Salt Starvation in British India – Consequences of High Salt Taxation in the Bengal Presidency, 1765 to 1878.
Little seems to have been written by modern historians about the physiological consequences of salt deprivation that might have resulted from the high Salt Tax in British India. Occasionally, there are brief references to salt being “a basic necessity of life” (Brown 1989, 236), but without amplification. Writers on famine in British India seem generally to have ignored salt intake as a nutritional factor. The indexes to Bhatia’s Famines in India (Bhatia 1967), and Seavoy’s Famine in Peasant Societies (Seavoy 1986), for example, have no references to salt. In recent years there has been much publicity about the evils of excessive salt consumption, and this may have caused some to suppose that salt was unnecessary. Thus, Weber writes of Gandhi: “Generally, however, the thrust of his medical arguments, which should be much applauded by those stressing the link between salt and hypertension, was that a normal diet provided the salt needed for the body without the addition of sea or rock salt which in fact was toxic” (Weber 1997, 80). Probably the best overview of the Salt Tax and the need for salt in India is in Denton’s The Hunger for Salt but, understandably given the massive scope of the book, this is restricted to a one-page summary and is mostly concerned with the twentieth century (Denton 1984, 84-5).
Gandhi’s salt march has tended to focus attention on to the Salt Tax in the twentieth century, whereas the Salt Tax was much greater in the earlier period of British rule – especially in the Bengal Presidency. Consequences could be expected to have been greater, and thus easier to observe, when the tax was higher. For this reason, this essay concentrates on the situation in the Bengal Presidency from 1765 to 1878. It seeks to investigate the level of salt taxation over that period and its effect on the retail price of salt relative to wages; the physiological necessity for salt and the peculiar nature of salt hunger; the minimum salt intake necessary to maintain health and to recover from illness; actual salt consumption; and the particular consequences of a high Salt Tax in times of famine.
Its freely available, but reading about this made me really wonder if the defenders of Colonialism really know the sheer level of problems and injuries and sickness and death they caused? And also another example of what taxation can do to ordinary folks.
As the research by Amartya Sen has shown, famine is pretty much caused not just by weather patterns but by active or idiotic responses by governments. Here is a list of famines in British India. Simply adding it up gives me an idea of about 40-50m killed. Now there’s a fair few but only darkies, eh? Who cares…We are already hurting here as well, while its nowhere near starvation time (perhaps we could think about it given the rates of obesity..?) rising food prices are troublesome…Given the level of taxation in the food production value chain, people need to think about what and how much to tax..