Friday, May 1, 2020

Madras famine of 1877 ~ how Admin just let people die !!


Here's the north-east monsoon at last,' said the Hon.Robert Ellis, C.B., junior member of the Governor's Council, Madras, as a heavy shower of rain fell at Coonoor, on a day towards the end of Oct 1876, when the members of the Madras Government were returning from their summer sojourn on the hills. ' I am afraid that is not the monsoon,' said the gentleman to whom the remark was made. 'Not the monsoon?' rejoined Mr. Ellis. 'Good God ! It must be the monsoon. If it is not, and if the monsoon does not come, there will be an awful famine.' The next day, when the party had arrived on the plains, it was found that the heavy rain of the previous day was not a presage of the north-east monsoon ; it was merely a local downpour, and, instead of the country side being refreshed with fallen rain, all was withered and bare and desolate.



East India Company came to India for trading – slowly became rulers – during their 300 years of rule, they made peoples slaves. After 72 years of Independence, some are still colonial slaves – the vestiges of British still persists.  Once a while you may read somewhere the mindset, when some one yawns – British would have handled the situation better.  A day back saw a similar natured comment on how the British would have handled ‘pandemics’ – by someone hell-bent on blaming present rulers without realizing that England is badly affected by Covid-19 and is struggling.  Here is some history !


The Royal Titles Act 1876  was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom which officially recognized Queen Victoria (and subsequent monarchs) as “Empress of India”. This title had been assumed by her in 1876, under the encouragement of the Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. The long title of the Act is "An Act to enable Her most Gracious majesty to make an addition to the Royal Style and Titles appertaining to the Imperial Crown of the United Kingdom and its Dependencies." It was repealed by the Indian Independence Act 1947. Emperor or empress of India, shortened to king-emperor or queen-empress, was a title used by British monarchs from 1 May 1876  to 22 June 1948.  The image of the emperor or empress was used to signify British authority—his or her profile, for instance, appearing on currency, in government buildings, railway stations, courts, on statues etc.

We say that human life should be saved at any cost and at any effort; no man, woman, or child shall die of starvation. Distress they must often suffer; we cannot save them from that. We wish we could do more, but we must be content with saving life and preventing extreme suffering - Government of India, Jan. 1877.

Whilst preparations were being made for the proclamation of Her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain as Empress of India, and whilst the ceremonies were actually in progress, 65,000 subjects of the Queen-Empress died of starvation and the diseases caused by insufficient nourishment, in the Madras Presidency alone. Thirteen thousand must similarly have perished in the province of Mysore, but no record of deaths month by month were  published ; how many died in Bombay Presidency is unknown, for here, too, reticence was displayed respecting mortality whilst scarcity and want were prevalent. The terrible character of the death-rate in the districts of Southern India was not known to the Viceroy and the Governors and Councillors who were assembled at Delhi, but enough was known to enable them to feel that they were face to face with the greatest disaster arising from drought which had visited India during the century.

Remember that in 2012 there were some fears of World coming to an end - Nibiru Cataclysm; Mayan calendar – were not they something to do with the mind and eternal fear ? There  were many reports of the  World ending on 21st Dec 2012… Nibiru cataclysm is a supposed disastrous encounter between the Earth and a large planetary object.  The word ‘cataclysm’ would mean – wash down but in modern day context refers to a mythological deluge and to ‘a hypothetical doomsday event’. There is also the ‘apocalypse’ of things hidden from humanity – a disclosure of revelation to the end of the world in general.  From time immemorial, mankind has been living in constant fear of various  existential risks that they believed to  have the potential to destroy, or drastically restrict, human civilization; and causing extinction of human species. Mankind has feared the deluge, destruction of planet Earth, annihilation of the solar system and the like.  There is fear of known natural disasters like volcanoes, floods, tsunamis and man made events like global warming, nuclear war and bioterrorism – and now what we live ‘Covid-19’ – the Corona virus.


