Learn from famines in during the Raj to keep Gurugram sustainable
While today we enjoy surplus production, a variety of local, national and international food in more than 200 restaurants across the City, and a move towards organic farming, it is worthwhile to go back in history to learn how our town and region suffered from severe famines during the British period in the late 19th century.
A significant chapter in the history of Gurgaon and Haryana is the First War of Independence of 1857. The British wrote off the entire region as a ‘rebellion zone’, which needed to be monitored, controlled and subjugated. As a result, they merged Haryana with Punjab, a region that remained loyal to the British. Haryana was further denied a number of initial advantages that the British government offered Punjab.
The British administration ruthlessly exploited Haryana’s agricultural produce by implementing revenue settlements, which were predominantly based on village communities. The people were poor and indebted. They did not have any purchasing power and, therefore, suffered starvation. The first repercussion of this change came in 1860.
The year 1860 was marked by a terrible famine when the monsoons completely failed. Gurgaon was one of the most severely affected districts, apart from Rohtak, Hissar, Sirsa, Ambala, Karnal, Delhi and Panipat. In addition to districts under the British Government, native states, such as Dadri, Loharu, Jind and Mahendergarh, were also affected by the famine.
In the Gurgaon district, the misery of the people was said to be the most significant. The district remained disturbed during the mutiny due to its vicinity to Delhi and its complete occupation by the mutineer troops. The effects of the famine is recorded in the following words of Baird Smith: “In Southern Delhi and Gurgaon, the country between Kutub Minar and Station of Gurgaon had been repeatedly marched over by me in all directions during the ordinary seasons, and the contrast was truly startling every fifteen or twenty miles of country, where I had been accustomed to see wide expenses of grain chiefly, but also of wheat and barley growing with excellent promise; there was not a blade of green produce to be seen(sic).”
The total area under cultivation in the Gurgaon district was nearly 150,000 acres. The number of people who were dependent on the produce of this land was about 650,000. It was estimated that a large number of men and cattle died during this famine.
About eight years after the famine of 1860-61, another famine called ‘Pachisa’ struck Gurgaon and its surrounding regions in 1868-70. However, this Time, the districts of Gurgaon and Delhi were relatively less affected.
The next famine was recorded in 1877-78 that severely affected the districts of Ambala, Gurgaon, Karnal, Delhi, Hissar, Sirsa and Rohtak. Although cattle mortality records are available, no data on the deaths of the human population is recorded.
In the district of Gurgaon, the calamity was quite severe this time, although it was more confined to the Nuh and Punahana tehsils. The district suffered greatly from the scarcity of fodder. The deputy commissioner of Gurgaon noted, “He visited portions of the Gurgaon and Rewari tahsils. In parts of the Hathin and Punahana Parganas, the people appeared to be badly off, and a good many Meos had left their homes in Search of work. Fodder was very scarce, and the people had used up most of Kikar and Raungh.”
It should be noted that the famine of 1896-97 was not so much due to any actual failure of the crops as it was due to the condition of grain markets all over India. For months together, the prices of food grains remained extremely high. This was the time when people even started using available wild products as food. Extensive British official reports are available on these famines, and it may be possible to find some archival images too upon further research. We need to be aware of the historical catastrophes of our region and ensure that our current agricultural practices and food habits are sustainable in nature.
(Shikha Jain is state convenor, INTACH Haryana Chapter and member of Heritage Committees under ministries of culture and HRD. She is co-editor of book ‘Haryana: Cultural Heritage Guide’; director, DRONAH (Development and Research Organisation.)