Little-known Travancore famine, 80 years later : The Tribune India

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Little-known Travancore famine, 80 years later

Compared to rations of 21 ounces a day for residents of Madras and 24 for those in Bombay, Travancoreans received just eight ounces.

Little-known Travancore famine, 80 years later

Forgotten: The food crisis in parts of India resonated in the UK’s House of Lords in 1943. The Travancore tragedy, which was on a much smaller scale than the Bengal famine, has sunk into oblivion. Tribune archives

Aditya Balasubramanian

Senior lecturer in history, Australian National University

WHY doesn’t somebody cry for us also, Amma?” an emaciated child asks its mother, who is seated outside a hut labelled ‘Travancore’. Meanwhile, sacks and sacks of food are being carried from across the country towards a tree titled ‘Other distressed areas’. Captioned ‘Not even cold drink’, this cartoon in an English daily (October 16, 1943) captures the neglect of Travancore in the relief efforts to alleviate food shortage.

An estimated 90,000 people (1.5 per cent) out of a population of 6 million died as the result of a famine-like event in the princely state of Travancore — part of today’s Kerala — that began to unfold in 1943. There are no official statistics; excess mortality has been estimated crudely using parish records. It was on a much smaller scale than the contemporaneous Bengal famine, which led to the loss of over 3 million lives (5 per cent) out of a population of 60 million. What is remarkable, though, is that the tragedy has disappeared from memory. How did it happen, what were its consequences, why has it been forgotten and what does restoring it to collective memory do for us in 2023?

Travancore lost access to its key supply of rice after the Japanese took control of Burma in 1942 during World War II. The dependence on Burmese rice was because from the mid-19th century, it began to substitute rice cultivation for cash crops. These produced great prosperity and the princely state indeed became one of the wealthiest at the time. But it also left Travancore vulnerable to the ups and downs of global markets. Before the advent of cash crops, it had been a self-sufficient food producer.

Food shortage need not necessarily imply famine as long as relief supplies or surplus stocks can be distributed freely or at affordable prices. There were a number of reasons why the food shortage led to devastation in Travancore. At the time, the Diwan or Prime Minister of Travancore, CP Ramaswamy Aiyar, ran the state autocratically. He used the circumstances of World War II to keep a lid on dissent. Under wartime security rules, he could arrest politicians for sedition if they exposed the food situation. Press communiques warned of the consequences of voicing concerns and criticism. And so, one issue was that information about the situation was slow to spread.

The second issue was the failure to get adequate food into the hands of people quickly enough. There was competition for food from surplus areas to other more needy, deficit areas in the country. Travancore was already at the frontier of cultivable land, so it could not simply grow more food. Compounding this was the slow pace at which Travancore decided to take over food procurement and distribution, reflective of the Diwan’s unsteady leadership on this matter.

Travancore handled the crisis in a lackadaisical fashion. First, it had merchants secure trading permits and provide information about the purchase and sale of stocks. This did not affect food prices. Next, it introduced designated grain-purchasing officers to buy food from landowners with surplus stocks and at fixed prices; but landowners had no incentive to cooperate. There was no standard way of determining excess stocks. They then tried a few other methods to do so, none of which worked. It was only after exhausting every other possible option that the Travancore government took over food procurement and distribution itself. By contrast, the leadership of the neighbouring princely state of Cochin understood the gravity of the situation much better from the beginning. It instituted a single price for food from Day One.

The ration provided ensured survival but was not enough for healthy living. Compared to 21-ounce rations for residents of Madras and 24 for those in Bombay, Travancoreans received just eight ounces of food a day. Some 12,000 people migrated to the jungles of Malabar in the neighbouring Madras presidency in search of land for crop cultivation. Many failed and returned. Some had to change their diets and developed malnutrition diseases, like oedema and kwashiorkor. Others died of malaria.

This event contributed to conditions that led to the Communist Party of India establishing a base of support in the region. The Congress — which was not very strong to begin with — was pursuing the Quit India line during the war and many of its leaders had been sent to jail as a result. By contrast, because Britain was aligned with the Soviet Union in what the latter called a “People’s War” and princely states like Travancore pledged their loyalty to the Raj, the Indian communists supported the war effort. They involved themselves in various kinds of famine relief activities and developed a rapport with many suffering communities. This was especially so in Shertallay and Ambalappuzha. This would be one of the factors behind their enduring presence in the region. And when they came to power in the newly formed state of Kerala in 1959, a food policy was high on their agenda.

What of this past resonates in our present? We need not look too far back. Migration, food shortage and government mismanagement were all part of the harrowing experience of the Covid-19 pandemic. Lakhs died. There are certain parallels with the way the Travancore food situation was handled 80 years ago. In contrast to much of the rest of the country, Kerala ran a sophisticated food distribution system. There may be few political consequences in the short term from the devastation caused by the pandemic, but like the Travancore famine of 1943, it should never be forgotten. 

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