The Great Famine of 1876–1878 (also the Southern India famine of 1876–1878 or the Madras famine of 1877) was a famine that swept parts of  India under Crown rule. It began in 1876 after an intense drought resulting in crop failure in the Deccan Plateau. It affected south and southwestern India (the British presidencies of Madras and Bombay, and the princely states of Mysore and Hyderabad) for a period of two years. In its second year famine also spread northward to some regions of the Central Provinces and the North-Western Provinces, and to a small area in the Punjab. The famine ultimately covered an area of 670,000 square kilometres (257,000 sq mi) and caused distress to a population totalling 58,500,000. The death toll from this famine is estimated to be in the range of 5.5 to 10.3 million people.

The famine occurred at a time when the colonial government was attempting to reduce expenses on welfare. Earlier, in the Bihar famine of 1873–74, severe mortality had been avoided by importing rice from Burma. The Government of Bengal and its Lieutenant-Governor, Sir Richard Temple, were criticised for excessive expenditure on charitable relief. Sensitive to any renewed accusations of excess in 1876, Temple, who was now Famine Commissioner for the Government of India, insisted not only on a policy of laissez faire with respect to the trade in grain, but also on stricter standards of qualification for relief and on more meagre relief rations. Two kinds of relief were offered: "relief works" for able-bodied men, women, and working children, and gratuitous (or charitable) relief for small children, the elderly, and the indigent.

The insistence on more rigorous tests for qualification, however, led to strikes by "relief workers" in the Bombay presidency. In Jan 1877, Temple reduced the wage for a day's hard work in the relief camps in Madras and Bombay —this 'Temple wage' consisted of 450 grams (1 lb) of grain plus one anna for a man, and a slightly reduced amount for a woman or working child, for a "long day of hard labour without shade or rest."  The rationale behind the reduced wage, was in keeping with a prevailing belief of the time, that any excessive payment might create 'dependency' (or "demoralisation" in contemporaneous usage) among the famine-afflicted population.

Temple's recommendations were opposed by some officials, including William Digby and the physician W. R. Cornish, Sanitary Commissioner for the Madras Presidency. Cornish argued for a minimum of 680 grams (1.5 lb) of grain and, in addition, supplements of vegetables and protein, especially if the individuals were performing strenuous labour in the relief works. However, Lytton supported Temple, who argued that "everything must be subordinated to the financial consideration of disbursing the smallest sum of money."  With malnourishment, lakhs of citizens  succumbed to the famine. In other parts of India, such as the United Provinces, where relief was meagre, the resulting mortality was high. In the second half of 1878, an epidemic of malaria killed many more who were already weakened by malnutrition. – have we ever read all these in our History books when we read of the administrative skills and clemency of Viceroys ?
  

The famine threatened to wipe the population. The collector of North Arcot was directed to consider whether improvement to wells could not be beneficially undertaken, as was done in Bellary in 1868, when famine was sore in that part of the land. In Jan 1876 the Government of India observed the state of things in Madras, and on the 22nd of that month sent the following telegram to the local Government : 'Your weekly telegram of state of season for week ending Jan 20, implies a very sudden change in prospects. Please report facts fully by letter, stating probable amount of remissions, localities affected, and any other important points.'

The Government of Madras in 1877 consisted of his Grace the Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, Sir Neville Chamberlain, Commander-in-Chief, the Hon. W. R. Robinson, K.C.S.L, and the Hon. R. S. Ellis, C.B. The Governor was, comparatively speaking, new to the country, and unfamiliar with the people and with Indian topics ; the Commander-in-Chief took but littlepart in the civil affairs of the Presidency ; Sir William Robinson knew the country most thoroughly : as Inspector- General of Police he had visited every part of it, and was known to possess great personal sympathy with Indians of all races.

The Madras authorities telegraphed to Simla, a second time, on October 27, and asked for sanction for relief works amounting to Rs.377,770/-  adding that it was impossible to avoid expense or to provide necessary relief from provincial or local funds. The sanction was not accorded, but the production of certain returns,which had been asked for, was urged. Collectors were summoned from their districts to Madras and were consulted as to existing and prospective needs, and great earnestness and much effort were exhibited by the Government.

