Irrigation in India

1877-12-11 - John Bright


I thank you, as I ought, for the kind words which the Mayor has spoken in my behalf, and for the cordial reception which you have given me. It is to my mind a very remarkable meeting. The place is remarkable, and the occasion is in accordance with the place. We are in the centre of this great city, which is the centre of a great industry. We are here on the principal market or business day of the week, and we have before us a very large number of persons who on ordinary occasions are engaged with their business, and are not meeting to discuss great social or political questions. I ask myself this—What is it that has brought these men together in this remarkable place at this remarkable time? Is it some common question which has excited your enthusiasm or your interest, or is it some question greater than any probably that has ever heretofore been submitted to your attention? We are here to discuss matters interesting—intensely interesting—to the people of England, if they knew their own interests, and intensely interesting also to what we call our Indian Empire, which is a country so vast that nobody has any acquaintance with the whole of it; a country so peopled that no census can give us an accurate account of its populations; a country which has, according to the best authorities, a population of 250,000,000 men, women, and children, who owe directly and indirectly some sort of allegiance to the Queen of this nation. The population of India is five times the population of the whole of the rest of the British Empire, and we may consider for a moment how we came into this position in India. It is not by the ordinary course of a long succession that the Crown of England has power in India. It is not that we have held India by centuries of undisputed possession. Our power there is little more than a century old, and the empire has been built up by means which I am afraid have been instrumental in building up almost all great empires, by ambition, and crime, and conquest. We claim to be now what is called the paramount power over a population equal to one-sixth of the whole population of the globe, and we hold this rule by a mere handful—shall I say, of Englishmen?—well, of men from these islands, backed by an army of 60,000 British troops. With regard to revenues, we receive something like 50,000,000l. a year in India, which is principally gathered from its people in the shape of taxes, but which includes also a considerable sum procured from the Chinese from a monopoly in opium. We claim the ownership of all the land, and the Government fixes, for the most part, what rent it chooses to receive; which is generally, I am sorry to say, the utmost it can compel. We impose taxes, import duties, as you know, stamp duties, and some other duties; but, above all, we levy a salt duty, one which is highly productive, but extremely oppressive, to the poor bitterly cruel, to gather which we send the tax gatherer into the humblest hovel in that vast empire. But you must remember that all this great population has no voice on its own affairs. It is dumb before the power that has subjected it. It is never consulted upon any matter connected with its government. It is subject to the power that rules over it in a manner that cannot be said of the population of any civilized or Christian people in the world. We raise revenue; we create patronage; we pay salaries and pensions, and we trade extensively with the country. You have known, or at any rate you have heard in past times of the riches of India. In fact, within the last hundred years, whenever the word India was mentioned, there was a floating vision of vast wealth passed before the eye and the understanding. I recollect one of our poets—James Montgomery, I think—begins a poem in these words:

* “Blow, ye breezes, gently blowing,
* Waft me to that happy shore
* Where, from fountains ever flowing,
* Indian realms their treasures pour.”

And yet there is nothing in the world more clear than this, that India is essentially a country at this moment of great and abject poverty, and that the reputation of its wealth has only been founded upon the fact that it is a country which marauders have always found it easy to plunder.

In this country about which I am speaking there have been famines of a destructive and appalling character, and we are met here to-day for the purpose of discussing how those famines have arisen, and whether it be within the power of human benevolence and statesmanship to put an end to them in future. England for the most part has taken no note of those famines. India is a long way off. It was a very long way when people went round by the Cape. It is far off on the map, although by the wire you speak with it in a few minutes, and you receive an answer in a few hours. But England took no note of this distant country until there came the calamity of the mutiny, when England suffered greatly, and passed through a great humiliation—for it is a humiliation to any Government that its subjects, and especially that its army, should turn against it. But when the mutiny took place the East India Company fell. If we had discussed India, or the character of the East India Company, in the House of Commons twelve months before the mutiny, the President of the Board of Control, or what is now the Secretary of State for India, would have delivered you a speech an hour long in praise of the wisdom and success of the government of the Company. I took great pains to show that these praises were not deserved, and I urged for years that the Company should be abolished. When the mutiny came in 1857 there was nobody to say anything, or hardly anything, for the Company, and that famous old institution tumbled over at once, and it had scarcely a friend or a single element of power left in it.

