The Bengal Famine: How the British engineered the worst genocide in human history for profit
Rakhi Chakraborty | August 15, 2014 at 7:30 am
“I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion. The famine was their own fault for breeding like rabbits.”
The British had a ruthless economic agenda when it came to operating in India and that did not include empathy for native citizens. Under the British Raj, India suffered countless famines. But the worst hit was Bengal. The first of these was in 1770, followed by severe ones in 1783, 1866, 1873, 1892, 1897 and lastly 1943-44. Previously, when famines had hit the country, indigenous rulers were quick with useful responses to avert major disasters. After the advent of the British, most of the famines were a consequence of monsoonal delays along with the exploitation of the country’s natural resources by the British for their own financial gain. Yet they did little to acknowledge the havoc these actions wrought. If anything, they were irritated at the inconveniences in taxing the famines brought about.
The first of these famines was in 1770 and was ghastly brutal. The first signs indicating the coming of such a huge famine manifested in 1769 and the famine itself went on till 1773. It killed approximately 10 million people, millions more than the Jews incarcerated during the Second World War. It wiped out one third the population of Bengal. John Fiske, in his book “The Unseen World”, wrote that the famine of 1770 in Bengal was far deadlier than the Black Plague that terrorized Europe in the fourteenth century. Under the Mughal rule, peasants were required to pay a tribute of 10-15 per cent of their cash harvest. This ensured a comfortable treasury for the rulers and a wide net of safety for the peasants in case the weather did not hold for future harvests. In 1765 the Treaty of Allahabad was signed and East India Company took over the task of collecting the tributes from the then Mughal emperor Shah Alam II. Overnight the tributes, the British insisted on calling them tributes and not taxes for reasons of suppressing rebellion, increased to 50 percent. The peasants were not even aware that the money had changed hands. They paid, still believing that it went to the Emperor.
Partial failure of crop was quite a regular occurrence in the Indian peasant’s life. That is why the surplus stock, which remained after paying the tributes, was so important to their livelihood. But with the increased taxation, this surplus deteriorated rapidly. When partial failure of crops came in 1768, this safety net was no longer in place. The rains of 1769 were dismal and herein the first signs of the terrible draught began to appear. The famine occurred mainly in the modern states of West Bengal and Bihar but also hit Orissa, Jharkhand and Bangladesh. Bengal was, of course, the worst hit. Among the worst affected areas were Birbum and Murshidabad in Bengal. Thousands depopulated the area in hopes of finding sustenance elsewhere, only to die of starvation later on. Those who stayed on perished nonetheless. Huge acres of farmland were abandoned. Wilderness started to thrive here, resulting in deep and inhabitable jungle areas. Tirhut, Champaran and Bettiah in Bihar were similarly affected in Bihar.
Prior to this, whenever the possibility of a famine had emerged, the Indian rulers would waive their taxes and see compensatory measures, such as irrigation, instituted to provide as much relief as possible to the stricken farmers. The colonial rulers continued to ignore any warnings that came their way regarding the famine, although starvation had set in from early 1770. Then the deaths started in 1771. That year, the company raised the land tax to 60 per cent in order to recompense themselves for the lost lives of so many peasants. Fewer peasants resulted in less crops that in turn meant less revenue. Hence the ones who did not yet succumb to the famine had to pay double the tax so as to ensure that the British treasury did not suffer any losses during this travesty.
After taking over from the Mughal rulers, the British had issued widespread orders for cash crops to be cultivated. These were intended to be exported. Thus farmers who were used to growing paddy and vegetables were now being forced to cultivate indigo, poppy and other such items that yielded a high market value for them but could be of no relief to a population starved of food. There was no backup of edible crops in case of a famine. The natural causes that had contributed to the draught were commonplace. It was the single minded motive for profit that wrought about the devastating consequences. No relief measure was provided for those affected. Rather, as mentioned above, taxation was increased to make up for any shortfall in revenue. What is more ironic is that the East India Company generated a profited higher in 1771 than they did in 1768.
Although the starved populace of Bengal did not know it yet, this was just the first of the umpteen famines, caused solely by the motive for profit, that was to slash across the country side. Although all these massacres were deadly in their own right, the deadliest one to occur after 1771 was in 1943 when three million people died and others resorted to eating grass and human flesh in order to survive.
