HL Deb 01 February 1897 vol 45 cc885-99

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what were the number of relief camps at present established in the famine districts in India, and at what distance they were situated apart; whether the Government could state how often each relief camp was visited by a British official or other European member of committee; whether they could furnish statistics showing the increase of mortality in the famine districts during the past few months; whether the Indian Government were taking any measures to store grain in remote districts more than 30 miles from a railway or large navigable river; whether the Government still declined to store and sell grain, and resolved to leave the safety of such remote tracts to the action of private individuals; whether such a policy of abstention was not essayed both in Orissa in 1866 and in Southern India in 1877; and whether the result was not in both cases that the price mounted to five and, in some cases, ten times their ordinary figure, followed by uncontrollable calamity and hundreds and thousands of deaths. He said that he wished to refer shortly to the experience gained in past famines, especially in the famine of 1877. In that year it appeared that prices were quoted week after week at five and six times and even eight times those ordinarily current, yet the same cold meaningless formulas were week after week published, 'supply sufficient,' 'supply middling,' 'supply fair,' 'supply plentiful,' supply enough.' As if this could by any possibility be the ease contemporaneously with a continuation of such prices. In only one district, Kaladgi, was it occasionally hinted that the supply was defective. Early in January, 1877, the prices there were quadrupled. Yet no steps were taken by the Government to import food. The month of August found the Viceroy officially announcing that the price of food averaged five times, in many parts eight times, that of ordinary years; it was admitted that success had not attended the efforts to save life. Success indeed had become impossible in the face of that one cardinal error of non-importation. The Madras Relief Committee was then telegraphing to the Lord Mayor. 'Middle classes exhausted, owing to famine prices,' and even in towns and centres of civilisation, those below the middle classes were dying in thousands. In the one district of Salem half-a-million persons were missing, the greater majority of whom had perished from starvation. In the more distressed parts of Madras it was officially admitted that probably about 20 per cent. of the population had disappeared, and in those of Bombay about 12 per cent. It was, at the close of the famine, officially recorded that in 25 distressed taluks: 10 in Bombay, and 15 in Madras—855,000 persons out of a population of less than five millions were missing. These records showed that the questions standing in his name on the Paper, referred to a subject which called for immediate attention. In paragraph 42 of the Famine Code, it was laid down that— Only in very exceptional cases, and in the last resort, will Government take direct action to import grain, and Government will not interfere with private trade, so long as that trade is able and willing to place food at reasonable prices, within the reach of the distressed people. If compelled to interfere because grain is not in, or is withheld from a local market, Government will do so only until the ordinary course of trade is restored. It seemed that Government did not contemplate taking any steps merely on the ground of high prices. Thus, if again, as in 1877, prices should rise to five or six times that of a good year, and should be impossible for the great majority, and if at the same time, as in 1877, supplies should be officially returned as "sufficient, plentiful, fair," no action would be taken. Nor did it seem that Government would take action in any case save in "very exceptional cases and in the last resort." If Government was to wait for that stage, and only then to set about making purchases in distant lands, how were the people to subsist during the month or six weeks that would certainly elapse between the inception of Government action, and the arrival of the grain in remota parts? Those parts would always be the ones most difficult of access, to which transport would take longest. It was only by being already prepared, by having stores available in remote parts to be drawn upon at once on the occurrence of such a condition of things, that a disaster could be averted. And high prices should be an essential element in deciding Government when to open its stores. If it were when importing to declare that its price would be 18 lbs. per rupee (a price never yet exceeded for long without a grievous calamity) and that it would never move from that, private trade would have