We are now in view of another great calamity—the calamity of famine—and I trust that we shall find that not only Parliament but the whole people of England will be willing to give a fair and honest attention to the question that we are here to discuss to-day, and which must before long be discussed in many parts of the country, and also on the floor of Parliament. What are these famines? Some of them you have never heard of, or if you have you do not remember them. There was a famine in 1837–8, which affected 8,000,000 of people, 5,000,000 with great severity, during which no less than 800,000 persons died of famine, more than half as many again as all the men, women, and children of this great city in which we are assembled, and the people of England scarcely heard anything of it, excepting now and then in a paragraph extracted from an Indian paper. In 1860–1 there was another famine. There were 13,000,000 affected, 5,000,000 suffered intensely. The mortality, as far as I have searched for it, is not on record, but I do not think there is any reason to believe it was any smaller than in the previous famine. In 1863 there came the famine in Bengal and Orissa, and one quarter of the population died in some of the districts. The total amount of the deaths was enormous. Nearly the whole of the labouring population was swept away over large districts of country during the pressure of that calamity. In 1868–9 occurred the great famine in Rajpootana and the districts around it. One hundred thousand square miles, or one-sixth of the whole area of the country, was more or less affected by this famine, and 1,250,000 persons are admitted by the Government estimate to have perished of hunger. In 1877, the present year, it is estimated that more than 500,000 people—that is, more than all the population of this great city—have died, and those who die, or the figures of those who died, do not represent the whole calamity. There are multitudes who die afterwards, who suffer and linger, who know never again a day’s good health, and whose names are not on the record which tells us of the mortality of the famine. And then there is the loss of cattle. It is enormous. The loss of cattle in a country altogether agricultural of course must be the loss of the principal source of wealth.

The loss of produce, the loss of revenue to the Government, the loss of trade, all this is absolutely beyond calculation, and if one could add all these losses together and show you how much it was, you would find that all the money which Sir Arthur Cotton proposes to have expended in the moments of his greatest hope—or, if you like, his greatest enthusiasm—would be a mere trifle to that which has been sacrificed by these famines, which might probably have altogether been prevented. Sir A. Cotton referred to the number of persons supposed to have died. I was reading the other day a very interesting pamphlet by Mr. R. Elliott, who has been a planter in India, and is well acquainted with many parts of the country. This was published several years ago. Mr. Elliott said that within ten years more than 2,800,000, nearly 3,000,000 persons, had been proved to have died from famine, and this year we have added to the number another 500,000. Now, the question is, How long is this to go on? What are we to say of a Government which has all this passing under its eye from year to year, and all that I have described within the last ten or fifteen years, and makes no strong and resolute effort to meet it? Look at its effect upon the Government and upon the people. India is poor. Its taxation has almost reached its limits; it is so high that you cannot turn the screw a bit more. There has been very frequently and for many years a deficit when the annual expenses are made up. Bankruptcy is threatening the country. There is the loss of credit to the Government; and yet no Governor-General in India with his Council, no Indian Secretary in London with his cumbrous and burdensome Council, not one of these great personages who are connected with the Government of India, steps forward resolutely with intelligence and force and courage to say that these great calamities, so injurious to India, so perilous and humiliating to England, shall, if possible, for ever be put an end to.

Now we come to the question whether there be any remedy. There are some misfortunes of such a nature, that the moment you find the cause you find the remedy. If a man suffers from hunger you give him something to eat. I think Daniel O’Connell said, when some one complained that his horse was starving, “ Have you tried corn?” The calamity which you hear of in India is that famine is there, and that the famine arises from drought; that there is a lack of water, or at least a lack of water in the right place and at the right time. Thee is always soil, and there is always sun, and there is always rain; but the rain does not always fall when you want it, and it is not at the particular time just as much or as little as you want it. But if you have soil, and sun, and water, and human labour, you may have rich harvests throughout a great portion of India. Now that is a very simple doctrine, which I suppose few people will be disposed to dispute. But with the rainfall there is some difficulty, because the rain comes down there sometimes in profuse quantities. It does not rain, as we say here, cats and dogs, but I suppose tigers and lions, or anything else you may use as an illustration. But sometimes the heavens are as brass, and there is no rain, not only for weeks but for months.

Now, what is the remedy? Everybody has known the remedy for centuries. If you had before you, as I have seen, an ancient map of the Presidency of Madras, you would think there was no dry land for the people to live upon, the map is so marked with tanks. You will understand that what Sir Arthur Cotton means by tanks is not the sort of thing we call a tank here; but it is a large reservoir, sometimes of miles in extent, and like some of our greatest lakes. Well, this map of Madras is marked out with these tanks or reservoirs from north to south and from east to west, and it shows that the rulers of the people of those ancient days had just the same evil to contend with that we have, and that they manfully did their best to subdue it.

