The Representation of Famines in Indian literatures

deadline for submissions: 
August 31, 2023
full name / name of organization: 
Shubhanku Kochar (Ph.D.) and Parveen Kumari (Ph.D.)

The Representation of Famines in Indian literatures


The Proposed work will be submitted to Routledge under its ongoing series “South Asian Literature in Focus”


According to the UN Refugee Agency, “[A] famine is a situation in which a substantial proportion of the population of a country or region is unable to access adequate food, resulting in widespread acute malnutrition and loss of life by starvation and disease.” Famines have played a vital role in shaping the world’s demography. Some examples of devastating famines that brought extreme changes in the demography are as follows:

Beginning with the “436 B.C. famine in Rome” when thousands of starving Romans threw themselves in the Tiber; “The Great Leap Forward Famine” of China (1959-1961), which resulted in the highest number of deaths by a single famine ever recorded; “The Great Irish Famine” in the late 1840s reduced the population of Ireland by a quarter; “The Bengal Famine” of 1770 lead to the death of one-third of the Bengali population.

Unfortunately, India has not been untouched by this destructive situation. In fact, famines, caused mainly by droughts owing to shorter monsoon seasons, and disorderly distribution of food, have caused millions of deaths through the ages. It becomes imperative to understand the nature of these famines and, for a literature scholar, to understand the role of famines in literatures produced in different parts of India during different times and periods. The famines that shook the nation are:


Famines in Ancient and Medieval India

Although there has been a dearth of reliable data on famines in Ancient India, some definite famines are worth stating. One such example would be the Kashmir Famine of 917-918 A.D. The Kashmiri population saw a decline due to the flooding of Jhelum which washed away the crops. An up-to-date record of famines in the earlier period is not available, except for some scattered references in the history of the medieval period. In Mughal India famines and severe scarcities occurred in Akbar's regime during the years 1555-56, 1573-74, 1577, 1583-84 and 1595-98.

During the latter period of the Mughal empire, famines were witnessed during 1630-31 in Ahmednagar, Gujarat, and some parts of Malwa, in 1641 in Kashmir, Punjab in 1646. The years 1658-60 witnessed scarcities in Sindh, Surat, the eastern coast, and Gujarat. Emperors made provisions for the distribution of food and granted tax concessions on transported food. Grain was purchased from surplus provinces and sold at a cheap price. Again, the years 1687, 1702-04 and 1747 saw scarcities of food, fodder and of drinking water. According to H.S. Srivastava, "In 1687, even rich men were reduced to beggary on account of scarcity of food and fodder. Scarcity of water in 1747 was so great that men could not get water even to wash their faces. Men and cattle perished in large number."



Famines During East India Company Regime

The Bengal Famine 1770

The first famine during the East India Company took place in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa in 1770, caused by the continuous crop failures in 1768, 1769 and 1770. According to official estimates, one-third (approximately 10 million) inhabitants of Bengal fell victim of starvation. Prices rose 4 to 10 times the ordinary rates. Even children were offered for sale but there were no purchasers: "The country was so depopulated and deserted that once fertile and populous parts were described by a traveller as a 'pathless forest'."  People went on dying but nothing appeared to have been done to relieve them, except the measures of laying an embargo on the export of food grains and display of a proclamation upon the doors of public offices throughout the Company's dominions against hoarding and buying up of grain. These measures proved absolute failure.

Nineteenth-century has been known as a century of famines, though the recurrence and severity of each famine were relatively less during the first half of it. Major famines occurred in 1802-04, 1806-07, 1812, 1824, 1825-26, 1932- 34, 1937-38 and 1854, all local in character and witnessed in different parts of the country during different times.


Famines under British Rule

Famines 1860-80

This time span of 20 years has been characterized as the most crucial period of agricultural distress which the Indian economy has ever experienced before. First among the series of famines occurred in 1860-61 in North West Provinces including Ajmer-Merwara and adjoining districts of Punjab partly as a result of local disturbances in 1857 during which villages were plundered and burnt so that local stores of grain had been destroyed, and partly as a consequence of unseasonal rains in 1860.

