Rambles and recollections of an Indian official!
Major-General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B.
Corn Dealers—Scarcities—Famines in India

Near Tehrī we saw the people irrigating a field of wheat from a tank by means of a canoe, in a mode quite new to me. The surface of the water was about three feet below that of the field to be watered. The inner end of the canoe was open, and placed to the mouth of a gutter leading into the wheat-field. The outer end was closed, and suspended by a rope to the outer end of a pole, which was again suspended to cross-bars.

On the inner end of this pole was fixed a weight of stones sufficient to raise the canoe when filled with water; and at the outer end stood five men, who pulled down and sank the canoe into the water as often as it was raised by the stones, and emptied into the gutter. The canoe was more curved at the outer end than ordinary canoes are, and seemed to have been made for the purpose. The lands round the town generally were watered by the Persian wheel; but, where it [scil. the water] is near the surface, this [scil. the canoe arrangement] I should think a better method.[1]

On the 10th[2] we came on to the village of Bilgaī, twelve miles over a bad soil, badly cultivated; the hard syenitic rock rising either above or near to the surface all the way—in some places abruptly, in small hills, decomposing into large rounded boulders—in others slightly and gently, like the backs of whales in the ocean-in others, the whole surface of the country resembled very much the face of the sea, not after, but really in, a storm, full of waves of all sizes, contending with each other 'in most admired disorder'.

After the dust of Tehrī, and the fatiguing ceremonies of its court, the quiet morning I spent in this secluded spot under the shade of some beautiful trees, with the surviving canary singing, my boy playing, and my wife sleeping off the fatigues of her journey, was to me most delightful. Henry was extremely ill when we left Jubbulpore; but the change of air, and all the other changes incident to a march, have restored him to health.

During the scarcity of 1833 two hundred people died of starvation in this village alone;[3] and were all thrown into one large well, which has, of course, ever since remained closed. Autumn crops chiefly are cultivated; and they depend entirely on the sky for water, while the poor people of the village depend upon the returns of a single season for subsistence during the whole year.

They lingered on in the hope of aid from above till the greater part had become too weak from want of food to emigrate. The Rājā gave half a crown to every family;[4] but this served merely to kindle their hopes of more, and to prolong their misery. Till the people have a better government they can never be secure from frequent returns of similar calamities.

Such security must depend upon a greater variety of crops, and better means of irrigation; better roads to bring supplies over from distant parts which have not suffered from the same calamities; and greater means in reserve of paying for such supplies when brought—things that can never be hoped for under a government like this, which allows no man the free enjoyment of property.

Close to the village a large wall has been made to unite two small hills, and form a small lake; but the wall is formed of the rounded boulders of the syenitic rock without cement, and does not retain the water. The land which was to have formed the bed of the lake is all in tillage; and I had some conversation with the man who cultivated it.

He told me that the wall had been built with the money of sin, and not the money of piety (pāp kē paisā sē, na pun kē paisā sē banā), that the man who built it must have laid out his money with a worldly, and not a religious mind (nīyat); that on such occasions men generally assembled Brahmans and other deserving people, and fed and clothed them, and thereby consecrated a great work, and made it acceptable to God, and he had heard from his ancestors that the man who had built this wall had failed to do this; that the construction could never, of course, answer the purpose for which it was intended—and that the builder's name had actually been forgotten, and the work did him no good either in this world or the next. This village, which a year or two ago was large and populous, is now reduced to two wretched huts inhabited by two very miserable families.

Bundēlkhand suffers more often and more severely from the want of seasonable showers of rain than any other part of India; while the province of Mālwa, which adjoins it on the west and south, hardly ever suffers at all.[5] There is a couplet, which, like all other good couplets on rural subjects, is attributed to Sahdēo [Sahadeva], one of the five demigod brothers of the Mahābhārata, to this effect: 'If you hear not the thunder on such a night, you, father, go to Mālwa, I to Gujarāt;'—that is, there will be no rain, and we must seek subsistence where rains never fail, and the harvests are secure.

The province of Mālwa is well studded with hills and groves of fine trees, which intercept the clouds as they are wafted by the prevailing westerly winds, from the Gulf of Cambay to the valley of the Ganges, and make them drop their contents upon a soil of great natural powers, formed chiefly from the detritus of the decomposing basaltic rocks, which cap and intersect these hills.[6]

During the famine of 1833, as on all similar occasions, grain of every kind, attracted by high prices, flowed up in large streams from this favoured province towards Bundēlkhand; and the population of Bundēlkhand, as usual in such times of dearth and scarcity, flowed off towards Mālwa against the stream of supply, under the assurance that the nearer they got to the source, the greater would be their chance of employment and subsistence.

