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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 18, 19, April 29 & May 6, 2023 (Double issue)

The Looming Shadow of the 1866 Famine in Orissa | Suranjita Ray

Saturday 29 April 2023, by Suranjita Ray


A Haunting Tragedy Gender, Caste and Class in the 1866 Famine of Orissa by Bidyut Mohanty ascertains understanding famine as a process to comprehend who starved during the famine and why. The book engages the reader in understanding the Orissa Famine in 1866 that had its worst impact on the poor, in particular the agricultural labourers, weavers, salt workers and fisher folks, invariably belonging to the lower castes who were marginalised and deprived. The growing consciousness of the unequal impacts of famine, transcends the boundaries of its conventional understanding that focuses on the immediate causes. While the author considers the Food Availability Decline (FAD) theory to bring to the fore the immediate causes - the decline of grain output due to the failure of rain, irregular distribution of rainfall and the increased export of rice, her in-depth analysis privileges the entitlement theory of Amartya Sen and his seminal work on starvation and famine which underscores the lack of command over food by some people despite its availability. The chapters in the book attempt to understand the underlying causes of the processes of cumulative deprivation entrenched in structures of land relations, caste structures and patriarchy by locating it in specific economic, political, social, and cultural conditions. It is in this context that the author reminds us of the intersectionality of class, caste and gender which become important for a comprehensive overview of famine.

A Haunting Tragedy: Gender, Caste and Class in the 1866 Famine of Orissa by Bidyut Mohanty | ISBN ‏ : ‎ 1032158697

Famine associated with mortality is only the last phase of the process of famishment, which has an onset - a gradual loss of access to food, and thus one sinks into starvation, and maturing of the process culminates in mortality. Mohanty argues that famine is not just an event of extreme food scarcity resulting in starvation deaths but a process that includes both the phases of starvation as well as epidemics. It is important to concede that cholera, dysentery, malaria, and pneumonia killed a large number of people that augmented in the famine years. Though the mortality rate in the epidemic phase would have been much higher than 1 million, deaths beyond 1867 were not taken into consideration while estimating famine mortality by the authors of Famine Histories. She contests the government’s declaration that famine was over when the new crops arrived in the market, even though epidemics still erupted.

Cataclysmic Experience 

The book signifies revisiting the cataclysmic experience of the 1866 Famine in Orissa that saw increasing mortality rates, crimes, food riots, distress sale of land, distress migration, prostitution, child abandonment, eating of famine foods which had toxins, cannibalism, and even rebellion. By referring to the memories of traumatic experiences of the everyday strategies to cope with the famine, which are narrated in several anecdotes in autobiographies, and the literary works including poetry and fiction by Fakir Mohan Senapati, Anant Das, Mayadhar Mansingh, Jayant Mahapatra, the author reiterates the need to understand the 1866 Famine in Orissa as a haunting tragedy. Several districts such as Puri, Balasore and Mayurbhanj saw food riots, looting of shops, and burning of granaries of the zamindars after the harvests. Despite caste prejudices, people stole cooked food from the kitchens of unknown people. The starved also snatched sacred offerings from the Jagganath Temple. People across castes congregated at the main gate (Singhadwar/Lion Gate) of the temple to share the cooked food offered as mahaprasad. Mohanty describes how people crowded at a particular open drain despite the unhygienic condition to have peja - the starch water strained from boiled rice that flowed through the drain to the river.

The study suggests how the eating of famine food such as wild grass, edible roots, and tubers which have toxic elements (identified by the Indian Famine Code 1880) become a regular food habit. Several writings of Gopabandhu Das in the Utkal Dipika (the Oriya newspaper) state that people of low castes such as Panas,Kandara and Gokhas were eating wild berries instead of rice. Households consumed ‘seeds’ saved for harvests despite the dilemma of not breaking the tradition of preserving Goddess Lakshmi. Families mortgaged their utensils and ornaments with traders and money lenders to buy ragi. Since the price of cattle feed increased, the cattle were in a famished condition and were sold at a cheap rate. Many deserted their houses in search of food. The author finds from various sources that many people across castes migrated to nearby and far-off places in search of work and food. One of the most pertinent explanations by her is how Sirdars (labour contractors) were employed to recruit labourers from different regions. The Sirdars paid money in advance to the labourers to keep them as bonded labourers which she argues is similar to the ‘dadan labour’ migration out of Kalahandi, Bolangir, Ganjam, and Mayurbhanj in contemporary Orissa.

