The Imperial Gazetteer of India - Volume VI

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Introductory notes

The Imperial Gazetteer of India was the outcome of a detailed statistical survey of the country conducted between 1869 to 1881. The Gazetteer volumes were published under the supervision of William Wilson Hunter. Hunter was educated at the Universities of Glasgow, Paris and Bonn and had a degree on Sanskrit, before joining the Indian Civil Service in 1862. Hunter joined as assistant magistrate and collector of Birbhum district in Bengal. During his days in Birbhum, Hunter meticulously collected local traditions and records and published the, The Annals of Rural Bengal. Hunter also compiled A Comparative Dictionary of the Non-Aryan Languages of India. Impressed with Hunter's endeavors, the then Viceroy Lord Mayo, asked Hunter in 1869 to supervise the comprehensive statistical survey of the Indian sub-continent. The survey report completed in 1881 comprised of 128 volumes. These volumes were condensed into 9 volumes and was published as The Imperial Gazetteer of India. Hunter thereafter presided Commission of Indian Education (1882) and became Vice-Chancellor of Calcutta University, before retiring from service in 1887. In this project we have made our selections from the Second edition of The Imperial Gazetteer of India. The second edition, published between 1885-1887 from Trubner & Company had 14 volumes.

The Volume VI of the Imperial Gazetteer of India narrates the history of India since the commencement of British rule. The following excerpts from the Gazetteer have been selected from the chapter on Famine.

Selection details

The Volume VI of the Imperial Gazetteer of India narrates the history of India since the commencement of British rule. The following excerpts from the Gazetteer have been selected from the chapter on Famine.

The Imperial Gazetteer of India.
W. W. HUNTER, C.S.I., C.I.E., LL.D.,

London: TRUBNER & CO. 1885
[Page 378]

1. Chapter XV History of British Rule (1757-1885 A.D.)

[Page 387]

Lord Clive quitted India for the third and last time in 1767. Between that date and the governorship of Warren Hastings in 1772, little of importance occurred in Bengal beyond the terrible famine of 1770, which is officially reported to have swept away one-third of the inhabitants. The dual system of government, established in 1765 by Clive, had proved a [Page 388] failure. Warren Hastings, a tried servant of the Company, distinguished alike for intelligence, for probity, and for knowledge of oriental manners, was nominated Governor by the Court of Directors, with express instructions to carry out a predetermined series of reforms. In their own words, the Court had resolved to 'stand forth as diwan, and to take upon themselves, by the agency of their own servants, the entire care and administration of the revenues.' In the execution of this plan, Hastings removed the exchequer to Calcutta from Murshidabad, which had up to that time remained the revenue head-quarters of Bengal. He also appointed European officers, under the now familiar title of Collectors, to superintend the revenue collections and preside in the courts.


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[Page 539]

2.1. Famines

In any country where the population is dense and the means of communication backward, the failure of a harvest, whether produced by drought, by flood, by blight, by locusts, or by war, causes intense distress. Whether such distress shall develop into famine is merely a matter of degree, depending upon a combination of circumstances—the comparative extent of the failure, the density of the population, the practicability of imports, the facilities for transport, the resources of private trade, and the energy of the administration.

Drought, or a failure of the regular rainfall, is the great cause of famine. No individual foresight, no compensating influences, can prevent those recurring periods of continuous drought with which large Provinces of India are afflicted. Even an average rainfall in any one year, if irregularly distributed, or at the wrong seasons, may affect the harvest to a moderate degree; so also may flood or blight. The total failure of one monsoon may result in a general scarcity. But famine proper, or widespread starvation, is usually caused by a succession of seasons of drought. The cultivators of India are seldom dependent upon a single harvest, or upon the crops of one year. In the event of a partial failure, they can draw for their [Page 540] food-supply either upon their own grain pits or upon the stores of the village merchants. The first sufferers, and those who also suffer most in the end, are the class who live by daily wages. But small is the number that can hold out, either in capital or credit, against a second year of insufficient rainfall; and even the third season sometimes proves adverse. The great famines in India have been caused by drought, and usually by drought continued over two or three years.