Our Government knows perfectly well what is the remedy, but what do they do? Whenever there is a famine they begin to think about some manner of irrigating that particular district. They generally wait until the horse is stolen before they lock the stable door. I give you an extract here. I quote from an interesting article in the Fortnightly Review by Colonel Chesney, who by many persons will be admitted to be a great authority. He says, “The Ganges canal was the outcome of the great famine of 1833; the new project in the Doab of the famine of 1861; the Orissa works of that of 1866.” He says, “Oude has escaped famine so far, and in Oude no irrigation works have been constructed.” And then he goes on to say that the Indian Government is very like a father who spends a great deal on the doctor or the nurse, if his child is ill and ready to die, but in ordinary times does not take the smallest care of him whatever, or teach him anything with regard to the preservation of his own health. That is the policy which the India Company in past times pursued, and which the Indian Government is yet pursuing for the most part with regard to that very large child it has the care of—the 250,000,000 of people in our Indian Empire. Now, I have given you the opinion of Colonel Chesney. I might give you one or two others, but I will not trouble you with quotations, for I do not think the question requires it. Sir Charles Trevelyan, who is one of the most intelligent men who have been connected with the Indian Government, and who has been Governor of the province of Madras, on hearing a paper read by Sir Arthur Cotton, said he was satisfied that with a thorough system of irrigation famines would be impossible in India. Speaking of what Sir Arthur Cotton had done on the Godavery and Kistna he says, “If all India were treated in the same way, famines would be impossible.” Next I give you the opinion of Sir Bartle Frere, a very distinguished Indian servant of the Crown, who has now been sent out, as you know, as the Governor of the South African dominions of the Crown—the Cape of Good Hope. He says:

“It is the fashion to deny the facts regarding the results of the irrigation works on which Sir Arthur Cotton’s calculations are based, but I feel certain that the more they are tested the more clearly will it be seen that in no other way can money be so advantageously expended with a view to future production and cheap supply as in great works of irrigation and internal navigation.”

Now, I have given you the opinions of three persons. I might keep you here an hour in reading the opinions of men almost equally distinguished, and to the same purport. So I take it for granted that when we have the judgment of past Governments—I mean the ancient Governments of India; the judgment of our own Government of India, when a calamity occurs; the opinion of Colonel Chesney, of Sir Charles Trevelyan, of Sir Bartle Frere, of Sir Arthur Cotton, and I venture to say, also, the unanimous opinion of all the intelligent engineers who are connected with India, we must come to this one conclusion—that as we have found out what is the malady under which these people die, we have also found out the remedy by which they might, if it had been applied, have been kept alive.

They say that Sir Arthur Cotton is an enthusiast. Well, we have all been enthusiasts in our time, and the world would be a dull world if there were no real and honest enthusiasm in it. But sir Arthur Cotton is not surpassed by any man in the Indian service for long experience and for great success in the works in which he has been connected and which he has undertaken. He has broader and grander views than some of his competitors, or some of his fellow - officers, or of those connected with the Government. But he knows that this is a great question, that India is a great country, that 250,000,000 of people are a great people; and therefore he thinks that a broader and a grander policy is necessary. Why is it that the Governor-General of India and his Council in Calcutta, and Lord Salisbury, and those who have preceded him as Secretaries of State for India in England, and his Council—why is it that they regard this question with so little favour? They are always on the brink of bankruptcy; the Government wrings whatever it can from the people—it takes every farthing it can get from them. It is admitted that taxation cannot be carried to a higher limit, and yet all that they get from taxation is not enough to spend, for they spend more than 6,000,000l. or 7,000,000l. which comes to them from the sale of monopoly opium in China. They have spent all this for years past; and besides spending that, they have incurred a debt, say of 100,000,000l. sterling. Therefore they are always in terror of a bankrupt exchequer, and they turn their backs upon anybody who proposes that they should deal largely with any question, however important, if it requires that there should be a considerable or a large expenditure.

Now the question, in my opinion, is very much too great for the officials at Calcutta. You know that a new Governor-General of India is sent out from this country about every five years. As a rule, as far as my experience goes, these gentlemen do not know any more than the majority of their own class in society know upon this question. They begin, the moment they are appointed, to read “Mill’s British India.” I met—I do not know whether I have stated this before in public, but I recollect meeting a Governor-General with whom I was acquainted, just after he was appointed. I met him at Euston Station in London, and I observed that he had got a book under his arm, and was hurrying away. I spoke to him and said, “If I were in the habit of laying wagers I would lay a wager that I could tell the name of the book under your arm.” Well, he looked surprised and amused, and said, “What is it?” I said, “I think it is ‘Mill’s British India.’” He said it was quite true. He was beginning to read Mill, for he thought that as he was going out to India it was necessary that he should, if possible, rub up the information which perhaps in the lapse of years had passed from his mind. But when you come to discuss with the officials in Calcutta the question of railways there, they can open their minds to the large, and as they consider it the necessary expenditure; but the question of railways, in their opinion, is a totally different one from the question of canals, either for navigation or irrigation.

