How Famine was Created, by Mike Davis.

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.

6 Responses to “How Famine was Created, by Mike Davis.”

  1. triveni Says:

    In Late Victorian Holocausts, Mike Davis points out that here were 31 serious famines in 120 years of British rule{in India} compared to 17(seventeen) in the 2000 years before British rule.British imperialism dominated these countries, and others. Resources were sucked out and used to bolster British business interests across the world. The British ruling class defended the seizure of India as a colony by claiming it brought prosperity, and improved communications, roads and railways. "The accomplishment of all this work, and this expenditure of money, have increased to an extent absolutely incalculable the wealth and comfort of the people of India," according to Sir Richard and General Sir John Strachey, two leading British officials in India.These claims are still repeated by apologists for colonialism today. But between 1875 and 1900 there were some of the worst famines in Indian history. The life expectancy of ordinary Indians fell by 20 percent between 1872 and 1921.During the same period annual grain exports out of India increased from three million to ten million tonnes. Lord Lytton was the head of the British government in India during the first famine. He said, "There is to be no interference of any kind on the part of government with the object of reducing the price of food." He dismissed any idea of feeding the starving as "humanitarian hysterics".However, Lytton was happy to "interfere" to boost the profits of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce by removing duties on British cotton imported into India at the height of the famine. When drought hit India in the 1870s, businessmen used the railroads to transport grain from the worst affected areas to central depots for hoarding. The famine was most intense in the Madras region. Some 100,000 refugees packed out Madras city, desperate for food.Many starved to death in front of the troops who were guarding pyramids of imported rice. The Madras Chamber of Commerce responded by suggesting the police build flogging posts to deter starving people from stealing grain.Some 143,000 people in the province of Berar died of starvation between 1899 and 1900. As they starved to death, 747,000 bushels of grain were exported from the area. A passenger on a train through India at the time described seeing children screaming with pain for lack of food. He wrote, "Even now there are four wagons of rice coupled to the train behind, but no one will give anything to the children. "These wagons are reserved for the inhabitants of those towns where people still have money and can pay." Two blogs discussing the same,

  2. A C Rao Says:

    The British gave us Democracy and Parliament , hence today we have less famines (press, voice of the people etc.)The Moghals came basically from Pakistan, Afganisthan, Iran etc and look at their economies today.

  3. Jiji Selvan Says:

    in the name of development…."Acharya Vinoba Bhave’s dream did not come true. Though he helped Mr M. Swaminathan and six other poor families in Oragadam get 32 acres from their ‘masters’, the influential Naidu families, in the 1950s, the government has grabbed the land in the guise of creating special economic zones. Mr Swaminathan and his neighbours have become paupers again.“The government took over my land without even informing me. So far, they haven’t given any compensation for acquisition of the Bhoodhan land. I heard that a France-based car company will set up a car-making unit here. Do people need cars or paddy?” Mr Swaminathan asked during a media meet in the city on Saturday.Mr K. Gowthaman said his village had lost 1,000 acres grazing land to a tyre MNC.“Over 6,000 families in Thervoy village breed cattle. We need the lands to feed our livestock.”The government acquired the lands and gave them to a tyre company. Apart from grazing, the land is also a water catchment area feeding three lakes which support agriculture in the area.".

