Thursday, May 28, 2009

XXXIV. Monsoon, Famine, Gandhi and the Spinning Wheel

Most of the time that I was in Navi Mumbai clothes would take only a few hours to dry after I would wash them. The drying time became progressively shorter as the days became hotter. Then, about three to four weeks ago (in the beginning of May), the air became noticeably more humid. The clouds began forming in different patterns (see XXIII. Expectations and Experience), and it even rained last Wednesday, the 20th.

India has two monsoons. The Southwest, or Advancing, Monsoon is the larger of the two. It is the one that arrives in Mumbai in the first week of June. The pressure differentials created by the blazing heat of central and northern India and the cooler moisture-laden air over the Arabian Sea is the engine that drives the monsoon. It typically transfers copious amounts of water from the Arabian Sea to areas on India’s West Coast, through Central India, over the Gangetic Plain, and up to the Himalayas in India’s far north. The Retreating Monsoon is associated with lighter rainfall and tends to drop more precipitation in southern part of coast of the Bay of Bengal; mainly in Tamil Nadu, where I used to live (near where the rice paddies shown are located), and parts of Andhra Pradesh.

The Advancing Monsoon visits India every year. Just how much it will rain is unpredictable. Two years ago nearly one meter of rain, i.e., 37 inches, fell in Mumbai in one day. One night in 1978 in Mussoorie, a Hill Station in Northern India, it rained so hard that I thought the force of the water would tear the roof off the house. Sometimes the rain is too light to allow for a decent crop; and the effects are sometimes quite localized. Because of the extreme heat, the difference in how the land looks and what it can produce can be striking, as these pictures taken in South India illustrate. However, it always rains; and in sufficient quantities over large enough areas to obviate drought as a sufficient cause of widespread famine.

Farmers depend on this rain. Though often having legitimate complaints about its amount and timing, it is dependable. We know this from records kept for hundreds, indeed thousands, of years. I learned about this because I had become interested in why Indian famines escalated to the scale of events that killed millions of people in the 19th century, slowly receded in the last seven decades of the British Raj, and disappeared entirely in the second half of the 20th century.

As mentioned in XXIII, and described in a full-length research article that I will be happy to provide to anyone who requests it (1), neither the occasional light monsoon nor population expansion were responsible for catastrophes such as the Madras Famine of 1866. Rather, these tragedies were played out against the background of human greed and disrespect for indigenous systems of social, economic and food security that had been developed over very long periods of time. These included the use of temple tanks for irrigation and water rationing; famine protection depositories into which grain stores were placed in times of plenty; the capacity to blend production of various food and non-food crops to meet the needs of the people; and the exigencies of the weather.

Many sincere bonds of friendship and love between individual British and Indians were formed over three hundred years. Indeed, there are numerous accounts in the historical record of British civil servants speaking out on matters of abuse, cruelty and neglect in the matter of resource allocation and unfair taxation. Still, the British came to India for one primary purpose; to extract its enormous wealth. Extractive economic systems do not much care for the needs of the people who produce the wealth. Simple visual inspection of a railway map of India reveals a system designed for moving goods from the interior to India’s main ports. That was the primary vehicle for extracting wealth, and because of how it was configured it would be difficult, or at least very inefficient, to move food and other commodities within the country on short notice.

The famines of the mid-1860s were a direct consequence of two essential factors: 1) the disrespect for human needs and cultural achievement and 2) events transpiring on the Eastern shores of North America. Beginning early in the 19th century, the British had forced Indians to purchase manufactured textiles made from cotton produced by slave labor in the Southern US. With the blockade of shipping during the Civil War they immediately ordered Indians to make up the large shortfall. Their intransigence to adjust to this reality by allowing Indians to revert to time-tested methods of allocating land resources to a combination of textile crops (cotton, jute, and indigo) and food crops and to move food around to meet local needs (the Retreating Monsoon did fail in parts of Madras State in that fateful year), they sentenced millions of people to death. So, as I tell my students in South Carolina, which was a major producer of cotton and Charleston was one of the ports most affected by the blockade, this is a superb example of a real, direct relationship between oppression in one part of the world and its affect on similarly oppressed people in another, seemingly unrelated place.

Even with excessive, ill-considered manipulation by the British, during the height of the worst famines, India produced more than enough food to feed itself – if only the British would have allowed its distribution to places of extreme need. Gandhi recognized that the disruption of cultivator-land and other labour relationships was a necessary cause of famine. He also knew that this disruption and the feeling of supremacy, and economic domination of one people over another that it required, would ensure continuation of the master-slave relationship that was the bedrock of colonial domination. Understanding that control over traditional means of production and the fruit of their labour would release Indians from the shackles of foreign domination, the spinning wheel became the symbol and, to some extent, the vehicle of the Freedom Movement that led to Indian Independence in 1947.

1. Hebert JR. The social ecology of famine in British India: lessons for Africa in the 1980's? Ecol Food Nutr 1987;20:97-107.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Dr Hebert, I am absolutely loving your blog. I am very much amazed and at the same time impressed by your imense knowledge about Indian history, culture, religion, mythology etc. The information in this particular blog for which i am commenting is very surprising and new to me. I always thought that the great famine was due to failure of monsoons.

    It has been an absolute reading your blog. Please continue to update.