by Rubayya Tasneem
William Logan, in his book, Malabar, has explored the famine repeatedly faced by this district and chronicled the history and culture of Malabar. Famine related epidemics and large scale mortalities were persistent in the Malabar during the colonial period. The British documents about this have acknowledged that an artificial famine was possible as the district had continually failed to produce sufficient grains for its home population, and further emphasized that the technological advancements in rail, sea, and road made it practically impossible.
But historical records have shown that Malabar had experienced repeated famines during the British rule as a result of imperial indifference in undertaking famine prevention activities. The famines under colonial rule occurred during 1865, 1876, 1891, and 1896.
Much of the response of the authorities comprised of imposing restrictions on private community kitchens and related organizations. This was followed up by a hike in taxes and duties, which prevented the richer sections of the society from conducting gratuitous kitchens.
William Logan’s 2 volume historiography was published just eight years after the 1876 famine. Therefore claims in his book stating that there was no record of any famine after 1727 cannot be considered as a mere oversight. Rather, it was a deliberate attempt on the part of the authorities to conceal the truth.
Malabar was handed to the British by the Mysore Kings as per the Treaty of Srirangapattanam. It was considered one of the districts of the Madras Presidency, and one of the richest districts of that presidency. Food production was poor when compared to the neighboring districts despite the heavy monsoons faced by them, and therefore, production was low even during normal years. Malabar also experienced flash floods due to excess monsoons, which resulted in the destruction of standing crops and washing off food stocks as well as other belongings.
As a result of the British occupation, the district was increasingly handicapped in meetings its demand even during the better harvests, since large areas in Malabar were increasingly converted into plantation estates.
The Second World War broke out in September 1939, and the economic conditions persisting in the district led to a price increase in commodities, which largely affected the peasants and workers present there. This situation was exacerbated by the fact that food production was not a priority for the government during the war periods. Malabar was largely dependent on Burma for the major portion of its demand. So in 1942, when Japan captured Burma, it adversely affected the import of rice to Malabar. Furthermore, the main supply of rice was diverted for military purposes instead of the common people. With the onset of war, the statistics show that the import of rice to Calicut had fallen considerably from an annual average of 32000 tonnes to 13000 tons in February 1941.
In 1940, in the wake of the cyclone, rivers overflowed and resulted in over 1000 acres of paddy land being silted up in chirakkal(18). This inevitably led to the typhoid epidemics in Badagara, Thalassery, and Kannur. An epidemic of cholera also broke out, and to avoid criticisms for failing to maintain health standards in the district. The Government officials arranged for the affected to be put on trains and transported out of Calicut. Even as the District Medical officer requested for aid, the finance department failed to provide finances for this purpose, and the Assistant Secretary observed that “it is not possible for anyone to die of starvation in Malabar because of the gifts of nature, and the charitable disposition of the people.
In the year 1943, the food situation became critical all over the country resulting in the appointment of the Food Grains Policy Committee by the Government of India to arrange for an equitable distribution of food among the provinces. The “Grow More Food Campaign” was launched in the presidency by the Committee with the intention of achieving a substantial increase in food production through several means, including increasing farming areas, new irrigation projects, and double-crop cultivation. None of these efforts, however, resulted in substantial improvement in the crisis.
Simultaneously, the fund drive for the war efforts continued in full operation, and in January 1941, the Governor reported that the Presidency’s contribution to the war effort had reached a total of Rupees Seventy LakhThe measures undertaken for this purpose obviously deteriorated the increased economic distress of the people.
Another Famine occurred in Malabar in the year 1943, and famine related epidemics devastated the region. Cholera, plague, smallpox, and other diseases resulted in a high mortality rate. Several newspapers reported on the severity of the situation and Liberator, published in Calicut capped the deaths at nearly one lakh in the year 1943. The response of the officials merely declared that it was a gross exaggeration of facts, while many books and articles detailing this incident dispute the official records.
The British Administration in Malabar took little interest in providing standard health care services, in spite of the claims in the official reports and the various officers stationed for this purpose. While the district health department conducted lectures, short talks, and lectures, these were inadequate in combating the issues, and even the health staff visited villages on a regular basis, although this was mainly for propaganda.
The events unfolding under British occupation reveals the utilization of resources for their own purposes, creating an artificial famine, and mostly as a result of colonial exploitation. This was aggravated by the Government’s failure to intervene, resulting in serious outbreaks of cholera and other diseases.
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Malabar Collector to Development Secretary on 16 February 1941, Government of Madras, Revenue Department, G.O.No. 1911, 17 June 1943, Tamilnadu State Archives, Chennai.
Malabar Collector to Development Secretary on 16 February 1941, Government of Madras, Revenue Department, G.O.No. 1911, 17 June 1943, Tamilnadu State Archives, Chennai
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The Hindu , Madras, 2 January 1941.
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