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

"The Famine Campaign in Southern India, Madras, and Bombay..." (Sir William Digby, 1878)

William Digby, “The Famine Campaign in Southern India, Madras and Bombay Presidencies and Province of Mysore, 1876-1878). The following excerpt is from Chapter 2 of Digby's blistering critique of British government policies. A version of this text can be found at
From Chapter II:

' Under the ryots are the farm labourers, often holding some fields of their own, but adding to their livelihood by labouring in the fields  of their neighbours. They form a large class, having interests bound up with those of the superior ryots. They, together with their wives and growing children, are strong to labour. But now their vocation  is gone for a time. There is no weeding or tending wanted for the wretched crops. There is no harvesting to be done. The fields cannot be tilled for lack of moisture. The plough is unemployed. The oxen are straying in quest of fodder Below these, in all the villages there are low-caste or caste-less people in a very varying condition — often in tolerably good case, often again living in squalor and degradation, continiung in scarceness at the best of times, and subsisting within the narrowest margin of existence in bad seasons. It was to be feared that from these outcasts of the social system charitable sympathy would be withheld by the better classes. There are also various gipsy clans habitually gathering the wild fruits of the forests, and eking out a precarious subsistence by disposing of jungle produce and doing chance work in the villages. On behalf of these poor untamable wanderers anxiety would be excited lest both the wild produce and the work should fail in a year like this.' — Sir Richard Temple, On the Effects of the Drought.

India is a land of startling contrasts, but extremes were never more vividly noted than in the scenes which were being witnessed on the plains of Delhi in the north, and in the districts in the south, in the early days of January 1877. The spectacular splendour of the Imperial Assemblage surpassed anything of the kind that the continent had ever known : the Field of the Cloth of Gold was not more magnificent. Similarly, while the assemblage was being held, but, owing to the tardiness with which returns are prepared and forwarded to headquarters, in a great measure unknown to those who were taking part in the ceremonies, unequalled scenes of death and disaster were occurring south and west of the Kistna delta.

Whilst preparations were being made for the proclamation of Her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain as Empress of India, and whilst the ceremonies were actually in progress, 65,000 subjects of the Queen-Empress died of starvation and the diseases caused by insufficient nourishment, in the Madras Presidency alone. Thirteen thousand must similarly have perished in the province of Mysore, but no record of deaths month by month has been published; how many died in Bombay Presidency is unknown, for here, too, reticence was displayed respecting mortality whilst scarcity and want were prevalent. The terrible character of the death-rate in the districts of Southern India was not known to the Viceroy and the Governors and Councillors who were assembled at Delhi, but enough was known to enable them to feel that they were face to face with the greatest disaster arising from drought which had visited India during the century. It was intended that a portion of the business transacted at Delhi should be consultations on State affairs, the presence of high dignitaries from all parts of the Empire rendering this feasible. The matter for chief consideration was the famine in Western and Southern
India, and owing partly to divergent counsels and partly to the fact that one member of the Government (Sir John Strachey) had only just arrived in the country, it was of the highest importance that a conference on this subject should be held.
On the morning of January 5 the Famine Council met. There were present H.E. the Viceroy and Governor-General, the Governors of Madras and Bombay, the members of the Vice-regal Council, and Sir Richard Temple, Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal and Governor-designate of Bombay. Facts such as have already been detailed were considered, the various policies which had been adopted in Madras and Bombay were discussed, and the supreme authorities accepted the responsibility of meeting the disaster from Imperial finances. It was complained, however, that sufficient information was not available regarding the actual state of things in Madras; it was further not concealed that a good deal of dissatisfaction was felt with the manner in which the disaster had so far been grappled with in the Southern Presidency. Reference was also made to the fear that expenditure was more profuse than it need be, and that stricter economy was necessary. The Government of India professed full confidence in the local Government but they wished to have some adequate control over the policy carried out : how to obtain this was the difficulty. The problem had occasioned some anxiety before the Council was held. In course of conversation, however. Sir John Strachey suggested a plan by which the wishes of Government could be met.
' Send Sir Richard Temple as delegate,' said Sir John Strachey. ' He has had the requisite experience in dealing with famines. He also understands the straitened ' condition of our finances, and will carry out an economical policy.'