a degree of security and certainty concerning its operation which now with "corners" and" rigging" it had not. So much merchants admitted; but they were terrified at the idea of Government changing its rate from time to time—a fatal policy. Government had, in accordance with the policy thus laid down in its Famine Code, refrained from importation and sale. It had at the same time assembled huge masses of people on to its works—in some cases about 30,000 on a work of no very great extent. The only provision the Code made for securing that the money wage paid these workers could procure grain, was this:— One or more contractors may be appointed for each circle by the collector. But this contractor was not a salaried servant, and he, himself a local grain dealer, could surrender at a moment's notice. There was nothing to prevent him from breaking his contract, and leaving the labourers one morning with nothing to eat. There was nothing to prevent him from doing this at any moment in case of a combination among dealers. Of course he might be proceeded against in the Civil Courts, but of what avail would litigation of that sort be in saving life? Two mornings ago, Reuter's agent reported from Bijapur, a work with 5,000 persons on it where no provisions were supplied, the labourers having to come into Bijapur, six miles, to effect the necessary purchases. And so far, we were only at the beginning of the difficulties. The Secretary of State in his Dispatch of 15th Jan. 1897, recognised that, in October last, in 74 districts the cheapest kinds of grain were dearer than 20 lbs. per rupee. He anticipated that distress would increase till April, possibly to the end of May, and would not subside till August or September. He approved the decision of the Indian Government "to abstain from any interference with the operations of the grain trade," and added— its operations, so long as they are effective, must not be subjected to competition by Government agency. No one would for a moment suggest anything else than what was contained in this last sentence; but it was where, by absence of supplies or by impossible prices, private trade showed that its operations were not effective, that Government must sell if a whole population was not either to starve or to be brought on to the relief works, and the calamity was to be checked from becoming uncontrollable. If that was so, it followed necessarily, that Government must be already prepared with its stores on the spot, which stores it must have already imported from distant lands. As yet, no steps had been taken in that direction. The supplies of these distant lands had apparently not yet been drawn on for the wants of India. I don't gather that supplies of food are yet coming into the distressed districts from Burma, Madras or Siam, wrote the Secretary of State on the 15th January, 1897. The reason was natural enough. Prices in those parts had already, owing to demands which India was ordinarily wont to supply, risen much; they left but a narrow margin for the private traders' profit after damage and freight had been paid; and then there were the further risks of the grain not proving popular (a risk which the intimate knowledge of Government officials would go far to obviate), the difficulty of carriage into remote parts, and a hundred other difficulties which it required a very large possible profit to encourage a private trader to face. The results so far of the present policy on this point had been that, in accordance with the prophecy of the Lieut.-Governor of the North-West Provinces on the 30th September, prices had been— driven up altogether out of the reach of large" "numbers of the poorer ryots (cultivators with holdings of their own), agricultural labourers, artisans and others. They had been thrown on the hands of the Government for relief. Others would gradually be swept into the spreading vortex. On the 23rd November he reported "prices phenomenally high, and prices of coarsest and best food grains approximating as they do in famines." Prices had in many parts of the afflicted districts for three months not been more favourable than 16 and 17 lbs. per rupee. These presumably were the official prices of the grain markets; in the remote parts they would, if that were so, be much higher. The numbers on relief had risen to two millions, showing thus early great and widespread exhaustion among classes who should have stood out much longer. On the 28th October 1896, the Chief Commissioner of the Central Provinces wrote:— With exhausted stocks deficient harvests, and the pressure of a load on debt, which had steadily grown during the succession of unfavourable years, it is not surprising that the feeling of the agricultural population should be one of great despondency, almost of despair, and that the position of the landless classes should cause the gravest anxiety. From Behar in October, combinations of grain dealers were reported—they withheld supplies for some days. The Lieut.