Mother Country

The following is from Matthew White’s The Great Big Book of Horrible Things, which examines the hundred worst atrocities in human history. It’s bleak reading, but some of its lessons on social policy are… enlightening. Here White talks about the famines in colonial India–something I never knew about, even though they rank fourth on the list, having killed approximately 26.6 million people.

“The guiding philosophy of the time was that relief should be difficult to obtain in order to discourage the poor from becoming dependent on government handouts. Recipients were expected to work hard for their supper, digging ditches and breaking stones. The [relief] camps accepted only the able-bodied and healthy into their public works projects, and they hired only workers from at least ten miles away, on the theory that a long walk would weed out the weaklings. Hundreds of thousands were turned away as too weak to be used.

“Most British authorities agreed that helping the poor only created a cycle of dependency. The finance minister declared, ‘Every benevolent attempt made to mitigate the effects of famine and defective sanitation serves to enhance the evils resulting from overpopulation’…. A later government report concluded, ‘if the government spent more of its revenue on famine relief, and even larger proportion of the population would become penurious.’

The ration that Richard Temple [the local, governing Brit] distributed to each inmate of these labor camps was only two-thirds of what he had given out during his successful relief in 1874–1,627 calories per day instead of 2500. [For his previous welfare efforts, ‘The Economist had scolded him for teaching the Indians that ‘it is the duty of the government to keep them alive’] In fact, the new daily ration for the starving Indians of 1876 had 123 fewer calories than the ration for an inmate in the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald in 1944.”

The reach of this sort of disaster might be exceptional, but I worry that the ideas–or at least their resulting tendencies–are not.

(Originally posted February 16, 2013)

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