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ON NATIVE SELF-GOVERNMENT
IT is generally supposed in Great Britain that India is governed wholly by our countrymen. Of the few people at home who profess to know anything about India, most encourage this delusion. The native, they will tell you, has no word in any affair of government — unless you count the annual shriek set up by a collection of half-Europeanised lawyers which, belonging to a dozen different breeds and representing none, calls itself the National Congress. The truth, as you might expect in this land of ironies, is widely different. In practice, as we shall see presently, the actual work of government is almost entirely in native hands, and largely conducted according to native methods; and in theory the government of almost every considerable town in India is in the hands of a municipal council, the majority of whose members are inevitably native. There are about seven hundred and fifty municipalities in India, which is more than twice as many as there are in England and Wales. There is also a district board — a kind of rural County Council — in each administrative district in India.
It was a generous ideal, the qualification of India by Britain for self-government; but unluckily, like other ideals, it has not yet achieved itself. The machinery of self-government is there, but the capacity has not kept up with it. In the smaller town councils and the district councils self-government is no more than a name. The civil servant is chairman: he announces the business in hand — the repairing of a road, the imposition of an octroi on goods brought into the town — and makes a suggestion. The honourable members fold their hands before their faces and murmur, "As my lord says, so let it be." The native members feel it a vague compliment to be allowed to sit with the sahibs, but yet understand nothing at all of the business. The official sahibs are obliged by the law to keep up the farce of constitutional discussion and voting, though they well know that the council is only a more cumbrous way of doing work that they would have to do in any case.
The larger municipalities are different. There may be an official white chairman, but the councils are large, and they deal with large revenues and important business. By them you may fairly test the aptitude of the more intelligent, though less manly, races of India for self-government. It so happened, at the time of my visit, that two of these were prominently in the public eye — if you can talk of a public eye in India — as the objects of reformatory measures. These were Calcutta and Agra. Of Agra there is no need to say much: the council, to put it brutally, had been stealing the octroi duties, and it was temporarily disestablished by the Lieutenant-Governor of the North-West Provinces. On the Calcutta question there was more to be said — it even enjoyed a listless afternoon in the House of Commons; and it may fairly be taken as a convenient object-lesson in the aptitudes and tendencies of legislation by babu.
The history of municipal self-government in Calcutta is impartially discreditable to everybody concerned in it. Up to 1876 it had passed through some half-dozen incarnations, which need not trouble us; none worked well, and some did not work at all. In that year an elective municipality was created, and its constitution was modified in 1888. On the universal admission of all authorities, the two Acts creating this municipality are badly drawn, vague, and inevitably productive of bad administration; but for twenty years neither the Bengal Government nor the elective corporation took the least trouble to improve them. Neglect finally issued, as might have been predicted, in violent corrective action on the part of the Government, and in factious and hysterical opposition from the native municipality.
The Corporation of Calcutta consists of seventy-five members, called Commissioners. Fifty are elected, fifteen nominated by Government, and ten by the various commercial bodies. The franchise is confined to ratepayers, who total just two per cent. of the whole population of Calcutta. The Chairman is a member of the Indian Civil Service, nominated by Government. He is supposed to be the head of the executive, but, as a matter of fact, is liable to the control of a general committee, of eight standing committees, and of the general meeting of all the Commissioners, Who can upset any of his actions with retrospective effect: consequently the executive power is in the hands of the whole body of seventy-five Commissioners. Of these, fifty-two per cent. are Hindus, nearly eighteen per cent. Mussulmans, and the remaining thirty per cent. of other sections. Less than twenty-seven per cent. are Europeans or Eurasians. Of the fifty elected Commissioners, twenty-three are lawyers. The municipality, therefore, deliberative and executive together, is wholly in the hands of a working majority of Bengali Hindus.
