A friend and I engaged in a debate about the Indian Famines during the British Raj. Here is the book under discussion and its review: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2001/feb/11/historybooks.martinbright
And here is my take on the issue:
Colonialism was ugly and repressive and exploitative. However, I blame misguided economic policy and changing agricultural and transport means as upsetting the delicate balance of food grain cultivation and its logistics.
Very recently, there was an artificial worldwide food shortage due to market speculation. There were hunger riots all over the world. With concerted efforts, logistics and communications, democratic governments made it a number-one priority as there is nothing that can topple an elected government quicker than hunger. Amartya Sen has also followed up on this link between famine and democracy.
Let us go back to the end of the 19th century. Instant communications and mass transportation are not new inventions, they’ve just become affordable for the masses. The revolutions of the airplane, TV and Internet are nothing compared to the revolutions of the train and the telegraph. When food prices were quoted over the wire, and local greedy merchants could ship grain out of the local area for gain rather than sell it to a population that could not afford to buy it, bad things happened. These bad things happened all over the world, and with the best of intentions. And the bad trade and economics of nascent globalization was compounded by drought. Were the British rulers and their local masters dictatorial? Of course? Were they carries away by their whims and subjected the population to experimentation of new-fangled theories? Which dictator does not?
The famines during the British Raj were the price of globalization and modernity. Could a democratic government have done a better job – maybe yes. Which government was to blame for them – the government in power – the British colonialists of course.
There was no way that a country as large as 19th-century Inida, over-populated and accustomed to subsistence agriculture could respond to the challenges of globalization in the late 19th century with no repercussions. When China tinkered with its peasants and agriculture, the Great China Famine played out in very similar fashion during the late 50s and early 60s. Was Mao dictatorial and a follower of his whims and fancies? Yes. Was he a genocidal maniac intent on killing and exterminating his own people? Of course not. And by that token, neither were the British colonialists. ?Just the number of commissions and relief efforts that they mobilised would make them not guilty.
My loathing of the British colonialists makes it strange for me to defend them from unsubstantiated charges. However, the British were probably the best among the colonialists, barring Arab colonialists of the Middle Ages who integrated with the local populations. ?At its root was the local dictatorship born of colonialism and the late 19th century fascination with manipulating populations through the emerging social sciences. ?Marxism is an invention of the same period, and since Ricardo, laissez-faire economics and non-protectionism was all the rage. ?Not to forget that ‘survival of the fittest’ was being taken too literally by many, especially Lytton, the viceroy at the time.
In conclusion, the famine disasters were man-made but not with evil intention. Rather, questionable theories, misguided policies and dictatorial egomania came together to amplify natural cycles. The outcome is tear-wrenching and tragic, which Davis captures quite eloquently. The sight of my ancestors emaciated and dying makes me very emotional, but again, my reason should guide emotion and not the other way around. If not, would I be any better than Lytton or Mao?
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