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Timeless Hunger


By Malabika Chakrabarti
Orient Longman, New Delhi, 2004, pp. 541, price not stated.

VOLUME XXX NUMBER 10 October 2006

‘In the first half of nineteenth century, there were seven famines, with an estimated total of one and a half million deaths from famine. In the second half of nineteenth century, there were twenty-four famines (six between 1851 and 1876, and eighteen between 1876 and 1900), with an estimated total according to official records, of over 20 million deaths’.-- R.P. Dutt, India Today, Calcutta, 1970, p. 125.     The British insisted that they had rescued India from “timeless hunger”. However, in 1878 Indian nationalist writers   quoted from the prestigious Journal of the Statistical Society that there were 31 serious famines in 120 years of British rule against only 17 recorded famines in the entire previous two millennia.  Malabika Chakrabarti’s study of the famine of 1896-97 in Bengal is an important contribution in the field of area studies in long-term dearth. The famine of 1896-97 was the most devastating of its kind since the Orissa famine of 1866-67. The famine was caused by crop deficiency due to both crop failure and supply failure in the grain market. Thus, in the author’s estimate both food availability decline (FAD) and failure of exchange entitlement (FEE) within the peasant economy, in the form of lack of purchasing capacity of the peasant society, need to be analysed in order to understand the reasons for the food crisis developing into a famine in 1896-97. While the focus is on the famine, the author widens the canvas by raising issues related to ecology, market mechanism, demography, nutrition, and gender relations. The work evokes larger questions related to anachronisms present in a rural society.   Numerous studies have drawn attention to the monoculture of rice in the pattern of crop distribution in Bengal. By the end of the nineteenth century, as far as food crops are concerned, there was a near total dependence on rice cultivation in eastern India. The cultivation of other food crops and commercial crops like jute, indigo, poppy was on a far lesser scale. Ecological imbalances and exogenous factors as wars affected the availability of rice and its price structure. The colonial government continued to treat famines as catastrophic events and failed to develop long-term plans to deal with the recurring crisis. It remained unbending in its adherence to the laissez-faire policy of leaving the import of rice to the deficit areas in the hands of private traders. In the case of the famine of 1866, government in an ostrich-like manner rigidly held on ...

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