It was duly set up, however, amid the plaudits of the friends of progress, and all went ill till November 26, 1896. On that day the municipality was inaugurating new drainage works, and asked the Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal, Sir Alexander Mackenzie, to lay the foundation-stone. He complied; but when it came to his speech, instead of the oily platitudes awaited on such occasions, the horrified Commissioners found themselves listening to a round denunciation of themselves and all their works — or Want of them. They were an impracticable organisation from the first, said his Honour; they talked too much; their executive was too weak; the sanitary condition of Calcutta was a scandal; and if they did not mend their ways there would come radical changes.
They gasped; but they did not mend their ways. On March 19, 1898, when a new Calcutta Municipal Bill was introduced into the Lieutenant-Governor's Council, they gasped yet more. As a leading organ of babu opinion puts it, "Nobody could ever dream that the citizens of the first city in India could be sought to be punished in this cruel manner by a ruler whom they had in no way offended, and whom they had given such a hearty welcome." You will note the delicious blend of Western citizenship With the oriental assumption that unpopular action on a ruler's part might naturally be due to a defect of enthusiasm in his reception. But in truth the self-governing babu had grounds for his consternation.
The Bill, after the kind of Indian official documents, is a volume of the size of a small ledger, and contains — again I quote the babu contemporary" seven hundred sections, many of them one cubit long." Briefly, it remodelled the Whole constitution of the Corporation. The Chairman was to have full power over the executive officers; and the conduct of all important business except the Budget — which was left to the whole body of Commissioners — was transferred to a general committee of twelve members; of these the Government, the commercial bodies, and the elected Commissioners were each to choose four.
"Could a greater calamity than this be conceived?" cries the native newspaper. "Now, at last, we shall have a city it will be possible to live in," said the European men of business. The controversy went fiercely on, and so did the Bill. Pamphlets, leaflets, refutations, counter-accusations, speeches, and rejoinders hurtled through Calcutta.
The first reflection that occurs to the impartial mind, on the Calcutta Bill in particular and native self-government in general, is that it was a colossal and unpardonable blunder to introduce an elective municipality at all. Representative government, a Western invention, has failed in most nations of the West: was it likely to succeed in India? India may be barbarous or civilised, that is a question of words; but, for all the veneer of education, it is changelessly, whole-heartedly oriental. When you find a Master of Arts gravely dissertating on "a pure and noble character gradually degraded by an unhealthy passion for a beautiful young widow," what is the use of talking to him about sanitation or a General Purposes Committee? He catches up his phrases readily enough, and talks rapidly about the "slight measure of self-government," and of "strengthening the executive at the expense of the rights of the people." But, of course, the people has no right to self-government, and never has had; and the huge mass of it does not want any, and the Indian and Home Governments were incredibly weak and foolish to give any. They should have known, what the babu cannot be expected to understand, that the right to govern yourself should be exactly proportioned to your ability to govern yourself well.
Moreover, "the rights of the people" in this case means next to nothing — merely the rights of the one man out of fifty in Calcutta who has a vote. In seventy-three cases out of a hundred this voter is a Hindu. What Government really did then, in making two-thirds of the Commissioners elective, was to hand over the city to the Hindus. Numerically these form the vast majority of the population of Calcutta, but they have not the same vast preponderance of interest. It is the commercial community — European, Eurasian, Jew, Parsi, but not Bengali; for the Bengali will never trust his money in another man's hands — which has made Calcutta a great city, and maintains it such. The trade of Calcutta is responsible for three-fourths of its land value and two-thirds of its population. If it were not the centre of the largest European population in India, it would cease to be the winter capital to-morrow. For above all — why not speak plainly? — the principal interest in Calcutta is the interest of British rule. The present municipal administration sacrifices the interests of trade and government, with others, to a single important, but far from all-important, section. On the balance of factors in the city's well-being, the Hindu is vastly over-represented.
