Keywords: Were the Indian famines natural (geographical) or manmade (political) in origin? I review
the theories of Indian famines and suggest that a mainly geographical account diminishes the role of the
state in the occurrence and retreat of famines, whereas a mainly political account overstates that role. I
stress a third factor, knowledge, and suggest that limited information and knowledge constrained state
capacity to act during the nineteenth century famines. As statistical information and scientific
knowledge improved, and prediction of and response to famines improved, famines became rarer.
JEL Codes: N15, N35, Q54, F54
Keywords: Famine, Colonialism, Natural Disaster, India, Environment
1 An earlier version of the paper was discussed in a workshop titled ‘Struggling nations – phrasing famines,’ held in the
University of Iceland, Reykjavik, 19-20 May 2016. The discussion led to significant improvements in the draft. I wish to thank
the participants in the workshop.
Famines were a frequent occurrence in South Asia until 1900, and were often
devastating in impact. A series of nineteenth century famines were triggered by harvest
failure. Food procurement for World War II, combined with a crop failure, caused the
harshest famine of the twentieth century, the 1943 Bengal famine. Famine-like conditions
recurred also in 1966 and in 1972, but the extent of starvation-induced death was limited on
both occasions. Why did these episodes develop? Why did they cause death and distress on a
very large scale at times? Why did the frequency of their occurrence fall in the twentieth
The world history of famines tends to approach these questions by using two keywords,
‘natural’ and ‘manmade.’ These terms are not rigorously defined anywhere, but they are
widely used as a way to analyse the causes of famines and famine intensity.2
Usually, natural refers to a large and sudden mismatch between demand for and supply
of food, caused by a harvest failure, though the disastrous effects that follow can sometimes
be attributed to a prehistory of bad diet and malnutrition. Modern famine analysts and
historians owe their conception of ‘natural’ to Thomas Malthus. Malthus used the word
‘nature’ in a wide range of senses, including the ‘natural carelessness’ with which some
populations reproduced. But one meaning is particularly relevant in this context. This
meaning is expressed in the sentence: ‘Famine [is] the last and most dreadful mode by which
nature represses a redundant population.’ In other words, famine is the inevitable result of
overpopulation.3 Using ‘Indostan’ or India as one of his examples, Malthus suggested that the
yield of land was so low here and the population ordinarily lived with so little food that the
effect of a ‘convulsion of nature’ such as a crop failure could be immediate and devastating.
Manmade now-a-days almost always refers to some sort of political action that shifts
food away from one group to another.4
It connotes state failure. The state has a particularly
important role to play because famine relief should not be priced nor withheld from anyone.
State relief often fails to be enough, it is said, because politicians believe in an ideology that
advocates weak relief, and the political system allows them to get away with it. The political
factor is especially common during wars, in despotic regimes, and during temporary
For a discussion of the historiography, see Cormac O’Grada, Famines: A Short History, Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 2009. For usage of ‘natural’ and ‘manmade’ without a definition, see ‘Famine: Natural or Man
Made?’ World Ecology Report, 20(2), 2008, http://worldinfo.org/wpcontent/uploads/library/wer/english/2008_Winter_Vol_XX_no_4.pdf (accessed 3 June 2016).
3 An Essay on the Principle of Population, London: J. Johnson, 1798, 36.
In this sense, ‘Russian and Soviet famines were largely man‐made.’ W.A. Dando, ‘Man‐made Famines: Some
Geographical insights from an Exploratory Study of a Millennium of Russian Famines,’ Ecology of Food and
Nutrition, 4(4), 1976, 219-34.
breakdown of states, though the chain of events that leads to such actions might include an
actual or a rumoured crop failure. In current scholarship, it is sometimes suggested that late
twentieth century famines are often manmade in the sense that they are usually caused by
This is plausible because food is traded in larger volumes more cheaply
now than a century and a half ago, so that absolute scarcity conditions cannot possibly last
unless there are deliberate obstacles to the supply and distribution of food. However, the
political factor was not necessarily large in earlier times, when trade costs were considerably
higher than they are now and the volume of world food production was a fraction of what it is
In the Indianist literature, manmade can have another construction, cultural beliefs that
shaped the scale of private charity during disasters. Nobody thinks that this factor made a
substantial difference to famine intensity, but it could have made a difference to the coping
strategies of particular groups.