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How famine was created

By Mike Davis

The British insisted that they had rescued India from "timeless hunger". In fact, there were 31 serious famines in 120 years of British rule against only 17 recorded famines in the previous two millennia. It was the process of incorporating India into the world market to serve colonial interests that caused incalculable damage to Indian peasants, the agrarian economy, and food security

There is little evidence that rural India had ever experienced subsistence crises on the scale of the Bengal catastrophe of 1770 under East India Company rule or the long siege by disease and hunger between 1875 and 1920 that slowed population growth almost to a standstill...

India under the Mogul Emperors (who had controlled India since the 16th century) was generally free of famine until the 1770s. In pre-British India, before the creation of a railway-girded national market in grain, village-level food reserves were larger, patrimonial welfare more widespread, and grain prices in surplus areas better insulated against speculation.

The Mogul state, moreover, "regarded the protection of the peasant as an essential obligation", and there are numerous examples of humane, if sporadic, relief operations 1. 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 -- that were an anathema to British Utilitarians2. They also zealously policed the grain trade in the public interest.....

In contrast to the British punitive taxation of irrigation and its neglect of traditional wells and reservoirs 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."3

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.

In contrast to the rigidity and dogmatism of British land-and-revenue settlements, both the Moguls and Marathas flexibly tailored their rule to take account of the crucial ecological relationships and unpredictable climate fluctuations of the subcontinent's drought-prone regions.....Although the British insisted that they had rescued India from "timeless hunger", more than one official was jolted when Indian nationalists quoted from an 1878 study published in the prestigious Journal of the Statistical Society that contrasted 31 serious famines in 120 years of British rule against only 17 recorded famines in the entire previous two millennia4.

India and China, in other words, did not enter modern history as the helpless "lands of famine" so universally enshrined in the Western imagination. Certainly the intensity of the ENSO [El Nio/Southern Oscillation cycle] in the late-19th century, perhaps equalled only on three or four other occasions in the last millennium, must loom large in any explanation of the catastrophes of the 1870s and 1890s. But it is scarcely the only independent variable. Equal causal weight, or more, must be accorded to the growing social vulnerability to climate variability that became so evident not only in south Asia and north China but also in north-east Brazil and southern Africa in the late-19th century.

As geographer Michael Watts has argued in his history of the "silent violence" of drought-famine in colonial Nigeria: "Climate risk ... is not given by nature but ... by 'negotiated settlement' since each society has institutional, social, and technical means for coping with risk ... Famines [thus] are social crises that represent the failures of particular economic and political systems."5

The making of the 'Third World'

Differences in income and wealth between the great civilisations of the 18th century were relatively slight. "It is very likely," claims historian Paul Bairoch "that, in the middle of the 18th century, the average standard of living in Europe was a little bit lower than that of the rest of the world."6 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."7

The stereotype of the Indian labourer as a half-starved wretch in a loincloth collapses in the face of data about comparative standards of living. "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."8 Because 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 usual stereotype of 19th century economic history is that Asia stood still while the Industrial Revolution propelled Britain, followed by the United States and eventually the rest of Western Europe, down the path of high-speed growth in Gross National Product (GNP). 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).

But why did Asia stand in place? The rote answer is because it was weighed down with the chains of tradition and Malthusian demography, although this had not prevented Qing China, whose rate of population increase was about the same as Europe's, from experiencing extraordinary economic growth throughout the 18th century.

The relevant question, however, is not so much why the Industrial Revolution occurred first in England, Scotland and Belgium, but why other advanced regions of the 18th century world economy did not adapt their handicraft manufactures to the new conditions of production and competition in the 19th century.

The looms of India and China were defeated not so much by market competition as they were forcibly dismantled by war, invasion, opium and a Lancashire-imposed system of one-way tariffs. From about 1780 or 1800 onward, every serious attempt by a non-Western society to move into a fast lane of development or to regulate its terms of trade was met by a military as well as an economic response from Britain or a competing imperial country.

