The Kiplings and India: A Collection of Writings from British India, 1870-1900

The Famine (Allahabad Pioneer, March 19 1877)

[From our Special Correspondent]

MADRAS, 12th March

Sir Richard Temple and party left Vellore for Coimbatore on the evening of the 6th. At each Railway Station in the Coimbatore district all the gangs of relief labourers in the immediate neighbourhood were collected for inspection on the morning of the 7th; and while the train stopped Sir Richard rapidly passed along the lines and got a cursory glance at the people, sufficient to show in a general way that they belonged, almost without exception, to the poorer labouring classes, with whom lack of labour means lack of bread, who have as a rule nothing to fall back upon, and who are thus absolutely dependent on the work provided for them by Government. The great majority were all that could be desired in physique and condition, but I noticed a few old persons who were pinched and thin, and who might perhaps have been better fitted for a relief camp than for labour on the works. Still the same feeling against going into the workhouse which animates the better part of the poor at home, operates to perhaps even a greater extent in India, where caste customs and habits are so powerful; and so long as a man is willing to try to work it would be a cruelty to force him into a relief camp against his will. Coimbatore was reached at 11 A.M., and a large gang of labourers numbering 1,100 was inspected at the station. As in the other gangs the people seemed to be in good case and to belong to the lower classes; a few picked out as being of superior status proved to be weavers, who are numerous in the district, but are now almost entirely out of work. They are not good workers, being unaccustomed to the hard labour of digging and picking; their untrained hands wield the spade with difficulty, and a task which would be mere child's play to a member of a cultivating caste is pain and grief to the weaver. There is no demand for cloth through the distressed districts. All the available money is required for food; the whole weaving fraternity have come upon our hands, and cause the authorities a good deal of trouble and anxiety. A number of them, who recently struck at Coimbatore against task-work, appeared in a body to petition for a return to daily wages, as they declared themselves unable to render the tale of work demanded of them. Some of them looked pinched and worn, and had evidently undergone some suffering during the strike, and it was fortunately found possible to take them on the works again by reducing the task, which had previously been higher than the rate fixed by Government. Coimbatore is one of the favorite districts of the Madras Presidency, and the chief town is pleasantly situated on a fine plain between the Nilgheri [Nilgiri] Hills on the north, and the Anamalli Range on the south, a gap in the hills to the west allowing the cool sea breezes to sweep through unchecked Ootacamund can be reached in a few hours, and capital sport is to be had among the lower spurs of all the hills around. The district has a population of 1,700,000, an excellent climate, good soil, plenty of water, and the people who are on the whole prosperous and well-to-do. The failure of crop has been less than in most of the northern districts, but sufficient to cause considerable, distress, and many persons have been reduced to great straits by the combined effects of high prices and want of employment. A carefully planned list of relief works was prepared as soon as the probability of distress became manifest, works were opened early, but admission to them was made difficult, and the work itself irksome, so that the numbers never got unmanageable, supervision was possible, and task-work was enforced from the first at rates very fairly renumerative to the State. About 23,000 persons are now employed, a number of cripples and old people are fed gratuitously, and the Collector anticipates that he will not be called upon to provide work for more than 30,000 at the worst time. Village inspection is said to be thoroughly organized, and the authorities believe that no case of serious distress can exist without their hearing of it. The general appearance of the people whom I saw about the station was very satisfactory. I happened to pass the works of a local firm employed in preparing coffee for the market just as the day's work was over. The employees, chiefly women, were streaming out in crowds, and seemed very merry and well-to-do. Although it may be said that the distress is not very serious or widespread, and that it seemed to be met very effectively and completely. 

Sir Richard visited the town with Mr. Wedderburn, the Collector, on the morning of the 7th, inspected various improvements recently introduced by the municipality, and saw the relief works in the neighborhood. At 3 P.M. he left for Salem, stopping at two stations, which he had not been able to inspect the previous day, to see the labourers. In one of the gangs a poor man, miserably emaciated and reduced, was detected and in another a child evidently dying, and little better than skin and bone. On inquiry it turned out that the man had been earning full wages on the works for three months, and that the child, which was only seven months old, had been ill for four months. Inquiries were directed to be made in the man's village to ascertain, if possible, why he was so thin, the reason of which was not apparent. the mother of the child was put on the gratuitous relief works list, to enable her to care for it more effectually; but it was, I fear, past help. Neither of these cases was thus really due to starvation; they might have occurred at any time and anywhere, yet they both appeared at first sight to be due to it, and any one seeing them casually would assuredly have attributed them to this cause. The man may have been sharing his earning with some one: he said he was not, but the child's mother was in fair condition, and seemed to have food enough for him. I mention these cases to show that caution is necessary in forming an opinion as to the cause of physical depression and emaciation in particular instances. Salem was reached at 9-15 P.M., and here Sir Richard found a telegram, summoning him to Madras to confer with the local Government, prior to the departure of the Hon'ble Mr. Ellis, C.B., for England. This prevented him from visiting the more distressed districts of Salem,, where the relief labourers are reported to be in poor condition and unable to execute the task imposed upon them. He was able, however, to visit one of the district relief camps, and some of the gangs of labourers employed on relief works in the vicinity of the town. These latter were in excellent condition, and some of the people were apparently able to support themselves. Twelve women out of eighty were fat and well-dressed, and had husbands or other male belongings working at home or in the fields. 

