Famine and Dearth

Bengal District Gazetteers - Cuttack

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Introductory notes

The Bengal District Gazetteers were published in the first two decades of the 20th century. The bulk of the series was published under the supervision of Lewis Sydney Stewart O'Malley. L.S.S. O'Malley who entered Indian Civil Service in 1898, joined as Assistant Magistrate and Collector in Bengal. O'Malley was later promoted to the post of Under Secretary to Government and General and Revenue Department when he took upon his work on the Bengal District Gazetteers. The Gazetteer volume on Cuttack benefitted from Andrew Stirling's Account of Orissa or Cuttack published in 1822 and later S.L. Maddox's Final Report and Report on the Survey and Settlement of the Province of Orissar. The volume was published by The Bengal Secretariat Book Depot in 1906.

Cuttack was originally part of the Kalinga kingdom. In 1751, owing to raids by the Maratha army in demand for "Chouth" or one-fourth of the revenue, Alivardi Khan had to cede Orissa to the Marathas. The British East India Company earned possession of the region through the Treaty of Deogaon concluded in 1803. The following excerpts from the Gazetteer have been selected from the chapters on History, Agriculture, Natural Calamities and Land Revenue Administration. The selections highlight how the low land topography of the district is difficult for cultivation. The district has a long history of famines and scarcity. It witnessed famines under the Kalinga in the 14th, 15th and 16th Century. Again the country was ravaged by the Famine of 1770 and also the scarcities of 1780, 1792-93 and 1803.

Selection details

Cuttack was originally part of the Kalinga kingdom. In 1751, owing to raids by the Maratha army in demand for "Chouth" or one-fourth of the revenue, Alivardi Khan had to cede Orissa to the Marathas. The British East India Company earned possession of the region through the Treaty of Deogaon concluded in 1803. The following excerpts from the Gazetteer have been selected from the chapters on History, Agriculture, Natural Calamities and Land Revenue Administration. The selections highlight how the low land topography of the district is difficult for cultivation. The district has a long history of famines and scarcity. It witnessed famines under the Kalinga in the 14th, 15th and 16th Century. Again the country was ravaged by the Famine of 1770 and also the scarcities of 1780, 1792-93 and 1803.

BENGAL DISTRICT GAZETTEERS
CUTTACK

by
L.S.S.O'MALLEY
INDIAN CIVIL SERVICE
CALCUTTA: THE BENGAL SECRETARIAT BOOK DEPOT. 1906
[Page 72]

1. CHAPTER V AGRICULTURE

AN account has been given in Chapter I of the three tracts into which the district is naturally divided, viz., the littoral, forming the sea face of the Bay of Bengal, the submontane, under the western hills, and between them a wide zone of highly fertile Land intersected by a network of great rivers. To the east is a lowlying tract, which is of great natural fertility, where it is protected from the action of salt water; but a great part is impregnated with salt and unfit for cultivation, while much of the rest is exposed to damage from storm-waves. This belt of country contains treeless expanses of rice-fields and grasslands, sloping down into a desolate jungly tract, full of swamps, saline creeks and impenetrable morasses, the haunt of wild hog and deer and of enormous crocodiles. To the west a large part of the surface consists of a series of low ranges, 10 to 15 miles in length, spreading out into infertile table-lands of ferruginous clay and laterite. It is a region of high sterile land and rocky hills, covered with bamboos and scrub jungle, and intersected by narrow though fertile valleys. Between these two tracts lie the wide alluvial plains forming the delta of the Mahanadi, Brahmani and Baitarani rivers, where an extensive system of irrigation protects the crops from failure in seasons of drought and enables land to be cultivated that would otherwise remain barren. They present a gradual and steady slope from the high lands of the west to the sea, and a composition varying according to the relative proportion of the sand and silt of which they are formed. The surface is generally flat and presents the appearance of a dead level of ricefields, but it is broken by the hills of Alti and Matkatnagar in the centre, and is out up by numerous river channels. In the west, where the mountains slope down to the plains, the lines of drainage are sufficiently marked by the great rivers, but in the delta proper the low levels lie not along the river courses, but in the valleys midway between them. The surface water gathers in many places in these intervening valleys into low marshes or temporary lakes, which are used during the dry season for the [Page 73] cultivation of the dalua or spring rice. In the central portion of this intermediate belt a large variety of crops are raised on the lands which are periodically enriched by river silt; but along the western border and near the coast, winter rice is practically the only crop grown, as in the former tract the land is too high to receive deposits of silt, and in the latter tract the silt is deprived of most of its fertilizing power by the saline deposits of sea water.