The use of force to configure a "liberal" world economy is what Pax Britannica was really about. The Victorians resorted to gunboats on at least 75 different occasions. The simultaneous British triumphs in the 1857 Indian Mutiny and the 1858 Second Opium War in China were the epochal victories over Asian economic autonomy that made a world of free trade possible in the second half of the 19th century.

The 'variable' of violent incorporation

What were the variables that led to famine deaths in the 19th century? Research over the last 20 years or so into the social and economic histories of the regions "teleconnected" to ENSO's episodic disturbances has demolished Orientalist stereotypes of immutable poverty and overpopulation as the natural preconditions of the major 19th-century famines. In fact, peasants and farmers became dramatically more pregnable to natural disaster after 1850 as their local economies were violently incorporated into the world market.

Three points of articulation with larger socio-economic structures were especially decisive for rural subsistence in the late-19th century "proto-Third World".

First, the forcible incorporation of smallholder production into commodity and financial circuits controlled from overseas tended to undermine traditional food security. It was not entrepreneurial opportunity but subsistence adversity (high taxes, chronic indebtedness, inadequate acreage, loss of subsidiary employment opportunities, enclosure of common resources, dissolution of patrimonial obligations and so on) that typically promoted smallholders' turn to cash-crop cultivation. Rich landowners redeployed the fortunes that they built during export booms into usury, rack-renting and crop brokerage. "Marginal subsistence producers," historian Hans Medick points out, "... did not benefit from the market under these circumstances; they were devoured by it."9 Medick, writing about the analogous predicament of marginal smallholders in "proto-industrial" Europe, provides an exemplary description of the dilemma of millions of Indian and Chinese poor peasants in the late-19th century:

"For them rising agrarian prices did not necessarily mean increasing incomes. Since their marginal productivity was low and production fluctuated, rising agrarian prices tended to be a source of indebtedness rather than affording them the opportunity to accumulate surpluses ... Especially in years of bad harvests, and high prices, the petty producers were compelled to buy additional grain, and, worse, to go into debt. Then, in good harvest years when cereal prices were low, they found it hard to extricate themselves from the previously accumulated debts; owing to the low productivity of their holdings they could not produce sufficient quantities for sale." 10

Thus, Medick concludes, "instead of profiting from exchange, [peasants] were forced by the market into the progressive deterioration of their conditions of production, ie the loss of their property titles."11 As a result, the position of small rural producers in the international economic hierarchy equated with downward mobility or, at best, stagnation. In north China and India, there is consistent evidence of falling household wealth and increased fragmentation or alienation of land. Whether farmers were directly engaged by foreign capital or were simply producing for domestic markets subject to international competition (like the cotton-spinning peasants in western Shandong in north China), commercialisation went hand in hand with pauperisation without any silver lining of technical change or agrarian capitalism.

Second, the integration of millions of tropical cultivators into the world market during the late-19th century was accompanied by a dramatic deterioration in their terms of trade. Peasants' lack of market power vis--vis crop merchants and creditors was redoubled by their commodities' falling international purchasing power. As economist W Arthur Lewis suggests, comparable productivity or transport costs alone cannot explain an emergent structure of global unequal exchange that valued the products of tropical agriculture so differently from those of temperate farming:

"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." 12

Third, formal and informal British imperialism, backed up by the supranational automatism of the Gold Standard, eroded local fiscal autonomy and impeded state-level developmental responses -- especially investments in water conservancy and irrigation -- that might have reduced vulnerability to climate shocks. As Lord Curzon, India's viceroy from 1898 to 1905, once famously complained to the House of Lords, tariffs "were decided in London, not in India; in England's interests, not in India's."13Moreover, any grassroots benefit from British railroad and canal construction was largely cancelled by official neglect of local irrigation and the brutal enclosures of forest and pasture resources. Export earnings failed to return to smallholders not only as increments in household income, but also as usable social capital or state investment.

The myth of 'Malthusia'

But didn't population pressures -- especially in India and China where partible systems of inheritance were the rule -- also play a role in undermining food security in the 19th century?

