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References to Malthus are increasingly evident in narratives of agricultural trends in development discourse at the end of the twentieth century. This article addresses the long roots of Malthusian thinking in formulating public policy, that can be traced across from Malthus's own ideas and to subsequent construction of neo-Malthusianisms in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It deploys the distinction between two approaches to statistical data collection that emerge in Malthus's own time: an ‘open’ system that collects data to identify trends, and a ‘closed’ system that uses data to prove an existing model. The article uses these distinctions in order to demonstrate opposing tendencies in policy-making in both England and India, with particular reference to Indian agriculture. It shows how radical thinking about data collection as an inductive line of enquiry lost out to a deductive approach that regarded data on Indian agriculture as doomed, because of its ‘unimproved’ condition, and highlights three moments where opposing tendencies were important. The article concludes that this turn in thinking about food, land, and people continues to persist in agricultural policy-making in international development circles into the present.

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Centre of Development Studies, Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, University of Cambridge, cb3


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1 There is a new wave of scholarship on the influential role of neo-Malthusianism in fashioning the direction that was taken by development policies over the course of the twentieth century: see Immewahr, Daniel, Thinking small: the United States and lure of community development (Cambridge, MA, 2014); Frey, Marc, ‘Neo-Malthusianism and development: shifting interpretations of a contested paradigm’, Journal of Global History, 6 (2011), pp. 7597; Lerner, Adam, ‘Political neo-Malthusianism and the progression of India's Green Revolution’, Journal of Contemporary Asia, 48 (2018), pp. 485507.

2 Siegel, Benjamin R., Hungry nation: food, famine and the making of modern India (Cambridge, 2018).

3 The terms Malthusian and neo-Malthusian are being used in this article, where Malthusian denotes the arguments on food and population that emerged during the nineteenth century as a direct outcome of the circulation of Malthus's own work during his own lifetime and in the subsequent decades, while neo-Malthusian is used to denote the use of arguments in the twentieth century that resurrect the original ideas of Malthus to promote their own concerns regarding the destructive power of population to overrun food supplies and destroy natural resources.

4 There is a more discerning gaze that regards human beings as being the primary agents for change rather than as a primary tendency of the natural world. This would position thinking away from the inevitability of the gloom of hunger and death within a nation to an examination of Malthus's writings as a harbinger of new ideas on population and resources in the Anthropocene, where the Malthusian principle is examined as an intellectual device to understand the impact of humans on natural resources rather than an inevitable harbinger of doom.

5 Alison Bashford and Joyce E. Chaplin use Wrigley's original characterization of Malthus as ‘standing between two worlds’ to create a new and exciting turn that provides an avenue to examine Malthus's writings on the New World. See Bashford, Alison and Chaplin, Joyce E., The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus: rereading the Principle of population (Princeton, NJ, 2016), p. 105.

6 Mayhew, Robert, ed., New perspectives on Malthus: 250th anniversary essays (Cambridge, 2016), provides a review of new lines of thinking that provide surprising evidence of the reasons for the extreme reaction to Malthus in his own time, as well as new arguments that point to evidence of the remarkable continued impact of Malthusian ideas in the three centuries since the publication of the Principle of population. In Mayhew's own introduction titled ‘Alps on Alps’, pp. 1–21, he identifies two scales with which to examine Malthus: the smaller scale where the publication and the reception of his work was first evident in England, and the larger scale of the national and international landscape where the bigger peaks of Malthusian scholarship can be identified (p. 2).

7 Mayhew, Robert, ‘Malthus's globalisms: Enlightenment geographical imaginaries in the Essay on the principle of population’, in Finnegan, Diarmid A. and Wright, Jonathan Jeffrey, eds., Spaces and global knowledge: exhibition, encounter and exchange in the age of empire (London, 2015), where the importance of empiricism in the later editions of Malthus is highlighted.