-Governor of the Punjab in November reported combinations of grain dealers and rising prices. The Lieut.-Governor of Bengal on November 18th sent a long report to the Government of India, dealing more especially with the condition of Behar. Contrasting it with the Behar of 1874 when there was the famine, he pointed out the enormous spread of railways throughout the province of Behar in the last 20 years (589 miles as against 147) and added— But though there are many grounds for confidence which did not exist in 1873–74, the fact cannot be overlooked that there are also fresh grounds for anxiety. Prices of food grains have steadily risen during the past two years, and are now higher than they ever have been before; this fact, coupled with the facts already mentioned, that wages have not risen proportionally to prices; that the purchasing power of the poorer classes has therefore, been steadily diminishing, and is now less than ever it was; that whereas in former years of scarcity prices were kept down by importation from the North Western Provinces and lower Bengal, in the present year, supplies from these sources cannot be confidently relied upon—are all circumstances that give fresh cause for anxiety, which had no existence in 1873–74. The Lieut.-Governor proceeded to remark that it was estimated that there was a deficit of 550,000 tons of grain in Behar for the year's provision, and while hoping that this estimate might prove exaggerated, he added— if private trade does not step in in time to supply the deficit, there may be at any time a panic, and a sudden rise in prices. The question whether private trade will do all that is required is in reality the crux of the situation. He pointed out, that to relieve the situation, the importations must come from beyond the sea (this, two months later the Secretary of State said, had not been done)— Because the high prices in Eastern Bengal, and the indications of distress already existing in districts that were always considered free from risk of scarcity, show that little reliance can be placed on supplies from within the province of Bengal. He laid great stress on the loophole in the Famine Commissioners' Report:— A resolution to rely on the ordinary operations of trade to meet the wants of the country, unquestionably rests, not only on the activity of traders, but also on the probability of the requisite supplies of food being forthcoming at the critical time. They admitted—" he added—"that there may be eases in which Government interference is admissible, such as for the purpose of providing food required for payment of wages on relief works, and distribution of gratuitous relief stimulating trade when it is sluggish or fails to act, or grain dealers combine and refuse to sell. The conclusion he arrived at was— That there is ground for confidence that the food wants of the provinces will be met by private trade. These hopes he built on anticipated importations from Burma, importations which two months later the Secretary of State pointed out had not taken place. He added— It is necessary to repeat that, in view of the unparalleled highness of prices, and of extent of the area over which there has been shortness of crops throughout India, the situation as regards the food supply is not free, even in Bengal, from elements of doubt and anxiety. These doubts should now have become intensified. It appeared that in parts of three of the Behar districts, Champaran, Mozuffirput, and Darbhanga, communications were still defective. These were generally large exporting districts, and were therefore without any native machinery for import. Exports, arranged for beforehand in all probability, were in November still going forward there, though it was in these parts the failure had been greatest, and prices were between 15 and 18 lbs. per rupee. The planters of Mozufferpur were arranging for importing 1,500 tons of rice from Rangoon for sale on easy terms to their villagers. The Maharaja of Darbhanga was similarly arranging for 5,000 tons for sale on favourable terms to his tenants; but inasmuch as this was being-bought locally, it might have had the undesirable effect of shortening supplies in the markets and raising prices. These gentlemen, so intimately acquainted with the wants of the peasantry on their estates acted thus so far back as November, and they could only have done so from the knowledge that private trade was not, and would not place grain in the market at possible prices. They knew, as all experience showed, that to store and sell grain to the peasantry at possible prices was the best, and indeed the only way of staving off an almost universal destitution. The Government, who in India was more emphatically than in any other country the one great landlord still declined to move in this direction. These gentlemen were no more grain dealers than the Government was; but close acquaintance with the necessities of the case compelled them to turn to. Of one district, Khulna, in Lower Bengal, the Lieut.