His Excellency the Viceroy, to whom the suggestion was made, at once approved of it, and the proposal was laid before the Council. His Grace the Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, the Governor of Madras, acquiesced in the arrangement. His Grace had recognised the gravity of the situation in his Presidency, appreciated also the difficulty of the Supreme Government, and loyally agreed to a plan which had the appearance of supersession of himself. Sir Richard Temple's delegation was mainly intended for Madras and Mysore, but to save appearances he was instructed also to visit Bombay and report upon the prospects there. The duty to which he was designated was at once accepted by Sir Richard Temple, and he expressed his readiness to proceed on the projected tour with the least possible delay. In the meantime, the Council at an end, the Governor of Madras returned to his tent, and informed the members of his suite of the arrangement which had been made. The delegation was not looked upon with a favourable eye there, and later in the day his Grace beseeched the Viceroy that the proposal might not be carried out. It was too late, however, to make any change ; the appointment had been gazetted, and Sir Richard Temple was already making preparations for starting on his tour. Much discontent was felt and expressed in India generally when the appointment became known. Sir Richard Temple was popular neither with officials nor publicists, and whilst all recognised the ability of the delegate, few were satisfied of the wisdom of the choice. Sir Richard was charged with extravagant expenditure in Behar in the famine of 1874, and it was feared that he would indulge in large outlay in 1877. But they who argued thus did not know the delegate so well as did they who had sent him. Sir Richard was commissioned to the distressed districts to economise, and it was known by the Government of India that he would exercise economy. The action taken, also — though not intended by the Government of India as such — was looked upon as a condemnation of the action of the Madras authorities, and it was anticipated that, having been virtually superseded, his Grace the Governor would take an early opportunity of resigning. This, however, the Duke of Buckingham did not do, but loyally remained at his post, and subsequently did exceedingly good service to his Presidency.
The estimate which had been formed at Delhi of the calamity may be gathered from certain passages in the telegram which was sent from the camp to the Secretary of State. * We have fully discussed/ said the Viceroy in behalf of himself and his Council, ' with the Governor of Madras and Bombay, the present position of affairs in respective Presidencies, and have decided on sending Sir Richard Temple to visit distressed tracts in both Presidencies and confer with the two Governments. The situation is very grave, especially in Madras, where 13 districts out of 21, containing a population of 20 millions, are more or less affected. We consider the policy of making large purchases of grain, adopted by Madras Government, to be very erroneous, and calculated seriously to interfere with operations of trade and so to intensify our difficulties a few months hence. We have instructed the Governor to abandon this policy, and shall take means to make known publicly our intention to leave trade unfettered. The number on relief works in Madras exceed 840,000, in Bombay 250,000. We apprehend that in Madras admission to the works has not been sufficiently restricted, and that the actual pressure may, therefore, be less than the numbers would indicate. But on this point and on others Sir Richard Temple's inspection will enable us to form an opinion.

The latest Madras estimate of expenditure and loss of revenue amounts to about five millions. One or two isolated cases of death appear to have occurred in Madras Presidency. No efforts have been wanting on part of local Governments to prevent mortality. Cholera bad in some districts, especially Kurnool and Belgaum.'
This was not an adequate description of the disaster, as it is now known to have existed at that date, in this representation. The death-rate in the Madras districts from October to December had increased greatly, as the returns from the various distressed districts testified. None of these facts, however, were before the conference at Delhi, nor were the records of deaths from starvation which Mr. Arbuthnot observed in Kurnool in November. There can be no doubt that many deaths from want had occurred prior to January, and the circumstance that they were not known is proof of the inadequacy of control over the disaster.
In a despatch from the Government of India to the Secretary of State, dated January 12, an admirable precis of the extent and intensity of the distress was given, and the admission was made that the prospect was ' serious in the extreme.' Whilst this was acknowledged, other points required consideration. Among them was this : — ' While the necessity of preventing, as far as practicable, death by starvation is paramount, the financial embarrassment which must in any case arise, will be most difficult to overcome, and any departure from the most rigid economy, or from the principles in dealing with famine which experience has confirmed as sound, may aggravate it to a degree which cannot be estimated.' This was alluded to at greater length in the instructions issued to Sir Richard Temple. Certain passages in these instructions caused much public controversy, and occasioned some acrid correspondence between the Supreme and Bombay Governments, to be noticed in the section of this work giving a narrative of the famine in the Western Presidency. In Madras, whilst the instructions were much and severely criticised, the central principles were recognised as sound and satisfactory. Through an unfortunate mistake in the Secretariat, which became the parent of much subsequent misunderstanding, a copy of these instructions was not forwarded to the Government of Madras until nearly two months after they had been issued. This was accidental, but in the strained relations which subsequently existed, malice prepense was not unnaturally subjected. Sir Richard Temple was nominated to his new duty on January 5. On the 9th he was already on tour. It is impossible to avoid noticing the fact that whilst the delegate started on his mission at once, and the Governor of Bombay hastened with all speed to the seat of his Government, the Duke of Buckingham and on large public works, which need not always be in the distressed districts or near the homes of the people.
The Government may be driven to set up petty relief works near the homes of the people, but not until distress becomes extreme, or a state of famine has been reached.

