Speeches & Writings
Poverty and Famine
In supporting the following resolution of the twelfth Indian National Congress held at Calcutta in 1896, Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya said:
That this Congress deplores the outbreak of famine in more or less acute form throughout Indian and holds that this and other famines which have occurred in recent years are due to the great poverty of the people, brought on by the drain of the wealth of the country which has been going on for years together, and by the excessive taxation and over-assessment, consequent on a policy of extravagance, followed by the Government both in the Civil and the Military departments, which has so far impoverished the people that at the first touch of scarcity they are rendered helpless and must perish unless fed by the State or helped by private charity. In the opinion of this Congress the true remedy against the recurrence of famine lies in the adoption of a policy which would enforce economy, husband the resources of the State, foster the development of indigenous and local arts and industries which have practically been extinguished and help forward the introduction of modern arts and industries.
In the meantime the Congress would remind the Government of its solemn duty to save human life and mitigates human suffering, (the provisions of the existing Famine Code being in the opinion of the Congress inadequate as regards wages and rations and oppressive as regards task work) and would appeal to the Government to redeem its pledges by restoring the Famine Insurance Fund (keeping a separate account of it) to its original footing and to apply it more largely to its original purpose, viz., the immediate relief of the famine-stricken people.
That in view of the fact that private charity in England is ready to flow freely into this country at this awful juncture and considering that large classes of sufferers can only be reached by private charity, this Congress desires to enter its most emphatic protest against the manner in which the Government of India is at present blocking the way, and this Congress humbly ventures to express the hope that the disastrous mistake committed by Lord Lytton's Government in the matter will not be repeated on this occasion.
Mr. President and Brother Delegates,
The resolution has been spoken to by several gentlemen and the various parts of it have been ably dealt with by them, I would only ask your attention to certain points connected with the subject which I think would bear further consideration.
Gentlemen, we have now been under the benign rule of Her Most Gracious Majesty the Queen Empress for a very long period; and we have been under the rule of England for a much longer period still. We are governed by what is admitted by all impartial critics to be on the whole the best Civil Service in the world. In addition to all that, you will remember that our country is not poor in its natural resources. With all our ample resources, with such an excellent Civil Service to govern us, why is it that we, of all people on earth, should be liable to suffer so fearfully from these periodically recurring famines? Why, I ask, there is not something very wrong in the present system of Government? My friend, Mr. Surendranath Banerjee, has said truly that if the reforms, which have so long and so strongly been advocated by the National Congress, had been accepted and carried out by Government, these dreaded famines would have become matters of past history. (Hear, hear). I invite your attention to the first portion of the resolution wherein we say that it is our firm conviction "that the first outbreak of famine, in a more or less acute form throughout India at present, and the other famines which have occurred in recent years, are due to the great impoverishment of the people, brought on by excessive taxation, consequent on the policy of extravagance followed by the Government, both in the civil and military expenditure, and that system has so far impoverished the people that at the first touch of scarcity they are rendered helpless and begin to perish unless they are fed by the State." Gentlemen, as has been happily expressed by our poet Kalidas, taxation is like the moisture absorbed by the rays of the sun -- absorbed that it may descend in a thousand fold measure to fertilize the land from which it has been drawn. But unfortunately for us, a very large portion of the moisture thus absorbed descends not at all here, but falls in heavy refreshing showers upon more fortunate lands which stand not much in need of it. In the Civil Service of this country, for instance, nearly six crores of rupees are spent annually upon the salaries of its European members, who are not residents of this country. Of the twenty-four crores spent every year upon the military department, nearly two-thirds of the amount paid as salary goes towards the pay of Europeans and only one-third towards that of the natives of the country. Add to this the large amount that we have to remit every year to England in the shape of Home charges. When such vast sums of money are drawn away year after year from the country, can you wonder that it should grow poorer and poorer and that the people should become less able to bear the ordinary burdens of life, and much less able to meet the calamity of a famine when it should come upon them? That, however, is not all. Look at the condition of our arts and industries. A time there was when the people of England were supplied with Indian cloth to such an extent that Daniel Defoe, writing to an English Magazine, bitterly complained that the English weavers had thereby been thrown completely out of work. The nation was roused to a sense of its duty to its weavers. Parliament came to their rescue, and adopted measures to put down the extensive use of the products of Indian looms in England. The times have changed. Now in India we are surrounded on all sides with products of English and other foreign mills and factories. Even the little pins we use, we have to get from England. This influx of foreign manufactures has, killed our indigenous arts and industries, and has taken the bread away from millions of our people. What they used to earn in the shape