-Governor, on the 20th November, reported that he had just heard from the Commissioner that relief must be started in one sub-division, that the price of rice in the bazaars was 12 to 14 lbs. per rupee, and that these were merely fancy prices as the grain was not forthcoming in any quantities even at that price:— If the state of things is so bad in Khulna, with its abundant waterways and its proximity to Calcutta, it is only probable that the condition of things in more distant places may be equally bad. As to the chance of private trade doing all that was required, which was to keep prices down, even in the most out-of-the-way parts to a rate not dearer than 18 lbs. of common food per rupee, which all experience showed must not be passed, and cannot long be passed, without an uncontrollable calamity, the following are not unimportant considerations. Wheat and rice were probably the main food stuffs in question—rice in the more eastern and southern of the affected districts, wheat in those more to the north-west. The Lieut.-Governor of Bengal, with the best information before him, wrote to the Government of India on the 18th November as follows:— Cargoes of Californian wheat of 4,000 to 5,000 tons each can be lauded in Calcutta at Es. 5 to Rs. 5.1 per maund. Offers for such cargoes to arrive in two months or more are not higher than Rs. 4.10 to Rs. 4.11 a fact which indicates, in the opinion of merchants, the price of wheat will not in Calcutta rise beyond Es. 4.10 to 4.11 within the next two months. But these were wholesale and not retail prices; the retail price in Calcutta, to admit of any profit at that time, would be quite Rs. 5 per maund, or 16 lbs. per rupee. It appeared from the above that Californian wheat could not be imported at a less cost than Es. 5 per maund at the seaboard, which would mean quite Rs. 5. 8. before, reaching the railway stations in the North West, and Rs. 6 before penetrating into the remote parts. Then a profit would have to be made by the retail vendor, and his risks had to be covered, so that Rs. 6½ was probably the price at which private trade could afford to import and retail wheat in the interior of the North West Provinces. This would mean about 12 lbs per rupee. As to rice, the same authority on the same date wrote that new coarse Burma rice (which was not much in favour) could be obtained at Rangoon (for delivery in two months or later) at Rs 3. 8. per maund, or Rs. 4. 8. at Calcutta. This would mean quite Rs. 5 at any central railway station in Behar, and quite Rs. G before the retail vendor in remote parts could hope to secure a profit. That would be about 13½ lbs. per rupee. Thus, so far as he could see, there was no chance, and since November there had been no chance, of private trade being able to import and retail the grain in common use at such a price as was possible for the people, or as could possibly hope to stave off the spread of a calamity which threatened to become almost universal. In this connection too it must be remembered that, as Sir Lepel Griffin pointed out the other day in a letter to The Times. the savings of the cultivators of India were always largely invested in the silver ornaments of their women. These formed their savings bank. Hitherto, in all famine times, these had been turned into rupees for the purchase of grain. The price they had fetched in rupees had been the value of the silver. Now things were different. The Government by closing the mints had put the rupee 25 p.c. above the value of the silver it contained, and the cultivator now, in order to get 4 rupees, would have to sell the silver of five. His means of purchasing were thus materially reduced, and the 18 lb. price of which he had spoken as one which previous experience showed could not be materially passed, became now, owing to the above circumstance, all the more emphatically so. The Secretary of State, in his Dispatch of January 15 to the Viceroy, stated:— I do not gather that supplies of food are yet coming from Burma, Madras, or Siam," but added, "I question if Indian prices are as yet high enough to attract wheat or corn maize from the West. Thus it would seem certain that private trade would not in the present distress move to help materially by importation of foreign grain except prices for common grain in the interior rose to about 12 or 13 lbs. per rupee. But this was a price which must at all hazards be prevented. It could only be prevented at a loss to the importers; and Government was alone the importer who could afford the loss, and who was bound to incur it.


