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Diabetes & Desis

Delve into the link between British colonialism and diabetes in India. Learn how historical famines and genetic adaptations have shaped the region’s health

Diabetes is a formidable health challenge, but did you know that India bears a unique burden in this regard? While conventional factors like genetics and lifestyle are important, recent revelations tie an unexpected historical element to this dilemma: British colonialism. Let’s check into the stark realities of how British rule over the Indian subcontinent left an indelible mark on the health of it’s population.

A Shocking Surge in Major Famines under the British

The 89 years of British colonial rule, known as the British Raj, witnessed a significant surge in major famines. British administrative policies exacerbated the effects of droughts, resulting in the loss of millions of lives.

The Great Famines

The Great Famine of 1876-1878 struck southern India in the Madras Presidency, claiming an estimated 5 to 11 million lives. The Bengal famine of 1943 was equally devastating, leading to the death of over 3 million people due to malnutrition.

Conservatively, over 25+ million Indian lives were lost aided greatly by the policies of the British East India Company – which was licensed and supported by the British crown

British East India Company rule: 1757-1858

British Crown rule (British Raj): 1858-1947


British Policies and Their Role in the Famine Tragedies

It’s quite distressing to note that there is a direct connection between these famines and British policies. During World War II, Winston Churchill’s government redirected essential resources from India to support the war effort, causing extreme food shortages. At a time when India urgently requested over 1 million tonnes of emergency wheat, rice continued to be exported from the country.

One study, published in the journal Global and Planetary Change in 2018, found that there were an average of 0.84 famines per century in India before British rule. This increased to an average of 2.83 famines per century during the British Raj – a growth of 236% in famines.

Overall, it’s estimated that Britain manage to siphon off a staggering $45 trillion out of India through exploitative trading practices while these famines were unfolding.


Epigenetics and Starvation Adaptation

Epigenetics, the study of how environmental factors influence gene expression, offers insight into the lasting consequences of these famines.

What is Epigenetics, and can it help me get better?

Indian bodies developed genetic adaptations in response to recurring famines, making them more susceptible to diabetes and other ailments.

Survival Adaptations and Diabetes Risk

Surviving just one famine significantly increased the risk of diabetes in the next generation, as well as the risk of high blood sugar in the survivor’s grandchildren. Indian bodies adapted to conserve energy for prolonged periods of scarcity, making it harder for muscle and liver cells to absorb sugar from the blood, leading to an elevated risk of diabetes.

The Modern Challenge

In today’s era of food abundance, these genetic adaptations have unintended consequences. Indian individuals find themselves grappling with increased rates of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. With two-thirds of packaged foods now containing added sugar, this genetic predisposition poses a unique challenge.

Lifestyle Choices & Decolonizing Health Research

While these genetic susceptibilities cannot be reversed, there are steps Indians can take to mitigate their risk of type 2 diabetes.

Researchers suggest a return to their rich history of advanced health practices, including Ayurveda, yoga, and traditional dietary habits. These traditional approaches emphasize a holistic and balanced lifestyle that can help manage the risk of diabetes.

Moreover, it’s imperative to decolonize health research and acknowledge the unique needs of diverse ethnicities. As diabetes rates surge and insulin costs become prohibitive, it’s paramount to provide culturally sensitive health advice.

Enduring Genetic Legacy of Famines

The legacy of British colonialism in India has left an enduring imprint on the health of its people. The famines and their genetic aftermath have rendered Indians more susceptible to diabetes. By understanding the intricate interplay of history and genetics, we can take steps toward a healthier future and reduce the prevalence of type 2 diabetes in Indian communities. It’s a journey rooted in our past and propelled by our potential.


How British colonialism increased diabetes in south Asians

How History Still Weighs Heavy On South Asian Bodies Today

Why South Asians are at increased risk for diabetes: A complex interplay of genetics, diet and history

Davis, Mike. “Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World.” Verso, 2001. In his book – Davis argues that the El Niño famines that occurred in India, China, and Brazil in the late 19th century were not simply natural disasters, but were also caused by British imperialism and capitalist globalization. He shows how British colonial policies, such as land taxes and the export of food, made it difficult for people to cope with the famines.

Basu, S. (2016). ‘Bengal Tiger and British Lion: An Account of the Bengal Famine of 1943.’ The Journal of Peasant Studies, 43(2), 413-441.

Ramachandran, A., et al. (2010). ‘Increased incidence of gestational diabetes with increasing age in the Chennai Urban Population: Results of a 13 year study.’ Diabetologia, 53(9), 1907-1914.

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