The occurrence of natural calamities like drought, flood, epidemics and cyclone a reoccurring phenomenon in the history of Odisha. Their frequent visitation in 19th century was the most important factor that broke the backbone of the people of Odisha. The people of Odisha have been suffering from many natural calamities. The most famous among them all was the Famine of 1866 which is famous in the history of Odisha as Na-anka famine. It had caused severe socio-economic problems for the people of Odisha for several generations to come. The Famine of 1866 in Odisha was one of the worst famines of the world. The carelessness of the British administrators in charge of Odisha Division coupled with natural calamity and economic disasters brought this catastrophe. About one-third of the total population of Odisha perished by the disastrous famine. This severe famine is also known as the ‘Na-Anka Famine’ because it occurred in the ninth regnal year of Gajapati Divyasinghadeva. The calamity was so devastative that its tragic memory was in the mind of the people of Odisha for at least some decades.

Factors responsible for the Famine of 1866

There were several factors which were responsible for the outbreak of the famine of 1866 in Odisha which can be discussed as bellow:

1. Cease of rainfall

The drought of 1865 served as the potential factor for the famine of 1866. In 1865, the monsoon began early and during October-November, there was no rainfall. The lands becamedry and the crops were totally destroyed coming under the scorching sun. In that year, about onethird of the total annual produce was reaped by the cultivators. The peasants could not preserve
food-stuff in that year.

2. Alarming shortage of food grains

Alarming shortage of food grains due to casual export of food grains was another reason for the outbreak of the famine of 1866. Export of rice from Odisha was in a massive scale every year. On an average, 20,000 tons of rice was exported annually from Odisha as the records of the last six years, preceding 1866, revealed. In 1865, 33,000 tons of rice were imported from Odisha by the wealthy Telingah Koomtees of Madras Presidency who sold the rice to a French company named Messers Robert and Chariol Co., thereby earning heavy profit. By this export, the entire surplus of the year 1864, was exhausted. The British government also did not import food grains in 1865 when the rain stopped suddenly.

3. Unpleasant economic condition of the people

Agriculture was the chief occupation of the people in Odisha. The thirty years revenue settlement which had been introduced in Odisha by the East India Company in 1837, was to end in 1866. Apprehending the enhancement of revenue, the people considerably reduced the area under cultivation from 1864. This principle was adopted with a view to show less possession of land at the time of settlement which will fix less revenue on a land-holder. The British government had studied the mind of these people well. So, it deliberately delayed the process of settlement which they would have started during the year 1864. The people of Odisha did not get a hint of it. With the decrease of cultivable land from 1864, the reduction in production became inevitable. This led to weak the economic condition of the people of Odisha.

4. No attention for the improvement of agriculture in Odisha

On the other hand, East India Company did not pay attention for the improvement of agriculture in Odisha after the occupation of the land. The British Governement had not started irrigation facility in Odisha till 1866. The farmers of the land had to depend completely on monsoon for cultivation. In 1865, the rainfall ceased in September and by the end of October, rice became limited and costly. It not only increased the plight of the peasants but also of thezamindars who thought it difficult to pay revenue-in time. On 26 October, 1865, Muspratt, the Collector of Balasore forwarded a petition of the local zamindars who had prayed for the postponement of revenue due to inability of the peasants to pay rent for failure of crops. However, the British higher authorities did not pay attention to this stern reality.

5. Lack of communication

The lack of communication facility was another cause for the famine. There was no concrete road between Odisha and Calcutta. Further, it was intersected by a number of unbridged rivers that discouraged the traders of Odisha to have any trade link with Calcutta. At that time Odisha was inaccessible during the rainy season. Even if the government had desired to import food grains from Calcutta, it had to fail miserably due to monsoon. Had there been a good communication facility between Odisha and Calcutta, the government would have easily brought food grains from Calcutta to meet the demand of the people of Odisha during the time of famine.

