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Reviewed by:
  • Famine, Philanthropy and the Colonial State
  • Jyotsna Uppal
Famine, Philanthropy and the Colonial State. By Sanjay Sharma. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Early colonial state formation in the subcontinent has been rife with controversy. Did the emergence of the Company and its consolidation of control over large areas from the late eighteenth century into the nineteenth century involve dramatic change or the clever capacity to capitalize and build upon existing structures of rule? By examining the history of famine in the Ganga-Yamuna interfluve, known as the Doab, Sanjay Sharma enters into this debate from a largely neglected area of study, “the dispersed and relatively unstructured narratives of famine in the early decades of the nineteenth century.”(6), but seeks to move beyond the paradigm of continuity and change. Although famines have been the subject of a number of historical studies, especially after the collection of records following the 1860–1 famine, Sharma’s focus on the unstructured discourses of famine between 1780 and 1838 allows him to use the “event” to describe the ways in which narratives of scarcity, disorder, and relief suggest the complex and contested manner of the Company’s extension of political sovereignty.

Sharma begins with a rather dense introduction to soil and water quality, drainage systems and the emerging patterns of grain supply in the Doab of the late eighteenth century. The details of this chapter establish the firm hydrographical and economic criteria from which Sharma will develop his arguments about the role of famine and food scarcity in the evolving ideological structure of the British state. The subsequent chapters are organized around the themes of decline, crime, and philanthropy.

In an effort to establish their exclusive legitimacy to govern, British officials painted a portrait of decline and desolation overseen by political tyranny. Thus, when soon after British annexation of the Doab in 1803 famine struck the region, their political claims to difference as a superior state came up against their commitment to political economy. Sharma puts forth a very insightful reading of the libertarian versus paternalistic aspects of utilitarianism to help us understand the tensions that ensued when the practical question of responsibility for ones subjects came up against the ideologies of free trade and non-intervention.

“The question of intervention during a scarcity was debated around the larger question of how India should be governed, and there was no consensus on this.”(37) With this presumption, Sharma proceeds to narrate how the state repeatedly came up against itself in times of drought and scarcity. There were moments, such as in the closing months of 1817, when officials at the local level argued for intervention in the grain market in response to situations of distress. In the face of hoarding, one Provincial Superintendent of Police sought assistance from local Muslim authorities as to whether hoarding could be treated as a criminal offence. Higher officials, however, felt that it was inappropriate to take interventionary measures and to criminalize monopoly and hoarding. Such efforts to maintain a policy of free trade meant a cautious state that remained committed to laissez-faire principles and yet still found interventionary ad-hoc measures by which to address cycles of strain on the local population that were cloaked in the language of benevolence and obligation.

Amidst the human suffering of the famine of 1837–8, Sharma argues that the overriding issue that prompted British action was the “crime” and the “breakdown of law and order.” Baird Smith’s Report on the famine suggested, “The active bonds of society seemed to be broken.” For a state that was nervous at the potential instability that could come from rioting peasants sometimes in conjunction with the zamindars, any action that challenged the condition of law and order had to be cited as criminal and the perpetrators punished. Yet, as with questions of how to deal with scarcity, the ideological position of unilateral punishment for the violation of private property came up against starving people.

Sharma argues that pre-colonial notions of private property contained certain paternalistic obligations. So when during the times of scarcity there were “unethical” prices in urban areas, a form of moral economy did insist that the government...

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