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RULERS, universally, create beliefs to justify their
rule. The British, certainly, were convinced that the
lazy, hungry Indians were incapable of ruling them-
In this book, Famines, David Arnold, a British historian working at the London School of Oriental and
African studies, has placed the subject of famines on
its head. He argues that it was the West which created
famines but simultaneously used them to justify its
rule and perpetuate the myth of the racial superiority
of white people. Arnold has not studied famines as
such, but the way images and perceptions of famines
were transformed and used to justify the domination of
the rulers over the ruled.
The popular western image of a famine is that of a
disaster of "a particularly horrific kind, replete with
human misery" , but something that always happens in
Biafra or Bihar. This perception has been assiduously
cultivated over the years by scholars, academics,
administrators and even the clergy.
The most pernicious perception of the cause of
50 famine came from the equation given by the 19th century British Anglican cleric, T R Malthus: "Too many
mouths + too little food = famine". Says Arnold,
"After climate, the most popular explanation of
famine. has surely been overpopulation. "
Sixteen centuries before Malthus, Tertullitin, the
North African Christian writer, lamented the destiny of
human beings on earth in the following words: "in
truth, plague, famine, wars and earthquakes must be
regarded as a blessing to civilisation, since they prune
away the luxuriant growth of the human race."
Of late, the overpopulation theory has been further
elaborated by coupling it with a concern for environmental degradation. "The battle to feed all of humanity is over," declared environmentalist Paul Ehrlich in
the Population Bomb in 1968. "The famines of the
1970s are upon us - and hundreds of millions of peo-
ple are going to starve to death before this decade is
out," William and Paul Paddock put it succinctly in
their influential book, Famine - 1975: "The stork has
passed the plough."
in the early centuries of western expansionism, the
world bevond Europe's shores represented big wealth,
Hung'r ,y and disease-stricken Europeans, lured by wondrous accounts of merchant travellers like Marco Polo,
sailed the seas in search of the fabled wealth of the
East. This period was later characterised as the "Age of
Discovery" in Europe, but it heralded the beginning of
global colonisation elsewhere.
The fabled riches of the East more than met the
hopes and dreams of the European navigators and
adventurers. But almost everywhere in the wider
world, Europe announced its arrival with -famine and
disease. Mexico, by the late 19th century, had become
USA's poor neighbour. India, under British rule, experienced famine after famine. China, which for Marco
Polo had epitomised the miraculous East, had by the
end of the 19th century become a byword for poverty.
The persistence and proliferation of famine in other
parts of the world, "at a time when western Europe
seemed to have successfully freed itself from hunger,
profoundly influenced Europe's outlook on the rest of
the world, nurturing a belief in its innate superiority
over those countries and races which still remained
subject to famine. By the end of the 19th century, with
growing technological powers at their command, rapidly expanding material resources and a More assured
food supply than previous generations had ever
known, Europeans now felt they had conquered the
threat of famine.
In the colonies, however, European rule had a different impact. Identifying a link between deforestation
and declining rainfall, government forest departments
were set up in India to conserve woodlands, But, as
history shows, these departments only facilitated the
exploitation of forests and pauperisation of local communities.
|Severe famines in colonial
|1865-66||Orissa, Bengal, Bihar,
|1873-74||Bengal, Bihar, Orissa|
Mysore, Hyderabad, Deccan, Northwest Provences
Bengal, Deccan, Madras, Presidency, Northwest Provinces, Oudh, Central Provinces, Punjab
Berar, Bombay, Ajmer, Merwara, Rajputna
The railways, Arnold points out, "discouraged the
traditional practice of keeping reserves of grain as protection against harvest failures, and hhey ri@ado peasants perilously dependent upon the, vagaries of a capricious international commodity market.... In itself grow-
ing rich, Europe had an unwholesome knack of making
others poor and hungry."
But Europeans looking at their own success in
Europe no longer believed that famine was God's will.
Famine was now humankind's work, a challenge to be
overcome through human industry and Inge tv.
They overlooked the possibility that they, I ves,
might have caused or contributed to othei Isiess
"In coastal Orissa, for example, the salt works
around Chilka Lake were closed shortly before the
famine of 1866 in order to further the interests of
Britain's salt producers and salt traders," says Arnold.
"Villages hitherto reliant upon salt manufacture for
their exployment and income were among those most
rapidly and adversely affected by the food shortages
and famine that followed the failure of the monsoons."
Failure of monsoon is not uncommon in India.
Multiple occupations usually provide an economic
hedge against them. But British rule affected numerous semi-traditional survival strategies.
Europeans steadily came to perceive the famines
encountered in distant parts of the world as a sign of
the inferiority of the local inhabitants. As trade and
technology became the twin panaceas of the Victorian
age, hunger became an imperial stereotype of nonEuropean peoples. Hence, China came to be branded
"the land of famine". It was indeed ironical that
Europe which, "between 1821 a:nd 1914 shed some 44
million people, people it could no longer feed or find
room for", as Arnold puts it, began to talk of feeding
the poor hungry masses of the East.
The famines in Asia of the 1860s and 1870s "seem
to have marked the first substantial efforts to organise
famine relief", says Arnold.' But these relief funds and
the activities which they helped finance had more than
a humanitarian purpose.... In May 1861, the Lord
Mayor of London, William Cubit, hoped, while sending
furnis for famine relief to India, that they would "lead
to a consolidation of our power". He wanted it to lead
to an "improvement in the religious aspect of the country and, by the extension of the Christian religion, to
the eternal happiness of the people".
Even in recent years, international agencies have
projected a Dne-dimensional image of famine "victims"
while appealing to western donors. Arnold argues that
this has further reinforced the apparent contrast
between European dynamism and native apathy
already created during the imperial period and the
sense of western power and superiority that famine in
the Third World had increasingly come to signify.
Poet-administrator Rudyard Kipling was only
reflecting the western mind when he talked of the
White Man's Burden to "fill full the mouth of famine" .
It probably has not changed much. However, the worst
result of colonisation has been the creation of elites
which have been so educated that they have no knowledge of their roots, their own culture and history, and
greatly share western perceptions of their own societies.