Archive for February 19th, 2010

How Famine was Created, by Mike Davis.

19 February 2010
A myth was created by the colonial English empire with the help of highly biased reading of history and was sustained through suitably tailored education that India was rescued from chronic hunger by the enlightened rulers through better administration. English rule was not an unmitigated horror, but who can argue with certainty that what benefits it brought wouldn’t have been possible without it. That the colonial masters were interested in perpetuating a myth is not surprising, bit its persistence is. There were 31 serious famines in the 120 years of the colonial rule as against the 17 recorded before it in the C.E., reports Mike Davis quoting Cornelius Walford – Famines of the world : Past and Present. It is true that record keeping may not be that vigilant or vigorous in earlier times, but even then odds are too heavily stacked to fault purely recording errors.  Those who want to read the full article by Davis click here; it is rather long to hold everyone’s interest for the duration needed. Rest may follow some striking facts below. Davis is the author who Raj Patel invokes in Stuffed and Starved.
“….Like their Chinese contemporaries, the Mogul rulers relied on a quartet of fundamental policies — embargoes on food exports, anti-speculative price regulation, tax relief, and distribution of free food without a force-labour counterpart…..the Moguls used tax subsidies to promote water conservation. “…In the Ahmedabad region, for example, it was common to waive the tax on a ‘rabi’ [spring harvested] crop raised through irrigation from a recently constructed well. The concession continued until the tax exemptions were held to have equalled the cost of construction”.
“….Food security was also probably better in the Deccan during the period of Maratha rule. There were few landless labourers, occupancy rights were not tied to revenue payment, taxes varied according to the actual harvest, common lands and resources were accessible to the poor, and the rulers subsidised local irrigation improvements with cheap state-backed loans”.
“….When the sans culottes (French proletariat) stormed the Bastille in 1789, the largest manufacturing districts in the world were the Yangzi Delta in mid-China and Bengal in India, with Guangdong and Guangxi in southern China and coastal Madras in India not far behind. India alone produced one-quarter of world manufactures, and while its “pre-capitalist agrarian labour productivity was probably less than the Japanese-Chinese level, its commercial capital surpassed that of the Chinese”.
“….Indeed, there is compelling evidence that South Indian labourers had higher earnings than their British counterparts in the 18th century and lived lives of greater financial security.”8Because the productivity of land was higher in South India, weavers and other artisans enjoyed better diets than average Europeans. More importantly, their unemployment rates tended to be lower because they possessed superior rights of contract and exercised more economic power. Even outcaste agricultural labourers in Madras earned more in real terms than English farm labourers. By 1900, in contrast, the average British household income was 21 times higher”.
“….The future Third World, dominated by the highly developed commercial and handicraft economies of India and China, surrendered ground grudgingly until 1850 (when it still generated 65% of global GNP), but then declined with increasing rapidity through the rest of the 19th century (only 38% of world GNP in 1900 and 22% in 1960)”.
“….With the exception of sugar, all the commodities whose price was lower in 1913 than in 1883 were commodities procured almost wholly in the tropics. All the commodities whose prices rose over this 30-year period were commodities in which the temperate countries produced a substantial part of total supplies. The fall in ocean freight rates affected tropical more than temperate prices, but this should not make a difference of more than five percentage points”.
“….South Asia’s percentage of world population declined during the years 1750 to 1900 from 23% to 20%, while Europe’s rose from 17% to 21%”.
“….still only about one-fifth of public works expenditure found its way to major irrigation projects, 90% of which was concentrated in the Punjab and the North-West Provinces where canals, tapping the Ganges and Jamuna rivers, watered commercial crops like cotton, opium, sugarcane and wheat and financial returns to the government were therefore highest. By accelerating the marginalisation of kharif crops, export-oriented canal agriculture may well have made producers more vulnerable to famine”.
“….By their disregard for the small-scale, peasant-managed irrigation systems of wells, dams, small channels and tanks (small reservoirs) that had been the hydraulic backbone of agriculture in western and southern India since the early medieval period. In stark contrast to the old Mogul tradition of subsidising well construction, ryots in British India who sank wells at their own expense on their own land were punitively taxed. Thus “traditional water-harvesting systems disintegrated and disappeared in large parts of India”.
“….The land-tax system also destroyed the social mechanisms that had allowed villages to undertake irrigation works by themselves. In most of India, water had always been a communally managed common resource”.
“….village economy augmented crops and handicrafts with stores of free goods from common lands: dry grass for fodder, shrub grass for rope, wood and dung for fuel, dung, leaves and forest debris for fertilizer, clay for plastering houses, and, above all, clean water. All classes utilised these common property resources, but for poorer households they constituted the very margin of survival. Moreover, forest and pasture commons “not only serve as a buffer against seasonal shortages, but also contribute to rural equity”.
“….Until 1870, all forests (20% of India’s land area) had been communally managed. For plough agriculturalists, the forests were not only essential for wood, but also for leaf manure and grass and leaf fodder. By the end of 1870, they had been mostly enclosed by armed agents of the state”.

“….Between 1843 and 1873, cattle numbers in the Deccan fell by almost 5 million. The 1876-78 drought killed off several million more, with cattle populations plummeting by nearly 60% in some districts”.


Watch how the story of Globalization that began 500 years back is still evolving with more innovative but equally destructive ways of forced coupling with the world markets and its impact on poverty & hunger.

Slow Food Nation is a movement to change the food culture in USA and generally in the developed world. We are what we eat, and how we eat. The way the first world eats is intrinsically tied with the world food markets & the food crisis. Here is a panel discussion exploring those links.