Formerly famines were universally regarded as instruments whereby God punished mankind for their sins, and in India there are still many who attribute these disasters to the anger of the Almighty. Whatever may be said in favour of this view, it must be admitted to be unfortunate in one respect.
If it is granted that famine is sent by Heaven for the chastisement of mankind, it is obviously of no use to fight against it or to take measures to aid the famine-stricken.
In former times the people of India would often remain passive under such visitations. Many died of starvation who might have been saved, and many more fell victims to the horrible diseases which so often follow in the train of famines.
As famines are due mainly to climatic causes, it is obvious that they cannot be wholly prevented. For example, Egypt depends on the annual rise of the Nile for its harvests, and India on the timely breaking of the monsoon.
But in both these countries, much has been done by British enterprise and engineering skill to prevent famines and to banish their chief horrors when they appear.
In Egypt, the great Aswan dam, and other lesser works of a similar kind, hold up a large amount of the flood water of the Nile, and store it for distribution over the land when the rise of the Nile fails. This ensures a steady water supply for the fields of the Fallahin throughout the year.
In India, the wonderful system of irrigation canals in Punjab (the most extensive and remarkable in the world) and in other parts of the country, have done much to make these lands safe from famine, and have brought under cultivation millions of acres formerly barren desert.
And when the failure of the monsoon does cause a failure of the crops in irrigated areas, the Government system of famine relief saves the lives of the people and supports them during the famine period, without ruining their characters by pauperizing them.
In old days in India, famine meant the starvation and death of thousands; today it means simply the interruption of the industry of agriculture, thanks to railways, relief works and organisation.