Famines in India - Ancient, Medieval and Pre-colonial India

Ancient, Medieval and Pre-colonial India

One of the earliest treatises on famine relief goes back more than 2000 years. This treatise is commonly attributed to Kautilya, who recommended that a good king should build new forts and water-works and share his provisions with the people, or entrust the country to another king. Historically, Indian rulers have employed several methods of famine relief. Some of these were direct, such as initiating free distribution of food grains and throwing open grain stores and kitchens to the people. Other measures were monetary policies such as remission of revenue, remission of taxes, increase of pay to soldiers, and payment of advances. Yet other measures included construction of public works, canals, and embankments, and sinking wells. Migration was encouraged. Kautilya advocated raiding the provisions of the rich in times of famine to "thin them by exacting excess revenue." Information on famines from ancient India up to colonial times is found in four primary sources:

  1. Legendary tales passed down in oral tradition that keep alive the memory of famines
  2. Ancient Indian literature such as the Vedas, Jataka stories, and the Arthashastra
  3. Stone and metal inscriptions provide information on several famines before the 16th century
  4. Writings of Muslim historians in Mughal India

Legendary famines preserved in oral tradition are the Dvadasavarsha Panjam (Twelve-year Famine) of south India and the Durgadevi famine of the Deccan from 1396 to 1407. From Hindu literature, there is the 7th century famine due to failure of rains in Tanjore district mentioned in the Periya Puranam. According to the Purana, Lord Shiva helped the Tamil saints Sambandhar and Appar to provide relief from the famine. Another famine in the same district is recorded on an inscription with details such as "times becoming bad", a village being ruined, and cultivation of food being disrupted in Alangudi in 1054. However, the primary sources for famines in this period are incomplete and locationally based

The ancient Ashokan edicts of the Mauryan age around 269 BC record emperor Ashoka's conquest of Kalinga, roughly the modern state of Orissa. The major rock and pillar edicts mention the massive human toll of about 100,000 due to the war. The edicts record that an even larger number later perished, presumably from wounds and famine. The Tughlaq dynasty under Muhammad bin Tughluq held power in Delhi during the famine in and around Delhi in 1335–42. The sultanate offered no relief to the starving residents of Delhi during this famine. The oldest famine in pre-colonial Deccan with well-preserved local documentation is the famine of 1791–92. Relief was provided by the ruler, the Peshwa Sawai Madhavrao II, in the form of imposing restrictions on export of grain and importing rice in large quantities from Bengal via private trading, however the evidence is often too scanty to judge the 'real efficacy of relief efforts' in the Mughal period. Other pre-colonial famines in the Deccan were the Damajipant famine of 1460 and the famines starting in 1520 and 1629. The famine in the Deccan and Gujarat, was another famine in India's history. An estimated 3 million perished in Gujarat and one million in the Deccan. In the second year the famine killed not only the poor but the rich as well. The Damajipant famine is said to have caused ruin both in the northern and southern parts of the Deccan. Famines hit the Deccan in 1655, 1682 and 1884. A further famine from 1702-1704 killed over two million people.

According to Mushtaq A. Kaw, measures employed by the Mughal and Afghan rulers to fight famine in Kashmir were insufficient due to geographic obstacles, corruption in the Mughal administration. Mughal officials took no long term measures to fight famines in Kashmir, and the land tax system of Mughal India often contributed to the scale of famines by depriving Indian peasants of much of their harvest in the goods years, denying them the opportunity to build up stocks.

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