It is commonly supposed that famines in India are due to the failure of the crops, and that the crops are cut off by the sudden droughts which sweep over the entire country; but when in Southern India alone six millions have perished by starvation in one year's famine the causes must lie deeper beneath the surface.
A people must be poverty-stricken beforehand to be thus absolutely cut down by want of food. The social condition of the native population is at fault somewhere, and Miss Florence Nightingale in the August Nineteenth Century, reveals the difficulty, with her usual penetration and sympathy. The land in India is not specially subject to famine ; the cultivators of the soil are industrious ; the native races compare favorably with other races in capacity to take of themselves. The difficulty lies elsewhere, and it is summed up by Miss Nightingale in her accusation of the English nation, in one sentence : "We don't care for the people of India." By this she means that the British Government has put such burdens upon the people that they are crushed down by them.
For instance, salt in India which costs 12 shillings, has a tax of £7 a ton. This restricts the preservation of food, and absolutely forbid native manufactures. No man can live there without nine poundsof salt a year, and the cry of salt is only equaled by the cry for bread in ancient Rome.. Then in the famine districts, there is great suffering from the scarcity of water. Plenty of water there means irrigation, cheap canal communication, improved methods of agriculture, and forest plantations. Where the water supply is inadequate, or has been made so by Government aid, there has been no famine. Then, again, the native man has no voice, no education, no method by which his grievances or sufferings may reach the public ear. The government had been so hard upon him at its points of contact with his life that he shuns it even if it comes to him bearing relief from the middlemen, who oppress him the most.
There is little to show in the British rule of India that the government has had any higher idea than that of great returns for small outlays from that distant section of the Empire. It is to be said, as an offset to this rapacity, that the voluntary subscriptions for the famine relief in England and the colonies during the famine have been £800,000 ; but for all this, the Wheels of the Government still cut just as deeply into the lives of the Indian peasantry as they did before. It is only a relief, not a cure, for the difficulty which besets the Indian population.
Miss Nightingale set forth the greatest difficulty in India in other words which must make every Englishman's heart burn with indignation. Her facts seem scarcely credible at the present day, and yet, being drawn from public documents, or amply authenticated by her personal experience, we have no alternative but to accept them.
They show a state of society in India whose only parallel in recent times was to be found in American slavery, and whose only result is to make English rule in India a disgrace to civilization. The difficulty arises from a class of men who have established themselves all over the country as money-lenders to the ryots or cultivators. They lend the ryot money on his forthcoming crop, or to buy oxen or seed, charging him anywhere from 50 to 100 per cent interest. This he can't pay when his crops are gathered, or, if he does pay it, he has nothing left for his family, and must again borrow money on his next crop. In many cases the interest amounts to more than the principal.
Where this is so, the Hindoo law protects the debtor, but the money-lender, aware of this, obtains a new bond from the debtor, who knows nothing of legal obligations, and can neither read nor write, and compels him to pay interest anew on the previous principal and interest, now reckoned as altogether principal. By this means the poor debtor is compelled to sell his land or rather the money-lender, whom the law maintains in his extortions, brings an action against him for debt, and has his property sold. No one bids against the money-lender, and thus the laborer's property comes into the usuror's grasp for a song.
If the debtor has nothing to pay, the money-lender has authority to sell the man himself, his land, and everything he posses, even to the honor of his wife and daughter. It was the saying of a native, "The English law makes sale of land as easy as the sale of a bullock or a turbon." The change of the ownership of the land in this way is going on all over India, and so far the Government has not been able to check it.
It is by this concentration of the ownership in the hands of men whose only purpose is to rob the natives and whom the English law, unfortunately, protects, that the rural population, which means almost the entire people, are placed in a position which exposes them to many of the horrors of slavery, and reduces to such poverty that upon any light change in the success of the crops famino sweeps them away in vast numbers.
The trouble with India is that the native does not count for a man, and has no rights which he can maintain without the risk of his life. Miss Nightingale cites several instances in which natives, reduced to beggary by their money-lenders, and maddened beyond control by sense of their wrongs, took the laws in to their own hands, and the men in open day who had effected their ruin. The English law promptly put the murderers to death, and there matter ended ; but the cases are few and far between in which the natives are able to obtain justice as against the men who live by plundering them.
Miss Nightingale's words of condemnation are severe, but they will hardly be thought to exceed the facts which support them. She says : "Here is shipwreck, utter, disastrous, of some, not hundreds, but millions of souls ; it is shipwreck which is repeated every year. No hand is stretched out to save. It is a shipwreck which will be repeated, more disastrous, more complete, if that be possible, every year. It is not a famine or storm-wave induced by the elements, which comes once in a period. It is the utter demoralization of two races—the race that borrows and the race that lends."
It is evident that unless the money-lenders, who in most cases are not natives, are speedily arrested in their endeavors to grasp the land, a large part of the people will be reduced to chattel slavery. It has been the proud boast of Englishmen that flag floated in every clime over the homes of the free but it is plainly evident that if England does not soon take the condition of the native Indian population in hand, and correct the abuses which now exist, civilization at large will hold that nation guilty of neglecting a great responsibility.
Miss Nightingale has seen with her own eyes many of the evils which she describes, and the picture which she paints is awful and thrilling. The sufferings of the people at their best season come from their extreme poverty, and neither education nor religions are to be thought of when the great problem is how to get enough to eat.
There is nothing in the present administration of Indian affairs to prevent the return of the late famine, with its unimaginable horrors, if the crops fall short in the districts which have not been irrigated, or in which the money-lenders have prosecuted their nefarious business. Miss Nightingale's paper is not a pleasant subject for discussion by the English press but nothing can help its making a profound impression wherever it is read.
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