Monday, June 13, 2022

How the British Created Famines in India

During the period of British rule, India was racked by 25 famines (12 major famines and 13 minor ones), in which between 30 to 50 million starved to death. These famines happened because the British were making windfall profits by exporting a significant proportion of the grains produced by India’s farmers. In his book The Economic History of India in the Victorian Age (Volume II), economic historian Romesh Chunder Dutt, who served as an Indian Civil Servant from 1871 to 1897, has given the details of exports of grains and other products from India. 

On page 162 of Dutt’s book (Chapter 10, “Tariffs, Imports, and Exports”) there is a chart which shows the fluctuations in the exports of India’s agricultural produce. This chart shows that under British rule, the export of grains rose dramatically. Even in those years when the country was facing acute shortage of food and millions were starving, the British continued to make windfall profits by exporting grains. According to Dutt’s data, in 1849, the British exported grains worth £858,691; in 1854, grains worth £1,413,654 was exported; in 1858, the export rose to £3,790,374.

It was these massive grain exports, not any natural calamity or epidemic, that was responsible for the spate of famines in British India. Before the British acquired despotic control over India's affairs, this country never had such massive famines with such alarming frequency. For making windfall profits, the British were deliberately condemning millions of Indians to die by starvation. Dutt writes in his book (page 163): “By the end of the century, the export of rice and wheat and other food grains had reached the high figure of twelve millions sterling a year.” 

The chart on page 162 of Dutt’s book contains the details of the growth in cotton exports. For centuries before the British arrived, India was the world’s largest textile producer. In 1757, when the British conquered a large part of Bengal, India was producing 80 percent of the world’s textiles. The British wiped out this industry in a few decades, mainly by their policy of exporting massive quantities of Indian cotton to England, for fueling the textile mills in Lancashire and other areas. 

According to Dutt’s chart, in 1849, the British exported cotton worth £1,775,309; in 1854, the export was worth £2,802,150; in 1858, it was £4,301,768. The consequence of this massive export was that the price of cotton rose dramatically in India; while its price fell in England. Cotton became unaffordable to the Indian weavers—at the same time, it became very affordable to the textile mills of England. It was the irresponsible export of India’s cotton produce, not the overly ballyhooed Industrial Revolution, that was behind the success of the British textile industry.

Dutt notes that one of the reasons for high exports from India was that the British did not want their textile mills to become wholly dependent on America’s cotton. In page 162 of his book, Dutt writes: “There was a continuous desire in England to extend and improve the cotton cultivation of India, so that England might rely on her own possession rather than on America for the requirements of her looms and factories.”

Lord Salisbury, who served as India’s Secretary of State for several years between 1854 and 1878, has acknowledged in his communications that his government’s priority was to take care of the commercial interests of Lancashire’s textile mills. The textile mill owners and workers of Lancashire were an important support group for British politicians—Salisbury had to take care of their needs. He was terrified of India's textile industry. He enacted policies which benefitted Lancashire’s textile mills at the cost of India’s textile industry.

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