Prisoners, Poor Houses and Famine Relief in Colonial North India

Prof. Sanjay Sharma, Ambedkar University Delhi


This paper seeks to trace the evolution of certain principles with which the colonial state in north India managed its prison inmates and recipients of famine relief in the nineteenth century. Prisons and famine relief camps, especially the poor houses that were established in the second half of the nineteenth century, provided opportunities for colonial administrators to devise and test their principles of governance on a mass of subject population confined and located in a defined space. One of these was the provision for and acceptance of cooked food by convicts and recipients of famine relief that became the desirable norm as a barometer to measure real need. Prisons and poor houses were enclosed sites in colonial administrative imagination where the acceptance or rejection of the principle of cooked food by their inmates was meant to meet their subsistence and nutritional requirements and also act as a deterrent. It became a means of enforcing colonial authority and simultaneously served to enhance its humanitarian claims. A closer examination of official narratives reveals the conflicting voices that can be heard at different layers of the colonial regime: district-level administrators, higher bureaucracy, policy-makers and medical practitioners. Their views were often couched in the language of political economy and the prevailing ideas of nutrition, disease and health that were at times in conflict with each other but eventually produced a discourse of discipline and governance that reinforced administrative and paternal hierarchies.

Despite the humanitarian rhetoric surrounding colonial jails and poor houses, they were designed to minimise responsibility, discourage indolence, ensure discipline and encourage deterrence. Prototypes of these institutions existed in nineteenth century industrialising Britain where the debates on how to set the poor to work to dissuade indolence, curb vagrancy and misuse of charity were at the heart of the New Poor Law and the establishment of the workhouses. Similar issues and questions informed the agenda of the colonial state in famine situations in a different context where death and disease pushed the regime towards assumption of greater responsibilities for its subject population. Those responsibilities were shaped by the conflicts that were inherent in the pulls between the tenets of market-driven political economy and the imperatives of humanitarian concern. Famine relief tested both. It provided opportunities to merge their seemingly contradictory pulls as relief/reform policies sought to discipline and reform needy subjects and also strengthen the claims of welfare and responsibility by the colonial state, something that was contested by its own functionaries and assertive nationalist critiques.