The author’s rigorous analysis reveals how the colonial regime had no systematic famine relief policy giving guidelines for administering relief. There were either stampedes or guards who resorted to violence at many relief centres. Inadequate watery dal and cold rice were served in unsanitary conditions. In case of shortage, able-bodied persons were denied food and asked to go to work though no work was available. She draws the attention of the readers to the expression of ‘starvation deaths’ for the first time by the Orissa Famine Commission Report only after the autopsy conducted on several bodies of famine victims found raw rice in the intestines which they had snatched and consumed, and expresses her concern for its omission in the later reports. She reinforces that lower caste people were the largest of those who died during the famine and many of such deaths were reported by the vernacular press.

Insecure Land Relations

The colonial policies of extracting revenue reinforced the hierarchical and exploitative structures of the feudal agrarian economy which resulted in an increasing alienation and deprivation of the land rights of the people. It is pertinent to examine how over the years, the tenurial system with its emphasis on the maximisation of land revenue created a prolonged process called ‘famishment’ that usually precedes the outbreak of the visible famine.

The loss of endowment or entitlement failure occurs when a farmer loses his/her land (due to mortgage or sale) or labour power (due to ill health), when there is a loss of employment, a rise in food prices, and a fall in wages. The author traces that the underlying causes of famine were insecure land relations due to temporary settlement. She elaborates how the rent on land was increased periodically due to frequent renewal of the zamindari. Since most of the big zamindars were absentee landlords from Bengal, they were least interested in increasing the productivity of the land. As the 30-year settlement was to expire in the year 1865, both the raiyats and zamindars had kept some of the land fallow to avoid an increase in the assessments. Lack of irrigation, diversification of cropping patterns, shift towards the monocropping system, declining soil fertility, and no incentive for the peasants to increase production added to their distress.

Mortgaging of land was a regular practice and eventually, peasants/small raiyats sold a part of the holding due to increasing indebtedness. The linkages between creditor and debtor are not solely guided by economic factors as caste and class largely converge. The debtors are invariably from the lower caste while the creditors or money lenders belong to the higher castes. The study illustrates how the process of transferring land from the cultivators to the non-cultivators altered land relations as many became sharecroppers. Such land transfers were accentuated during famine or distress conditions. Mohanty finds similar trends in land transfers in the persisting agrarian crisis in the 21st century that resulted in increasing farmers’ suicide in Orissa and elsewhere.

The suspension of giving rent-free lands to different sections in turn for the service they provided led to the Paik Rebellion of 1817 by the local militia who were both cultivators and soldiers. Arguably she believes that just like the rise of Irish Nationalism due to the Potato famine in Ireland, this was the first major anti-colonial uprising in the country and a strong foundation of Orissa Nationalism emerged due to the 1866 Famine as Orissa became the first state to be constituted in1936 based on language.

The study braids together policies of the colonial regime that created widespread unemployment amongst weavers, salt workers and canal workers. The wage paid for test relief work was barely enough for sustenance. There was an underestimation of the price rise as people demanded rice in place of wages in public works. Mohanty contends that lack of purchasing power without adequate steps to check the price rise due to the laissez-faire policy resulted in aggravating the distress situation. The administrative inefficiencies led to the failure to take precautionary steps either by storing grains or bringing rice from Bengal Presidency. T.E. Ravenshaw, the Commissioner, (unlike the Famine Commission Report 1880 and the authors of Famine Histories) believed that the aggregate output was just enough to feed the entire population, but the zamindars and traders had hoarded the grain stocks. The recorded export of grain increased to an unprecedented level in the year 1864-65 and thereafter in 1876-78, 1896-97 and 1899-1900. Orissa was vulnerable to droughts and floods and did not get any structural benefit out of Industrial Revolution unlike the Bombay Presidency, Madras Presidency and a part of the Bengal Presidency. She explicates how Orissa’s economy is still dominated by agriculture and mining and the employment opportunities in industries are still meagre.