8 Ibid., p. 14.

9 The Mayhewian distinction from the smaller scale of Malthus's own stage of engagement to the larger scale of Malthusian ideas regards this as part of the larger shift from theory to empirical investigation at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

10 Simon, Julian, Population matters: people, resources, environment and immigration (New Brunswick, NJ, 1990), identifies the decided preference for closed systems of population. Malthus's diminishing returns fits into such a system with the implications that resources are finite. Closed systems also focus on the manipulation of statistics to correspond to an established theory. In contrast, an open system is based on the presumption that the resource base will grow over time and therefore limits are expandable. It, consequently, focuses on identifying patterns in an expanding resource frame (pp. 465–8).

11 Iyer, Samantha, ‘Colonial population and the idea of development’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 55 (2013), pp. 6591.

12 Nayak, Pulin, ‘Planning and social transformation: remembering D. P. Dhar as a social planner’, Indian Economic Review, 50 (2015), pp. 317–34.

13 Bashford, Alison, Global population: history, geopolitics and life on Earth (New York, NY, 2014).

14 These notions of ‘global’ and ‘national’ can be either closed or open systems, and the distinction would be on whether the approach was to regard resources as fixed or expanding. The presence of both the ‘closed’ and ‘open’ systems are evident in the ‘national’ Malthus; the larger professional milieu within which Malthus worked and lived in with the scientific community in England, with one group increasingly drawn to the notions of Political Arithmetic to establish a greater influence on the public sphere and control society with its theoretical formulations while another group was concerned with obtaining statistical theories to understand the workings of society.

15 [Malthus, Thomas Robert], An essay on the principle of population (London, 1798), p. 113; Jarrold, Thomas, Dissertations on man, philosophical, physiological and political: in answer to Mr. Malthus's ‘Essay on the principle of population’ (London, 1804), p. 179.

16 Bashford and Chaplin, The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus.

17 The Edinburgh Review appears to have taken up a position that was oppositional to Malthus's treatise, with the second edition triggering an onslaught of critical responses, that continued till the very last years of his life. See Cremanschi, Sergio, Utilitarianism and Malthus's virtue ethics: respectable, virtuous and happy (London and New York, NY, 2014); and Huzel, James, The popularisation of Malthus in early nineteenth-century England: Martineau, Cobbett and the pauper press (Aldershot, 2006). A review of the value of considering these reactions to Malthus is collated and edited by Mayhew, Robert, Malthus: the life and legacies of an untimely prophet (Cambridge, MA, 2015), pp. 128–55.

18 Haileybury College, in Hertfordshire, was the official training college for recruits to the East India Company between 1805 and 1858. Malthus was appointed the professor of history and political economy in 1805 and resided there till his death in 1834.

19 Bernard Cohn identifies the importance of Political Arithmetic in the design of Instrumentalities of Rule in the early nineteenth century. See Cohn, Colonialism and forms of knowledge, pp. 1–13, reprinted in The Bernard Cohn omnibus (Oxford and New Delhi, 2004).

20 Jon Agar, The government machine (Cambridge, MA, 2003), pp. 77–8.

21 Ibid., in the sub-section on non-official and official statistics, 1832–1914, Agar indicated that the Manchester Statistical Society was the first association and was established in 1833, with the Statistical Society of London following quick on its heels, set up in 1834. The latter was renamed the Royal Statistical Society in 1886–7.

22 James, Patricia, Population Malthus: his life and times (London, 1979), pp. 444–5.

23 Ibid., p. 449.

24 Hilts, Victor L., ‘Aliis extrendum, or, the origins of the Statistical Society of London’, Isis, 69 (1978), pp. 2143, refers to Malthus making a formal motion at a meeting with Babbage, Jones, and Drinkwater in Cambridge in February 1834, at Babbage's instigation, and for the purpose of scheduling the first official meeting of the new society. It was clear from the motion that Malthus was proposing ‘the collection and classification of all facts illustrative of the present condition and prospects of society’ (p. 35), and the motion was seconded by Jones.

