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The Third World’s Modern Origins

“How strange it is that the British rulers do not see that after they themselves are the main cause of all destruction that ensues from droughts; that it is the drain of India’s wealth by them that lays at their own door the dreadful results of misery, starvation, and the death of millions”. – Dadabhai Naoroji, 1887

Hungry machines

The Industrial Revolution beginning 1760 marked the dawn of modernity and its concomitant promise of a better life. Trade boomed and abundance ensued. The middle-class could explore secondary interests, now that food security was certain. Eventually, the domestic markets sort of reached an equilibrium, but the narrative-makers could not concede yet that the Golden Age was over. Trade routes, which would be sourcing resources to feed the machines were yet to be established.  Enter colonialism.

Breakdown of rural solidarity

This set into motion processes that went into the creation of the Third World. Rapacious capture and control of newly acquired colonial lands sitting on the head of trade routes was almost complete by the end of the nineteenth century. But even more significant was the process of sapping the indigenous cultures of their vitality by sucking them forcefully into the political and economic structures of the modern world market. India—with its village communities and communal conceptions of land ownership and labour—was superimposed a market economy. The bonds of reciprocity in the village between different groups based on patron-client relationship (the jajmani), which had been hitherto preserved through the Mughal rule, broke down. Everyone’s loyalties were articulated out of the village and into the global commodity chains. India was politically unable to regulate its co-option into the world market at a moment when, to borrow Amartya Sen’s term, entitlement to food procured from international trade formed the core of human subsistence. Formerly a subcontinental power, India transformed into a pauperised periphery of a London-centered economic system, marred with famines and food riots.

Famines always happened

Famines were not a surprising occurrence in the Indian subcontinent, though. They have befallen people since ancient times, so much so that the migration of the Indus Valley people to other locations has been attributed to a famine, among others. They have struck during the reign of all successive rulers, from Mauryas to the Mughals, since farming was contingent on an erratic monsoon. But in terms of death and despair, none of them could stand against the partly-engineered famines of British India. 

How was it possible that the three waves of famines in India from 1876-1902 under Queen Victoria’s rule precipitated 30 million, nay, as per some sources, 50 million deaths? It was an avoidable political tragedy, and not a ‘natural disaster’ as the First Famine Commission deemed it. Radical journalist William Digby, principal chronicler of the 1876 Madras famine, prophesied on the eve of Queen Victoria’s death that when “the part played by the British Empire in the nineteenth century is regarded by the historian fifty years hence, the unnecessary deaths of millions of Indians would be its principal and most notorious monument.”

Juxtaposing pre-colonial and colonial famines

The explanation of the difference between famines before and during the colonial period lies in the role played by the state/sovereign during the crises: the royal famine codes around treatment of the suffering subjects. There is scant evidence of any subsistence crisis in rural India of the scale of either the Bengal Famine of 1770 under East India Company rule or the long pestilence of disease and hunger between 1875 and 1920 that slowed the population growth rate almost to a halt. The Mughal state had scarce interest in intervening in the complicated web of traditional caste-based local markets. Village-level food reserves were fuller and grander to insulate against scarcity, patrimonial welfare was the norm, and grain prices not susceptible to hoarding and speculation by petty elites. As per Ashok Desai, the Mughal state regarded the “protection of the peasant as an essential obligation.” Like their Chinese counterparts, Mughal rulers like Akbar, Shahjahan and Aurangzeb invoked a quartet of foundational policies for famine relief which were an anathema to the later British Utilitarians: embargoes on food exports, price control, anti-speculative hoarding regulation, tax relief and distribution of free food without forced labour, supported by avid policing of grain trade and punishment for merchants who short-changed peasants. The Mauryas, Guptas, and Rajputs had strikingly similar famine relief codes in place. As Bose and Jalal point out, the picture painted by the colonizers of an “emaciated and oppressed peasantry, mercilessly exploited by the emperor and his nobility, is being seriously altered in the light of new interpretations of the evidence.” 