Several studies on famine also reveal that socio-economic and political factors make particular sections of the population vulnerable to famine even before any adverse natural factor/ climatic unpredictability initiates the process of food shortage that inevitably leads to famine. An overall position in the existing hierarchical social class-caste structure, patriarchal structure and feudal and semi-feudal agrarian relations compels us to understand the processes of famishment. A comparative study by the author of the Bengal Famine in 1943-44, the Chinese Famine in 1958-62, and Famines in Africa in the modern period reveals the underlying causes as man-made factors such as land tenure, an outbreak of war causing disruption of supplies, a centralized policy regime, prolonged civil conflict and so on.

The Most Vulnerable

A thought-provoking analysis by the author engages the reader with the non-tangible dimensions of deprivation, such as disadvantage, vulnerability, powerlessness, exploitation, marginalization, alienation, and exclusion that are significant in generating and perpetuating conditions of hunger and starvation for certain sections of society irrespective of the levels of production and development. While famine affected large sections of society, the study finds that the worst victims were the agricultural labourers, in particular landless labourers, weavers and daily wagers. The small cultivators and marginal farmers also suffered. Though there are no systematic data collected by the officials on the caste composition of the famine victims, Mohanty has referred to several documents that show that the lower castes such as Bauris, Tantis, Doms, Chasa, Keutas who did not have any reserve of money or grain to fall back upon were the worst affected by the famine. She finds that the majority of the agricultural labour who died belonged to the lower castes - hadi, dom, bauri and lohars. The chasas (cultivators), landowners and agricultural labours, goala, and tanti (weavers) were next to them. The local press alleged that starvation deaths were occurring in the famine-affected areas and the weavers died in large numbers. S. L. Maddox, the Settlement Officer also reported that though the farm servants who were bonded labourers with the zamindars got some support from their farm owners, the death rate amongst the raiyats was high.

Mohanty describes that the first ones to reach the feeding centres were from the low caste, mainly Dalits, Kandaras, Oans, and Bauris who were the agricultural landless labourers. The weavers, salt workers and fishing community also reached the centres. Evidence suggests that the landed and cultivating castes too came to the relief centres. She explicates how caste prejudice led many people from the higher castes not to eat cooked food served by persons from another caste. Some of them even ate at distant places to hide their caste identity. Some decided to die of starvation rather than eat at the relief centres. Most of the victims such as the cultivating caste who were landless reached the shelter houses or the relief centres only at the last stage when all the coping strategies failed.

The author argues that an unhealed scar left by the immense catastrophe which was visible even after decades of its occurrence was the emergence of new social groups that came to be known as the Chhatrakhiya Community. Since they ate in the relief centres set up by the Christian missionaries, they were regarded as outcastes unlike those who ate in centres by temples, maths or zamindars. Many were either converted to Christianity or adopted Alekha Dharma, a non-Brahmanic religious stream which is popular among the tribals and Dalits. The plight of the outcaste members has been documented in novels, poems, and autobiographies. The reports in Utkal Dipika not only sensitized the public but also alerted the British Government to take immediate steps to ameliorate the distress situation throughout the state.

Feminisation of Famine 

The study examines the multidimensional aspects of the gender issue that include mortality, fertility, migration, nutrition and deprivations faced by women in general and girl child in particular across several states in India. Intra-family distribution of food, male migration, control over livelihood resources, particularly land, and government relief measures were variables that determined female mortality. Mohanty highlights how women were deeply entrenched in the patriarchal values which morally compelled them to serve more food to the male members of the family. Besides the distribution of food, women were discriminated against in terms of health care, education and wages. In the epidemic phase of the famine, female deaths were highest as people with a lower level of nutrition were more prone to malaria. Women of low caste suffered the most as they did not possess ornaments to sell and certainly not enough to sustain themselves for a long time.