Economist W Arthur Lewis, one of the leading authorities on the 19th-century world economy, assumed as a matter of course in an influential 1978 study that the underlying cause of famine in 19th century British India was not the "drain of wealth" to England, but "a large population that continued to live at subsistence level on inadequately watered marginal lands, without a profitable cash crop."14 Similarly, the historiography of late imperial China has been haunted by how a presumed population explosion of the 18th century squeezed arable land to the threshold of chronic famine.

The relationship between population and subsistence in Asia seems, in fact, to be more complex. In India, "it is indisputable that land was, in absolute terms, hardly under great pressure from population in the Deccan [peninsular interior of India] of the early British period."15 Through the 1840s, at least, "only about half of the cultivable land in most Deccan districts, according to formal British estimates, was being tilled."16 Although population grew rapidly in the 1850s and 1860s, the demographic boom came to an abrupt halt with the famine catastrophe of 1876. In India as a whole during the half-century between 1879 and 1920, there was only a single decade (the 1880s) of significant population growth. 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%.

Modern case-studies corroborate the position of critics of British rule, like G V Josh in 1890, who argued that "the problem of India lies not so much in the fact of an alleged overpopulation as in the admitted and patent evil of underproduction." Josh estimated that fully half the net savings of India was confiscated as revenue17. If cultivators in the Deccan and other drought-prone regions were relentlessly pushed onto marginal lands where productivity was low and crop failures were inevitable, the culprit was less likely overpopulation than the "British land revenue system itself". Economic historian Amiya Bagchi made a careful study of colonial agricultural statistics and argues that revenue collectors' inflexible claims on a high "average" harvest compelled the peasants to cultivate marginal lands, and also forced them to "mine" their land in a situation where most of them had few investible resources left to improve its productivity 18.

...Europe faced even more severe demographic and ecological pressures at the beginning of the 19th century, but was able to resolve them with the help of New World natural resources, massive colonial emigration and, eventually, urban industrialisation.

The irrigation deficit

There is another variable frequently missing from historical discussions of "underdevelopment": water. "Up to half of the populations of Asia, Africa and South America may have subsisted on land where water supply constituted the key constraint upon increasing agricultural output."19 This was common sense to "Oriental despots". A major achievement of the Qing Golden Age, as well as of the Mogul zenith, had been the high sustained levels of state and village-level investment in flood control and irrigation. The 19th century, however, was characterised by the near-collapse of hydraulic improvement in India and China.

Public works in post-Mutiny India were driven first by the exigencies of military control and, second, by the demands of export agriculture. On the eve of the 1876 famine, 29% of Indian public-works capital was invested in military installations in contrast to only 21% for irrigation, canals and drainage. The railway system, meanwhile, consumed (to 1880) 13 times as much investment as all hydraulic works. In the 1880-95 period, 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.

The British enthusiasm for revenue-generating irrigation in the Punjab and North-West Provinces was counterbalanced 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 "[t]raditional water-harvesting systems disintegrated and disappeared in large parts of India during the early colonial period [and] high rates of land-tax left no surplus for the effective maintenance of irrigation systems." 20

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. "Generally, there was no notion of selling titles to land and its water resources."21 In British common law as witlessly applied to India, however, water rights went along with the land titles as private property. "In effect, this meant that only those who owned land had a right to the water on it. In this way, all those who did not hold colonial land-deeds were excluded from access to water."22 Tanks and wells were also privatised, with the consequence that "for the first time ... water scarcity became a problem and this caused enormous hardship to the people and cattle alike." 23

Indeed, British rule, in various ways, emancipated local political chiefs from their obligation to invest in community resources and public institutions such as tank systems. The shortfall was not made good by the government's own public works. In Gujarat in the west, new property forms freed village caste-elites from traditional reciprocities and encouraged them to exploit irrigation resources to their selfish advantage. Entitlement to water thus openly became a relation of inequality and a means of exploitation. The British constantly complained about the "inertia" of India, but when it came to potentially life-saving local public works, they themselves were the embodiment of decisive inaction. The refusal of the state to support local irrigation became a smouldering grievance everywhere in interior India.