It becomes necessary to inquire into the means of husbanding the water-supply. That supply can be derived only from three sources—(1) Local rainfall; (2) natural inundation; and (3) artificial irrigation from rivers, canals, tanks, or wells. Any of these sources may exist separately or together. In only a few parts of India can the rainfall be entirely trusted, as both sufficient in its amount and regular in its distribution. These favoured tracts include the whole strip of coast beneath the Western Ghats, from Bombay to Cape Comorin; the greater part of the Provinces of Assam and Burma; together with the deltaic districts at the head of the Bay of Bengal. In these provinces the annual rainfall rarely, if ever, falls below 60 to 100 inches; artificial irrigation and famine are there alike unknown.

The rest of the Indian peninsula may be described as liable more or less to drought. In Orissa, the scene of the most intense famine of recent times, the average rainfall exceeds 60 inches a year; in Sind, which has been exceptionally free from famine under British rule, the average drops to less than 10 inches. The local rainfall, therefore, is not the only element to be considered. Broadly speaking, artificial irrigation has protected, or is now in course of protecting, certain fortunate regions, such as the eastward deltas of the Madras rivers and the upper valley of the Ganges. The rest, and by far the greater portion, of the country is still exposed to famine. Meteorological science may possibly teach us to foresee what is coming.1 But it may be doubted whether administrative efforts can do more than alleviate the calamity when once famine has declared itself. Lower Bengal and Oudh are watered by natural inundation as much as by the local rainfall; Sind derives its supplies mainly from canals filled by the floods of the Indus; the Punjab and the North-Western Provinces are dependent largely upon wells; the Deccan, with the entire south, is the land of tanks and reservoirs. But in all these Provinces, when the rainfall has failed over a series of [Page 541] years, the canal supply must likewise fail after no long interval. Waterworks on a scale adequate to guarantee the whole of India from drought not only exceed the possibilities of finance; they are also beyond the reach of engineering skill.

The first great famine of which we have any trustworthy record is that which devastated the lower valley of the Ganges in 1769-70. One-third of the population of Bengal is credibly reported to have perished. The previous season had been bad; and, as not uncommonly happens, the break-up of the drought was accompanied by disastrous floods. Beyond the importation into Calcutta and Murshidabad of a few thousand hundredweights of rice from the Districts of Bakarganj and Chittagong, it does not appear that any public measures for relief were taken or proposed.1

The next great famine was that which afflicted the Karnatik from 1780 to 1783, and has been immortalized by the genius of Burke. It arose primarily from the ravages of Haidar Ali's army. A public subscription was organized by the Madras Government, from which sprang the 'Monegar Choultry,' a permanent Madras institution for the relief of the native poor. In 1783-84, Hindustan Proper suffered from a prolonged drought, which stopped short at the frontier of British territory. Warren Hastings, then Governor-General, advocated the construction of enormous granaries, to be opened only in times of necessity. One of these granaries or golas, stands to the present day in the city of Patna, but it was never used until the scarcity of 1874. In 1790-92, Madras was again the scene of a two-years' famine, which is memorable as being the first occasion on which the starving people were employed by Government on relief works. Famines again occurred in Southern India in 1802-04, 1807, 1812, 1824, 1833, 1854, and 1866. A terrible dearth in 1838 caused great mortality in the North-Western Provinces.

This is a selection from the original text


drought, famine, flood, irrigation, rice

Source text

Title: The Imperial Gazetteer of India

Subtitle: Volume VI. India

Editor(s): W.W. Hunter

Publisher: Trübner & Co.

Publication date: 1885

Edition: 2nd Edition

Place of publication: London

Provenance/location: This text was transcribed from images available at Internet Archive:

Digital edition

Original editor(s): W.W. Hunter

Language: English

Selection used:

  • 1 ) pages 387 to 388
  • 2 ) pages 539 to 541


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 > imperial

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