Women could not enter the relief centres because of the unruly crowd. Among those who managed, many stayed back after the famine was over to do odd jobs in the centres. There is evidence that shows that women suffered when men migrated and several women took to prostitution. While the author analyses studies by McAlpine, Greenough and the Census Commissioners of India in 1901 and 1911 regarding the biological and sociological factors that had an impact on the death of women and men in famines across the country, she finds that despite references regarding mortality of women no systematic data on gender was collected. There is no uniformity regarding patterns of death as in some famines’ more women died and in others it was men.Famine is the process of being starved that does not start with the biological collapse but a decline in socio-economic conditions, which need not always culminate in mortality. Evidence drawn from large parts of the world shows that famine conditions persist and thus understanding famine without mass mortality is important. She also argues that since the outmigration increased considerably during the famine years and not much caste-specific migration data is available, no clear picture emerges regarding the caste-wise sex ratio at the end of the high mortality decade.

Preventing Famine

The reader is indeed provoked to ask why hunger and famine conditions are not an aberration but consistent in certain regions of Odisha (Orissa) and elsewhere in recent years despite active public action leading to positive interventions of the state and democratic transformations. While the last decade has seen Odisha as an emerging economy, the paradox of development has become more conspicuous today than in the past. The new symbols of prosperity and growth have remained confined to the urban cities of the coastal region of the state and its benefits have largely been cornered by the dominant class. The inland region continues to remain backward and underdeveloped for certain communities and groups. Therefore, the experiences of landlessness, indebtedness, hunger, deprivation and distress of certain sections of society need to be understood as sites of conflicts that are constant, palpable, and unceasing over time. They need to be explained in terms of their continuity. They elucidate a genealogy of the historical, social, economic, political, and cultural reality that has witnessed the establishment of institutions and structures of dominance and practices of control.

The book reminds us that since chronic hunger and famine conditions are systemic and cumulative deprivations associated with the long-term processes of structural inequality and powerlessness, it is critical to address the underlying causes alongside a loss of food production, unemployment, lack of minimum wages and purchasing power, and rising prices of food grains. The study not only privileges the methodology to understand famine beyond its narrow definition in terms of chronic hunger or acute starvation resulting in mass mortality but also suggests learning lessons to prevent the processes of famishment which generate and perpetuate hunger and starvation for some sections of society irrespective of the levels of food production, availability, procurement, distribution, food prices, economic growth, and development. Preventing famine should not just be concerned with containing mortality but it should also ensure the right to access, ownership and control over the livelihood resources to secure the people certain normalcy of livelihood, and the right to live with dignity. It needs to be understood as an affirmation of human existence involving a struggle against exploitation and oppression based on class, caste, gender and ethnic discrimination.

While the state’s responsibility to guarantee ‘the right to food’ as a basic legal right in the National Food Security Act 2013 has gained significance, besides food security, food sovereignty is important to ensure the right to define one’s own food and agricultural priorities, and protect and regulate domestic agricultural production based on the needs of small and marginal farmers. Though the relief measures to save lives in crises are important, it is equally critical to save the livelihood of the large mass of people who are economically weak, socially underprivileged and politically powerless and become vulnerable to the wider processes of impoverishment and famishment. Structural change in an agrarian economy demands intervention by the state in land rights and land relations to prevent increasing alienation of land and landlessness. Besides providing ownership of land, it is imperative to ensure that the deprived have access to the means to cultivate the land. Elimination of destitution needs to be considered in the context of three objectives —regaining control over land and other productive resources, regaining control over one’s labour, and regaining control over the produce of labour.

Thus, famine prevention policies should be based on the hard-earned political rights of the citizens and should not remain merely administrative obligations. The persistence of chronic hunger and the recurrence of starvation deaths must be seen as morally outrageous and politically unacceptable in the context of democratic transformations that has seen an unprecedented expansion of the social welfare state and its constitutional responsibilities to secure basic rights for the people. Thus, freedom from hunger needs to be recognised not just as a human right but also as a political right.

(Author: Suranjita Ray teaches Political Science at Daulat Ram College, University of Delhi. Email: suranjitaray[at]

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