Home > Corruption, History, India, Indian Economy, Politics > The British Salt Tax. How Damaging?

The British Salt Tax. How Damaging?


British taxes on salt made common table salt into a high-expensive commodity; created shortages which killed millions.

Gandhiji Dandi Salt March (March 12 - April 6, 1930) channeled seething rage on the salt tax into a frenzy. Click for larger image.

Gandhiji Dandi Salt March (March 12 – April 6, 1930) channeled seething rage on the salt tax into a frenzy. Click for larger image.

In 1770 famine hit Bengal. The land revenue had only been sporadically collected by the Mughals, especially in times of difficulty. After the Company took over the Diwani it was fully and ruthlessly collected. In 1969 the crop was poor. In 1770, after six months without rain, the crop almost totally failed. There has never been a failure of crops all over India. Local shortages can always be rectified if there is money to buy in grain. However, following the looting of Bengal by the Company and its employees, money was extremely scarce. The Company had no mercy; it took its dues in full. As people began to die, the amount of land revenue due from the survivors increased. It was so fiercely collected that many had to sell their seed corn. Out of the millions they collected, the Company gave back 90,000 rupees in famine relief — 90,000 rupees for 30,000,000 people.

Meanwhile the Company’s employees and their agents cornered the rice market. They bought up rice in those areas where the crop had not failed, warehoused it under armed guard, and sold to those with the most money. The price of a maund (82 pounds) of rice rose from about 0.4 to 13 rupees. The wealthier Indians exchanged their savings and jewellery for food. The peasants and labourers, who only earned 1 or, at most, 2 rupees a month, perished. Between one-third and one-half of the entire population — at least ten million people — died. The Salt Tax was, of course, still collected by the Company in full on the salt that was consumed. However, many could not afford to buy salt. In any case, the supply of salt was severely disrupted by the death of so many salt workers, bullock cart drivers and boatmen. …

The size of an average family was another point of contention. However, at the lower end of the scale, it is reasonable to assume that a small family, of two adults and three children, needed at least half a maund of salt, 41 pounds a year. Half a maund of salt, in 1788, retailed for 2 rupees or more — two months’ income for many families. The situation continued for many years and agrees with the evidence given to a Parliamentary Select Committee of 1836 by Dr. John Crawfurd of the Bengal Medical Service: ‘I estimate that the cost of salt to the rural labourer, i.e., to the great mass of the people of Bengal, for a family, as being equal to about two months’ wages, i.e., 1/6th of the whole annual earnings.’

(via The Salt Tax – Excerpted from The Great Hedge of India by Roy Moxham, Harper Collins, India 2001).

By the time Gandhiji picked up this peice of salt from the sea-shore, hundreds of thousands had died due to salt-starvation. Click for larger image.

By the time Gandhiji picked up this peice of salt from the sea-shore, hundreds of thousands had died due to salt-starvation. Click for larger image.

The Salt Famine

One more chapter in famines created by British misrule in India.
Roy Moxham’s book traces how extortionate taxes by the British Raj created virtually a salt famine – which also killed hundreds of millions. In today’s world, where salt has become common, easily available and cheap, it is not easily understood how salt imbalances killed many Indians.

The British Raj created a price regime where Indians could not afford to eat salt.

How Tax was Levied

Interestingly, Roy Moxham’s book details how the British tried for 10 years to create a thorny hedge, to prevent smuggling of cheaper salt from bordering kingdoms ruled by Indian kings. Rarely mentioned in history, it was referred to as the The Great Hedge of India or Inland Customs Line.

A customs line was established, which stretched across the whole of India, which in 1869 extended from the Indus to the Mahanadi in Madras, a distance of 2,300 miles; and it was guarded by nearly 12,000 men and petty officers…it consisted principally of an immense impenetrable hedge of thorny trees and bushes, supplemented by stone wall and ditches, across which no human being or beast of burden or vehicle could pass without being subject to detention or search. (Strachey and Strachey 1882, 219-20).

Gandhiji at the Dandi , Gujarat Salt March. Surrounded by adoring crowds, the end of the British Raj came in sight. (Image source - Associated Press File; Courtesy - pressherald.com ).

Gandhiji at the Dandi , Gujarat Salt March. Surrounded by adoring crowds, the end of the British Raj came in sight. (Image source – Associated Press File; Courtesy – pressherald.com ).

Birth of corruption

The Customs Line soon became a Corruption Line. Many small little Clive’s sprouted wings and extorted money for salt and other commodities. This corruption persisted, in a perverse way even encouraged by the Raj, in the other laws – in the money lending regulations, excise, customs, octroi – at every tax point.

Even as India was on the verge of independence from the British Raj, in September 1946, Nehru reminded his party of the “the colossal corruption and nepotism that are rampant everywhere.” In late 1945, Nehru said “Corrupt people have to be swept away by a broomstick,” while campaigning for Congress Party.

But much before this, way back in 1928, then a much-less famous man, wrote

Corruption will be out one day, however much one may try to conceal it; and the public can, as its right and duty, in every case of justifiable suspicion, call its servants to strict account, dismiss them, sue them in a law court or appoint an arbitrator or inspector to scrutinise their conduct, as it likes. – Mahatma Gandhi in Young India (1928).

Sarojini Naidu carried forward Dandi Salt March to the Dharsana Salt Works, Gujarat, in May 1930, which was covered by the international press in chilling detail. End of British Raj and the Salt Tax is close to end.  Click for larger image.

Sarojini Naidu carried forward Dandi Salt March to the Dharsana Salt Works, Gujarat, in May 1930, which was covered by the international press in chilling detail. End of British Raj and the Salt Tax is close to end. Click for larger image.


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  1. August 7, 2011 at 6:07 pm

    I am glad you liked the book. The ethos, the gene pool, the culture of cruelty of those referenced haven’t changed. Only the means to accomplish the goals have.

  2. August 30, 2012 at 2:01 pm

  1. July 30, 2011 at 1:53 am

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