Madhavi Jha (Jawaharlal Nehru University)

Finding the Unexpected: Gender and the Official Famine Archives

Determined to write a labour history of 'most' women in the mid nineteenth century, I dove head first into the National Archives of India, New Delhi to look for any and every mention of women. I was also simultaneously visiting the Delhi State Archives which is a short pleasant walk from Jawaharlal Nehru University, where I am currently a PhD student. Neither of these archives were digitised at the time (August 2014) and since then have been only partially digitised. I had ventured into the official archives with both warnings and encouragements about gender history and official archives. It was rightly pointed out to me that the undocumented history parallels the undocumented labourer. Six months into this archival work, the most amount of writing on women as labourers in the period of 1860-1900 emerged around the famines on the famine public works. This was a pleasant discovery as the famine based archives allowed me to locate labouring women as economic subjects of rules and regulations made specially for them.

I subsequently, moved my research to the largest scarcity department of colonial India, the one in North  West Provinces which roughly corresponds to the present day Uttar Pradesh. While in other states, famines and scarcities were part of the Revenue and Agriculture department, in the North West Provinces, there was a separate scarcity department. This did not mean that the most damaging famines had occurred in this province, but that this province had the most elaborate famine administration in colonial India. I visited two archives in Uttar Pradesh – the state archive based in Lucknow, the capital city of Uttar Pradesh and the regional archive located in Allahabad. In Lucknow, by far one of the most organised state archives that I have visited in India, the scarcity files ranged from 1880s to 1920s. This archive was in the process of being digitised at the time of my visit (February 2015). In stark contrast, Allahabad regional archives housed a rich collection in a crumbling infrastructure. The documents in this archive need to be urgently preserved and/or digitised. Filed according to the colonial administrative geographical units of the province, there is a detailed documentation of different aspects of famine and famine relief administration. Apart from labour, this contains a largely untapped history of diet, migration, 'charitable' institutions like orphanages, environment and so on. The experience of immersing myself in the handwritten inspection notes and diaries of relief officers and engineers was very rewarding. The official documentation with all its breaks and gaps and discontinuities provided some remarkable insights into the labouring lives of women, specially when read against the grain.

February 2018