24 January 2023

How the British Colonial State Instrumentalised Famine Relief in India

Amal Shahid focuses her PhD research on how the British colonial state provided famine relief during the numerous famines that took place in the Indian subcontinent between c. 1860–1920. This involved setting up relief works, which consisted of construction on public works, in addition to arranging for various forms of gratuitous relief and distributing loans to selected agricultural classes. By demonstrating the intricate connections between each form of relief, her dissertation highlights the centrality of labour regulation for the colonial state both to famine relief and to the overall sustenance of colonial rule in India. 

How did you come to choose your research topic?

I had developed a general interest in social and economic history since my undergraduate degree, which I pursued during my master’s degree. While writing my master’s thesis, I had come across references to labour employed on public works construction during famines. The latter was aimed at prevention of and protection from famines. Therefore, during my doctoral studies, I wished to understand how the supposed technological prowess of the colonial state was in contradiction to the frequent recurrence of famine conditions and prevailing poverty in the subcontinent. My archival research helped me to narrow down to the neglected aspect of famine relief in this narrative.

Can you describe your thesis questions and the methodology you use to approach those questions?

The main question motivating my thesis was to understand how famine relief reflected the political economy of the colonial state. Particularly, how the colonial state used famine relief as a means for control and management of Indian labour, but at the same time, how far did famine relief illustrate the nature and limits of the colonial state’s governance in India. 

To this end, I analysed how famine relief policy evolved over the course of the 19th century and was eventually codified by the British colonial state. Furthermore, I examined how famine relief was financed, how various forms of relief measures were organised, and finally the resistance by the locals to the state’s famine relief measures. Given the wealth of archival material available on the topic, I focused on a single province: the North-Western Provinces, which were later renamed as the United Provinces.

I utilised the framework of political economy to argue that famine relief management was informed by a utilitarian calculus that aimed at the justification of colonial despotism in order to maintain the “coolie” as the main form of colonial subjecthood. Additionally, I explored the ideological impact of English Poor Laws and colonial knowledge-making to emphasise that not only did the colonial state rely on untested knowledge of the Indian society to frame its famine relief policy, but also, as a result, deepened divisions within the Indian society.

What are your major findings?

Throughout the analysis of my sources, which also informed the theoretical framework I mentioned above, I found that the colonial state kept labour and its employment on public works projects as the main focus of famine relief. Although various famine relief instruments were codified, it was evident that relief works were the pillar of the policy, where the colonial state could realise the labour of the able-bodied “coolie”. To this end, the colonial fixation on labour productivity determined the type of labour the local officials sought to employ, resulting in deviations from the prescribed policy. I also explored how people negotiated colonial control with local bureaucracies and on sites of famine relief. Highlighting instances of resistance during famine times, I found that the labourers exhibited a sense of political consciousness in their collective action. The thesis concluded that the colonial state used famine relief to legitimise its position in the subcontinent and used moral rationalisations to coerce famine-affected population into labour. In this manner, my research helps understand the conceptual entanglements of morality and economy in the colonial context. 

What are you doing now?

I am currently employed as a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Political Studies, University of Lausanne, on the SNSF project Moral and Economic Entrepreneurship: A Collaborative History of Global Switzerland 1800–1900. My subproject studies the economic activities of the Basel India Mission in the 19th century.

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Amal Shahid defended her PhD thesis in International History in July 2022. Professor Gopalan Balachandran, Thesis Supervisor, presided the committee, which included Associate Professor Amalia Ribi Forclaz and Professor Douglas E. Haynes, Department of History, Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, USA.

Citation of the PhD thesis:
Shahid, Amal. “The Political Economy of Famine Relief: Labour, Colonialism, and Public Works in the North-Western Provinces of India, c. 1860–1920.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2022. 

For access to the PhD thesis, please contact Amal Shahid at

Banner picture: Excerpt of an engraving from The Illustrated London News in 1877, “The Famine in India: Natives Waiting for Relief at Bangalore”. Scan by Adam63, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. This image aimed at attracting charity and contributions from the British public during the famine in 1877 for the Mansion House Famine Fund, which financed the state’s relief efforts in the subcontinent.

Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.