It is interesting to note that the author compared India’s experience with death and misery, between the years 1877 to 1879 to an event that occurred more than fifty years later in Hitler’s concentration camps. These camps were designed to annihilate the Jewish people.
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One can argue that Mike Davis, writing in the present time decided to use the imagery from the Holocaust and the Nazi’s internment camps to help his readers understand the real horror caused by the famines that claimed the lives of millions of inhabitants of the Indian continent more than two centuries ago. However, as one digs deeper into the story of the famines, it was revealed that deaths through starvation were a preventable problem if only the British colonizers and the members of India’s elite were more concerned with human welfare and less focused on material wealth, personal comfort, and selfish gains.
Without a doubt, the terrible famines that struck the continent of India in the decade of the 1870s were brought about by severe drought. The author pointed out that the residents in one of England’s most important colonies depended on the manna from heaven made available to them through the monsoon rains.
The Indians and the foreigners living in the country looked forward to the sudden downpour of valuable rainwater to replenish dried up reservoirs, resuscitate oasis in the deserts, and above all, water the farms that needed moisture as much as a parched deer longs for a drop of precious drink. As severe as the impact of the famine was on the land, there were mitigating steps that could have been applied to reduce the mortality rate. Be that as it may, there were conflicting factors, such as economic policies, exploitation of the colony by the colonizers, and greed among the elite members of India’s society.
Richard Temple’s radical shift in worldview from a generous and kind-hearted civil servant – whose brilliance and compassion for the Indian people enabled him to devise strategies that significantly reduced the impact of a drought that ravaged Bengal and Bihar in the years 1873 and 1874 – best exemplifies the impact of irresponsible policy-making. Before he became a hated person in India, Temple solved the problem of previous famines by importing rice from Burma. He combined the gratuitous dole-outs with relief works. Unfortunately, Temple was not rewarded for his actions. In fact, the British government system castigated him, for spending a lot of resources to help preserve the overpopulated areas of the nation.
At that time the British government in India was a blind follower to the economic principles espoused by Adam Smith, the father of modern economics. His theoretical framework calls for a laissez-faire approach to managing the nation’s economy. Smith’s economic framework prohibits the government by setting up price controls and other types of regulatory systems to control the supply and demand of goods and services. Therefore, when speculators hoarded the supply of grains in anticipation of higher prices due to the impact of famine, the Indian government did not do anything to prevent the sudden increase in food prices.
Smith’s influence on the economic policies of Great Britain in the 1870s was exacerbated by the uncontrolled greed of India’s elites. This group is comprised of rich merchants and speculators. For example, the country’s grain merchants decided to export grains to Europe rather than sell the same commodity in the local market to relieve the starvation of their compatriots. It is easy to understand the decision of these businessmen to sell the product to the highest bidder.
During the same period, Great Britain suffered from low production yields, therefore, there was a need to import grains from India. However, the actions of the British government was deemed exploitative, because British citizens did not simply engage in a simple trade of goods, their actions intensified the famine that killed millions of people in a short period of time.
The indifference of the British government came to an end when a courageous government critic named Robert Knight rebuked India’s local leadership, his barbs aimed primarily at Lord Lytton when he wrote the following lines: “For long weary years have we demanded the suspension of these land taxes when famine comes and in vain. With no poor law in the land … and with the vernacular press which alone witnesses the sufferings of the people silenced by a cruel necessity, we and our contemporaries must speak without reserve or be partakers in the guilt of multitudinous murders committed by men blinded to the real nature of what we are doing in the country” (Davis 54).
Knight’s pointed words coincided with growing unrest among India’s marginalized sector. Leaders were coming out and preaching armed rebellion to drive out British rule from India. Change in policies also pushed forward the creation of fact-finding bodies like the Famine Commission.
Aside from the creation of policies designed to prevent famines or mitigate the impact of the same, another positive outcome of the protest movements was to inject fear in the hearts of the national leaders with regards to the peace and order situation in the country. As a result, some of the influential leaders laid down the groundwork for India’s self-rule.
The Entitlement Approach
One can argue that the British government’s insensitivity to the issues of mass starvation was the inevitable outcome of inequality in Indian society. The British rulers had little sympathy for the Indian people because they never saw them as their equals. However, if they had a change of mindset with regards to the role and value of the Indian people in the creation of a sovereign state, then, perhaps the British government would have formulated policies in accordance with the entitlement approach.
Social scientists like Amartya Sen developed the entitlement framework in order to create a methodology to understand the root cause of starvation and extreme poverty. Using the principles under the entitlement approach, one can easily understand how India’s poor workers and poor peasants were deprived of the resources that they were entitled to receive on the basis of their nationality, trade capabilities, and labor capabilities.
The mere fact that the starving masses of people were born and bred in India should have compelled the British government to recognize that they were entitled to the resources that can be exploited through business endeavors or farming activities. Therefore, the decision of some leaders to help the starving masses through dole-outs and other gracious acts of kindness must never be condemned or considered irrational, because the Indian people were entitled to a certain type of compensation as foreign nationals enter in and exploit the land for a profit (Hogan, Sturzenegger, and Tai 1). This type of compensation method is the basis for the nationalization of resources in different parts of the world (Hogan, Sturzenegger, and Tai 1).
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Be that as it may, the starving people’s entitlement in the context of the great famine was not only limited to the fact that they were native inhabitants of India. They were entitled to partake of the grains and the food resources because they were the farmers and the laborers that made the harvest possible.
The use of the entitlement approach magnifies the inequality and exploitation issues that made life miserable for India’s poor during the drought years when food was scarce and unemployment was high (Anderson 270). Furthermore, this analytical framework also enables researchers to see that even non-farmers were entitled to acquire food from grain merchants and other suppliers if they had a stable source of income, and if their wages were not made useless by skyrocketing prices (Riddick 71). Therefore, the entitlement framework that empowers people to acquire needed resources and commodities is easily rendered ineffective by economic policies, exploitative practices, and greed (Edgerton-Tarpley 211).
In the case of the great famine the destroyed countless lives, the entitlement framework was blown out to pieces when farmers were not even able to purchase the food that they labored to produce. People with wages were unable to buy food because greed, economic exploitation, and irresponsible governance made it impossible for the Indian people to transact as equals. It is also important to point out that the repugnant behavior of Lytton and Temple with regards to how they treated India’s poor made it easier for them to ignore the real issue and allow people to die in utter disgrace.
Anderson, Katharine. Predicting the Weather. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2005. Print.
Davis, Mike. Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World. Brooklyn, NY: Verso Press, 2001. Print.
Edgerton-Tarpley, Kathryn. Tears from Iron: Cultural Responses to Famine in Nineteenth-Century China. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2008. Print.
Hogan, William, Sturzenegger, Federico, and Laurence Tai. The Natural Resources Trap. Boston, MA: MIT Press, 2010. Print.
Riddick, John. The History of British India. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2006. Print.
Sen, Amartya. Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013. Print.