This irrigation deficit undergirded the Malthusian illusion of helpless "involution" in China and elsewhere. Whether as a result of population pressure or displacement by export crops, subsistence in India and China was pushed onto drier, often less productive soils, highly vulnerable to ENSO cycles, without parallel improvements in irrigation, drainage or reforestation to ensure sustainability. Modern irrigation-based revolutions in agricultural productivity in northern India and north China (since 1960) only dramatise the centrality of water resources and the political capacities to ensure their development to any discussion of "carrying capacity" or "demographic ceilings".

Ecological poverty and enclosure

More broadly, any attempt to elucidate the social origins of late-19th century subsistence crises must integrally incorporate the relevant histories of common property resources (watersheds, aquifers, forests and pastures) and social overhead capital (irrigation and flood control systems, granaries, canals and roads). Ecological poverty -- the depletion or loss of entitlement to the natural resource base of traditional agriculture -- constituted a causal triangle with increasing household poverty and state decapacitation in explaining both the emergence of a "Third World" and its vulnerability to extreme climate events.

In India, as elsewhere in monsoonal Asia, 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." 24

The British consolidated their rule in India by transferring control of these strategic resources from the village community to the state. "Among all the interventions into village society that nurtured the Anglo-Indian empire, dividing public from private land stands out as the most important."25Common lands -- or "waste" in the symptomatic vocabulary of the British Raj -- were either transformed into taxable private property or state monopolies. Free goods, in consequence, became either commodities or contraband. As in Britain during the previous centuries, the enclosure of common resources deeply undermined traditional household ecology.

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. The overriding interest of the British was "to assure a continuing supply of wood for imperial needs"26: shipbuilding, urban construction and, above all, the railways, as well as vast quantities of wood for fuel. Even in the midst of the most terrible famines, the foresters prevented local residents from gathering fodder for their dying cattle or firewood to heat their homes.

The British also cut off communal access to grassland resources and dissolved the ancient ecological interdependence of pastoralists and farmers. After the 1857 Mutiny, the British pursued a relentless campaign, especially in the Deccan, against nomad and shifting cultivators whom they labelled as "criminal tribes".. Although the agroecology of the Deccan for centuries had been dependent upon the symbiosis of peasant and nomad, upon valley agriculture and hill-slope pastoralism, the colonial state's voracious appetite for new revenue generated irresistible pressure on the ryots to convert "waste" into taxable agriculture. Punitive grazing taxes drove pastoralists off the land, while cultivators were lured into the pastoral margins with special leases.

The traditional Deccan practices of extensive crop rotation and long fallow, which required large farm acreages and plentiful manuring, became difficult to maintain as the land became more congested and cattle less numerous. 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. After comparable destruction during the 1896-97 drought, "women were seen to be pulling the plough" in some districts in the south-east Punjab.27

The decline in labour productivity entailed by fewer and less powerful plough-cattle was matched by a corresponding fall in soil fertility because of the growing shortage of fertiliser. Irrigation water alone was of little value if the soil was depleted of nitrogen. The pasture soils eroded quickly and soon became useless for agriculture or grazing. "Commercialised agriculture, in tandem with a largely subsistence-oriented cultivation of foodgrains, produced a particularly intensive regime of soil depletion and erosion." 28

.....In the half-century when peacetime famine disappeared permanently from Western Europe, it increased devastatingly throughout much of the colonial world. Despite smug claims about the life-saving benefits of steam transportation and modern grain markets, millions, especially in British India, died near railway tracks or grain depots ...

At issue are not "lands of famine" becalmed in stagnant backwaters of world history, but the fate of tropical humanity during those years 1870-1914 when its labour and products were being conscripted into a London-centred world economy. Millions died, not outside the modern world system, but in the very process of being forcibly incorporated into its economic and political structures. They died in the golden age of liberal capitalism; many were murdered by the application of utilitarian free trade principles. The route to this "new world order" is thus paved with the bodies of the poor...

(Extracted from ‘The Origins of the Third World: Markets, States and Climate’ by Mike Davis, Corner House Briefing Paper 27, www.thecornerhouse.org.uk. This briefing is an edited extract of Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World by Mike Davis, published in 2001 by Verso, London and New York.) 

