Sunday, June 10, 2012

Rulers, purposes


Infrastructure and colonialism make me think of Lord Dalhousie. I read recently that he built the Grand Hindustan Tibet road in 1850. According to the Himachal state tourism website, amongst other reasons for building the road, one was that the former Governor General of India was upset to see the system of ‘begaari’ – bonded labour, effectively. “Unpaid labourers were pressed into service — including for the transport of timber and files to Shimla,” the website says, adding that Lord Dalhousie wanted to improve the road upon which these men trudged.

Getting around in the hills meant riding mules or horses, and the journey was fraught with danger. Of course, Lord Dalhousie himself needed travel in the Himalayas. He also wanted to create trade ties with Tibet and the road was important. So, as the website puts it, “the immense machinery at the disposal of the East India Company was pressed into service”; but it doesn’t say whether or not the labourers were paid. That’s the question I’m interested in. Did the labourers who created colonial infrastructure get paid?

If they were paid, I must acknowledge a tiny bit of grudging respect to Dalhousie. To my mind, a good administrator is one who intervenes in a bad situation. A good ruler sees people suffering and does something about it.

One of my favourite stories about rulers relates to former nawab of Awadh, Asaf-ud-daula, who moved the capital from Faizabad to Lucknow. Certain chroniclers have described him thus: “He used to laugh unseasonably, fling derisive abuse at others and desire derisive abuse in return. He delighted in meaningless amusements...”

He was known to have been indifferent to governance, but I can forgive all his “meaningless amusements” if only one story about him proves true — the story of the Bada Imambara being a charity project. In 1784, famine hit Awadh. Lucknow was suffering. Asaf-ud-daula, it is believed, hired over 20,000 people to build a complex that houses a palace, a mosque, a maze and a step-well. However, this wasn’t an ordinary food-for-work program. What was built during the day was demolished at night. Rumour has it that even ‘noblemen’ worked at night, so they wouldn’t be jeered at for being reduced to starvation.

As long as the famine lasted, the project went on. Some called Asaf-ud-daula mad. The treasury was being emptied with nothing to show for it. But I think he had something more precious than sanity. He had priorities.

6 comments:

pon said...

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antiglam superstar! said...

While I agree with most of what you wrote, "What was built during the day was demolished at night" disturbs me. There is a story about the Nazi concentration camps I've heard wherein the captives were asked to dig a square pit of a particular dimension and as soon as it was dug up, they were asked to fill it back up with the earth. I hear they called it the soul killing exercise because of the sheer non-productivity of the repetitiveness. Probably the difference was in their not getting paid? In any case, enough productive projects can be created in the country which provide people food as well as a sense of self worth.

I appreciate the research that you do for this column. :)

Aniruddha Bose said...

I am a labor historian, so I can give you some answers to your questions. Re. Dalhousie's highway - it's very hard to determine whether workers were paid or not - there's a lot of debate b/w free/unfree labor in Indian history. Most likely they were paid. I find it hard to believe that Dalhousie wanted the road built out of compassion for unpaid labor tho. That'd be highly out of character.
The Asaf ud Daulah story is probably an exaggeration. Most pre-colonial rulers engaged in famine relief work though the story you mention is a little ludicrous. As for the other claims - that he was fun lover, is most likely British propaganda.

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