  4. Sadanand Says:

    AC,Indian Home Rule league demanded dominion status for British India under leaders like B G Tilak, Annie Besant, M Jinnah, S Subramaian Iyer, Khaparde etc. around the time of WW-I. M K Gandhi had already successfully fought draconian British Tax laws in Champaran & Kheda before he was chosen Home Rule league president in 1920. Home rule was granted because of struggle by Indians. It also came handy for British to split Indians later (separate electorates etc.)Unlike the Japanese constitution that was written in private by US generals and experts at the end of WW-II, there were vibrant, acrimonious yet scholarly debates (sometimes hair splitting such as choice over ‘incite’ & ‘provoke’ in a legislation) in India’s constituent assembly that drafted our Constitution. Debates were informed and influenced by powerful ideas from France, US, USSR, UK, etc. I would therefore greatly hesitate to say that British gave us Democracy & Parliament. Moreover, Democracy cannot be given. One has to own democracy and make it work. By ritually voting periodically one doesn’t become a democracy.Iran had a democratically elected Prime Minister Mosaddeq in1951. In 1953 he committed the ‘crime’ of nationalizing Oil Industry saying Iranian Oil is for Iranians. USA, UK didn’t like that. CIA plotted a coup, overthrew him and later murdered him. Had that oil been in India, had Nehru nationalized it, then India would have suffered the same fate. Brutal regime of Shah of Iran was foisted there and Iranian clergy resisted and fought against it among other freedom loving Iranians, who were not necessarily in agreement with the clergy.Babur, who founded Moghul empire came from Fergana valley in modern day Uzbekistan, though his army had many ethnic groups including Persians, Seljuk Turks etc.Cheers / SadanandPS : I wrote this post not to tom-tom India’s greatness but to hopefully correct some misperceptions.

  5. A C Rao Says:

    Hi Pattu,As you are aware Andhra Pradesh has 2 distinct areas. Andhra ( under British rule before Independence) and Telegana(under Nizam Rule before liberation) The British Engineers (with the help of Indian engineers ) built bridges, planned canals, irrigation systems, barrages etc and used the water of the rivers to irrigate the land. The farmers prospered , literacy rates and education went up, famines receded . After Independence Indian engineers built on this foundation and this region become the rice granary of India. Telegana on the other hand did nor develop, there were no industries, farmers had to fend for themselves, poverty and illiteracy was rampant and development was meagre.The rich landlords and farmers of Andhra bought land in Hyderabad and built it up, industries were started with money from the fertile coastal areas etc and today Hyd is one of the top cities in India. Even today the children and grand children of those English Engineers (to their surprise ) are invited and felicitated by the Govt of A P.Let give the devil his due !!CheersA C Rao

  6. Sadanand Says:

    Hi AC,Firstly there was no Andhra under British Rule. Madras presidency comprised of Tamil, Malyalam, Telugu, Kannada & Oriya speaking areas and in 1947 Tamil & Telugu speakers made over 78% of the presidency’s population. Poti Sreeramlulu’s fast unto death forced Nehru finally in 1953 to concede the linguistic basis for the formation of the states. At that time Rayalseema & coastal areas had staked claims to Madras as the capital of their new Andhra State but lost out to Tamil speaking folks. It was in 1956 that Telangana with Hyderabad was amalgamated into Andhra. Hyderabad was one of the top cities in the south or India even under Nizam’s rule until it lost out in eminence to Madras under British. Since Telanganites were late comers, they lost out to people from other regions of the AP in the politics and eventually in economics. Like in Maharashtra; Vidarbha, Marathwada (part of Nizam state) lost out to Western Maharashtra region. British were a maritime colonial power and therefore there interest in developing coastal areas was obvious. Coasts provided exit and entry points for cheap raw materials siphoned out of India and for finished goods forced on to people here. The terms of trade were decided by the colonial rulers and of course these favoured not the colonies. The globalization that is now being touted as the gift(?) of late 20th or early 21st century, actually began with the forays of Vasco Da Gama & Christopher Columbus in the late 15th century ( That is what made the first world filthy rich, and third world desperately poor. There were those in the third world who profited then by allying and helping their colonial masters and are profiting now by allying with global capital. Unfortunately, vast majority is not so lucky. They couldn’t and wouldn’t profit even if they want by allying with markets. Markets are structured in such a way as to make some rich at the cost of others. There is no -‘everybody is a winner’ – game in town if it is to be played out according to current rules. It is possible only if the rules of the game are changed for sharing resources equitably.Until that happens people will continue to play suckers to identity politics by believing that their problems are because of the others. Others may be construed as Regions, Religions, Creed, Language, gender, or any such inflammatory identity suited to the circumstances.Let the Devil stand up and accept its true due.Sadanand.

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