Sr Richard Temple, who by 1876 had become famine commissioner for the British-run government of India. Keen to avoid further recrimination on cost grounds as famine again reared its ugly head, he introduced rigorous criteria for granting relief. The program included public works for the able bodied – effectively hard labor for a minimal wage – and very limited charitable handouts for the old, infirm and young. Worse, these dubious benefits were only offered after the famine had taken serious hold and offered in patchy fashion across affected areas.

After two years of severe malnutrition — and millions of deaths — a malaria epidemic swept through the population, killing many more people who were too weak to resist the greedy disease. In the aftermath of famine, it was ironic that a spirited debate broke out – this time focused on awareness that the relief effort had been totally inadequate, with less than one fifth of the amount per head spent compared with the successful Bengali effort. The no-win Sir Richard Temple learned that both generosity and parsimony attracted severe criticism in equal measure.

When: 1876-1878

Where: Southern India

Death toll: In areas directly administered by Britain over five million died, while additional fatalities from starvation or disease in the princely states were never estimated.

You should know: One lasting legacy of the Southern India famine was the foundation less than a decade later of the Indian National Congress, the political party that would eventually steer India to independence. Among the founder members were senior British civil servants who were largely motivated by the colonial administration’s disastrously inadequate efforts to counter the terrible famine.

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