Bengal District Gazetteers: Balasore
L.S.S. O’Malley, Indian Civil Service
The Bengal Secretariat Book Depot, Calcutta
01 Jan, 1907
This gazetteer, published in 1907, describes various aspects of Odisha’s Baleswar (or Orissa’s Balasore in British times) district. It surveys the district’s economy, society, politics and administrative setup, as well as its history, geography, climate, biodiversity and natural resources. It says that the name Baleswar is derived from a temple dedicated to “Mahadeo Baneswar, i.e. Siva, the Lord of the Forest.”
By the time of the 1901 census, the district had an average population density of about 200 persons per square kilometre. This was a mobile population with a high rate of migration – large numbers of people moved to the Sunderbans to work as cultivators and field labourers and to Kolkata to work as porters and manual labourers. The caste system, the gazetteer says, was deeply ingrained in the region. The lower castes preferred to work in the mills, where people of different castes worked alongside each other.The Bengal District Gazetteers were prepared by British colonial administrators for the districts of Angul, Balasore, Cuttack, Koraput and Puri, and the ‘Feudatory States of Orissa’. Ten years after Independence, in 1957, the responsibility of compiling the district gazetteers was transferred from the Centre to the states. In 1999, this responsibility (in Odisha) was transferred from the Revenue Department to the Gopabandhu Academy of Administration.
Balasore district, with an area of 2,085 square miles, had a population of 1,071,197 persons, according to the 1901 census. For administrative purposes, the district was divided into two sub-divisions: Balasore (where the district headquarters were located) and Bhadrakh.
Balasore was characterised by three well-defined tracts – the salt tract made up of alluvial soil along the coast, the arable tract or rice country, and jungle land along the lower mountain tract. The Coast Canal, Trunk Road and the railway line separated the three tracts from each other.
The gazetteer looks at the people of the region through the eyes of the colonial master. It dubs them laid-back, mild-mannered and lacking in enterprise. Their fatalistic attitude and lack of ambition is attributed to three factors: (i) they had been continually oppressed since the end of the 17th century by conquerors who plundered their lands, (ii) the society in this region was tied to religious superstition and caste prejudice, allowing the upper castes to oppress the rest, and (iii) physical calamities frequently destroyed lives, property and crops pushing a majority of the population into poverty.
Several tribes migrated to Orissa in historic times including the Khond (or Kondh), the Gond, the Ho, the Bhumij, the Santal, the Savar and the Juang. In the 1901 census, migrants leaving Balasore outnumbered those coming into the district by over 20,000.
The majority of the people, in the gazetteer’s reckoning, were Hindus, accounting for 96.4 per cent of the population, the Muhammadans (Muslims), 2.6 per cent, and “Animists”, 0.8 per cent.
Malarial fever, cholera, smallpox and diarrhoea were the most common diseases causing deaths in the district. The town of Balasore had better sanitation measures in place compared with the rest of the division and its neighbouring districts. The number of dispensaries in the district increased from eight in 1894 to 11 in 1907.
Rainfall in the area was unpredictable, leading to the occurrence of both floods and droughts in the area. The latter, a potential cause of famine, had a particularly devastating impact on the harvest. Most cultivated land was set aside for rice and its loss could not be made up by other seasonal crops. The region was also susceptible to cyclones generated in the Bay of Bengal.
Wages had increased since the 1850s when skilled labour earned up to three annas per day at the most. At the rate recorded by the gazetteer, unskilled labour earned up to two annas and skilled labour from six to eight annas a day. For making and repairing agricultural implements, carpenters and blacksmiths were paid in kind (usually rice). Workers preferred to be paid in kind despite the fact that the quantity of grain offered as payment had not increased in 30 years. This was because the price of staple food grains had gone up 90 per cent, making the value of wages in cash less than that of wages in kind.
According to the 1901 census, almost 79 per cent of the population was dependent on agriculture. Industries supported 9.6 per cent of the population. Though no new industries had opened, industrial development received sustained attention. An institution called the Utkal Union Conference, launched in 1903, was established to improve the socio-economic conditions of the people.
Trade was also opening up with local produce reaching new and larger markets. At the beginning of the 19th century, Balasore was the only port operating in Orissa. Several more opened up as trade has increased, with the Chandbali port taking over as the focal point for trade and passenger traffic. Balasore, meanwhile, had declined because of the advent of the railway, which monopolised export trade.
The first English school in Balasore was set up in 1853. The number of schools under the Education Department rose from 28 in 1870-71 to 2,305 in 1895, and the number of pupils rose from 1,252 to 37,707. Due to natural calamities and other factors, these numbers fell by 1906 to 1,753 schools with 37,687 pupils. The number of girls’ schools rose from four in 1870-71 to 128 in 1907. According to the 1901 census, 7.8 per cent of [the district’s] population could read and write.
Factoids and Focus compiled by Aditi Chandrasekhar.