Harking Back: Dynamics of famines in subcontinent

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, June 22 , 2014


The one thing associated with the subcontinent most is famines, just as plagues are associated with Europe. We often associate the manner in which we approach wedding feasts as being its result, rationalising that it is now part of our genetic behaviour.

Nothing is further from the truth. But this does not mean that famines are purely a natural phenomenon.

Considerable research into the causes of famines has been undertaken, with droughts, war, trade depressions, unfair taxation and financial crises being the main reasons in that order. Storage and distribution play the immediate, and telling, cause of famines. Research tells us that the largest number of famines in the history of mankind took place between 1857 and 1901 in the sub-continent, with most of them being centred in and around Punjab. That is why the study of famines and Lahore is an important subject. The most recent such occurrence was the famous 1943 Bengal Famine which claimed four million lives out of a population of 60.3 million.

The worst famine to hit Lahore was a four-year tragedy in the days of Akbar the Great in 1596-98, and to overcome it the emperor appointed Sheikh Fareed Bukhari as a ‘famine officer’ with the duty to set up the feeding kitchens to feed 80,000 persons. Three kitchens, one each of Hindus, Muslims and Jogis, were set up. But in return the emperor ordered that the all able-bodied persons would work to build the Lahore Fort. It was thus that Lahore got its magnificent fort. A ‘Famine Tax’ was imposed on all landowners at the rate of 10 ‘sairs’ of wheat for every ‘bigha’ (three fourths of an acre) as an insurance as the drought continued.

We learn of this famine in the words of Abdul Hamid Lahori in ‘Badshahnama’: “Life was offered for a loaf. Dog meat was sold as goat meat. Crushed bones were mixed in flour. Given half a chance men devoured each other”. Sadly, such happenings take place even today, though for twisted psychological reasons, and they make media headlines. Have you ever considered the saying: “Mooyan de Mandi” – the marketplace of the dead? This was a reference in those days in Lahore to the people thrown in heaps on the banks of the Ravi at Mahmood Booti, north of the walled city. Even today farmers find human bones when digging their fields.

But then famines changed the demography of Lahore. For example when in 1614 and 1615 very heavy rainfalls destroyed the crops of Kashmir, and nearly 50,000 Kashmiris migrated to Lahore. The next major migration of Kashmiris took place in the reign of Maharajah Ranjit Singh because of famine and war, and it was then that Gowalmandi as we know it today came about.

But we often forget that the events of 1857 also came about because the year before a famine had set in, and it was evident that it was to continue as the East India Company, so the records tell us, had exported a lot of wheat, rice and millet to Britain. The base for fearing starvation was well in place and it took the excuse of cow and pig fat on cartridges to trigger an uprising that took an anti-imperialist fight for freedom. Sadly, as no Indian leadership structure was in place, a confused people flocked to an aging emperor who had no clue as to what to do.

Immediately after the happenings of 1857-8 a massive fodder famine hit the entire sub-continent as people returned to growing food for themselves. The Company confiscated one third of crops in the name of taxation setting in a famine, which formed the economic basis for the Crown taking over the sub-continent from the Company.

But come the Crown and even greater famines hit the subcontinent, especially Punjab. Along with the enactment of propriety right over land, large land-owners discovered they could borrow against their lands. To counter this tendency to spend lavishly on feasts and jewellery, the British brought in the Punjab Land Alienation Act of 1900. But as modern agricultural practices and the canals managed to keep production at higher levels, it was human factors that led to more and more famines. Between 1857 and 1900, the Punjab faced 21 different famines. In the worst of 1897 in Lahore nearly 15 per cent of the population died of starvation. In several shocking cases inside the walled city, families ate their young to stay alive.

As the British waged massive world wars in the 1914-1919 period, and again in the 1939-1945 period, not to speak of dozens of others all over the world, it were the grain stores of the subcontinent that were hardest hit, a major portion being exported at very low prices.

Many a time in the 50 years till the 1900s, we have seen a new ‘Mooyan de Mandi’ come about. This human tragedy needs to be researched. No wonder when we still go to weddings, the rush to get the first morsel is a tragic reminder of what our land and people faced in the past.

Published in Dawn, June 22nd, 2014




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