25 Agar, The government machine, p. 78. The presence of the eminent Belgian statistician Lambert Adolphe Jacques Quetelet gave Charles Babbage an excuse to break the rules. Without seeking any sanction, Babbage announced the existence of an extra section of the British Association – a section devoted to statistics. A small gathering was held, with Thomas Malthus in the chair, and Quetelet as the star guest. Babbage packed it with allies, including Richard Jones (a professor of political economy at King's College, London), John Elliot Drinkwater (a Home Office civil servant), and William Henry Sykes (a former statistical reporter to the government at Bombay). All these men were liberal in politics, and both Jones and Sykes had special interest (and, in Sykes's case, experience) of statistics collected through the Indian civil service. Babbage's intention, with his own failed attempt at election as a member of parliament fresh in his mind, was that scientists should exert influence on government through production of statistical facts.

26 Hilts, ‘Aliis extrendum’, cites Quetelet's correspondence where Quetelet mentions the conversation with Malthus during the course of which Malthus provided him a copy of the survey document (p. 32).

27 James, Population Malthus, p. 445.

28 Guha emphasizes the importance of records in the early nineteenth century, and identifies W. H. Sykes as one of the earliest statistical reporters of the village community. He collected documents in Bombay presidency and wrote the earliest English accounts of them. Guha, Sumit, Beyond caste: identity and power in South Asia (Ranikhet, 2016), p. 92.

29 Talbot, Colonel William Skyes, ‘His contributions to statistical accounting’, Accounting History, 15 (2013), pp. 253–76. Guha, Beyond caste (p. 130), notes that Skyes travelled across dozens of villages and undertook minute enquiries regarding land, crops, and services with farmers in each village.

30 The enumeration of households and members of rural communities that was undertaken by officials of the East India Company in the early nineteenth century was influenced by the tradition of Political Arithmetic that was prominent in eighteenth-century England, and that later transformed into an apparatus for collecting colonial statistics (Guha, Beyond caste, p. 198). The transplanting of this tradition, which resulted in the first census in England and Wales being conducted in 1801, was also the logic behind the rolling out of the first colonial census in India that was conducted in 1881.

31 Rao, T. J., ‘Official statistics in India: past and present’, Journal of Official Statistics, 26 (2010), pp. 216–17.

32 His prolific publications made Sykes a prominent figure in statistical and political circles and also made him influential among professionals who were keen to influence government policy-making. Sykes was elected as the member of parliament from Aberdeen in 1857, and went on to be president of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1858. His compendiums were much sought after, and in a letter to a William Brown written on 24 August 1861, he writes: ‘As I have been so repeated a contributor to the elucidation of Indian Statistics for the last 30 years I do not know which of my papers you wish to see – If it be a compendious view your desire, you will find it in the 2nd or 3 volume of the Transactions of the British Association; or more recent figures you will find in a Parliamentary paper (with maps and diagram) which though printed by order of the House of Commons before I became a Member is familiarly known as “Sykes's Statistics of India” & can be purchased at the office for the sale of Parliamentary Papers at the House of Commons, or at Spottiswood the Parliamentary printers – But if it be papers treating a separate subject you wish such as Education Vital Statistics, Public Works, Administration of Justice in India … you will find the papers printed in various volumes of the Journal of the Statistical Society of London.’

33 Mayhew identifies the rise of ‘empirical globalism’, an ideology that regarded objects within Britain to have greater pedagogic and intellectual value than objects from other geographies, yet there was a keenness to ‘evidence’ what was taking place in these other geographies by cataloguing objects and peoples: in Finnegan and Wright, eds., Spaces and global knowledge, p. 14.

34 The catalogue of the Hodgson Collection in the British Library.

35 Letter written by Brian Houghton Hodgson, Nepal residency 15 Feb. 1830, Pullen, John and Parry, Trevor, eds., T. R. Malthus, unpublished papers in the collection of Kanto Gukeun University, i (Cambridge, 1997), pp. 138–9.