said he was sorry that he could not give the noble Lord any information as to the exact number of relief camps in existence. He could say, however, that each relief work was under a responsible officer who visited that relief work constantly. The numbers engaged on the relief works varied from 100 or 200 to 28,000 or 30,000, and some of those works were under the charge of the local zemindars, who did most excellent service in a recent famine. The Government had certain statistics as to the mortality in certain districts of the Jabalpur division, and these showed that there was a large mortality in some of the autumn months of last year due mainly to cholera or fever, but that mortality had been decreasing. They had desired the Government of India to supply information, shortly and roughly as it must necessarily be, from time to time whenever there was any considerable increase of mortality above the normal. As to measures for the storage of grain, it was perfectly true that it was the policy of former Governments for a short time to import themselves grain into the distressed districts, but the result of that was found to be unsatisfactory in the famine of 1876. Towards the close of the year—the Government ceased to import grain into the districts, and the consequence was that as soon as Government competition had disappeared the private traders were encouraged to take up and continue their operations, and at one time no less than 4,000 tons a day were poured into the famine districts until the railways were carrying as much as it was possible for them to carry. With the experience which the Government of India had of several famines they had determined to lay down the principle that they would not interfere with private trade so long as private trade was able to supply the necessities of the people. Cases were described as exceptional in the Famine Codes, one of which was published in the Blue-book in which it was the duty of the Government, and one which they recognised, to intervene. They recognised that food must be provided at relief works, that trade must be stimulated where it was sluggish by guaranteeing prices or advancing money to traders, and where there was a combination among traders not to sell at normal prices the Government might intervene, but save in those exceptional cases the Government of India were satisfied that the requirements of the situation could be met, as far as could be seen in the immediate future, by the action of private traders. The noble Lord was, no doubt, aware that the Local Governments in the different provinces had full power to act in those exceptional cases whenever they arose within their districts. The noble Lord had stated that the present famine was of exceptional severity, and that it had spread over a wider area than any previous famine. It was perfectly true, at any rate so far as the extent of the area was concerned; but he thought the noble Lord would agree that upon no former occasion had the Government of India been in so favourable a position owing to the wise foresight of those who laid down the Famine Codes for dealing with so widespread a calamity. He assured the noble Lord that, although a new condition of affairs had arisen inasmuch as the stocks of grain in India were likely to be drawn upon to the fullest possible extent, and it was possible that it might be necessary to import grain from outside, the Secretary of State and the Government of India were giving the most careful attention to the whole subject, and the remarks of the noble Lord would not be lost sight of. The Government of India would be the last persons to desire that their lordships should refrain from criticism of their action, but he expressed a hope that in this unexampled and double calamity which had fallen on India the Viceroy and his advisers might have the support of their lordships on both sides of the House. He was satisfied that if they were successful in combating this great evil they would establish a greater claim even than the remembrance of our military prowess or naval supremacy on the loyalty and affection of the people of India. ["Hear, hear!"]


I am sure my noble Friend who introduced this subject was quite justified in doing so, because there can be no doubt of the magnitude of the calamity which affects our Indian Empire, and of the great difficulties with which the Government of India has to contend in meeting it. The question whether it is desirable or otherwise for the Government to interfere with trade for the purchase and storage of grain in affected parts of the country, is perhaps one of the most difficult administrative questions with which any Government can have to deal. Speaking generally, the more trade is left untrammelled the greater the probability of meeting the demand for grain or any other article in any country, and that general principle undoubtedly applies to India. The greater extent of railways, which now exists makes it far more easy for trade to meet the demand in different parts of India than was the case 23 years ago. At that time it was necessary to import considerable supplies of rice into the northern parts of Bengal. That was done by the Government of the day because, from the best information they could obtain, there was no probability whatever of trade dealing with the difficulty, and the result was satisfactory. It did not interfere with trade in other parts of the country, and the people were supplied with food. But what I wish to say on the present occasion is that I conceive this to be a matter which may be confidently and safely left to the discretion of the Government of India. ["Hear, hear!"] They have a great, an almost overwhelming, responsibility placed upon their shoulders. It seems to me, having read the Blue-book, that they have taken every precaution in their power to obtain the fullest information as to the food supplies, and that they are prepared to act with promptitude supposing it becomes necessary to take steps by the Government for the importation of food supplies into any part of the country. I happen to be personally acquainted with the Lieutenant-Governors of Bengal, of the North-West Provinces, and of the Punjab, three districts in which the greatest distress is anticipated, and I can assure your lordships that no three officers in the service of the Crown can be better able to cope with a difficulty of this or of any other description, and I have the most complete confidence that they will act with energy and promptitude. I desire also to express my opinion, as far as I am able to judge, that the full confidence of the people of this country may be placed in Lord Elgin and in those who are assisting him, and I do not think that any action of your Lordships is required by the circumstances of the case or is in any respect desirable. [Cheers.]