6. No prompt action of Government machineries

No prompt action of the Government machineries was largely responsible to worsen the situation. In fact, there was no link between the ruler and the people. The English officers had not visited the remote villages. So, they were ignorant about the condition of the people. Had they visited the villages regularly, they would have known about the sufferings of the people. Even, T. E. Ravenshaw, the then Commissioner of Odisha, could not know about the wretched condition of the people.

7. Artificial scarcity of food grains in the market

The British government could not control the artificial scarcity of food grain in the market when the rice merchants joined hands during the famine and hoarded rice. So, price of rice rose up higher and higher. The government would have regulated trade and commerce by taking those traders into task and fixing a reasonable price of rice and other essential goods. So, the merchants by monopolizing the sell of rice at high price which made the condition of the common people more miserable.

8. Absence of media

At that time there was no proper media (print and electronic) to highlight the famine. No local daily was being published which would have reflected the pitiable condition of the people for the notice of the government. Though, G.N. Barlow, the Collector of Puri, Ramakoy Chatterjee, the Deputy Collector and some police officers had drawn the attention of the government regarding the famine and the Collector of Balasore had given hints about the famine to the Commissioner; these stray reference were not listened. Besides the above causes the lack of education of the people of Odisha and the responsibility of T.E. Ravenshaw was also largely responsible for the outbreak of the famine of 1866. Had Ravenshaw taken serious steps, Odisha would not have come under the grip of this dreadful famine.

The above factors were mainly responsible for the outbreak of the famine which was devastative in nature.

Beginning of the famine of 1866

The famine started in October, 1865 with the acute shortage of food grains in the market of Odisha. Although, the Collector of Puri had informed T.E. Ravenshaw, the Commissioner of Odisha, regarding this alarming situation. But without taking any relief measure, T.E. Ravenshaw rather informed the Bengal’ government about sufficiency of food grains in Odisha at that time.

Preliminary reports on famine

The famine is considered to have started in October 1865. Barlow’s information regarding the starvation death at Parikud and Malud did not make Ravenshaw worry. Barlow had suggested to undertake public works by paying wage in terms of food grains to labourers as grains were not available in the local markets. The Bengal government sanctioned money for the construction of road but denied of paying the labourers in terms of food grain. No food grains were imported from outside. At the early part of December 1865, Ravenshaw suggested for the formation of relief committees and went on long tours to the Tributary Mahals. When Ravenshaw returned from tour on 31 January, 1866 and on the same day, he sent an urgent telegram to the Calcutta government to provide food grains instead of wages for the distressed people of Odisha. However, it was not listened by the Bengal authorities.

Sir Cecil Beadon’s visit of Cuttack

From 13 to 19 February, 1866 Sir Cecil Beadon, the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, visited Cuttack. Neither he carefully visualized the situation, nor the government servants projected the true picture of the famine before him out of fear. In his speech, he advised the Rajas and local zamindars to redress the grievances of the people by providing them relief. The condition worsened when, by the end of March, the jails were overcrowded with criminals who had committed crimes simply to get food inside the jail. The gravity of the situation was fully realised by the Commissioner himself when the hungry mob trampled him down at Balasore on his return journey from Mayurbhanj in March, 1866. Then, he immediately wrote to the Board of Revenue and his letter was uncared for. At last in May, when Ravenshaw insisted upon to provide ration to the troops at Cuttack to feed the prisoners and hungry people, the Board ordered for the import of rice.

Course of the Famine

When the government was planning to import rice and virtually sanctioned Rs. 25, 00,000 for the same in the last week of June, monsoon had already been started. It was practically impossible to import food due to lack of transport and communication. Even when rice reached Cuttack after August, Odisha was in the grip of a devastating flood in September. In spite of the distribution of cooked food in 88 centers, the death toll was heavy due to epidemics like Cholera. Pyari Mohan Acharya has given a clear picture of the pitiable condition of the famine of 1866 in the following words “The towns were filled with the sorrowful shrieks of thousands of men, women, and children who had been reduced to mere skeletons. The crematory grounds near the towns and villages were full of innumerable dead bodies and upon them the vultures, and jackals feasted to their hearts‟ content…….”.