36 Hunter, William Wilson, Life of Brian Houghton Hodgson: British Resident at the court of Nepal (Delhi, 1991).

37 Pels, Peter and Salmink, Oscar, Colonial subjects: essays on the practical history of anthropology (Ann Arbor, MI, 1999), p. 92n (see British Library (BL), Oriental and India Office Collection, MSSEur D497).

38 Wilson, Thomas George, Benjamin Guy Babington FRCP, FRS (1794–1866), Journal of Laryngol & Otology, 67 (1953), pp. 90–7. The use of the survey method by Hodgson, similar to that used by Malthus and which the latter pressed his students and contemporaries to follow is an important research tool that gains importance in statistical circles over the course of the nineteenth century.

39 Malthus supported the teaching of Indian languages, and the minutes of college meetings indicate his advocacy of the use of tutors to teach Indian languages at Haileybury.

40 James Archives, Old Library, Jesus College, Cambridge, iv.2, box 6, p. 4435.

41 Lilienfield, David E. and Stolley, Paul D., Foundations of epidemiology (Oxford, 1994), p. 28.

42 Brown, Samuel Sneade, Home letters written from India: between the years 1828 and 1841 (Cambridge, 2011).

43 Ibid., p. 42.

44 Ibid., p. 180.

45 Brown, Samuel Sneade, Notes on sanitary reform (London, 1870), pp. 1112.

46 Cooper, Fredrick and Stoler, Ann Laura, Tensions of empire: colonial cultures in a bourgeois world (Los Angeles, CA, 1997), p. 141.

47 Bernard Cohn provides a powerful examination of the investigative modalities that were designed by the British state to collect, collate, and classify information about its Indian colony and shows how the information was converted into ‘facts’ about the colony and its people that was subsequently used to subordinate the forms of knowledge and the modes of engagement of the native population and to police and justify the actions and policies of the colonizer. The historiography, observational/travel, survey and enumerative, mueseological and surveillance modalities that serve as a Foucauldian mode of control result in disempowering the local populace of authenticity and deny them agency. The ability to convert information into colonial forms of knowledge based on collection of empirical data results in a native population that is shorn of its own set of understandings regarding the legitimacy of their activities and pushes them into accepting a subject mentality regarding their own life, work, and culture. See Cohn, Colonialism and forms of knowledge, pp. 1–13, reprinted in The Bernard Cohn omnibus.

48 Hansard, House of Commons Debates, 10 July 1833, vol. 19, cc. 479–550.

49 Caldwell, J. C., ‘Malthus and the less developed world: the pivotal role of India’, Population and Development Review, 24 (1998), pp. 675–96, see pp. 683–6 for a discussion on the official narrative on Indian population conditions being very closely aligned to those set out in Malthus's population principle.

50 Bose, Sugata, Peasant labour and colonial capital: rural Bengal since 1770 (Cambridge, 1993).

51 See Whitehead, Judith, ‘John Locke, accumulation by dispossession and the governance of colonial India’, Journal of Contemporary Asia, 42 (2012), pp. 121, for a discussion of how the land revenue systems established in colonial India were based on an assumption that land would yield returns if managed using a private property regime and that the reason for productivity to fall was the despotic nature of Indian institutions; Stokes, Eric, ‘Bureaucracy and ideology: Britian and India in the nineteenth century’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 30 (1980), pp. 131–56.

52 Stokes, ‘Bureaucracy and ideology’, pp. 146–7.

53 Ibid., pp. 146–8.

54 Mantena, Karuna, ‘The crisis of liberal imperialism’, Histoire@Politique, 11 (2010), pp. 125.

55 Macaulay, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Baron (1800–1859), Miscellaneous writings and speeches, iv,

56 Roberts, M. J. D., Making English morals: voluntary association and moral reform in England (Cambridge, 2004), p. 193.

