The crisis brought in by the COVID-19 pandemic was followed by relief packages, e-passes and coupons issued by the government to facilitate the movement of essential goods and people. In such situations, zones where people cooperate with each other fare better. Lessons can be found not too far in history. The Gosaba experiment and currency is one of such.
The majestic wilderness of the Sundarbans brings forth the racy imagery of dense mangroves filled with man-eating tigers, crocodiles, dacoits in boats and honey collectors, and more recently a major hub of eco-tourism. Yet, unknown to many travellers, Gosaba, a village in the Canning district here, remained unscathed during the 1943 Bengal famine due to a unique experiment by a Scotsman, Sir Daniel Mackinnon Hamilton (1859–1939) and his Hamilton currency notes. Considering the famine affected 60 million people, with almost 3 million deaths, this was a marvellous achievement.
A philanthropist at heart, this Scottish businessman purchased 10,000 acres of land from the British Government in the Sundarbans, with the deltaic village of Gosaba being the primary settlement. Hamilton developed Gosaba as a model rural co-operative economy.
In 1918, he introduced a Consumer’s Co- operative Society which promoted free schools and dispensaries and finally came up with the Gosaba Central Co-operative Bank in 1924, with his own R1 currency notes signed by himself. This removed unscrupulous middlemen and the villagers received their fair share of the farm produce, which was safely stored in the Co-operative Bhundar.
The co-operative model drew many admirers, including Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore. In 1932, Hamilton received Tagore at his house built on stilts, which till today attracts the few tourists who know about it. Mahatma Gandhi on his invitation sent his secretary Madhav Desai to observe this social experiment.
The Hamilton note mentions on its face: “Sir Daniel Mackinnon Hamilton promises to pay the Bearer, on demand, at the Co-operative Bhundar, in exchange for value received, One Rupee’s worth of rice, cloth, oil or other goods.”
The note is passionately sought by collectors because of its rarity. The experiment with notes, which covered 12,000 people across 25 villages, ended within a few years of its introduction, but the granaries and Co-operative Bhundar thrived. During the famine, these storehouses supplied thousands of residents of Gosaba and most of the villages in the Sundarbans a fair share of ration and essentials.
Throughout history, administrations have issued emergency tokens and money to enable relief for the needy. Take the case of the 1873-74 Bihar famine caused by droughts. The then British Government imported rice from Burma for distribution in their relief effort. But monitoring and ensuring equitable distribution proved to be a challenge, met by the introduction of the Famine Grain Token which could only be used to procure the essential grains.
Since most of the tokens were redeemed and also used for a very short period of time, they are very rare. Even rarer are the Relief Seer tokens of the South Indian Famine of 1876. Today, contingency plans continue to exist in the form of tokens, food stamps and market coupons, and physical forms of these artefacts of crises will be sought by researchers and collectors alike as a reminder of the fight for survival out of the COVID-19 calamity.