of wages goes now to enrich the foreigner, and leaves India the poorer for its loss. And yet little is being done to remedy this deplorable state of things here. Gentlemen, England would not have occupied, the position that she does in the world, if the English Government had not sedulously fostered the arts and industries of England. Why should not Indian Industries be fostered in the same way as those of England and other western countries have been? If the Indian Government had done what it should have done to promote technical education and to develop and encourage arts and industries in this country, if the Government had utilized and encouraged native talent and native industry, instead of foreign talent and ability, the country would not have been so miserably poor as it is at this moment; and if famine came, the people would have been able to bear its rigors without resort to Government or appeal to foreign nations for help. (Cheers.) But this extinction of native arts and industries, and the exclusion of the children of the soil from the vast majority of the more lucrative appointments in the public service have reduced the country to its present state of abject poverty. Our national average income is but £2 a year per head of the population, half of that of even Turkey, said to be the most mis-governed country in Europe. Out of this low income, we are forced to contribute largely to maintain the costliest system of administration known to the civilized world; and bulk of the higher appointments in that administration being filled with foreigners, much of what we thus contribute is drained out of the country, never to return to it again. It was inevitable that such a state of things, so long continued, should bring the people to their present pitiable condition, when forty millions of them are believed to be living constantly on the verge of starvation, and when the failure of a single harvest brings millions to the door of death, and would make them perish unless the State intervened in time to help them. (Hear, hear.) This is not a view which we Indians alone entertain, but it is also held by more than one eminent English statesman. I will quote to you the opinion of two of them only which must carry great weight with them. John Bright (Cheers) speaking in 1871 said: “I say that a Government put over 250,000,000 people has levied taxes till it can levy no more, which spends all that it can levy and which has borrowed 100,000,000, more than all that it can levy. I say a Government like that has some fatal defect, which, at some not distant time must bring disaster, and humiliation to the Government and to the people on whose behalf it rules." Another eminent Englishman, Sir George Wingate, says: “Taxes spent in the country in which they are raised are totally different in their effect from taxes raised in one country and spent in another. In the former case the taxes collected from the population are again returned to the industrious class. But the case is wholly different when the taxes are not spent in the country from which they are raised. They constitute an absolute loss and extinction of the whole amount withdrawn from the taxed country.... Such is the nature of the tribute we have so long exacted from India. From this explanation some faint conception may be formed of the cruel, crushing effect of the tribute upon India. The Indian tribute whether weighed in the scales of justice, or viewed in the light of our own interest will be found to be at variance with humanity, with common sense, and the maxims of economic science."(Hear, hear). It is unnecessary for me to dilate any further on this point. I think I have said enough to justify our belief that unless the Government introduces changes in the administration to make it less costly than it is at present, and thereby reduces the burden of taxation, unless it utilizes native talent and promotes native arts and industries and minimizes the drain of the country's wealth to other lands, our liability to suffer from these dreaded famines will not cease; and, as has been observed by Sir George Chesney: "Till the danger of famine has been guarded against to the fullest extent the English in India may replace anarchy by peace and may distribute equal justice, and remove ignorance, but it cannot be said that they have fulfilled their whole duty to the people of the country." (Cheers)
Gentlemen, having made these few observations with regard to the first paragraph of the resolution, I will ask you to bear with me for a few minutes more, while I say something on the state of affairs in the North-Western Provinces and Oudh. Times have been hard with us in the North-Western Provinces for the last three years. We have had a succession, of bad seasons, and the people have been less and less able to bear the severity of the present season. The distress that is now prevailing in my part of the country is widespread and intense. But fortunately for us, we have at the head of affairs in our provinces, a ruler with a large, sympathetic heart, (Cheers) clear foresight, and a statesman-like determination to do all that can be done by his Government to prevent death by starvation. You have rightly and justly made your acknowledgments to Sir Antony Macdonnell. (Cheers) Were it not for his presence in my provinces, you might have had to hear at this moment that scores of thousands of people had died from starvation in the Bundelkhand and Allahabad divisions alone. I believe all that can be done by the head of the Administration at a time like this is being done by Sir Antony MacDonnell. It is due to His Honour's prudent forecast of the coming calamity, and the timely arrangements he made to cope with it, that you find nearly three lakhs of persons in receipt of state relief at this moment in my provinces. (Hear, hear.) The distress however, as I have said, is very widespread and is deepening every day. The measures of relief require to be extended and supplemented. The number of persons employed on relief works is but an index of the suffering which the people generally are undergoing; and even such as it is, it will multiply itself fast and frequently during the months that lie between us and the next spring harvest.
