Deb Roy (Population
Studies Unit. Indian Statistical Institute.)
of the Province of Bengal , 1751 - 1801".
The regular decennial census operation has been taking place in India since 1872 to
throw detailed statistical information on population. For the earlier period no such
systematic data are available either for India as a whole or for any other region. A few
attempts have been made to estimate the population of the Province of Bengal for the
eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries. Henry Thomas Colebrooke in his treatise
Remarks on the Husbandry and Commerce of Bengal written in 1794 constructed macro regional
estimates of population, labour force and gross agricultural products of Bengal of around
1790 on the basis of some survey methods. During 1807-14 Francis Buchanan conducted a
number of micro regional statistical investigations in some districts of the Bengal
Province and supplied voluminous data of the contemporary period.
In the present paper an attempt has been made to estimate a decennial series of
population of Bengal Province from 1751 to 1801 using some appropriate growth rates of the
later periods. Within this half a century period a devastating famine visited Bengal in
1769-70 which had a longterm effect on the growth pattern of her population. In this paper
a special attention has also been given to estimate the extent of mortality caused by that
famine to arrive at a post famine population figure of Bengal in 1771.
To construct the series of decennial population estimates of Bengal from 1751 to 1801
on a macro regional basis, it has been assumed that the percentage change in population
during the fifty-year period from 1751 to 1801 was similar to that of 1871 to 1921.
Factors determining the population growth rate were more or less similar in both the
segments of time - the Bengal famine of 1769-70 was somehow comparable to the influenza
epidemic of 1918-19. It is, however, natural that as the famine occurred at the middle
point of the former time segment, its immediate effect was reflected in the growth pattern
of population in the following two or three consecutive decades while no such impact of
the influenza was to be felt within the time segment under consideration. The following
table shows the series of decennial population and also pre-famine (1769) and post-famine
(1771) population figures.
The method of estimation can be explained as follows. We have
started with the percentage variation of population from 1871 to 1921. Over these fifty
years the percentage changes were 32.92 for Bengal and 12.78 for Bihar - the two component
parts of the Bengal Province. P. C. Mahalanobis and D. Bhattacharya estimated population
of Indian subcontinent for the period 1801 - 1921 with regional breakdowns.(1) Applying the above rates on Mahalanobis and
Bhattacharya's figures of population of Bengal and Bihar in 1801 which are 28055 thousands
and 19931 thousands respectively, we arrive at the figures for the year 1751 and adding
them together we get the total population of the Bengal Province to be 38779 thousands as
shown in the above table.
Assuming an annual growth rate of 0.8 per cent in Bengal and
0.5 per cent in Bihar we get the total population figures for 1761 and 1769. The average
growth rate for Bengal was assumed on the basis of G. F. Hardy's assumption for
non-affected districts of the Madras Presidency in the famine of 1876-78;(2) and the same for Bihar was taken as the
median growth rates of Mahalanobis-Bhattacharya from 1801 to 1921.
At this point we have to take account of the famine mortality which occurred in
1769-70. It is generally believed that one-third of the total population of Bengal was
wiped away by that famine. This ratio was nothing but an eye estimation. Just after the
famine the English Supervisors roamed over different districts of Bengal and it seemed to
them that almost one-third of total population died. We have tried to improve this
situation by estimating the mortality rate with some objective basis.
The districts of the Bengal Province were classified as affected and non-affected ; the
affected districts were again divided into
(I) severely affected districts where mortality was assumed to be 40 to 60 per cent,
(ll) moderately affected districts where mortality was assumed to lie between 20 and 30
per cent and
(lll) mildly affected districts where mortality was taken to be only 5 per cent. The
percentages of mortality were assumed on the basis of available descriptive materials to
indicate the extent of severity for different disrticts.(3)
From the recorded information it was ascertained that 65 per cent of the total population
were affected in Bengal by the famine. Using the distribution of population in 1872 as
weights it was also estimated that in the affected districts 36.17 per cent population in
Bengal Province died during the famine. For the non-affected districts the mortality rate
was assumed to be 1.5 per cent following the results of mortality study in non-affected
districts in the Madras Presidency during the famine of 1876-78 by Hardy.(4)
Applying all these ratios we arrive at the post famine population of 1771 ( 33085
thousands), total reduction being about 24 per cent. It must be pointed here that the
total reduction was taken to be caused only by the famine mortality. Factors like total
birth and migration were ignored. Over this period, in the famine striken districts people
were dying numberlessly in want of food. In such a situation addition by birth was rather
a negligible factor. Similar is the case with migration. It can be taken that in that
earlier period very few people could have shifted to some secured places because of poor
communication system and self content character of the villages. Even if we take a 14 per
cent migration ratio for the Bengal Province as a whole following N. G. Chaudhury's
estimate for the district of Rajshahi, in the population estimate of Bengal Province the
effect of migration may be taken as nil because it can be reasonably assumed that people
migrated from the affected districts to the non-affected districts.(5)
On arriving at population for 1771 we have applied an annual growth of one per cent on the
affected population and 0.8 per cent on the rest to get the figure for 1781. Here one
important point to note is that during famine years death occurs more among the old and
the children in comparison with the young generation belonging to the fertile group. Due
to the vacuum created in the famine years, the rate of birth is accelerated and population
recoups very quickly. Thorold Roger pointed out to a similar tendency in the years of
Assuming an annual growth rate of 0.8 per cent the population figure for Bengal Province
in 1801 comes to be 42179 thousands which is seemingly very close to that of 1769 (43553
thousands). A generally accepted view in population theory is that after a major famine
population takes about 30 years to be recovered. According to this theory, therefore, the
growth pattern of population of Bengal over 1751-1801 seems to be quite plausible.
1. Mahalanobis, P. C. and Bhattacharya, D : Growth of
Population in India and Pakistan, 1801-1961. Artha Vijnan, March, 1976. Pp. 1-10.
2. Hardy, G. F : Actuarial Report for the Census of
1881. Pp. 12.
3. Chaudhury, N. G : Cartier, Governor of Bengal,
1769-72. Calcutta, 1970. Pp. 71.
4. Hardy, G. F : Ibid . pp. 1-9.
5. Chaudhury, N. G : Ibid. pp. 68-71.
6. Roger, Thorold : Eight Chapters on History of Work
and Wages. 7th edn. London, 1908.