The Great Famine of 1876-78

This famine has been described as the ‘most grievous calamity of its kind that the country had experienced till then, since the beginning of the 19th century’ in the 1880 report by the Famine Commission, and A. Loveday—the author of The History and Economics of Indian Famines—calls it ‘The most extensive famine which India has experienced since the predominance of British power.’ In all, a total area of 2,05,600 sq. miles covering a population of 36.4 million was affected. Official estimates of human mortality stood at 10.32 million. William Digby, however, states that actual mortality was probably much higher than the official estimates. Relief measures adopted in different provinces included the import of food grains to famine-stricken areas, imposition of '1 lb. ration' per day per famine worker, provision for relief works, liberal money advances to the distressed population for purchase of seeds and for construction of well and tanks. Gratuitous relief was in limited areas.

Bengal Famine of 1943

India experienced several scarcities but no major famine over a period of thirty-five years from 1908 to 1942. The scarcities did not involve considerable loss of life. It was in 1943 when Bengal was confronted with a severe famine. The famine was the result of a series of crop failures that Bengal was met since 1938. The outbreak of the Second World War aggravated the situation. War affected Bengal in many ways. Normal imports of food grains from Burma ceased. Wartime controls dislocated private trading and movement of food grains on account of provincial and even district barriers against the movement of grains. There was greater demand for food for army personnel and the influx of refugees from Burma. The famine might be called "more man-made than an act of God". Man's part in this tragic drama was 'the failure on the part of the administration to foresee the beginning of the war in 1939and to take timely action to meet it.


Famines since Independence

Fortunately, India did not face any widespread famine since the disastrous famine of Bengal, though there were a series of short-lived local scarcities in different parts of the country till the great famine of 1970-73. The years of relatively widespread scarcities since independence are 1952- 53, 1965-67 and 1970-73. One outstanding case would be that of Kalahandi. According to newspaper reports, in 1993, some 11 million people were severely affected when a drought-induced crisis affected around 600 villages in Kalahandi and its surrounding areas, and almost 500 people were reported to have starved to death. Recent reports suggest that thousands, facing starvation and disease, have migrated to other regions (including some major regional cities) in search of a livelihood.

It will be seen from the history of Indian famines that a long-run policy for reducing the possibility of recurring famines is necessary. Even after more than 75 years of independence, we do not make suitable changes in the famine relief policy and famine works adopted by the foreign Government of India.


Indian literature is rich in the representation of the role and impact of famines on the nation-state, communities, and individuals coming from varying backgrounds. According to Mandira Ghosh, in Bengal, a new brand of literature called ‘natun sahitya’ or a new variety of progressive literature was created, because the sensibilities of a section of the progressive middle class were offended, since people begged and died of starvation for lack of food. Other writers like Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, whose Ashani Sanket (Intimations of Thunder, 1944–1946)interrogate the representation of bodies during the Bengal famine of 1943; Bhabani Bhattacharya’s novels, So Many Hungers! (1947) and He Who Rides a Tiger (1954), provide an epistemological alternative to imperial narratives about the Bengal famine of 1943; Bankimchandra Chattopadhyaya’s Anandmath (1882) is based on the devastating Bengal Famine of 1770. These are a few among the plethora of works based on famines across India.


The contributors are required to address one of the following sub-themes:


The literary representation of famines in Ancient India

The literary representation of famines in Medieval India

The literary representation of famines in Mughal India

The literary representation of famines in British India

The literary representation of famines in Post-independent India

The literary representation of famines in Contemporary/21st century India


The aim of this project is to chart out the chronological history of the representation of famines in Indian literatures in English and translations.

Abstracts (150-200 words) in English with a short bio note (100 words) as a Word document must be emailed to:, by or before July 20, 2023. 


 1.   Name : Shubhanku Kochar (Ph. D)

Affiliation: Department of English, Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, Dwarka, India.

 2     Name : Parveen Kumari (Ph.D)

Affiliation: Department of English, Central University of Jammu, Jammu, India.


 NOTE: 1) This is the call for abstracts specifically dealing with the post-1947 era as other topics have been covered.