57 Hansard, House of Commons Debates, 19 July 1833, vol. 19, cc. 479–550.

58 Fontana, Biancamaria, Rethinking the politics of commercial society: the Edinburgh Review, 1802–1832 (Cambridge, 1985).

59 Macaulay, Edinburgh Review or Critical Journal, 52 (Jan. 1831).

60 Cohn points out that the primary interest of the East India Company was to ensure that they maximized revenues through the procedure of enforcing land settlement systems, and their intention was to collect 100 per cent of the assessed revenues. See Cohn, Colonialism and forms of knowledge, p. 59.

61 Commander, Simon, ‘Malthus and the theory of “unequal powers”: population and food production in India, 1800–1947’, Modern Asian Studies, 20 (1986), pp. 661701, makes the point that while Malthusianism seems writ large on the face of Indian agriculture, there is no evidence on any definition of the Malthusian model ever being stated in this regard. Mantena, ‘The crisis of liberal imperialism’, makes the point that the wresting of power from East India Company was cast in terms of the need to move from illegitimate form of governance to one based on rules that would ensure ‘good governance’. This imposed a rule-bound approach to governing India and disallowed an empirical approach to understanding Indian society.

62 Whitehead, ‘John Locke, accumulation by dispossession and the governance of colonial India’, makes a formal link between the lack of formal property rights and the Lockean notion of waste.

63 Wedderburn, William, Allan Octavian Hume, father of Indian National Congress, 1829–1912 (London, 1913).

64 Hume was also responsible for the founding of the Indian National Congress established in 1885, along with other leading Indians including Surendranath Banerjea, W. C. Bonnerjee, Manomohun Ghose, Lalmohan Ghose, Pherozeshah Mehta, Dadabhai Naoroji, Badruddin Tyabji, Dinshaw Wacha, and William Wedderburn.

65 Wedderburn, Allan Octavian Hume, pp. 27–8.

66 Ibid., pp. 30–1.

67 Florence's father, William, would have encountered Malthus at the early meetings of the Statistical Society, and her mother Frances Nightingale was acquainted with the Malthuses as she was the daughter of William Smith, MP, who was a close friend of Malthus. It is therefore likely that the Nightingale family library would have contained publications of Malthus's writings, even though Florence Nightingale's own writings do not indicate any direct engagement with the writings of Malthus. See Hashimoto, Hitoshi and Pullen, John, ‘Two unpublished letters of Malthus, with notes of connections between Malthus and William Smith, MP’, History of Political Economy, 37 (2005), pp. 371–9.

68 Valée, George, ed., Florence Nightingale on social change in India, vol. x of The collected works of Florence Nightingale (Waterloo, 2007).

69 Ibid., p. 397.

70 As Nightingale's maternal grandfather, William Smith, was well known to the Malthus family, it is possible that she had access to the statistical treatises presented and discussed by the members of the society that might have made their way to various libraries of the Nightingale family. See Hashimoto and Pullen, ‘Two unpublished letters’, pp. 371–9.

71 BL Add. MSS 45831.

72 Valée, ed., Florence Nightingale, pp. 401–3.

73 Sen, Priyaranjan, Florence Nightingale's Indian letters: a glimpse into the agitation for tenancy reform, Bengal, 1878–1882 (Charleston, NC, 2011), p. 3.

74 Valée, ed., Florence Nightingale, p. 756.

75 Ibid., p. 469.

76 Ibid., p. 137.

77 Naoroji, Dadabhai, Poverty and un-British rule in India (London, 1901).

78 MacDonald, Lynn, Florence Nightingale on society and politics, philosophy, science, literature and education, vol. v of The collected works of Florence Nightingale (Waterloo, ON, 2003), p. 364.

