Natural disasters are major adverse events resulting from natural processes affecting the earth and the life on it. Calamities have struck many a times over the course of Indian civilization. Well-kept records of natural disasters that have affected India exist only for the past five centuries. India has witness all forms of natural tragedies from droughts, famines, earthquakes to cyclones, tsunamis, diseases, floods, etc. Here is a compilation of top 10 worst Indian natural disasters with their estimated death tolls.
10. 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami
Death Toll: Officially 10,136.
Everyone has heard of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. The tsunami was triggered by an earthquake on December 26, 2004 near the Indonesian Island of Sumatra. The earthquake registered 9.0 on Richter scale. An estimated 10,136 people died, 5,832 reported missing and lakhs of people were rendered homeless according to the official reports given by Indian government. The worst affected region in India was the Andaman and Nicobar group of islands with death toll exceeding 7000. Tsunami affected 2,260 km of Indian coastline. On the mainland, Tamil Nadu was worst effected in a concentration of 500-1000 m of the coastline. Indian military was pressed into service to help in emergency rescue and relief efforts. There was an overwhelming response by the Indians to help people who were affected. India in fact even managed to offer limited assistance to Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Maldives.
9. 1993 Latur Earthquake
Death Toll: Approximately 20,000.
On September 30, 1993 an earthquake measuring 7.4 on Richter scale struck at 4 a.m. in Maharashtra. The worst affected districts were Latur and Osmanabad. Approximately 20,000 people died and around 30,000 were injured. Indian Army and Indian Paramilitary Forces were called in for relief efforts. About 52 villages were totally destroyed. The earthquake came as a surprise as India does not lie on continental plate boundary to cause an earthquake of this magnitude. Existence of fault webs was one of the theories suggested. Another theory suggested was that construction of Terna dam nearby had increased the pressure on fault lines. At the epicenter of the quake in Killari a huge crater had developed, which to date remains in place.
8. 2001 Gujarat Earthquake
Death Toll: Approximately 20,000.
On January 26, 2001 when India was celebrating 51st Republic Day, disaster struck in Kutch district of Gujarat. An earthquake with a magnitude of 7.7 on Richter scale hit at about 08:46 a.m. Around 20,000 people were killed, 1,67,000 injured and about 6,00,000 people were left homeless. The city of Bhuj that lied only 20 km from the epicenter was totally devastated. Total damages were assessed to be in excess of $5.5 billion. Indian military was called in for rescue and relief efforts. Due to intense international media coverage, relief poured in from all over the world and as a result the affected towns and villages now have better hospitals and schools than before. An interesting event that emerged from this horrendous disaster was the emergence of a river in the dry land of Kutch that ran along a great length, but later dried up in the following summer.
7. 1737 Calcutta Cyclone
Death Toll: Approximately 3 lakhs.
In the month of October in 1737, Calcutta witnessed one of the worst cyclones in the recorded history of India. Hurricane force winds were reported to be accompanied by an earthquake and extensive flooding with an estimated death toll of 3,00,000. The absence of evidence for soil liquefaction suggests that perhaps no substantial earthquake occurred. It should be noted that the population of Calcutta at that time was around 3,000 to 20,000. The fatalities estimated in London and French journals exceeded the official report of greater than 3000. Although official reports discussed only the damage in Calcutta, it is possible that the 3,00,000 estimated fatalities included those in coastal villages in what is now West Bengal and Bangladesh. It is evident that the large number of fatalities was caused by widespread flooding. The cyclone also destroyed nearly 20,000 ships.
6. 1839 Coringa Cyclone
Death Toll: Approximately 3 lakhs.
On November 25, 1839, an enormous cyclone caused a 40-foot storm surge that hit the ancient city of Coringa in present Andhra Pradesh. The cyclone wiped out the harbor city, destroyed 25,000 ships and vessels in its bay, and killed 3,00,000 people. Survivors never entirely rebuilt the city. City of Coringa was known for ship building and repairing. From Coringa harbor a wide range of goods were exported to Southeast Asian countries and ships from United Kingdom, France, Netherlands and Portugal were repaired. This was not the first famine to strike Coringa. Previously in 1789, a cyclone hit Coringa killing 20,000 people. The term ‘cyclone’ is said to be coined by Henry Piddington, East India Company’s scientist to describe the devastation caused by the storm of 1789 in Coringa.
5. Bengal Famine of 1943
Death Toll: Approximately 15 lakhs to 40 lakhs.
