FAMINES AND THEIR ANTIDOTES
Famine is chronic in India. It has occurred at intervals for centuries past, as long as records have been kept, as long as man remembers, and undoubtedly will recur for centuries to come, although the authorities who are responsible for the well-being of the empire are gradually organizing to counteract forces of nature which they cannot control, by increasing the food supply and providing means for its distribution. But there must be hunger and starvation in India so long as the population remains as dense as it is. The reason is not because the earth refuses to support so many people. There is yet a vast area of fertile land untilled, and the fields already cultivated would furnish food enough for a larger population when normal conditions prevail, although there's but a bare half acre per capita. There is always enough somewhere in India for everybody even in times of sorest distress, but it is not distributed equally, and those who are short have no money to buy and bring from those who have a surplus. The export of grain and other products from India continues regularly in the lean as well as the fat years, but the country is so large, the distances so great, the facilities for transportation so inadequate, that one province may be exporting food to Europe because it has to spare, while another province may be receiving ships loaded with charity from America because its crops have failed and its people are hungry.
The health and happiness of three hundred million human souls in India and also of their cattle, their oxen, their sheep, their donkeys, their camels and their elephants are dependent upon certain natural phenomena over which neither rajah nor maharaja, nor viceroy, nor emperor, nor council of state has control, and before which even the great Mogul on his bejeweled throne stood powerless. It is possible to ameliorate the consequences, but it is not possible to prevent them.
Whether the crops shall be fat or lean, whether the people and the cattle shall be fed or hungry, depends upon the "monsoons," as they are called, alternating currents of wind, which bring rain in its season. All animal and vegetable life is dependent upon them. In the early summer the broad plains are heated by the sun to a temperature higher than that of the water of the great seas which surround them. In parts of northern India, around Delhi and Agra, the temperature in May and June is higher than in any other part of the empire, and is exceeded in few other parts of the world. This phenomenon remains unexplained. The elevation is about 2,100 feet above the sea; the atmosphere is dry and the soil is sandy. But for some reason the rays of the sun are intensely hot and are fatal to those who are exposed to them without sufficient protection. But this extreme heat is the salvation of the country, and by its own action brings the relief without which all animal and vegetable life would perish. It draws from the ocean a current of wind laden with moisture which blows steadily for two months toward the northwest and causes what is called the rainy season. That wind is called the southwest monsoon. The quantity of rain that falls depends upon the configuration of the land. Any cause which cools the winds from the sea and leads to the condensation of the vapor they carry - any obstacle which blocks their course - causes precipitation. Through all the northern part of India there is a heavy rainfall during April, May and June, the earth is refreshed and quantities of water are drained into reservoirs called "tanks," from which the fields are irrigated later in the summer.
The quantity of rainfall diminishes as the winds blow over the foothills and the mountains, and the enormous heights of the Himalayas prevent them from passing their snow-clad peaks and ridges. Hence the tablelands of Thibet, which lie beyond, are the dryest and the most arid region in the world.
As the sun travels south after midsummer the temperature falls, the vast dry tract of the Asiatic continent becomes colder, the barometric pressure over the land increases, and the winds begin to blow from the northeast, which are called the northeast monsoon, and cause a second rainy season from October to December. These winds, or monsoons, enable the farmers of India to grow two crops, and they are entirely dependent upon their regular appearance.
Over 80 per cent of the population are engaged in farming. They live from hand to mouth. They have no reserve whatever. If the monsoon fails nothing will grow, and they have no money to import food for themselves and their cattle from more fortunate sections. Hence they are helpless. As a rule the monsoons are very reliable, but every few years they fail, and a famine results. The government has a meteorological department, with observers stationed at several points in Africa and Arabia and in the islands of the sea, to record and report the actions of nature. Thus it has been able of late years to anticipate the fat and the lean harvests. It is possible to predict almost precisely several months in advance whether there will be a failure of crops, and a permanent famine commission has been organized to prepare measures of relief before they are needed. In other words, Lord Curzon and his official associates are reducing famine relief to a system which promotes economy as well as efficiency.
It is an interesting fact that the monsoon currents which cross the Indian Ocean from South Africa continue on their course through Australia after visiting India, and recent famines in the latter country have coincided with the droughts which caused much injury to stock in the former. Thus it has been demonstrated that both countries depend upon the same conditions for their rainfall, except that human beings suffer in India while only sheep die of hunger in the Australian colonies.