Initiatives of the Government machineries

Taking the graveness of the situation, the government machineries were geared up to deal with this alarming situation from July to October, 1866. The Public Works Department adopted different steps in which grains were given as wage. The East India Irrigation Company also undertook ‘Food for Work’ programme. The government created Famine Relief Fund. Several relief committes were created under the direct supervision of a special Commissioner to look after the relief measures and sanitary conditions of the people at Puri, Cuttack and Balasore districts.

End of the famine

Further, public donations were collected by the government from the Hatas (market places), zamindars and wealthy persons and distributed among the poor and destitute. Some relief in cash was granted to thatch houses and for repairing the same. The orphan boys and girls were paid rupees three each per month. For the marriage of each orphan girl, rupees twenty were given. Free medical service and medicine were provided to the people. Christian missionaries rendered habitual service to the poor and destitutes. The zamindars were granted remission of revenues with the condition that, in retrospect, they would remit the revenue for the royat. An extra allowance was granted to the government servants to meet the high cost of living. By adopting such measures, the government became successful in meeting the famine-stricken people of Odisha. By December, 1867, the famine was declared as over. By that time, sufficient relief measures had been provided to the people of Odisha. The farmers had been supplied adequate seeds and food grains through the zamindars. The government also supplied the same to them in cheap price.

Report of the Enquiry Commission for the Famine of 1866

In December 1866, by the order of the secretary of State for India, an enquiry commission was formed to enquire into the causes, circumstances and extent of the famine. It consisted of three members-George Campbell, the President, W.E. Morton and H.L.Dampier, thetwo members. On 6 April, 1867, the Odisha Famine Commission submitted its report. As per the views of the members of this commission, besides inevitable circumstances, negligence of administrative authorities and errors of certain individual officers were responsible for such a catastrophe.

Consequences of the Famine

The consequences of the Na-Anka famine were far reaching as follows:

1. It exposed the failure of the administrative machineries in Odisha to look after the people.

2. The mortality was around 1,000,000, nearly one-third of the population of the province as per the calculation of the government.

3. Chaos and confusion prevailed everywhere in Odisha and epidemics followed the famine and made the life of people more miserable.

1866 Famine: A blessing in disguise

The famine of 1866 was a blessing in disguise as it ushered a new era in the field of administration in Odisha. The authoritative attitude and carelessness of the government were relegated to the distant background. On the other hand, government adopted sympathetic attitude and policies towards the people of Odisha. Basing on the recommendation of the Famine Commission of Odisha, the Government of India framed famine relief policies for the entire country.

Benevolent measures of T. E. Ravenshaw after the Famine

After the famine T. E. Ravenshaw stimulated the government machineries for the promotion of education in Odisha. He established a number of vernacular schools in the rural areas and put emphasis on the Odia language, converted the Cuttack Zilla School into Ravenshaw College, became instrumental for the establishment of a medical school and a training school in 1866 and 1869 respectively, at Cuttack, construction and improvement of the embankment in Banki and Aul, promotion of trade and commerce in Odisha and facilitated transport and communication, railway lines passed from Bengal to distant South via Odisha,.However, the famine of 1866 proved to be a turning point in the history of modern Odisha.

Last Line to Say

The famine of 1866 was a turning point in the history of modern Odisha. In this famine, the people of Odisha had suffered a lot. It had taken away one third of its population. However, the aftermath of the famine was good for the state. The British Government brought many administrative and other facilities for the benefit of the people. The Famine of 1866, forced them to adopt benevolent and sympathetic policies towards the people of Odisha.


Credit: Inputs from History of Odisha From 1803 to 1948 by Dr Manas Kumar Das