Natural calamities such as drought, flood, epidemics, and cyclones have occurred repeatedly throughout Odisha’s history. Their frequent visits in the nineteenth century were the primary factor that broke the backbone of the Odia people. Odisha’s people have been afflicted by numerous natural disasters. The most famous of them all was the 1866 famine, dubbed the Na-anka famine in Odisha’s history. It had wreaked havoc on the socioeconomic fabric of Odisha for several generations. The Odisha Famine of 1866 was one of the world’s worst famines. This disaster was precipitated by the carelessness of the British administrators in charge of Odisha Division, as well as natural and economic disasters. Around one-third of Odisha’s total population perished in the devastating famine. This severe famine is also known as the ‘Na-Anka Famine’ because it occurred during Gajapati Divyasinghadeva’s ninth regnal year. The calamity was so devastating that the people of Odisha retained a tragic memory of it for at least several decades.
Factors Contributing to the 1866 Famine
Numerous factors contributed to the outbreak of the 1866 famine in Odisha, which can be discussed as follows:
The cessation of rainfall
The drought of 1865 may have contributed to the famine of 1866. In 1865, the monsoon season began early, and there was no rainfall between October and November. The lands dried up and crops were completely destroyed as a result of the scorching sun. In that year, cultivators harvested roughly one-third of the total annual produce. In that year, the peasants were unable to preserve food.
Severe food grain scarcity
Another factor contributing to the outbreak of the 1866 famine was an alarming shortage of food grains caused by casual export of food grains. Each year, Odisha exported a massive amount of rice. According to records from the six years preceding 1866, Odisha exported an average of 20,000 tonnes of rice per year. In 1865, the wealthy Telingah Koomtees of Madras Presidency imported 33,000 tonnes of rice from Odisha and sold it to a French company called Messers Robert and Chariol Co., earning a handsome profit. This export consumed the entire surplus of 1864. Additionally, when the rains abruptly ceased in 1865, the British government did not import food grains.
The people’s unfavourable economic situation
Agriculture was Odisha’s primary occupation. The East India Company’s thirty-year revenue settlement in Odisha was scheduled to expire in 1866. Recognizing the potential for increased revenue, the population significantly reduced the area under cultivation from 1864. This principle was adopted in order to demonstrate less possession of land at the time of settlement, thereby imposing a lower revenue burden on landowners. The British government had conducted extensive research into these people’s minds. As a result, it purposefully delayed the settlement process, which would have begun in 1864. The people of Odisha were unaware. With the decline in cultivable land beginning in 1864, a decline in production was unavoidable. This resulted in the people of Odisha’s economic situation deteriorating.
In Odisha, no effort is made to improve agriculture.
On the other hand, the East India Company paid little attention to agricultural development in Odisha following its occupation of the land. The British did not begin irrigation in Odisha until 1866. Farmers on the land were completely reliant on the monsoon for cultivation. In September 1865, rainfall ceased, and by the end of October, rice became scarce and expensive. It exacerbated not only the peasants’ plight, but also that of thezamindars, who found it difficult to collect revenue on time. Muspratt, the Collector of Balasore, forwarded a petition from the local zamindars on 26 October 1865, pleading for the postponement of revenue due to the peasants’ inability to pay rent due to crop failure. The British authorities, on the other hand, paid no attention to this sobering reality.
Another factor contributing to the famine was a lack of communication facilities. Between Odisha and Calcutta, there was no concrete road. Additionally, it was crossed by a number of unbridged rivers, which discouraged Odisha’s traders from trading with Calcutta. Odisha was inaccessible during the rainy season at the time. Even if the government desired to import food grains from Calcutta, the attempt was doomed to failure due to monsoon. If there had been effective communication between Odisha and Calcutta, the government could easily have brought food grains from Calcutta to meet the demand of the Odisha people during the famine.
Absence of prompt action by government apparatuses
Inaction on the part of the Government machinery contributed significantly to the deterioration of the situation. Indeed, there was no connection between ruler and populace. English officers had not paid a visit to the isolated villages. As a result, they were ignorant of the people’s plight. They would have been aware of the people’s sufferings had they visited the villages on a regular basis. Even T. E. Ravenshaw, the then-Commissioner of Odisha, was unaware of the people’s plight.
Market-induced scarcity of food grains
When rice merchants banded together and hoarded rice during the famine, the British government was powerless to control the artificial scarcity of food grain in the market. As a result, the price of rice continued to rise. The government would have regulated commerce and trade by prosecuting violators and establishing a reasonable price for rice and other essential goods. Thus, merchants increased the misery of the common people by monopolising the sale of rice at a high price.
At the time, there were no appropriate media outlets (print or electronic) to publicise the famine. No local daily was being published that would have brought the people’s pitiful plight to the government’s attention. Though G.N. Barlow, Puri’s Collector, Ramakoy Chatterjee, the Deputy Collector, and several police officers had drawn the government’s attention to the famine, and the Collector of Balasore had hinted at the famine to the Commissioner, these stray references were ignored. Apart from the aforementioned factors, the lack of education among the people of Odisha and the responsibility of T.E. Ravenshaw contributed significantly to the outbreak of the 1866 famine. Had Ravenshaw taken decisive action, Odisha would not have fallen victim to this heinous famine.
The aforementioned factors contributed significantly to the outbreak of the famine, which was devasting in scope.
The outbreak of the 1866 famine
The famine began in October 1865, due to an acute shortage of food grains in Odisha’s market. Although the Puri Collector had informed T.E. Ravenshaw, Odisha’s Commissioner, of this alarming situation. T.E. Ravenshaw, on the other hand, did not take any relief measures but rather informed the Bengal government about the sufficiency of food grains in Odisha at the time.