Shares of World GDP:


Source: Angus Maddison, Chinese Economic Performance in the Long Rum, Paris 1998. p. 40.

Famine response in Quing’s China

Precisely, the natural variables were constant throughout the succession of empires but the social variables differed: the difference forming a putative causal factor. The El Niño-induced spring monsoon failure of 1743-44 in China created no mass mortality from disease or starvation in spite of inadequate provincial grain stocks, unlike the 1870-1900 famine waves across the Global South. The Confucian administration of Fang Guangcheng deployed agricultural and hydraulic experts to revive irrigation and granaries and transported surplus rice from counties outside the radius of drought via the Grand Canal to famine-stricken areas. No European society then guaranteed subsistence as a human right to its peasantry or could anticipate developments and adjust relief with such zeal as the Chinese or Mughals. As Pierre-Etienne Will says, while “Qing was honouring their social contract with the peasantry, contemporary Europeans were dying in the millions from hunger following arctic winters and summer droughts in 1740-43”, coinciding with the ‘Europe’s Age of Reason.’

Forced market incorporation of rural economy

D.E.U Baker, an eminent historian, cites a later British administrative report from the Central Provinces that contrasted the insufficient relief efforts of the East India Company during the droughts of 1820s and 1830s (“a few thousand rupees”), as contrasted with the prior highly fruitful Maratha policy of coercing local elites to feed the poor (“enforced charity of hundreds of rich men”). Bountiful evidence has been produced recently which challenges the orientalist stereotypes of entrenched poverty and overpopulation as being the logical causes of the major nineteenth century famines. As per Mike Davis, there exists compelling evidence that peasant masses became increasingly susceptible to famines post 1850 as their local economies were being violently incorporated into the modern world market. The new social relations of production, in conjunction with New Imperialism, “not only altered the extent of hunger in a statistical sense but changed its very ecology,” to quote Watts.

Welfare and taxation

As David Hardiman explains,the Marathas and Mughals used tax subsidies and cheap loans to sustain local irrigation networks and reservoirs, envisioning a safety-net against droughts. Taxation systems were such that payment was done in kind (a proportion of produce), taxes varied according to harvest and occupancy rights were not tied to revenue servicing. The taxation and welfare regimes were flexibly customized to accommodate the crucial socio-ecological synergies and unpredictability of climate cycles in drought-prone regions to balance the multivariate claims of agriculture on ecology. This was in stark contrast to the un-negotiability and dogmatism of the Raj’s ryotwari system wherein taxes were to be paid in cash and peasants had no alternative than to distress-sell or export the crop to the world market at prevailing, cheap prices. As Karl Polanyi puts it, the famines were the consequence of “free marketing of grains combined with local failure of incomes.” Thus, the peasantry was directed, as you would direct a brook, into the modern structures of global capitalism. Forcible appropriation of rural smallholder production into commodity and financial circuits, centered overseas, jeopardized traditional food security systems. 

Rotting of rural capital

Thus, in Davis’s terminology, it was “subsistence adversity” (high taxes, chronic indebtedness, enclosure of common resources, et al) and not any entrepreneurial drive that forced the turn to cash-crops. Sure, cotton paid and was in demand. But you cannot feed on it. Herein lies the crux of the British-Indian grievances which eventually found expression in Indian nationalism during the 1940s. Rent payments in cash forced peasants to turn to moneylenders who were mostly rich landowners, who reinvested their fortunes from export booms into usury, rack-renting and crop brokerage. Rural capital turned parasitic from productivist, under the oversight of the instrumentalities and agents of the Raj.