Winston Churchill, the hallowed British War prime minister who saved Europe from a monster like Hitler was disturbingly callous about the roaring famine that was swallowing Bengal’s population. He casually diverted the supplies of medical aid and food that was being dispatched to the starving victims to the already well supplied soldiers of Europe. When entreated upon he said, “Famine or no famine, Indians will breed like rabbits.” The Delhi Government sent a telegram painting to him a picture of the horrible devastation and the number of people who had died. His only response was, “Then why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?”
Winston Churchill: Image Source
This Independence Day it is worthwhile to remember that the riches of the west were built on the graves of the East. While we honour the brave freedom fighters (as we should), it is victims like these, the ones sacrificed without a moment’s thought, who paid the ultimate price. Shed a tear in their memory and strive to make the most of this hard won independence that we take for granted today. Pledge to stand up those whose voice the world refuses to hear because they are too lowly to matter. To be free is a great privilege. But as a great superhero once said, “With great freedom comes great responsibility.”
Writer at YourStory. Student of human rights. Thrives on stories, ideas and innovation
The Hindu, February 12, 2015, by K P Prabhakaran Nair
Small and marginal farmers in rainfed regions are trapped in a losing battle with agriculture — and with life
The lot of the poor Indian farmer keeps deteriorating with the passage of time. According to the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) data released on December 19, 2014, during the last decade, the bloated debt of Indian agricultural households increased almost 400 per cent Even the number of heavily indebted households has steeply increased during this period.
The report is titled Situation Assessment Survey of Agricultural Households in India, and is based on a national survey covering 35,000 households during 2012-13. Though the definition of an agricultural household has changed during the last decade, the basic features remain the same. The survey states that, on an all-India basis, more than 60 per cent of the total rural households covered in 11 States are in deep debt, though wide variations exist, ranging from 92.9 per cent households indebted in Andhra to 17.5 per cent in Assam. Loan patterns show it is 60 per cent institutional loans and 40 per cent non institutional loans. Moneylenders make up most of the non-institutional lenders.
Green revolution myth
Average debt per household is ₹47,000, while average income is ₹36,973 per annum. In 2002-03, India had 148 million rural households which increased to 156 million by 2012-13, a 5.4 per cent increase in a decade.
The data point to another disturbing trend. While average income from 2002-03 to 2012-03 increased by 318 per cent, most worryingly, total debt per household increased by 273.5 per cent during the same period, proving that while income from sale of agricultural products increased due to a price advantage during the last one decade, it has not translated into a reduction in rural indebtedness. Has the so-called green revolution really helped the poor and marginal farmer of India?
Benefits by way of better seeds or fertiliser input have been cornered by rich and affluent farmers in Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh, Andhra, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. The poor and marginal farmers of Bihar, Odisha and eastern Uttar Pradesh are in a miserable state. There are reasons to believe that indebtedness of rural agricultural households cannot be just 60 per cent, as shown by the NSSO survey, but perhaps as much as 70-80 per cent.
The enthusiasts of highly extractive agriculture, euphemistically called the green revolution, based on “high input technology” — very liberal, often unbridled, quantities of chemical fertilisers, very expensive hybrid or Bt seeds, copious use of irrigation water — kept proclaiming the “success” of this revolution. But the poor and marginal farmers , primarily in the vast rainfed areas of the country, were simply left out.
Their farms remained parched, while their debts soared. The Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, where Bt cotton failed miserably in parched rainfed fields and farmers in thousands took their own lives, unable to repay the loan sharks, became a global shame. Only where rich farmers had access to assured irrigation water coupled with unbridled use of chemical fertilisers could Bt cotton perform well.
Many farmers are unaware of the minimum support price. And, often, these farmers resort to distress sale of their produce to clear the loans from moneylenders, obtained at exorbitant interest rates. In collusion with unscrupulous local traders and commission agents, government agencies delay procurement of grains by, in some cases, as many as 50-60 days.
The poor end up spending more than 50 per cent of their meagre farm income buying food for mere subsistence, while the government procured grain in the FCI godowns finds its way into the hands of corrupt officials, middlemen and grain traders.
Though the contribution of India’s agriculture to the country’s GDP is 18 per cent and it provides employment to more than 60 per cent of the total workforce of the country, if one goes by the NSSO survey, the country is heading towards a crisis in agriculture. The Prime Minister would do well to rethink his ‘Make in India’ strategy. These poor and highly indebted farmers, most with no formal education, cannot be allowed to migrate to congested urban areas to eke out a miserable, daily wage-earner’s life.