79 Naoroji, Poverty and un-British rule in India, pp. 12–13.

80 Naoroji's speech at the National Liberal Club, on 15 Feb. 1896.

81 Tagore thought well of young Nagendranath, and arranged a marriage between the young man and his daughter, Mira, in 1907. Unfortunately, Nagendranath turned out to be a severe disappointment; he was a spendthrift and had no interest in working in India's villages. His marriage with Mira ended in the late 1920s, and he spent most of his time travelling between India and England attempting to gain an office that would accrue greater personal wealth. See, accessed on 20 Sept. 2017.

82 Kathleen O'Connell, ‘Rabindranath Tagore's rural reconstruction: achievements and failures, from a speech that Tagore delivered at the seventh anniversary of Sri Niketan in 1928’, downloaded, accessed on 20 July 2017.

83 Gangulee, Nagendranath, Problems of rural India: being a collection of addresses delivered on various occasions in India and England (Calcutta, 1928), is a collection of his speeches and papers addressing the subject.

84 Ibid., p. 11.

85 In the Visva-Bharati Bulletin, 10 (1928), Tagore pointed out that the objective of the Institute was to educate the Indian peasant about their own culture and institutions.

86 Mishra, Girish, ‘Nehru and planning in India’, Mainstream Weekly, 52 (2014).

87 See Amrith, Sunil, ‘On the planning committee's obsession with eugenics in political culture of health in India: a historical perspective’, Economic and Political Weekly, 13 (2007), pp. 114–21; and Zachariah, Benjamin, ‘Uses of scientific argument: the case of development in India, c. 1930–1950’, Economic and Political Weekly, 36 (2001), pp. 3689–702.

88 Colin Clark, a leading statistician, who taught V. K. R. V. Rao at Cambridge, was invited by the Planning Commission to write a report on Indian prospects for economic development and recorded these comments that were part of an interview that Gandhi gave him; Meiers, Gerald and Singer, Hans, eds., Pioneers in development (Oxford, 1984) p. 63.

89 Rao, V. K. R. V., The partial memories of VKRV Rao (New Delhi, 2002), p. 48.

90 Kudaisya, Medha, ‘“The promise of partnership”: Indian business, the state and the Bombay Plan’, Business History Review, 88 (2015), pp. 97131.

91 Rockefeller Archive Center, Rockefeller Foundation records, projects, RG 1.2, series 460, box 1, folder 1, memo, 22 May 1947, accessed on 10 Apr. 2016.

93 Joseph Willits, memo on Monday, 25 June 1951, on conversation with Richard Stone in Cambridge,, accessed on 25 Mar. 2017.

95 Eisenhower was in India from 9 to 14 Dec. 1959, at the invitation of India's president, Rajendra Prasad, and the visit was orchestrated by the agriculture minister, Punjabrao Deshmukh.

96 Dwight Eisenhower, ‘Remarks at the opening of the World Agriculture Fair in New Delhi’, 11 Dec. 1959. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American presidency project,, accessed 5 Apr. 2016.

97 Ibid.

98 The emergence of a nationalist interest in creating village republics is far better known in the case of the politics and policies propounded Gandhi and his establishment of Sevagram.

99 Cullather, Nick, The hungry world (Cambridge, MA, 2013).

100 Robinson, Austin, review of Radhakamal Mukherjee, ‘Food planning for four hundred million’, Economic Journal, 8 (1938), p. 740.

101 Bhagwati, Jagdish and Chakravarty, Sukhamoy, ‘Contributions to Indian economics: a survey’, American Economic Review, 59 (1969), pp. 173.

102 Wilfred Malenbaum, ‘India and China: contrasts in development experience’, Centre of International Studies, MIT, Project No. 764 (1959).

103 Mahalanobis, the founding chair of the Indian Statistical Institure, spearheaded the creation of sampling surveys to estimate consumption needs.

104 Rebecca Williams, ‘Rockefeller Foundation support to the Khanna Study: population policy and the construction of demographic knowledge, 1945–1953’ (2011), Rockefeller Archives Center Research Reports,, accessed on 1 July 2017.

105 Mahalanobis, as the head of the Indian Planning Commission, used the surveys for the design of the second Plan.




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