Discriminatory free markets

Another pondering point is the out-and-out decline in market power of peasants vis-a-vis usurers and wholesalers. This was due to a fall in purchasing power of produce in the international market. The ‘free’ market’s unequal and predatory structures apparently cut short the ‘free hand’ of the market from objectively valuing production from tropical agriculture. As per W. Arthur Lewis, with the exception of sugar, “all the commodities whose price was lower in 1913 than in 1883 were commodities produced almost wholly in the tropics.” This implies, all products whose prices rose over this thirty-year period were products primarily supplied by the Global North. Particularities of human biases were embedded in the free markets. Produce from the Third World colonies was valued less in the First World.

Engineering misery

Despite the irony that rice and wheat production in the rest of India (which included tons of coarse rice from the recently conquered Irrawaddy Delta) had been above average for the last three years, much of the surplus was exported to England. To quote Mike Davis, “Londoners were eating India’s bread.” It seemed a terrible anomaly that India could supply food across continents with famines at home. The newly established railways were used by merchants to siphon off grain stocks from drought-stricken districts to central depots for hoarding and protection from rioters. The then viceroy Lytton, educated in the orthodox Malthusian capitalist curriculum of Buckingham, issued strict, “semi-theological” orders that “there is to be no interference of any kind on the part of Government with the object of reducing the price of food.” Relief was contingent on calculations to balance budgets against lives that were already devalued. Malthusian principles coupled with Social Darwinism were invoked to legitimize the famine policy in London and shift blame. Evelyn Baring, the finance minister, is noted saying, “Every benevolent attempt made to mitigate the effects of famine and defective sanitation serves but to enhance the evils resulting from overpopulation.”

The railroad revolution—a harbinger of modernity—failed to prefigure its fiscal impact on the state. The taxes dedicated to railway construction squeezed life out of the ryots. Depreciation of the Indian Rupee due to conscription of the International Gold Standard further spiked cost of imports, which was also redoubled by enormous debt-taking by British India, whose foreign debt was controlled from England. The ensuing price explosion resulted in the masses starving to death even in the well-irrigated districts like Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu, “reputed to be immune to food shortages.” Richard Temple, the Famine Delegate of Viceroy Lytton, was sent to Madras to stamp out the “out of control” (Famine Commission 1878-80) expenditures that threatened the financing of the planned invasion of Afghanistan. “Everything,” he lambasted, “must be subordinated … to the financial consideration of disbursing the smallest sum of money consistent with the preservation of human life,” imposing the Anti-Charitable Contributions Act of 1877, which outlawed—at the risk of imprisonment—private relief donations that potentially interfered with the market-fixing of grain prices. The telegraph played its own role in coordinating the price hikes through the colony at once with scant factoring of local supply trends. All organs of the Raj had done their bit to add to the misery.

An 1878 study published in the celebrated Journal of Statistical Society bears this article out: 31 serious famines in the last 120 years of British rule were contrasted against only 17 recorded famines in the entire previous two millennia (2000 years). The balance largely boils down to the position taken by the state.

Exports by the East India Company of bullion to India, 1708–1810 (in £ sterling)

Credit: William Milburn, Oriental Commerce, 1813.


In conclusion, the treatment of suffering subjects by Indian empires in antiquity stands in striking contrast to the indifference of the Raj during modernity, more concerned with material trade and interaction with world shipping, nay looting lanes. This contrast between pre-colonial and post-Plassey India along the metric of famines in the context of modernity’s global maneuvers has served to highlight why certain regions of the same world have been grouped under the ‘Third World.’ These regions were sapped almost to a point of no return in the forgotten past. The unaccounted for famine deaths in colonial India, their not-so-natural reasons and the state’s response constitute a summary of one world’s exploitation of the other. I submit that this treatment constituted the genesis of widespread Third World inequality. The Third World as we know it today, is playing catch up with the First World. In fact the seeds of this inequality (the famous “development gap”) for much of the post-colonial countries were sowed in these Victorian era famine waves of the late nineteenth century.

Asish Singh is a first-year undergraduate at Ashoka University.

Image Credits: Illustrated London News/scan by Adam63. Public domain.

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