Famines, Poverty, Government Policy, Food Supply in Colonial India

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Topic: Famines, poverty, government policy, food supply in colonial India

From 1760 till 1943 India was hit by terrible famines on a regular basis. More than 85 million Indians died in these famines which were in reality genocides done by the British Raj. Contrast this to the fact that there have been no famine related deaths since independence. British famine policy in India was influenced by the arguments of Adam Smith, as seen by the non-interference of the government with the grain market even in times of famines. Keeping the famine relief as cheap as possible, with minimum cost to the colonial exchequer, was another important factor in determining famine policy.

A major characteristic of British rule in India, and the net result of British economic policies, was the prevalence of extreme poverty among its people. While historians disagree on the question whether India was getting poorer or not under British rule, there is no disagreement on the fact that throughout the period of British rule most Indians always lived on the verge of starvation. As time passed, they found it more and more difficult to find employment or make a living. Different people have different ideas of what poverty means. In his famous study of poverty in York, Seebohm Rowntree (1901) defined families as being in ‘primary poverty’ if their ‘total earnings are insufficient to obtain the minimum necessities for the maintenance of merely physical efficiency’. It is not surprising that biological consideration related to the requirements of survival or work efficiency have been often used in defining the poverty. Starvation, clearly, is the most telling aspect of poverty. W. Aurther Dowe states that there are four different meanings of poverty, they are: 1. Normal or natural poverty follows laziness or incompetence. It is in individual’s concept. 2. Poverty is inflicted on some by crime or misconduct of others as theft, personal injury, property damage, slander or racial discrimination. 3. Poverty as a result of illness, old age or accident

4. Poverty is caused by injustice, oppression, slavery, land conquest, taxation and political corruption. Amartya Sen is an advocate of concept of absolute poverty. Absolute poverty refers to subsistence below minimum socially acceptable living conditions usually established based on nutritional requirements and other essential goods. Absolute poverty is also referred to primary poverty. Absolute poverty is a state where one cannot raise the income required to meet the expenditure for purchasing specific bundle of basic requirements. According to him poverty is a matter of deprivation. Poverty and inequality relate closely to each other, but they are distinct concepts and neither subsumes the other.

What is a famine?

Figure 1 Photograph of Famine Victims 1899-1902. Source: Wikipedia A famine is defined as “A famine is a widespread scarcity of food that may apply to any faunal species. This phenomenon is usually accompanied and preceded by regional malnutrition, starvation, epidemic, and increased mortality.” Famines imply starvation, but not vice versa. And starvation implies poverty, but not vice versa. It is possible for poverty to exist, and be regarded as acute, even when no serious starvation occurs. Starvation, on the other hand, does imply poverty, since the absolute dispossession that characterizes starvation is more than sufficient to be diagnosed as poverty. Even though this binary relationship between famine and starvation seems reasonable, this passage seems hardly enough to clarify the notion. Amartya Sen in his book goes on to list certain common characteristics of famines related to declines in food consumption (i.e. the “time contrast”) and disparities in food consumption between different groups (i.e. the “group contrast”). This is very helpful indeed, but can only serve as taxonomy because these characteristics need not be true for all...
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