Every village had its numbers of the dead and the dying; and the roads were all strewed with them; but they were mostly concentrated upon the great towns and civil and military stations, where subscriptions were open[ed] for their support, by both the European and native communities. The funds arising from these subscriptions lasted till the rains had set fairly in, when all able-bodied persons could easily find employment in tillage among the agricultural communities of villages around.

After the rains have fairly set in, the sick and helpless only should be kept concentrated upon large towns and stations, where little or no employment is to be found; for the oldest and youngest of those who are able to work can then easily find employment in weeding the cotton, rice, sugar-cane, and other fields under autumn crops, and in preparing the lands for the reception of the wheat, gram,[7] and other spring seeds; and get advances from the farmers, agricultural capitalists[8] and other members of the village communities, who are all glad to share their superfluities with the distressed, and to pay liberally for the little service they are able to give in return.

It is very unwise to give from such funds what may be considered a full rate of subsistence to able-bodied persons, as it tends to keep concentrated upon such points vast numbers who would otherwise be scattered over the surface of the country among the village communities, who would be glad to advance them stock and the means of subsistence upon the pledge of their future services when the season of tillage commences.

The rate of subsistence should always be something less than what the able-bodied person usually consumes, and can get for his labour in the field. For the sick and feeble this rate will be enough, and the healthy and able-bodied, with unimpaired appetites, will seek a greater rate by the offer of their services among the farmers and cultivators of the surrounding country.

By this precaution, the mass of suffering will be gradually diffused over the country, so as best to receive what the country can afford to give for its relief. As soon as the rains set in, all the able-bodied men, women, and children should be sent off with each a good blanket, and a rupee or two, as the funds can afford, to last them till they can engage themselves with the farmers. Not a farthing after that day should be given out, except to the feeble and sick, who may be considered as hospital patients.[9]

At large places, where the greater numbers are concentrated, the scene becomes exceedingly distressing, for, in spite of the best dispositions and greatest efforts on the part of Government and its officers, and the European and native communities, thousands commonly die of starvation. At Sāgar, mothers, as they lay in the streets unable to walk, were seen holding up their infants, and imploring the passing stranger to take them in slavery, that they might at least live—hundreds were seen creeping into gardens, courtyards, and old ruins, concealing themselves under shrubs, grass, mats, or straw, where they might die quietly, without having their bodies torn by birds and beasts before the breath had left them.

Respectable families, who left home in search of the favoured land of Mālwa, while yet a little property remained, finding all exhausted, took opium rather than beg, and husband, wife, and children died in each other's arms. Still more of such families lingered on in hope till all had been expended; then shut their doors, took poison and died all together, rather than expose their misery, and submit to the degradation of begging.

All these things I have myself known and seen; and, in the midst of these and a hundred other harrowing scenes which present themselves on such occasions, the European cannot fail to remark the patient resignation with which the poor people submit to their fate; and the absence of almost all those revolting acts which have characterized the famines of which he has read in other countries—such as the living feeding on the dead, and mothers devouring their own children.

No such things are witnessed in Indian famines;[10] here all who suffer attribute the disaster to its real cause, the want of rain in due season; and indulge in no feelings of hatred against their rulers, superiors, or more fortunate equals in society who happen to live beyond the range of such calamities. They gratefully receive the superfluities which the more favoured are always found ready to share with the afflicted in India; and, though their sufferings often subdue the strongest of all pride, the pride of caste, they rarely ever drive the people to acts of violence.

The stream of emigration, guided as it always is by that of the agricultural produce flowing in from the more favoured countries, must necessarily concentrate upon the communities along the line it takes a greater number of people than they have the means of relieving, however benevolent their dispositions; and I must say that I have never either seen or read of a nobler spirit than seems to animate all classes of these communities in India on such distressing occasions.

In such seasons of distress, we often, in India, hear of very injudicious interference with grain dealers on the part of civil and military authorities, who contrive to persuade themselves that the interest of these corn-dealers, instead of being in accordance with the interests of the people, are entirely opposed to them; and conclude that, whenever grain becomes dear, they have a right to make them open their granaries, and sell their grain at such price as they, in their wisdom, may deem reasonable.