A catastrophic famine struck the undivided Bengal in 1943. Bengal previously had seen several famines under British rule, but this was considered the second worst famine to strike Bengal province. Unlike the previous Bengal famines, highest mortality was not in the poor groups of the society, but among artisans and small traders whose income vanished when people spent all their savings on food and did not employ artisans. A series of crop failure caused localized famines in 1940-41. Burma was previously the largest exporter of rice to India and a significant portion of it was to Bengal. After the Japanese occupation of Burma during World War 2, rice exports to India became nil. Democratically elected provincial governments and public servants of Indian Civil Service considered that Bengal had plenty of food, which could be made available with good administration. It was also claimed that traders hoarded rice to make speculative profits. Imports from Australia and North America were hard to bring in due to the war. In fact, London had turned a bad food shortage into a massive killing famine through its wartime policies.
4. Deccan Famine of 1630–1632
Death Toll: Approximately 20 lakhs.
The Deccan Famine was the result of failure of three consecutive staple crops leading to intense hunger and death from starvation. In the fourth and fifth years of reign of Shah Jahan, the famine desolated Deccan and Gujarat. Abdul Hamid Lahori described the horrors of the calamity as, “the inhabitants were reduced to direct extremity. Life was offered for a loaf of bread, but none would buy. Rank was sold for a cake, but none cared for it. Dog’s flesh was sold as goat’s flesh. Men began to devour each other.” So great was the distinction that streets and lanes became full of corpses and there was nobody to remove them. Shah Jahan distributed about 1.5 lakh Rupees in charity, established a few soup kitchens and remitted taxes to the amount of 70 lakhs, but his relief measures were inadequate. By 1632 about 20 lakh Indians died from the effects of famine.
3. Great Famine of 1876-78
Death Toll: Approximately 50 lakhs to 3 crore (depending on sources).
There were two most notable famines in the 19th century, in 1870s and 1890s in India. The estimated death toll from the great famine of 1876 to 1878 is estimated to be anywhere between 50 lakhs to 80 lakhs officially, but George Monbiot claimed the estimates to be between 1.2 crore to 3 crore. It is also known as the Madras famine of 1877. Intense drought had resulted in shortfall of crops in the Deccan Plateau. Also British Government’s policy to cultivate cash crops and excessive export of food grains is blamed as the reason behind the famine. By the autumn and winter of 1878, an epidemic of malaria struck killing people who were already weakened by malnutrition. The excessive mortality in the famine neutralized the natural population growth in the Bombay and Madras. The famine became a cornerstone of economic critique of British rule by many Indian nationalists, who later went on to establish Indian National Congress.
2. Third Plague Pandemic
Death Toll: Approximately 1.2 crore.
There is a folktale in India that once an unknown disease gripped India and in rural areas, the causalities were so severe that there weren’t enough people left alive to bury or burn the dead. Well, the story is true. The pandemic was worldwide and is infamously known as third plague pandemic. The bubonic plague began in Yunnan province of China in 1855. The plague came to India in 1894. The outbreak was sudden and had an incubation period of 4.5 to 6 days and on the onset of symptoms those infected had high fever often accompanied by delirium. Soon they had swollen glands and death occurred at the end of 48 hours from the onset of symptoms. The epidemic was initially reported in port cities of Mumbai, Karachi, Pune and Kolkata. By 1899, the disease had spread to other parts of India and rural communities. In Kolkata, 34,000 deaths were reported in a single week. English government took drastic steps to eradicate the disease by burning whole sections of towns and segregating the inhabitants from the infected patients. About 90% of those infected were dead. As the plague spread to famine-stricken districts, things went from bad to worse. By 1900, Chennai came under the purview of plague and by early 20th century, most of the world was infected. Over the next 30 years, over 1.2 crore deaths were officially reported in India.
1. Bengal Famine of 1770
Death Toll: Approximately 1 crore.
Bengal under the rule of British East India Company endured the most catastrophic famine between 1769 and 1773. The famine also included some regions of Bihar and Orissa, but Bengal was the worst affected region. The population in Bengal was reduced to 30 million with death of one-third of its population. In 1768 there was deficit in agricultural produce, which was nothing out of ordinary. The following year the same trend continued, but on a more severe scale. In September of 1769 there was severe drought leading to even more shortage of food. By mid-1770 death from starvation was occurring on a large scale. The famine resulted in mass migration of surviving population towards jungles, who never returned for decades to come. The famine is also attributed in large part to rampant policies of British East India Company. After the lands of Bengal came under Company’s rule, land tax was raised five folds from 10% over to 50%. Company also forced farmers to cultivate opium for exports and forbid hoarding of rice resulting in no reserves to tide over the famine. By the end of 1770 there was good rainfall resulting in good harvest, but there were shortages in the following years thereby raising the death toll.