Cuttack is primarily a land of abundant rainfall. Since 1860 the average registered fall for the year has been over 60 inches, it has occasionally been as great as 80 or 90 inches, and there have been only six occasions on which it was less than 50 inches. On the other hand, the rainfall is precarious, and an untimely or unequal distribution is liable to cause the partial or complete destruction of the crops, even if the actual fall does not fall short of the quantity required. A heavy shower in February or March is necessary to enable the land to be ploughed, but the most critical months are May, September and October. If the May showers, which are the precursors of the monsoon rains, do not fall, sowing may be prejudicially delayed; but deficiency in the rainfall in September and October is even more dangerous as it affects the' maturing of the staple rice crop. The most terrible famine the district has ever known was caused by the failure of the September and October rains in 1865; in 1896 with a rainfall very little below the normal, serious loss was caused by the cessation of the rains early in September; and, on the other hand, the crops of 1876 and 1877 were saved by the rains in these months, in spite of the very scanty fall of 41.28 and 41.13 inches. On the whole, it may be said that a well-distributed rainfall of 40 inches is sufficient to secure the crop, provided that not less than 4 inches fall in October; but in order to obtain a bumper crop at least 50 inches are required, of which 8 inches. must fall in September and 6 inches in October. In the last 40 years, however, the fall of October has been less than 4 inches 15 times, and, generally speaking, the cultivators have to face the prospect of having once in every three or four years a rainfall less than the maximum compatible with the ripening of the crop, and of suffering a loss of a fourth to a half of the rice in the unirrigated lands. Besides this, the district is liable to inundation from the rivers overflowing their banks when swollen by heavy rainfall in the hills. It is only however when they are of an extraordinary height and of long duration, or when they occur so late as to render resowing impossible, that very serious and widespread damage is done by such floods. Provided that they are not too high or of long continuance, and that they come early in the [Page 74] season, they are productive of almost as much good as harm, as the fertilizing silt they leave behind renews the productive powers of the soil and assures excellent harvests.

Owing to the ample supply of rainfall in ordinary years, irrigation is far less essential than in less favoured parts of the Province, and, except for the canals, it is little used. An account of the value of the canal system as affording protection against a failure or partial failure of the rains in years of drought has been given in Chapter VI; and it will suffice here to say that the area irrigated from this source is 170,000 acres and that the canal embankments protect about 500,000 acres. this area is practically all under rice, and water is taken from April to December, the demand for it being greatest in May and June, when it is required for ploughing the land, in July and August for loosening the soil at the roots of the young plants, and in October for the final ripening of the crop. Well water is used only for watering garden crops and betel plantations; and irrigation from streams and tanks is generally confined to the more valuable crops such as sugarcane, tobacco, and cotton; in most parts of the district it is only resorted to for paddy in October and November.

[Page 75]

The arable land in the plains consists of alluvium in which sand and clay are intermixed in varying proportions; but the cultivators recognize a large number of different classes of soil, the names of which vary according to their situation, elevation and composition. In an ordinary village, the lands fall primarily under three main divisions according to their situation, viz., (1) The low lands retaining rain water and hence called jala or wet lands, on which winter rice is grown. These lands predominate in the district and comprise about 70 per cent. of the whole cultivated area. (2) The high lands round the village homesteads, which, being enriched by manure and household refuse, have a blackish colour and are therefore called kala; they are devoted to vegetables, cotton, jute, and other valuable crops. The homestead land is also known by the generic name of gharbari, and the land lying between this and the fields is called gantali. (3) The river-side lands (pala), which, being periodically fertilized by deposits of silt, are suitable for growing tobacco, cotton, mustard and other rabi crops.