Notes and References

  1. Singh, C., "Forests, Pastoralists and Agrarian Society in Mughal India" in Arnold, D. and Guha, R. (eds.) Nature, Culture, Imperialism: Essays on the Environmental History of South Asia, Delhi, 1996, p.22.
  2. Kondker, H., "Famine Policies in Pre-British India and the Question of Moral Economy", South Asia 9:1 (June 1986), pp.25-40; and Mahtur, K. and Jayal, N., Drought, Policy and Politics, New Delhi 1993, p.27.
  3. Hardiman, D., "Well Irrigation in Gujarat: Systems of Use, Hierarchies of Control", Economic and Political Weekly, 20 June 1998, p.1537.
  4. Walford, C., "The Famines of the World: Past and Present", Journal of the Statistical Society 41:13, 1878, pp.434-42. See also Walford, C., op. cit. 12.
  5. Watts, M., Silent Violence: Food, Famine and Peasantry in Northern Nigeria, Berkeley, 1983, pp.462-3. This "negotiation" is two-sided and must include climate shock as an independent variable.
  6. Bairoch, P., "The Main Trends in National Economic Disparities Since the Industrial Revolution" in Bairoch, P. and Levy-Leboyer, M., (eds.) Disparities in Economic Development Since the Industrial Revolution, London, 1981, p.7.
  7. Tichelman, F., The Social Evolution of Indonesia, The Hague, 1980, p.30.
  8. Parthasarathi, P., "Rethinking Wages and Competitiveness in Eighteenth-Century Britain and South India", Past and Present 158, Feb. 1998, pp.82-7, 105-6. 57, p.442.
  9. Medick, H., "The Proto-Industrial Family Economy and the Structures and Functions of Population Development under the Proto-Industrial System", in Kriedte, P., et al., (eds.) Industrialization Before Industrialization, Cambridge, 1981, p.45.
  10. Ibid., pp.44-5.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Lewis, W.A., Growth and Fluctuations, 1870-1913, London 1978, p.189.
  13. Cited in Dewey, C., "The End of the Imperialism of Free Trade", in Dewey, C. and Hopkins, A., (eds.) The Imperial Impact: Studies in the Economic History of Africa and India, London, 1978, p.35.
  14. Lewis, W.A., op. cit. 119, p.216.
  15. Charlesworth, N., Peasants and Imperial Rule: Agriculture and Agrarian Society in the Bombay Presidency, 1850-1935, Cambridge, 1985, pp.13, 22.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Quoted in Chandra, B., "Colonial India: British versus Indian Views of Development", Review 14:1, Winter 1991, p.102.
  18. For a collection of Bagchi's essays, written or delivered over the last few decades, see Bagchi, A. K., Capital and Labour Redefined: India and the Third World, New Delhi, 2002.
  19. O'Brien, P., "Intercontinental Trade and Third World Development", Journal of World History, Spring 1997, p.91.
  20. Hardiman, D., op. cit. 110, p.1533. See also Agarwal, A. and Narain S., Dying Wisdom: Rise, Fall and Potential of India's Traditional Water Harvesting Systems, Centre for Society and Environment, New Delhi, 1997.
  21. Hardiman, D., op. cit. 110, p.1534.
  22. Ibid.
  23.  Satya, L., "Cotton and Famine in Berar, 1850-1900", PhD diss. Tufts University, 1994, pp.72, 116, 122. (See also book of same title, Delhi, 1997.)
  24. Chen, M., Coping with Seasonality and Drought, Delhi, 1991, p.119.
  25. Ludden, D., Peasant History in South India, Princeton, NJ, 1985, p.122.
  26. Hardiman, D., "Introduction," op. cit. 154, pp.47-8.
  27. Bhattacharya, N., "Pastoralists in a Colonial World", in Arnold, D. and Guha, R. (eds.) op. cit. 107, p.65.
  28. Kaiwar, V., "Nature, Property and Polity in Colonial Bombay", Journal of Peasant Studies 27:2, Jan. 2000, pp. 14
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