said that although he had lately returned from a part of India where, he was thankful to say, there was at present very slight distress, yet the noble Lord who introduced the subject had raised a question on which he thought he was able to throw a little light. In 1891–92, in the Presidency of Madras, they were threatened with a very serious state of affairs, arising from great scarcity of water, and naturally at that time the Government's attention was drawn most particularly to the question of the supply of grain to the impoverished districts. From all quarters the Government was constantly asked to take up the question itself and deal with it; but the conclusion it arrived at was that any interference with the food trade would be more likely to work harm than good. He often came across cases where "rings "or "corners" were made by the grain merchants, not only to keep up the price of grain, but to hold it back till prices reached a much higher figure, and on every occasion it was found that some private individual, or perhaps a syndicate of philanthropic and charitable persons, merely by sending up a truck or two of grain, was able at once to restore the, balance of prices and to keep them steady throughout the whole country. That was by for the soundest course that could be adhered to. He was convinced the Governments of the various provinces were watching those points most narrowly, and if at any time it was found that Private trade was not able to meet the requirements of the case, then and then only would the Government step in and do the work which the noble Lord wished them to do at once. He mentioned these facts because his experience was a recent one.


I cannot speak at all with the experience of my noble Friend Lord Northbrook, or that of the noble Lord who has been Governor of Madras, but I merely wish to echo the feeling which Lord North-brook has expressed—that in this great calamity we must trust to the Government of India to take the necessary measures. [Cheers.] All those who have been connected with the administration of Indian affairs must be aware that there is no subject which has received more close and continuous attention than the dealing with famine, and never has the Government of India been so well prepared as it now is to cope with a calamity of this kind. Not only has a most elaborate code, founded upon experience of former famines, been drawn up, but, what is most material, in the course of the long period during which there has been no serious famine in India, there has been created a number of railways, generally known as famine lines, and by these means, to a great extent, the very serious difficulties which formerly existed in the way of carrying food to the people, because of there being no means of transport, have been overcome. I am sanguine that every thing will be done that can possibly be done, although from the very magnitude of the calamity it will be impossible to prevent much privation and terrible suffering. I greatly lament that so great a calamity should be accompanied also with a threatened extension of the bubonic Plague which has broken out in Bombay. If that plague should, unhappily, extend itself into the country, then indeed it will require all the energies which can possibly be displayed by the Government of India to cope with it. With regard to the statistics promised by the noble Lord, I do hope that in a crisis of this kind the not too numerous Civil Servants of the Government in India will not be vexed by being obliged to spend their time in making too elaborate returns. ["Hear, hear!"] Perhaps one of the greatest curses of the administration of India is the enormous amount of paper work now imposed upon the servants of the Government—["hear, hear!"]—and in a visitation of this kind, when every man will be employed to his utmost capacity and energy in connection with the relief works, I hope they may be allowed to pursue the more urgent work of looking after the distress and not be required to furnish too elaborate statistics of what is going on until after the calamity has been overcome. [Cheers.]


That has not been lost sight of by the Secretary of State. All that has been asked for is a rough calculation, and returns such as can be prepared from the local registers of deaths will suffice for the purpose, provided the information is prompt and is telegraphed.


I do not make the least complaint, but what I meant to deprecate was the pressure upon the Government which may come hereafter for more and more information. ["Hear, hear!"]

House adjourned at a Quarter past Five o'clock, till To-morrow, a Quarter past Four o'clock.