[Page 106]

2. CHAPTER VII NATURAL CALAMITIES

THE most difficult problem which the administration in this district has to face is its liability to loss of life and property from natural calamities. The rainfall is in most years ample for its needs, but it is precarious, and its early cessation is fatal to the rice crop on which the people depend. In the deltaic tract which forms the greater part of the district, the difference of level between the high and low-lying lands, is so slight that, in the event of any scarcity of rainfall; all parts are equally affected. The low lands are not sufficiently below the level of the uplands to retain moisture for any considerable time after the rains have ceased, and in years of drought the crops grown on them do not compensate for the loss of those which may be burnt up on the arid higher levels. A drought is, therefore, liable to affect Cuttack more seriously than those districts where the difference of level between the up-lands and the low-lying tracts is sufficient to cause the sterility of the former to be compensated by the increased fertility of the latter. Since the droughts, however, of 1836, 1837, 1842 and 1865-66, all of which caused more or less distress, and the last of which brought on the great famine of Orissa, large irrigation works have been constructed which yield an ample supply of water, so that the district may be now said to enjoy comparative immunity from famine, even when there is a protracted cessation of the rains. As a matter of fact, of late years there has been no ground for any great anxiety on the score of drought, although the deficiency of rainfall has in several years seriously affected the outturn of crops. The area now regarded as liable to famine is 1,295 square miles with a population of 572,500, and it is estimated that the maximum number of persons likely to require relief in the event of serious famine is 78,000, of whom 62,000 would be provided for by relief works, while 16,000 would require gratuitous relief.

[Page 107]

Previous to the inception of the great Orissa canal system, droughts and famines were of frequent occurrence. Historical records show that terrible famines occurred in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, and during "the rule of the Marathas the district suffered grievously from repeated famines. In the memorable famine of 1770 the land lay untilled; rice was not to be had at two seers per rupee; and while the people were dying by hundreds of thousands, the Maratha soldiery plundered and devastated the country. Four years later another scarcity is said to have occurred, and in Cuttack town rice could scarcely be purchased at 10 annas for the local seer (105 tolas). In 1780 the whole country had sunk into such absolute desolation that there was not a single place except Puri and Cuttack which could furnish even one battalion with provisions. In 1792-93 the miserable peasants again experienced the horrors of famine; scarcity followed in 1803; and when the district passed into the possession of the [Page 108] British the condition of the country was wretched. A large portion of the land has been thrown into waste; many of the people had fled to the jungle, and the population was insufficient to till the fields. Under British administration an era of prosperity has ensued with an improvement in their material resources, the people have displayed far more staying power in bad years; cultivation has extended; and though there have been frequent droughts, they have only once culminated in famine.

This is a selection from the original text

Keywords

agriculture, crops, cultivation, famine, rice, scarcity

Source text

Title: Bengal District Gazetteers - Cuttack

Editor(s): L.S.S. O'Malley

Publisher: The Bengal Secretariat Book Depot

Publication date: 1906

Edition: 1st Edition

Place of publication: Calcutta

Provenance/location: This text was transcribed from images available at the Digital Library of India: http://www.dli.ernet.in/.

Digital edition

Original editor(s): L.S.S. O'Malley

Language: English

Selection used:

  • 1 ) pages 72 to 75
  • 2 ) pages 106 to 108

Responsibility:

Texts collected by: Ayesha Mukherjee, Amlan Das Gupta, Azarmi Dukht Safavi

Texts transcribed by: Muhammad Irshad Alam, Bonisha Bhattacharya, Arshdeep Singh Brar, Muhammad Ehteshamuddin, Kahkashan Khalil, Sarbajit Mitra

Texts encoded by: Bonisha Bhattacharya, Shreya Bose, Lucy Corley, Kinshuk Das, Bedbyas Datta, Arshdeep Singh Brar, Sarbajit Mitra, Josh Monk, Reesoom Pal

Encoding checking by: Hannah Petrie, Gary Stringer, Charlotte Tupman

Genre: India > gazetteers > district

For more information about the project, contact Dr Ayesha Mukherjee at the University of Exeter.

Acknowledgements