14% rainfall deficiency caused 19th century famines in southern India: Study

The findings, the researchers observe, underlines the need to take the impacts of small changes in rainfall pattern into account while assessing climate change risks
Last Updated : 14 September 2021, 02:39 IST

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Scouring through more than 200 years of British administrative reports, an Indo-US team of researchers have found that the 18th and 19th century famines in southern India - including the Great Famine of 1875–1878 and the Indian Famine of 1899–1900 in which millions perished - were caused by a marginal rainfall deficiency of just about 14% rather than any extreme event.

The findings, the researchers observe, underlines the need to take the impacts of small changes in rainfall pattern into account while assessing climate change risks, rather than looking for large scale violations all the time.

The team that includes researchers from the Indian Institute of Human Settlement, Bengaluru, dug deep into 218 years British official documents (1729-1947) kept in the National Archives of India to reconstruct an eighteenth to twentieth century record of famines and its consequences associated with ‘rain failures’ in southern India.

"We found that the deficiency was about 14% from the average rainfall. The study shows that it does not need an extreme event (more than 40% rain deficiency) to trigger an extreme socio economic impact,” Atreyee Bhattacharya, a professor at the University of Colorado, USA and corresponding author of the study told DH.

Such rain failure linked famines in southern India happened in 1803–1807, 1811–1812, 1823–1824, 1832–1833, 1838–1840, 1868–1869, 1875–1878, 1896 and 1899–1900. They affected several districts of both Madras and Bombay presidencies and usually lasted for 3–4 years.

In addition, the famines of 1845 (in Gujarat), 1854–1855 (parts of Bombay and Madras Presidencies), 1862 (Ahmednagar) and 1882 (Mysore) were also mentioned in the archival documents.

The famine of 1862 was an exception in the sense that it was a local one in the northwest part of the Bombay presidency when June–July–August September rainfall was lower than average in western India but rainfall was normal in southern India.

India Meteorological Department records and historical rain gauge reconstructions showed most of such famines were associated with 13% deviation from average rainfall for the southern interior peninsular region whereas for the western interior region (western Maharashtra and north Karnataka), the threshold was around 17%. The average for the peninsular India was around 14%.

“The ‘rain-failure’ that colonial administrators listed as the cause of socio-economic disruptions and human impacts is within the range of rainfall variability inherent to the southern Indian semi arid regions (SARs) and not because of extreme rainfall reductions,” the team reported in the journal Scientific Reports last week.

The famines occurred repeatedly in the East Indian Company and Crown periods underscoring that policies and practices adopted by the administrators over two centuries did not mitigate against the occurrence of such famines at least till the beginning of the 20th century. Overall, in both Crown and Company periods, the same numbers of famines were reported from both presidencies.

"The study can remove doubts on whether only extreme events are needed to cause food scarcity, conflict and human migration,” said Gaurav Arora, an economist at the Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology, Delhi and a coauthor of the study.

The famine of 1875–1876 prompted the formulation of the Famine Commission in 1880. The panel submitted its last report in 1901 after which there was no mention of famines in the British administrative documents in the NAI pertaining to the peninsular India of the 20th century.

Published 06 September 2021, 14:46 IST

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