Besides, beyond the circle of those who resort to relief works, is a vast number of pardanashin women and the respectable middle class poor who are keenly feeling the pressure of the prevailing high prices. They, too, badly need relief. The Government of Sir Antony MacDonnell has been good enough to place Rs. 15,000 a month at the disposal of the Relief Fund Committee at Lucknow for help to pardanashins and the middle class poor. I am told it is proposed to distribute relief at the rate of Rs. 2 per head, which I think would be too small. But even at that rate, the sum would reach to help 7500 persons only. The Government has granted Rs. 5,000 a month for similar distribution at Allahabad. This with the addition of a small contribution from the fund raised by the people would only suffice to bring help to say three thousand persons of the respectable middle class. But the number of persons, who need relief is very much larger in both these populous cities. And the number will be daily on the increase for some time. Then there are pardanashin ladies and the respectable poor in other districts of the United Provinces, people with small incomes and large families, who find it increasingly difficult to make the two ends meet during the present hard times. They cannot, owing to various social considerations resort to relief works. Many of them would seem not to require help. But they stand sorely in need of it, and, they would welcome it, if it is given to them in a manner to make it acceptable and effective. Gentlemen, many relief committees are being formed in different places in my provinces. And I hope they will bring much relief to the people. But I must say, I fear, that the people will undergo a great deal of privation and suffering until the existing condition of things changes for the better. That change cannot, under the most hopeful view, come about until the spring crops have been harvested. For the next three months, therefore, the people of my provinces will, I am sorry to think require help in a very large and daily increasing measure. And if any help is to come to us, either from this country or from other countries, this is the time when it should come in. And no one who has any spark of human sympathy or any sense of responsibility left in him should stand in the way of that help, if he cannot actively assist in bringing it. (Cheers.)
One word more, gentlemen, and I have done; and that is about the rations and wages allowed under the Famine Code. I am sorry to find that the rations prescribed in the code are smaller in quantity than those prescribed for prisoners in jails. My Hon'ble friend Mr. Tilak has been good enough to place in my hand a table which he has himself prepared, from which it seems that persons who are sentenced to imprisonment with hard labour, are allowed 24 ounces of flour with 5 of dal every day in the Bombay Presidency; 25 ounces of flour with 4 of dal in Madras; 28 of flour with 2 of dal in the N. W. P.; and 22 of flour with 6 of dal in Bengal. But under the Famine Code the maximum ration prescribed as sufficient to maintain able-bodied relief-workers in health and strength is only 24 ounces of flour with 4 of dal every day! In the case of persons sentenced to simple imprisonment without labour, every adult male gets 20 ounces of flour with 4 of dal in Bombay; 21 of flour with 4 of dal in Madras; 20 of flour with 2 of dal in the N. W. P.; and 18 of rice with 4 of dal in Bengal. But only 16 ounces of flour with 2 of dal are allowed under the Famine Code to the inmates of the poor houses and to other persons who are unable to work. The rations prescribed for the different classes of prisoners were fixed as the result of a long and careful enquiry by the medical officers of Government, and may safely be taken to be the right measure of food that is needed to keep prisoners in health and strength. To allow less than that quantity to persons whom calamity and not crime has brought to depend on the State for food, is to say the least, of it unbecoming and unjust. (Cheers.) If they are to be saved from death by starvation, they should certainly be given enough of food to be able to keep up their health and working strength. Then again there is no provision for supplying the necessary clothing to the poor in the Famine Code. The Code requires to be amended in these respects. And I hope the amendments will be soon made. In the matter of tasks, it was recommended by the Famine Commission that not more than 75 percent of the work done by an ordinary labourer should be imposed upon relief workers, but the complaint comes from many parts of the country that the full amount of work is exacted from people who go to the relief works, and perhaps, this combined with the rather short wages given, forms the reason why people keep away from relief works as long as they can. These are matters which call for the urgent consideration of Government. The Famine Code, admirable in other respects, requires to be amended in regard to the matters noted above. To illustrate the necessity of an early amendment, I will quote to you but one instance. There is no better poor-house on my side, so far as I know, than the one at Lucknow. Mr. Gray, the Deputy Commissioner of Lucknow, had at first ordered that every adult male should receive the 16 ounces of flour laid down in the Famine Code. But finding that it did not satisfy the hunger of the people, he directed that 18 ounces per day should be given to each of them. Three months later, he was told that he could only allow 16 ounces per day, and he had to go down, against his own better judgment, to the standard prescribed in the Code. I earnestly hope the Government will take immediate measures to bring in all the help possible, not merely from its own coffers, but also from England to the rescue of the people, before it has become too late, before they have been so weakened and emaciated, so much broken down by suffering, as to be unable any longer to maintain the struggle for existence, when no help which the Government might bring them would avail to save them from the jaws of death. (Loud cheers).