wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

David Gilmour

The Ruling Caste

Following the Guntur famine of 1833, Arthur Cotton irrigated the arid tracts of the Godavari delta and spent thirty-four years building dams and canals in the Madras presidency. After a lesser crisis in 1868, the 108-mile-long Agra Canal was dug to provide famine relief in the North-Western Provinces. But it was the tragedy of 1876-8 that led to the establishment of a general Famine Commission under Richard Strachey and the consequent adoption of a Famine Code. The Code, based on Strachey's very thorough report, made recommendations for preventing future crises and gave guidance for action in the event of a monsoon failure and a rise in grain prices. Further irrigation works and closer access to railways were designated for areas prone to drought; District Officers were given instructions about the distribution of food and the organization of relief works; tax remissions were authorized and loans were to be made available to farmers trying to recover from the drought. The Code, together with a substantial sum the Government set aside annually as Famine Insurance, persuaded many people that the problem had been solved. Such complacency was erased by the famine of 1896-7 in which the Viceroy, Elgin, displayed a lack of awareness reminiscent of Lytton, and by a still greater one in 1899-1900 that even the energetic Curzon struggled to contain. At least the Government was now more generous with aid: by the spring of 1900, 5 million people were receiving relief at the cost of £8,500,000, a gigantic effort reflected in a decline in the mortality rate to only just above the average. Three years later James Sifton, a griffin who rose to a governorship in the 1930s, described the state of tension that a famine threat instilled in Civilians during Curzon's rule.
We are beginning to look anxiously for rain now. Only about 1/2 inch has fallen since I came out, and if the storms don't begin in about a week, we shall be scouring the district looking for any traces of scarcity. The one thing that a lieutenant-governor can be 'broken' over is a badly-managed famine. So he has everything cut and dried for an emergency. Every year a detailed plan for possible relief works in every district is made out by the engineer. The surveyor marks out the total area and maximum of population liable to famine. And the magistrate keeps his eye on the price of food and sends a fortnightly return on the subject. And if there is only a suggestion that the cattle or the children in any part of the district are looking thin, the magistrate flies off and usually takes the Commissioner too.
Whatever shortcomings the Government may have had, famine duty brought out the best in the ICS. Shaken by the Orissa calamity, the then Viceroy, Lawrence, had announced that the District Officers' duty was to attempt to preserve every life in their districts. And all reports indicate that they did so tirelessly and uncomplainingly. One Civilian, the Collector of Firhoot, stayed at his post while his wife was dying of breast cancer; another returned to Nasik eight months before the end of his furlough znd arrived just in time to bury his predecessor, who had died of bubonic plague. Hermann Kisch discovered that, of all the Bengal Civilians seconded to Madras to fight the 1876 famtne, he was the only one whose health did not break down. The ICS was not the only service that suffered casualties in the fight. A memorial at Jubbulpore in the Central Provinces commemorates the five Civilians, two subalterns, one police officer and one engineer who died in the struggle to save lives in the 1896-7 famine. A decade later eight Government officials died in a famine in the former North-Western Provinces.

Kisch also had to deal with the Bihar famine of t874, six months after arriving in India for the first time. He had no idea 'how to dig a good tank [reservoir], or build a grain store, or to store grain so as to avoid injury from damp or heat.' He learned quickly. Within a month of his posting to Tirhut, the griffin had built fifteen Government grarn stores and opened twenty-two relief works; he was employing 15,000 people daily and feeding 3,000 more for free.

The principal problem for officials was the physical one of getting food to the afflicted areas. Railways by themselves were not the solution. 'Wagonloads of grain might be left rotting at a depot because there was inadequate transport to take the food to the villages. In districts where people were starving, the bullocks were unlikely to be sufficiently fit to pull heavy carts. Even if they were, they would have to be fed from their loads because famine areas obviously possessed no fodder. And even if these difficulties were overcome, there was always the danger that the carts would be looted by hungry robbers as they lumbered towards their destination. Those places where grain did not arrive often saw an increase in petty crime. When John Beames was sent to Ambala, he found the large hall crammed with people who had openly committed theft so that they would be sent to prison and get fed.

A Civilian's problems did not end even after the provision of food and relief work. Kisch had to deal with Brahmins who would not eat boiled rice and who would rather die than dig, tank with common coolies. They would pray, they told him, but not work. Other sufferers were reluctant to accept charity because they believed it entailed conversion to Christianity. Northbrook, who successfully managed the famine of 1874, found an even more bizarre example of resistance. The people of one district, he informed Queen Victoria, prostrated themselves before a Civilian and, 'although evidently in distress, prayed not to be relieved, protesting that they were not starving and needed no help.' They had heard, apparently, that the Government favoured emigration to Burma and, 'believing the Burmese to be cannibals with enormous mouths,' they thought the administration 'had a plan to fatten up the people first & then ship them off to Burma for consumption.'