In fourteen districts, covering an area of 80,000 miles, distress was felt. It manifested itself in many ways,—in the mofussil (country districts) by people leaving their homes and wandering ; in crowding to chathrams (relief houses), and to large towns; in large crowds congregating around the dwellings of European officers and clamouring for employment. The employment of the village coolies in collecting stones from the wayside, fields, or quarries, breaking them and storing them for use, would be highly beneficial and ultimately remunerative, and the work would be suited to all classes,—men, women, and children, was what the British decided.

In the large towns melancholy specimens of emaciated beings were seen, but the climax was reached in the city of Madras. The inhabitants of the surrounding districts, particularly Chingleput and North Arcot, were most sorely stricken, and, few or no relief works being provided for them, they left their homes, and in large numbers flocked to Madras. With characteristic generosity a number of Hindu gentlemen arranged to feed the starving poor, and the report spread that food was to be had in Madras for the asking.   In North Arcot, whence the majority of the people came, they told one another, ' In Madras there are mountains of rice and rivers of ghee ; anybody who likes can have a share.'  Ten Hindus were feeding, with one meal per day, 11,400 people. ' An immense number of ' emaciated congregated on the beach and obtained a precarious existence by picking up the grains which fell from the ricecarts, the grain being not always accidentally dropped.  The scenes in the streets of Madras at this time (Nov 1876) and for seven or eight subsequent months were unique, and in many respects sad and disheartening. Much excitement was caused by a report of death from starvation in one of the most frequented streets of the city; a villager and his family had 'wandered' into the town ; these were without food for several days, two of the children died and were buried, and then the man died of absolute want in sight of thousands of bags of grain.  


How terribly the people suffered, and how cruelly the administrators and rulers treated the subjects including the  children .  One of the first steps taken by the Madras Government was to send two members of the Board of Revenue—experienced officials, who reached the Board table only after having had long and intimate experience of the country, as administrators—on tour ; Mr. Thornhill, C.S.I. , and the Hon. Arbuthnot, proceeded on a visit to the districts. The last-named officer left Madras on Nov 5, and his report, which refers to the district of Kurnool, gives a fair idea of the state of the country as a whole.  

In the meantime, unknown to the local merchants, the Madras Government had entered the market as buyers of grain. Some uneasiness had been felt as to the probability of such a course being adopted, secret purchases having been the sheet-anchor of Lord Northbrook's famine policy in Behar. As, however, the practice had been much condemned, great hope was expressed that similar action would not be taken in Madras. It was also known that the supreme authorities objected to interference with trade, and were not disposed either themselves to undertake importation or to sanction such a course in their subordinates.

The mortality in the famine was in the range of 5.5 million people. The excessive mortality and the renewed questions of "relief and protection" that were asked in its wake, led directly to the constituting of the Famine Commission of 1880 and to the eventual adoption of the Indian Famine Codes.  After the famine, a large number of agricultural labourers and handloom weavers in South India emigrated to British tropical colonies to work as indentured labourers in plantations.  

The Great Famine had a lasting political impact on events in India. Among the British administrators in India who were unsettled by the official reactions to the famine and, in particular by the stifling of the official debate about the best form of famine relief, were William Wedderburn and A. O. Hume. Less than a decade later, they would found the Indian National Congress and, in turn, influence a generation of Indian nationalists. Among the latter were Dadabhai Naoroji and Romesh Chunder Dutt for whom the Great Famine would become a cornerstone of the economic critique of the British Raj.

In his book Late Victorian Holocausts, Mike Davis called the famine a "colonial genocide" perpetrated by Great Britain. Sad .. the lives of people – the natural disaster and the man-made suffering administered by the colonial rulers. Clearly it was not only nature that failed but also the rulers, their lack  will to plan, abject negligence,  not having enough rolling stock and not preparing to bring them from UK and failture to transport available foodgrain, distribution, storage all went agains the common man, whose destiny went unheralded and unrecorded.  Hail the British rulers.

With profound sorrow to those departed
S. Sampathkumar
13.4.2020

Biblio:  The Famine Campaign in Southern India vol I by William Digby



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