Climate signals, floods, droughts and famine in South Asia from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century

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Vinita Damodaran (Univ. of Sussex)

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Climate signals, floods, droughts and famine in South Asia from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century



Historians have long drawn connections between historical climate change and socio-political transformations. Natural scientists and climate historians have begun to bridge the disciplinary gulf and work in concord on both instrumental and textual data. In South Asia, climate phenomena such as ENSO have been seen as responsible for affecting the strength of the annual monsoon, driving not only harvest failure but also violence and rebellion across the region (including the widespread agrarian crisis of the seventeenth century). Such history, which links climate to social upheaval, has many detractors who criticise the implications of environmental determinism and denial of human and institutional agency; it is rightly argued that droughts and famines are complex phenomena whose effects are often mediated through politics. For example, the mid-seventeenth century in India saw the weakest period of monsoons on record and ENSO events that happened twice as often as on average. This period, which coincides with the Mughal Empire, witnessed droughts on an enormous scale with episodes of severe political disruption resulting in widespread violence in Gujarat and the Deccan. In the late eighteenth century, one of the greatest ENSO events in modern times (1783–1793) also brought significant drought, the impact of which was exacerbated through the actions of the East India Company. Using these examples the paper will look at climate signals, droughts, floods and famines in South Asia from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth century.


Professor Vinita Damodaran is a historian of modern India, interested in sustainable development dialogues in the global South. Her work ranges from the social and political history of Bihar to the environmental history of South Asia, including using historical records to understand climate change in the Indian Ocean World. She is particularly interested in questions of environmental change, identity and resistance in Eastern India. An experienced researcher and teacher, she has an M.Phil from JNU and a PhD from Cambridge. Currently, she is co-editor of the Palgrave series in World Environmental History and is the director of the Centre for World Environmental History at the University of Sussex.

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Organiser: SOAS South Asia Institute and Centre of Law, Environment and Development

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