One of the finest famine administrators was the abrasive MacDonnell, an Irishman without charm or humour but with much drive and pugnacity. Detested and admired in similar measure by his subordinates, he was regarded by Curzon as the ablest of the senior Civilians. MacDonnell established his reputation by his famine work and a report on relief operations in the 1870s; he consolidated it as Lieutenant-Governor of the North-Western Provinces during the famines of the 1890s. He gave District Officers discretion to spend money in emergencies without waiting for permission and told their supervising Commissioner to impress on them 'their personal responsibility in regard to starvation deaths. The system is ready and they have the funds. They cannot be held free of blame if starvation deaths occur.' Known for his sympathy for tenants' rights as well as for his ability to cope with emergencies, MacDonnell was acclaimed even by the generally hostile nationalist press.

Both Elgin and Curzon realized that the key ingredient of MacDonnell's success was co-operation not coercion. As Curzon explained to the Secretary of State, he 'invariably sends for the local leaders, gets them on his side, makes them put their names to a document embodying his policy, and thus at the same time carries through what he wants and remains free from attack.' This method was especially successful in Cawnpore in l900 when riots broke out after five people suffering from bubonic plague were removed to a plague camp outside the town. Troops were called out after the camp was burned down and several policemen had been killed, but MacDonnell quickly arrived and ordered them back to barracks. He then sat down with local leaders and discussed the plague regulations before issuing modifications and posting them around the town. Cawnpore soon returned to normal, and only the ringleaders of the riot were punished.

Cholera was an old and usually lethal scourge. Bubonic plague—the Black Death of the Middle Ages—was newer to India and thus even more terrifying. It arrived in Bombay in 1896, soon hit Poona and two years later spread to the north. Since no one then knew how it had arrived (in fact by rats in ships coming from Hong Kong) or how it could be treated, panic spread even more quickly than the disease itself. Except in Bombay, where the Army took charge, District Officers were put at the head of emergency committees consisting of doctors, sanitary commissioners and inspectors of hospitals.' They and their assistants descended on towns and villages, sending the infected population to emergency camps, pouring white-wash over the house walls and perchloride of mercury on to people's possessions. In his second year in the ICS Montagu Butler found himself in charge of emptying ten plague-stricken villages and providing huts, wells, shops, food and rudimentary hospitals for their inhabitants.

Civilians dealing with plague and cholera behaved even more courageously than they did on famine duty, living among the victims, burying the corpses after the sweepers had fled, and sometimes catching and dying of the disease themselves. But in their anxiety they were inclined to be a little overzealous, and their heavy-handed measures caused resentment and led to rioting. Indians were outraged by personal inspections by doctors, by British troops searching their houses for suspected plague cases, and by restrictions on how and where their dead should be buried. When an Assistant Collector in Surat ordered that a maximum of fifteen mourners should take a corpse to a distant mosque, he was defied by 3,000 Muslims who insisted on accompanying the body to its last resting place.

British officials justified extreme measures on the grounds that 'native agencies' were so incompetent that they were doing nothing to prevent the plague from spreading. An officer of the Army Medical Service advised W.C. Rand, the Assistant Collector of Poona, to use only British troops to conduct house-to-house searches for hidden plague corpses. He did so, restricting Indians to the role of interpreters to explain to the population what the Army was doing. Shortly afterwards Rand and a colleague were assassinated by Hindu revivalists who claimed that the anti-plague precautions outraged the religious susceptibilities of the people.

Such feelings were widespread. When the Collector of a district in Bihar proposed at a public meeting that urban committees should be formed to supervise sanitary measures, a Hindu speaker condemned the proposal as useless because God had sent plague among them as a consequence of their sins: all that was required for the disease to disappear was that Hindus, Muslims and Christians should respectively obey the teachings of the Shastras, the Koran and the Bible. In Bihar and the east of the country, where the plague was weaker but the outrage was almost as strong as in Bombay, officials were ordered to show restraint: if the Bihari people believed the Government was trying to kill them with disinfectants, then they must not be compelled to use them; if they thought that pouring Condy's fluid down wells did not purify the water but turned it into poisoned blood, then the fluid must not be poured.