Colonialism and the Indian Famines: A response to Tirthankar Roy

Responding to Sullivan and Hickel’s recently published research article (in World Development) and an opinion article (in Al Jazeera), Tirthankar Roy, points out how the authors are wrong in claiming that British colonial policies caused several famines in India. All that is fine, except that these articles neither investigate nor come up with any original claim regarding the causes of famines in colonial India. The central claim in their research article is that capitalism did not necessarily result in an improvement of human welfare in the 19th century – contrary to the relatively popular belief that it did. In the opinion piece, they argue the same, but solely with a focus on the negative impact of British colonial policies in India in terms of excess deaths, decline in wages and living conditions. In order to support this distinct set of claims, among other supporting evidence and quantitative techniques, Sullivan and Hickel cite one existing claim (from prior literature) that colonial policies induced multiple famines in India. And yet, as the term colonialism has become a triggering point for Roy in recent years, he titles his shadow boxing exercise as “Colonialism did not cause the Indian famines”. If the intention of Roy is to refute Sullivan and Hickel’s original claim, he fails at it miserably. If the intention of Roy is to weaken Sullivan and Hickel’s set of supporting evidence, one may argue that he does so at least partially, but that’s true only for the opinion piece (and not the research article). However, I will argue in this response why Roy fails to achieve even that! This leaves one to speculate Sir Tirthankar Roy’s real intentions, which is not the task of the current article.

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