The relief camp was fashioned after the Madras model, and was intended to accommodate 800 persons. Everything was as neat as hand coudl make it; the sheds were clear and comfortable, there was ample room, excellent food, abundant water from a perennial spring, hospitals and medical attendance for the sick, every comfort in short, yet the people avoid it, and only go ti itn the las resort. The feeling seems to be general throughout the Presidency that such camps, though admirably managed and organized, are to some extent failures; that very many of the people would rather die than enter them; and that, to save people alive, they must be supplemented by the gratuitous relief at their own homes of such people as will not come to them and are unable to work. The question is admittedly a difficult one, but every Englishman must sympathise with the feeling which lends people on the brink of starvation to decline to accept chairty in a form which they think degrading. Many different causes are assigned for the reluctance of the people to go to them: pride, objection to associate with people of lower caste and position, objection to eating with such, and to cooked food, objection to the food being looked after or otherwise meddled with by Europeans, sameness of diet, deprivation of btel and tobacco, restrain and discipline, and other causes. It is probable that all these factors are in some degree operant, and that the camps might be made much more popular by little concessions in the directions named without making them attractive enough to lead to their abuse by undeserving persons. At present many who ought to go to them, and would go were they less repellant, refuse to avail themselves of the relief offered to them, and must suffer in consequence, and there is very little chance that any alterations likely to be sanctioned would tempt any applicants not absolutely in need. The chief difficulties are those which relate to castes and cooking, but both the Collector of Salem and an intelligent Brahmin tehsildar were of the opinion that with a little trouble those difficulties could be got over without additional cost to the State. It was suggested that separate barracks or separate sections of the camp should be allotted to men of particular castes, that the ration should be issued uncooked with a sufficiency of firewood, and that the inmates should be permitted to make their own arrangements for cooking, subject to the condition that it must be done in camp; that the practice of being issued numbered  tickets to be worn on the person should be done away with; that some liberty of egress from the camp should be allowed; and that the charge of the food should be left to natives of good caste. It was also suggested that the allowance of a small quantity of tobacco would go far to induce people to come to the camps and to keep them there, while the expense would be trifling, A committee of native gentlemen recently offered to supply tobacco would go far to induce people to come to the camps and keep them there, while the expense would be trifling. A committee of native gentlemen recently offered to supply tobacco and betel at their own expense to a relief camp in North Arcot, but the offer was refused on the ground that as soon as it became known that such luxuries were to be had at a particular camp, every other camp in the district would be deserted, and the inmates might perish in their wanderings to the land of promise. It would be necessary to extend the privilege to all camps; and although it may savour of extravagance to allow people tobacco at the expense of Government, it seems to me that as the cost would be small, and the concession would probably induce many to come in who now, by refusing to do so, run great risk of dying at home, it might be advisable to make it. Smaller huts, such as I understand have been provided at some of the camps in Madras, where a few persons of the same caste, or one or two families from the same village might live together, would be more popular than the barrack-like sheds usually provided, in which forty or fifty people are penned promiscuously at night. Other little changes trifling in themselves might be suggested with a view to popularizing the camps. They are excellent already-- so good in fact as to give some people the impression that too much is being spent on them, but they fail to draw; and it is of vital importance to the policy of Government that they should be popular enough to attract all persons in need of relief who are unable to work. To send police to the highways and hedges to compel the people to come in, is cruel (though necessary in extreme cases), and it is also ineffectual, for though many may be caught, many will avoid the searchers. It is only voluntary application which will take in all who are in need, and to get voluntary application the camps must be less repugnant to the feelings of the people than they are at present. 

Sir Richard left Madras on the evening of the 8th, and reached the Presidency on the morning of the 9th. A guard of honour of the 67th Regiment was in attendance at the station, and the usual salute was fired. Friday and Saturday were devoted to consultations and conferences, business and the English mail. On Saturday he visited the Seven Pagodas about thirty miles south of Madras, curious old temples carved out of solid rock. He returned to Madras on Monday, and is the guest of His Grace the Duke of Buckingham at Guindy Park. His further movements are still uncertain, but it is believed that he will proceed direct to Sholapur from Madras, and visit from there Kaladgi, Poona, and other distressed districts of Bombay. 

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