Modern Asian Studies

Research Article

Inaccurate Conceptions: Disputed Measures of Nutritional Needs and Famine Deaths in Colonial India


a1 School of Politics and International Studies, Leeds University Email:


From the 1870s onwards, debates about famine policy were central to both colonial and nationalist conceptions of the role, effectiveness and legitimacy of the state in India. Although opinions on how best to relieve famines varied, ideological opposition to a narrow laissez-faire paradigm was given short shrift in the years preceding the formulation of the Indian Famine Codes. However, specific empirical critiques of the making and implementing of famine policy were more effective. This article explores the ways in which such challenges put scientific and statistical experts within the colonial edifice at odds with those at the top of the political hierarchy, focusing on disputes over relief wages and famine mortality calculations between Sir Richard Temple and Surgeon-Major W. R. Cornish. It further examines how proto-nationalist groups and newspapers seized on the value given to statistics by the state to hold it to account for its failure to relieve famine.