But let us get out of the bog of theory. What is the Corporation's record, and how is the new scheme likely to better it? These are the only relevant questions; and the answer to the first is that the Corporation's record is exactly what you would have expected of it. It is absurd to expect the native to be born administrator, but it is equally absurd to blame him for not being one. How should he be? In the course of struggles towards the native point of view, I interviewed one of the Commissioners — a plump, round-faced, gold-spectacled gentleman in a clerical coat, waistcoat, and trousers of dove-colour. He led off briskly with facts and figures, until he found I knew something of the Bill. The initial form of the dialogue, which it would be unprofitable to report in full, was something like this :
I. "How often?"
Babu. "Four-times-but-I-was-con-sid-er-ing-it-from-the-bud-get-point-of-view-and —"
I. "How often do you have budgets now, then?"
I. "Only land and house tax?"
Babu. "Well-of-course-there-is-al-so-the-car-riage-tax-an-the-an-i-mal-tax-and -the-li-cence-tax-but —"
However, my friend's chief point, when he came to it, was one in which many good white authorities agree with him. How could you expect us to do perfectly, he said, when we entered on municipal life utterly without training or experience, when Government let us severely alone and did nothing to help and instruct us? How, indeed? Only what the Commissioner did not see was that his argument could be used as a condemnation of the elective system altogether; for why elect Commissioners if Government still has to do their work for them?
But the Government, whether of Britain, of India, or of Bengal, cannot use that argument; for it created representative government and then wholly neglected to use its power to direct it in the right way. In England corporations have the Local Government Board to keep them straight, and need it. In Calcutta Government could have made by-laws, amended the law where it was defective, instituted inquiries into abuses, suggested reforms, rewarded good Commissioners with titles or decorations, and especially set up proper judicial establishments to enforce the sanitary laws. Instead, it left the Commissioners to stew in their own juice — and they left the slums of Calcutta to stew in theirs.
If you care to go a little into the details of the case for and against the present Corporation of Calcutta, there is no need to enlarge except on two principal points. The question whether the Commissioners talk too much came much into the discussion, but after all it is a minor one. They say they do not; others say that if you are outside the door during one of their meetings you would think they were tearing the Chairman to pieces. Britons and Bengalis have different standards of the necessity for talk. You have drunk too much fire-water," said the missionary to the Indian chief. "I have drunk enough," he replied. "You have drunk too much." "Well, too much is enough," said the chief: and it is so with the Bengali and talking.
My babu's contention seems reasonable enough. People think the Commissioners are always talking, said he, only because the long debates are reported, while the undiscussed business is not; the same misapprehension exists about our own L.C.C. The relevant question is, Talk or not, do they do the work?
On the whole, with every effort to be fair, I should say that they do not. It is partly their own fault, but more the Act's, and most of all native self-government's at large. If you take a number of superficially educated Bengalis of the middle class, dignify them with the title of Commissioners, and give them the control of a vast city, it is certain that they will grow a little above themselves. They will want to have their fingers in every pie, and the Calcutta Act makes this particularly easy. In Bombay the executive, under the official Chairman, is almost independent of the deliberative body; in Calcutta it is wholly subordinate.
This is a risky arrangement, even in London; in India it is foredoomed to disaster. The Corporation has grown much too strong for its Chairman. Of late the Chairmen have been frequently changed, often before they had settled into their work. To match your wits for four hours on end, in the hot weather, at the end of a long day's work, against anything from a dozen to half a hundred fluent and verbally ingenious Bengalis, is trying to the hardest man: some were ripe for furlough when they began it — all became over-ripe after a season of it. It has been comparatively easy, therefore, for the Commissioners to concentrate all power in their own hands. To make it easier yet they hit on an ingenious device, called the Complaints Committee. It was customary two years ago to have enormous standing committees; one had forty-eight members out of the seventy-five, and this Complaints Committee had thirty-three. It was formed to receive complaints against the executive officers of the Corporation. The native is always burning to petition somebody about something, and complaints came in a turbid spate. They arrived at the rate of twenty a-day, and a single one took a fortnight to dispose of. By the end of a year, at this rate, there would be 7274 of them awaiting attention. So it was settled that the Committee should only consider complaints referred to it by the Chairman or a Commissioner. Who now so important as the Commissioner? Who so prosperous as the half-dozen or so dishonest men among them? The native they quarrelled with had to wait eighteen months for permission to put up a latrine; the relative or the friend or the man with a little money to lay out in the right quarter was able to evade the building acts and increase his rent-rolls.