If they cannot make them do this by persuasion, fine, or imprisonment, they cause their pits to be opened by their own soldiers or native officers, and the grain to be sold at an arbitrary price. If, in a hundred pits thus opened, they find one in which the corn happens to be damaged by damp, they come to the sage conclusion that the proprietors must be what they have all along supposed them to be, and treated as such—the common enemies of mankind—who, blind alike to their own interests and those of the people, purchase up the superabundance of seasons of plenty, not to sell it again in seasons of scarcity, but to destroy it; and that the whole of the grain in the other ninety-nine pits, but for their timely interference, must have inevitably shared the same fate.[11]

During the season here mentioned, grain had become very dear at Sāgar, from the unusual demand in Bundēlkhand and other districts to the north. As usual, supplies of land produce flowed up from the Nerbudda districts along the great roads to the east and west of the city; but the military authorities in the cantonments would not be persuaded out of their dread of a famine.

There were three regiments of infantry, a corps of cavalry, and two companies of artillery cantoned at that time at Sāgar. They were a mile from the city, and the grain for their supply was exempted from town duties to which that for the city was liable. The people in cantonments got their supply, in consequence, a good deal cheaper than the people in the city got theirs; and none but persons belonging bona fide to the cantonments were ever allowed to purchase grain within them.

When the dread of famine began, the commissariat officer, Major Gregory, apprehended that he might not be permitted to have recourse to the markets of the city in times of scarcity, since the people of the city had not been suffered to have recourse to those of the cantonments in times of plenty; but he was told by the magistrate to purchase as much as he liked, since he considered every man as free to sell his grain as his cloth, or pots and pans, to whom he chose.[12]

He added that he did not share in the fears of the military authorities—that he had no apprehension whatever of a famine, or when prices rose high enough they would be sure to divert away into the city, from the streams then flowing up from the valley of the Nerbudda and the districts of Mālwa towards Bundēlkhand, a supply of grain sufficient for all.

This new demand upon the city increased rapidly the price of grain, and augmented the alarm of the people, who began to urge the magistrate to listen to their prayers, and coerce the sordid corn- dealers, who had, no doubt, numerous pits yet unopened.

The alarm became still greater in the cantonments, where the commanding officer attributed all the evil to the inefficiency of the commissariat and the villany of the corn-dealers; and Major Gregory was in dread of being torn to pieces by the soldiery. Only one day's supply was left in the cantonment bazaars—the troops had become clamorous almost to a state of mutiny—the people of the town began to rush in upon every supply that was offered for sale; and those who had grain to dispose of could no longer venture to expose it.

The magistrate was hard pressed on all sides to have recourse to the old salutary method of searching for and forcibly opening the grain pits, and selling the contents at such price as might appear reasonable. The kotwāl[13] of the town declared that the lives of his police would be no longer safe unless this great and never-failing remedy, which had now unhappily been too long deferred, were immediately adopted.

The magistrate, who had already taken every other means of declaring his resolution never to suffer any man's granary to be forcibly opened, now issued a formal proclamation, pledging himself to see that such granaries should be as much respected as any other property in the city—that every man might keep his grain and expose it for sale, wherever and whenever he pleased; and expressing a hope that, as the people knew him too well not to feel assured that his word thus solemnly pledged would never be broken, he trusted they would sell what stores they had, and apply themselves without apprehension to the collecting of more.

This proclamation he showed to Major Gregory, assuring him that no degree of distress or clamour among the people of the city or the cantonments should ever make him violate the pledge therein given to the corn-dealers; and that he was prepared to risk his situation and reputation as a public officer upon the result.

After issuing this proclamation about noon, he had his police establishments augmented, and so placed and employed as to give to the people entire confidence in the assurances conveyed in it. The grain-dealers, no longer apprehensive of danger, opened their pits of grain, and sent off all their available means to bring in more.

In the morning the bazaars were all supplied, and every man who had money could buy as much as he pleased. The troops got as much as they required from the city. Major Gregory was astonished and delighted. The colonel, a fine old soldier from the banks of the Indus, who had commanded a corps of horse under the former government, came to the magistrate in amazement; every shop had become full of grain as if by supernatural agency.

'Kāle ādmī kī akl kahān talak chalēgī?' said he. 'How little could a black man's wisdom serve him in such an emergency?'