I think the question of railways is far more a question for the English, as a power in India, than for the native people in India. It is a great military question. It was supposed that with one regiment they could do the work in maintaining order or suppressing insurrection with railways, that would require three regiments when there were no railways, though since they have made railways the authorities have half as many more men in India as they had when there were no railways at all. So that with regard to railways, whether they pay or not (and I am taking the statement of Sir Arthur Cotton with regard to the State railways that are being made, I have not examined the figures minutely myself), whether they pay or not, such is the fear of the authorities in Calcutta as to the peril connected with their power in India, that railways must be made for the sake of the permanence of that power, although they may not be worth one-twentieth part of what canals for navigation or irrigation would be worth in relation to the true interests, comfort, and prosperity of the millions of Natives of the country. Why is it, if they have spent 100,000,000l., or 120,000,000l., and it is much more if you add the debt—if they have spent all that upon railways—and yet the vast bulk of India is not touched by railways at this moment—why should they hesitate as to a policy which, by spending one quarter of it, or 25,000,000l., within the next few years, might redeem India from the disgrace which attends it from this neglect, and might redeem that vast population from the suffering which periodically assails it?

There are engineers in India—and where great works are to be done great engineers are found—though we cannot hope that Sir Arthur Cotton himself will ever again give his time and labour to works of this kind in India, yet I have no doubt there are other men, and not a few of them, who would have the ambition to tread in his steps, and who after their forty or fifty years in India might point to works as grand as his, which entitle him not only to the gratitude of the people of India, but to the high esteem and the grateful consideration of the people of England too. Thirty millions spent in this way, at the rate of interest at which the English Government could borrow it, would be only about 1,000,000l. per annum; and at the rate at which the Indian Government could borrow, it would not certainly be more than 2,000,000l. per annum.

Well, if these canals could be made, if this cheap navigation could be provided—and recollect that the people of India do not want to travel by express trains, their time is not worth the expense of such travelling—they would be very glad to go even at half the speed of an ordinary train in India. Their produce, which is mostly what you call raw produce from the soil, dees not require to travel at twenty miles an hour. They cannot afford to pay the cost of travelling at such a rate. If canals for navigation or irrigation were made upon some grand scheme determined by eminent and competent engineers, you would find the produce of nearly all the districts of India, all those not hitherto irrigated, would probably be doubled. Produce would be carried cheaply to the coast, and it would be distributed in the interior of the country, where there was partial scarcity, from where there was great abundance, and the surplus would come to this country and help to feed the growing population we have amongst us. The fact is that England and India would be both blessed by a policy of this kind. The population of India would be redeemed from poverty, and the population of England would have steadier and more constant employment, and a steady and, I hope, satisfactory rate of wages. But it is easy to say what shall be done. Some gentlemen—for whom our friends below are now busy with their fingers and their pens — some gentlemen who direct leading articles in the newspapers will say, “How easy it is to say this and that shall be done;” and they will begin to point out difficulties, and show that these things are doubtful in themselves, and if they are not, the obstacles are such as at the present time, in the present condition of the finances of India, the Government cannot overcome.

I said just now, referring to the Government in Calcutta, that these gentlemen have a terror of expenditure before their eyes. I do not think half a dozen gentlemen in Calcutta—and who, by the way, spend I believe half the year at Simla—are capable of administering the government for 200,000,000 or 250,000,000 of people. I think it is an impossibility, which man in our present state of knowledge and morals will never be able to overcome, to govern one-sixth of all the population of the globe by half a dozen officers from this country—governing a people who have been conquered, and therefore must be less easy to govern; a people who are foreign, and therefore whose wants must be less understood. There never was anything in the world so monstrous as to believe that half a dozen officials in Calcutta can govern one-sixth of the population of the globe, comprising twenty or more different nations and speaking twenty different languages; and yet this is what we expect to have done, and what many people have believed has been well done by a Governor-General and half a dozen eminent civilians in the city of Calcutta. I believe there is only one person in India, so far as I have ever heard, who is in favour of economy, and he is the Governor-General. All the people with white faces—English, Scotch, Irish, and so forth—are nearly all in the service of the Government. I am not speaking now of the handful of merchants, but all the civilians, engineers, military men, everybody—they are all in favour of, and have an interest in, patronage, promotion, salaries, and ultimately pensions.

