Extreme Rainfall Deficits were not the Cause of Recurring Colonial era Famines of Southern Indian Semi-arid Regions

Ranjini Ray, Atreyee Bhattacharya, Gaurav Arora, Kushank Bajaj, Keyle Horton, Shi Chen, Supriyo Chakraborty, Amir Bazaz | 2021


Using information contained in the eighteenth to twentieth century British administrative documents, preserved in the National Archives of India (NAI), we present a 218-year (1729–1947 AD) record of socioeconomic disruptions and human impacts (famines) associated with ‘rain failures’ that affected the semi-arid regions (SARs) of southern India. By mapping the southern Indian famine record onto long-term spatiotemporal measures of regional rainfall variability, we demonstrate that the SARs of southern India repeatedly experienced famines when annual rainfall reduced by ~ one standard deviation (1 SD), or more, from long-term averages. In other words, ‘rain failures’ listed in the colonial documents as causes of extreme socioeconomic disruptions, food shortages and human distress (famines) in the southern Indian SARs were fluctuations in precipitation well within the normal range of regional rainfall variability and not extreme rainfall deficits (≥ 3 SD). Our study demonstrates that extreme climate events were not necessary conditions for extreme socioeconomic disruptions and human impacts rendered by the colonial era famines in peninsular India. Based on our findings, we suggest that climate change risk assessement should consider the potential impacts of more frequent low-level anomalies (e.g. 1 SD) in drought prone semi-arid regions.