With a system like this it would be folly to look for good executive administration. The constitution, it has been said, is all brake-power and no engine. There is no motive power. The Chairman can be overruled and his action annulled. The committees are jealously watching, checking, economising. As for the subordinate officials — the engineer, surveyor, health officer, down to the very inspector of nuisances — they hold their offices at the pleasure of the Commissioners at large, and owe their appointments to them. A Hindu lives with all his relations under one roof, and nepotism with him is almost a religious duty; hence unblushing solicitation, touting, and occasionally bribery. A bad officer can get his post if he is agreeable to the Commissioners; a good one can lose it if he offends them or any of their relations.
Considering all this, it is wonderful that the municipality has done even as much as it has. It is not denied that the Commissioners have made some halting progress. Their credit is good, and they have reduced their rate of interest in seven years from five to three and one-half per cent.; loans have been tendered for five and six times over. They have cut Harrison Road from the Hughli Bridge eastward through some of the worst slums of Calcutta — a broad avenue nearly five miles long, garnished with trees, established with tall, well-built, and airy houses, — here the long wooden verandahs of tenement-houses rising over lines of shops, there brick or stone places of business. It is a street to which any city might point proudly. But it is an isolated case, and my babu Commissioner's own figures condemn him. He produced tables which showed — deducting suburban expenditure, which only came into the municipality's functions in 1889 — that his council had spent proportionately less in the improvement and sanitation of Calcutta than did the Justices of the Peace who administered it before their time. He excused this by explaining that the resources of the Corporation were very limited; but the damning fact remains that it has not raised as much revenue as it is entitled to do. Its Act allows a rate of twenty-three per cent., which is very low compared with our rates at home; for the last seven years it has only raised nineteen and one-half per cent. — and that although the value of land in Calcutta is very high and the profits of owners prodigious. In some parts of the city land is worth £40,000 an acre, and the most valuable plots are precisely those which are covered with flimsy hovels crawling with naked humanity.
For, after all, in sanitary matters, you must judge authority not by what it has done, but by what it has left undone; and on this showing the verdict must be black against native self-government. Calcutta is a shame even to the East. In its slums dock-coolies and mill-hands do not live: they pig. Houses choke with unwholesome breath; drains and compounds fester in filth. Wheels compress decaying refuse into roads. Cows drink from wells soaked with sewage, and the flour of bakeries is washed in the same pollution.
What wonder that the death-rate of the whole city is thirty-six in the thousand — in one ward, forty-eight in the thousand? The deaths that might be prevented by decent cleanliness are reckoned at more than one in every three. It is a miracle that plague struck Calcutta as lightly as it did; for its state is an invitation to pestilence and a menace to the world. So far it has escaped by sheer luck; next year or the next we may hear of thousands on thousands of victims. You cannot be astonished at anything when the Commissioners — who had known of all these things for twenty years — though they formed committees and established hospitals with exemplary zeal, formed vigilance committees to notify cases of disease which did nothing at all.
Why? Because the B. A. is still an Oriental: either in his heart he hates sanitary regulations as fervently as the sweeper, or he is afraid of the sweeper's anger if he enforces them. He wants to combine Western representative government with Eastern dirt, Herbert Spencer with the laws of Manu — to eat his cake and have it. "My nephew," lamented a native lady, "will be the ruin of us all. I am a widow with young children, yet he must needs join a vigilance committee. He will be knocked on the head and we shall all come to ruin; why must he interfere with other people's business?"
The truth is that we have made a capital error with the Bengali — capital in any case, fatal with him. We have instructed, but not educated, him. We have taught him from books instead of facts, taught him the words of civilisation and not the things. We have therefore failed with him, as we deserved.