And then there is no public opinion which fights in favour of economy. There are two sets of newspapers—those, first, which are published by Englishmen, and these, being the papers of the Services, cannot, of course, be in favour of economy. They assail me every time I mention India in a speech, if it is even only in a single paragraph, and no doubt they will do the same for what I am saying now. Then there are the Native papers; and although there are a great many published in the Native languages, still they have not much of what we call political influence. The Government officials look into them to see if they are saying anything unpleasant to the Government—anything that indicates sedition or discontent, but never for the purpose of being influenced by the judgment of the writers and editors. The actual press of the country which touches the Government is the press of the English; and that press, as a rule, is in favour—and, of course, generally has been in favour—of annexation of more territory, more places, more salaries, and ultimately more pensions. Now I may say of these salaries and pensions that I believe there is no other service in the world, and never has been, in which salaries have been so high and pensions so large as those that have been given by the Indian Government, whether under the East India Company or under the present Government of the Crown. I may say further that their military expenditure, that consisted only of the maintenance of an army of 40,000 men before the mutiny, consists now of an army of 60,000 Europeans, although the mutiny was subdued, I believe, before a single fresh soldier had landed in that country from this.

It may be said that I am no authority on this subject. I admit it. I admit that the persons who are out there—the Governor-General and his principal ministers, and officers of the army—possibly they may all have opinions that are more worth your considering than mine; but I state these facts, and I say that the Government put over 250,000,000 of people, which has levied taxes till it can levy no more, which spends all that it can levy, and which has borrowed 100,000,000l. more than all that it can levy—I say a Government like that has some fatal defect which at some not distant time must bring disaster and humiliation to the Government and to the people on whose behalf it rules.

I have nearly finished what I have to say, but I want to make one reference to what took place nineteen or twenty years ago when the Government of India was changed. At the time when the second reading of the Bill was before the House—a Bill I supported in every stage—I ventured to address a speech to the House of Commons on the general and broad question of our Government in India. I said then that I did not believe, as I have said now, that a Government in Calcutta could ever efficiently direct the affairs of that country or legislate for it; that it could not do its duty to nations speaking twenty languages, comprising, as it is said, now more than 200,000,000 of people—one-sixth the population of the globe. I argued that it was necessary, and would some time become imperative, that the Government of India should be so changed that it should be divided into five or six separate and entirely independent Presidencies; that by that means the government of every district should be brought nearer to the people; that you would not have the Government of Madras contending constantly with the Government of Calcutta, and the Government of Bombay being unable to do many things it would like to have done because the Government at Calcutta would not consent; that if you would divide the country into different Presidencies, and make each a separate and independent State in itself, with the management of its own government, with its own Council, you would bring the government home to the people. And while the Government would necessarily or probably be much better, you would teach the people of these Presidencies to consider themselves, as generations passed on, as the subjects and the people of that State.

And thus if the time should come—and it will come—I agree with Lord Lawrence that no man who examines the question can doubt that some time it must come—when the power of England, from some cause or other, is withdrawn from India, then each one of these States would be able to sustain itself as a compact, as a self-governing community. You would have five or six great States there, as you have five or six great States in Europe; but that would be a thousand times better than our being withdrawn from it now when there is no coherence amongst those twenty nations, and when we should find the whole country, in all probability, lapse into chaos and anarchy, and into sanguinary and interminable warfare. I believe that it is our duty not only to govern India well now for our own sakes and to satisfy our own conscience, but so to arrange its government and so to administer it that we should look forward to the time—which may be distant, but may not be so remote—when India will have to take up her own government, and administer it in her own fashion. I say he is no statesman—he is no man actuated with a high moral sense with regard to our great and terrible moral responsibility, who is not willing thus to look ahead, and thus to prepare for circumstances which may come sooner than we think, and sooner than any of us hope for, but which must come at some not very distant date. By doing this, I think we should be endeavouring to make amends for the original crime upon which much of our power in India is founded, and for the many mistakes which have been made by men whose intentions have been good. I think it is our duty, if we can, to approach this great question in this spirit, and to try rightly to discharge the task committed to us, as the Government and rulers of the countless and helpless millions of that country. If we seek thus to deal with those millions, and men in after ages condemn our fathers for the policy which for the time bound India to England, they may award praise to us and to those who come after us for that we have striven to give them that good government and that freedom which He, who is supreme over all lands and all peoples, will in His own good time make the possession of all His children.