The year 2020 is proving to be full of natural disasters.
The Covid-19 epidemic has stopped the world in its tracks and claimed lakhs of lives with no end in sight.
Earlier this year, unprecedented bushfires in Australia destroyed vast amounts of flaura and fauna in addition to killing 33 people.
Indonesia was hit by one of the deadliest floods in recent history.
Second-most active volcano erupted in Philippines, affecting tens of thousands of people.
Then there was an avalanche in Kashmir and earthquakes in North India.
Now, we have locust invasion with hundreds of millions of these insects moving across continents.
Not a normal year by any metric.
During the quarantine, as the world stumbles from one crisis to another, one has been reading the Arthashashtra (science of the government and politics) written by Kautilya, a teacher par excellence who laid the foundation of the Mauryan empire in the third century BCE and installed his student Chandragupta as King.
In Arthashashtra, Kautilya deals with a number of calamities (due to acts of Gods) that can afflict people — famines, fire, floods, diseases and epidemics, attack of rats, locusts, insects, etc.
Kautilya instructs that whenever such dangers threaten, “the King shall protect all those afflicted like a father [protects his children] and shall organise continuous [day and night] prayers with oblations.” [Chapter 4.3.42,43]
As India is under locust invasion presently, here is what Kautilya suggested be done to tackle it.
”In case of danger from rats, locusts, birds or insects, the appropriate animals [e.g. cats, mongoose] shall be let loose and [these predators] protected from being killed or harassed by dogs. Poisoned grain may be strewn around and purificatory rites may be performed by experts. Or, the rat tax [a quota of dead rats to be brought in by each one] may be fixed.” [Chapters 4.3.21,23-25,27]
To tackle diseases and epidemics, Kautilya suggests to call upon physicians by using medicines, ascetics by purificatory or expiatory rites and experts by occult means if the disease or epidemic is afflicting humans.
In case of diseases or epidemics affecting cattle, he recommends performing “purificatory rites of their sheds and special worship of the appropriate Gods.” [Chapters 4.3.13-16]
If famine hits the country, Arthashashtra lists various ways to counteract its effects on the population.
This includes “distributing to the public, on concessional terms, seeds and food from the royal stores; undertaking food-for-work programmes such as building forts or irrigation works; sharing out the royal food stocks; commandeering for public distribution private stocks of food; seeking the help of friendly kings; supplementing the harvest with additional cultivation of grain, vegetables, roots and fruits, by fishing and by hunting deer, cattle, birds and wild animals.” [Chapters 4.3.17-20]
For floods, population living near river banks are required to move to higher ground during rainy season and ‘keep a collection of wooden planks, bamboo and boats.‘
It’s a punishable offence in Arthashashtra if the owner of canoes fails to save those in danger.
“Persons carried away by floods shall be rescued using gourds, skin bags, tree trunks, canoes, boats and thick ropes,” it states.
In the Arthashastra, some calamities are rated more dangerous than others.
For instance, Kautilya “considers floods to be more dangerous because it destroys hundreds of villages while fire destroys [only] one village, or a part of it.”
While some teachers before Kautilya considered disease and epidemics worse than famine for the former brings all state activities to a halt with people falling ill and dying but work can still continue during famine which makes it possible to collect revenue, Kautilya didn’t agree with them.
According to him, diseases and epidemics devastates only a region and “remedies can be found for the disease. Famine, on the other hand, affects the whole country and deprives the people of their livelihood“ [Chapter 78.4.2-8]
Kautilya’s reasoning was that effects of diseases are local in nature while floods or famine can devastate agriculture production which in turn can threaten livelihoods throughout the country and have a devastating impact on the state’s revenues.
We may disagree with this line of thinking today, for we can import food crops easily today to meet local demands in case of famine or floods while an epidemic today isn’t of local nature and has claimed lives and livelihoods on a global scale.
But during Kautilya’s time, agriculture was the main source of income not just for the people but also for the state’s treasury.
That’s why agriculture produce was taxed while we can afford to keep it tax exempt today.
Apart from ‘acts of Gods’, Kautilya also deals at length with calamities caused by acts of men which can threaten the state’s stability.
These include depredations of the armies, decadence of the King/people, internal strife, rebellious guilds/chiefs, dishonest officials/traders, etc.
Note: All English translations of the Arthashastra chapters are taken from the Penguin Classic version of the book.