There is great advantage in paying relief labour in money (not in grain) wherever and so long as this mode of payment is practicable. But if money payment is not practicable, there is no more objection to Government purchasing grain for payment, than there is to its making purchases through the commissariat for troops.
There is to be no interference of any kind on the part of Government with the object of reducing the price of food. Inquiry should be made as to how far private trade, if unfettered, can supply the wants of the country. In certain localities remote from railways, and large markets which private trade is unable to reach, it may become necessary for Government to intervene.
The transport of grain by the trade, by railways, by roads in the interior, and by the sea-ports, should be carefully observed.
Chandos lingered at Lucknow, — stayed at a number of places en route to Madras, and did not reach the Presidency till several days after Sir Richard Temple had been in some of the distressed districts. This caused much severe comment at the time. The staff of the Famme Delegate consisted of Mr. C. E. Bernard, C.S.I., specially appointed, an officer of much experience and possessing a kindly heart, Captain Bisset, R.E., of railway knowledge, Mr. C. Buckland, private secretary, and Dr. Harvey. With a rapidity unexampled, and at too great a speed to secure the object in view, viz., a thorough acquaintance with the real state of the country, Sir Richard and his staff literally ' raced ' over the affected districts, caused reductions to be made in gratuitous relief, struck large numbers of people off works, wrote numberless and very long minutes and memoranda, and in three months finished their task. The Delegate's energy was praiseworthy, his intentions admirable, but his performances occasionally otherwise. It was impossible, in the hurried visits his Excellency made to districts, and in his conversations with officials, for him to adequately grasp the real facts of the situation. It will be shown that the statements in the delegate's despatches are not borne out by independent observations, and that the death-rate contradicts the view which he took. It does not seem unfair to the Delegate, judging him from his minutes, to assume that he went to Madras with the preconceived idea that the calamity had been exaggerated, that it was being inadequately met, and that, therefore, facts were, unconsciously may be, squared with this theory.
He expected to see a certain state of things, and he saw that — that and none other. Further, his personal manner was not conciliatory ; he was occasionally injudicious. It will not be surprising, therefore, to find that the Madras portion of his tour was productive of much illwill and a great deal of friction. Particulars indicating these unpleasing facts will be given in due course.
Famine prevention work had now become very great, and officers were over-taxed in the endeavour to perform their ordinary duties, and at the same time grapple with distress in the manner in which it was desirable this should be done. Compared with the figures quoted, as showing the amount of distress to be relieved at the end of 1876, the state of things when Sir Richard Temple entered (January 15) the Presidency, was as follows : —
Number on Relief Works 1,055,641
Gratuitously fed 12,433
Total . . . 1,068,074
In and near the town of Madras camps had been established, and the most active efforts were made to cope effectually with the distress which daily manifested itself in increasing measure.
The first district visited by Sir Richard Temple was Kurnool, that place being reached via Hyderabad, where, ' so far as he was able to judge, the arrangements made to meet the distress and the diagnosis of the coming trouble were creditable to the prudence and foresight of the Nizam's Government.' This district had been reported upon by the Hon. Mr. Arbuthnot in December, whose report has been quoted. A conference was held on the 14th and 15th between Sir Richard and his staff and the collector and his chief assistants, with several non-official gentlemen. What passed is contained in a memorandum by Mr. Bernard. It was found that all the ordinary crops (including cotton) for 1876-77 had failed utterly, save only in irrigated lands. The average rainfall is 32 inches : only 5| had fallen. 912,000 people were affected. There had been an immense increase of thefts and dacoities in the autumn, which almost ceased when relief works had everywhere been opened. Prices were nearly five times their ordinary rate. Relief was being mostly given in the shape of wages for work on 250 miles of roads, tank digging, collecting gravel, etc. All who had applied for work were given it, and at one time 320,338 — over 33 per cent, of the population — were employed, 3 annas per day being given in some cases to men, and proportionately less to women and children. ' The greater majority of the numbers seen on works by Sir Richard,' says Mr. Bernard, ' were women and children. None of these bore any signs of present or past want, and their clothing was certainly better than that of ordinary labourers in other parts of India. The then expenditure was about 30,000 rs. per diem ; the outlay to date 13 lakhs. The engineering staff consisted of one engineer, three assistants, eight overseers (one for each taluk), four extra being expected from other districts.' Neither task nor piecework had been exacted from the labourers, who spent a certain number of hours on or near the works, and returned to their homes, some of them seven or eight miles off, in the evening. A revenue inspector, on 20 rs. per month, had charge of a gang of 10,000 workmen. Mr. Davidson (the new collector), naturally, was not satisfied with this state of affairs, and was endeavouring to put things in order. Gratuitous relief (from private charity) was being given to about 6,000 indigent persons in Kurnool and Cumbum. Certain suggestions, some of which were acted upon, were made for controlling the distress in Kurnool.

On January 19, Sir Richard Temple, having visited the Ceded districts — comprising Kumool, Bellary, and Cuddapah — an area of 26,000 square miles in five days ! — in a minute submits certain proposals bearing mainly on considerations of expense. They are, briefly, these : “To stop all fresh admissions to relief works in these districts, save under a certificate from an officer not lower than deputy tahsildar ; to discharge all at present on relief works who are not in absolute danger o starvation if not supported by Government ; to reduce the wages from two annas to one and a half anna per diem, and proportionately less for women and children ; and to impress on village officials the responsibility of reporting dangerous cases of distress. The reduction of wages was virtually the great experimental measure as to whether a man could work on one pound of rice per diem, with a small quantity of condiments. Sir Richard's arguments are not given here, as they will more fittingly appear in the section devoted to the discussion of this important economic question.

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