Famine preliminary reports
The famine is generally believed to have begun in October 1865. Ravenshaw was unconcerned by Barlow’s information about the starvation deaths at Parikud and Malud. Barlow proposed that public works be undertaken by paying labourers in food grains in lieu of wages, as grains were unavailable in the local markets. The Bengal government approved funding for the road’s construction but refused to compensate labourers in terms of food grain. No food grains have been imported from other countries. Ravenshaw proposed the formation of relief committees in early December 1865 and made lengthy tours of the Tributary Mahals. When Ravenshaw returned from his tour on 31 January 1866, he sent an urgent telegram to the Calcutta government pleading with them to provide food grains rather than wages to the beleaguered people of Odisha. However, the Bengal authorities ignored it.
Sir Cecil Beadon’s visit of Cuttack
Sir Cecil Beadon, the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, paid a visit to Cuttack from 13 to 19 February 1866. Neither he nor the government servants projected the true picture of the famine in front of him out of fear. He advised the Rajas and local zamindars in his speech to address the people’s grievances by providing relief. The situation deteriorated further when, by the end of March, jails were overcrowded with criminals who committed crimes solely to obtain food inside. The Commissioner realised the gravity of the situation fully when he was trampled to death in March 1866 at Balasore by a hungry mob on his return journey from Mayurbhanj. Then he wrote to the Board of Revenue, but his letter went unanswered. Finally, in May, after Ravenshaw insisted on providing rations to the troops at Cuttack to feed the prisoners and starving people, the Board authorised the import of rice.
The Famine’s Course
When the government decided to import rice and almost sanctioned Rs. 25,00,000 for the purpose in the final week of June, monsoon had already begun. Importing food was practically impossible due to a lack of transportation and communication. Even after rice arrived in Cuttack in September, Odisha was hit by a devastating flood in September. Despite the fact that cooked food was distributed in 88 centres, the death toll was high due to epidemics such as Cholera. Pyari Mohan Acharya captured the pitiable state of the famine of 1866 succinctly when he wrote, “The towns were filled with the sorrowful shrieks of thousands of men, women, and children reduced to mere skeletons.” The crematory grounds near towns and villages were densely packed with countless dead bodies, on which vultures and jackals feasted to their hearts’ content……”.
Initiatives taken by government apparatuses
Considering the gravity of the situation, the government apparatus was geared up to deal with it from July to October 1866. The Public Works Department took various steps in which grains were used as compensation. Additionally, the East India Irrigation Company implemented a ‘Food for Work’ programme. Famine Relief Fund was established by the government. Numerous relief committees were formed under the direct supervision of a special Commissioner to oversee relief efforts and sanitation conditions in the districts of Puri, Cuttack, and Balasore.
The famine is over
Additionally, the government collected public donations from Hatas (market places), zamindars, and wealthy individuals and distributed them to the poor and destitute. Cash relief was provided for thatch houses and their repair. Each orphan boy and girl received three rupees per month. Twenty rupees were given for each orphan girl’s marriage. The public was provided with free medical care and medication. Christian missionaries frequently assisted the poor and destitute. The zamindars were granted revenue abatement on the condition that they would remit revenue for the royat in retrospect. An additional allowance was granted to government employees to help them cope with the high cost of living. By implementing these measures, the government was able to assist the famine-stricken people of Odisha. The famine was declared over in December 1867. By that time, the people of Odisha had received adequate relief. The farmers had been provided with sufficient seeds and food grains by the zamindars. Additionally, the government provided them with the same at a discounted rate.
The Enquiry Commission’s Report on the 1866 Famine
In December 1866, on the order of the Secretary of State for India, an enquiry commission was established to ascertain the causes, circumstances, and scope of the famine. It was comprised of three members: President George Campbell, W.E. Morton, and H.L. Dampier. The Odisha Famine Commission submitted its report on 6 April 1867. According to the members of this commission, in addition to unavoidable circumstances, such a catastrophe was caused by administrative authorities’ negligence and errors by certain individual officers.
The Famine’s Consequences
The Na-Anka famine had far-reaching consequences, as follows:
- It exposed Odisha’s administrative machinery’s failure to protect the people.
- According to government estimates, the mortality rate was around 1,000,000, or nearly one-third of the province’s population.
- Chaos and confusion reigned throughout Odisha, and epidemics compounded the misery of the people.
1866 Famine: A blessing in disguise
The 1866 famine was a blessing in disguise, as it ushered in a new era in Odisha’s administration. The government’s authoritative attitude and carelessness were relegated to the distant past. On the other hand, the government adopted a benevolent attitude and policies toward the Odisha people. The Government of India formulated famine relief policies for the entire country on the recommendation of the Odisha Famine Commission.
T. E. Ravenshaw’s benevolent measures following the Famine
T. E. Ravenshaw stimulated the government machinery for the promotion of education in Odisha following the famine. He established a number of vernacular schools in rural areas with an emphasis on the Odia language, converted the Cuttack Zilla School into Ravenshaw College, was instrumental in the establishment of a medical school and a training school in Cuttack in 1866 and 1869, respectively, as well as the construction and improvement of the embankment in Banki and Aul. However, the famine of 1866 proved to be a watershed moment in modern Odisha’s history.
The Final Line to Say
The 1866 famine was a watershed moment in modern Odisha’s history. The people of Odisha had suffered greatly during this famine. It had wiped out a third of the population. However, the famine’s aftermath was beneficial to the state. The British government provided numerous administrative and other facilities for the people’s benefit. The 1866 Famine compelled them to adopt benevolent and sympathetic policies toward the Odisha people.