Sweet Misery: How British Colonizers Contributed to Diabetes Among South Asians
17:17 23.01.2023 (Updated: 17:19 23.01.2023)
© Aneela RashidArchived photo of Bengal Famine, 1943
© Aneela Rashid
In comparison with Europeans, South Asians are six times more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes and other cardiovascular diseases.
Is it because of their diet and lifestyle, or is there a genetic predisposition that goes back in the subcontinent's history?
21st Century Plague?
"My father had diabetes and I developed it in my early 40s. Since then it has been something that I am always aware of, as every day I inject myself with insulin twice a day and monitor my blood sugar levels," Maleeha Khalid, a 60-year-old resident of Lahore, Pakistan, told Sputnik.
She explained how diabetes affects one's whole life, as she has to carry insulin injections with her every time she leaves her house.
"If I skip an injection it can have a serious detrimental effect on my overall health and I can end up in a hospital, hence I am always conscious of it. With age I have noticed how diabetes has affected my eyesight and it causes much pain to my feet also," she said.
Diabetes is a chronic, metabolic disease caused by increased levels of blood glucose (or blood sugar) in the bloodstream, which over a period of time leads to serious damage to vital organs such as the heart, blood vessels, eyes, kidneys, and nerves. In all cases, sugar builds up in the bloodstream and is not absorbed by cells because the pancreas doesn't produce enough insulin.
According to medical journals, diabetes can be caused by both genetic and environmental factors. South Asians have diabetes at alarmingly high rates, even at lower body weights. One study found that cases of diabetes in South Asians over 45 was 26% in men and 32% in women — up to three and five times higher than among white men and women.
Era of Starvation
Last year, Dr. Mubin Syed, a radiologist from Ohio in the US who also works in vascular and obesity medicine, published a paper and gained fame after he brought to light how British colonial history had caused diabetes and cardiovascular diseases in South Asians.
The doctor explained that during the 18th and 19th centuries under British rule, South Asians survived at least 31 serious famines.
This made them "starvation-adapted" by developing a tendency to generate and store fat instead of burning it off. This is why South Asians have low lean muscle mass, according to Dr. Syed.
In his paper, he explained how multiple generations can be affected when their ancestors are exposed to starvation on this scale.
"Exposure to even one famine has a multi-generational effect of causing metabolic disorders including diabetes, hyperglycemia and cardiovascular diseases. Imagine having an exposure to at least 24 major famines in a 50-year period," Dr. Syed said.
He further explained that today, in the modern era of abundance, it becomes an evolutionary mismatch, because South Asian bodies have adapted to limited food availability, but it is no longer suitable, as now there is plenty of food.
Calling the inclination to store nutrients "an evolutionary response to famine," Dr. Syed said since food scarcity is no longer an issue in South Asia, but it has created a conflict within South Asians' physiology, hence increasing their risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, among other health conditions.
Similarly, a few years ago the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that hundreds of people who were gestated during a horrific famine that wreaked havoc in China between 1959 and 1961 significantly increased the odds of both hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) and Type 2 diabetes.
What was more shocking was that their children also had significantly higher odds of hyperglycemia, even though the famine had long since passed when they were born.
Today, many South Asians in the West are told “colonialism was a long time ago” and not to “dwell on the past.” However, these messages are conflicting and misleading, because the past continues to impact their present.
West Bengal Famine
For centuries, up until India gained independence in 1947, starvation plagued the Indian subcontinent. Earlier, it was due to the British East India Company’s raising of taxes, and policy failures such as the denial of rice. The British rulers sent Indian rice and wheat back to Britain, leaving millions of South Asians to survive on what was left behind.
When the World Wars broke out, South Asian resources were deployed in the European war effort, leaving millions of Indians on the brink of starvation. Furthermore, there were climatic disasters such as droughts that were met with British inaction and poor policy, which again resulted in the deaths of millions.
However, it was in 1943 in West Bengal that the true horrors of famine were seen.
This did not occur because of droughts, it happened because of Winston Churchill-era British policies that contributed to the catastrophe. Researchers in India and the US, using weather data to simulate the amount of moisture in the soil during six major famines in the subcontinent, revealed that the West Bengal famine's time period indicated that there was enough moisture in the soil at the time.
What was happening was that the UK continued to take out rice from India, even as India’s viceroy made demands for more than one million tons of emergency wheat supplies in 1942-43 from London.
However, Winston Churchill chose to ignore the warnings of a looming disaster in India.
He has been quoted as blaming the famine on Indians “breeding like rabbits,” and asking how, if the shortages were so bad, Mahatma Gandhi was still alive.
In a tragic development, the price of rice increased by 300%, but because wages did not rise accordingly, ordinary people were pushed deeper into poverty, forcing them to seriously cut their consumption of food and other goods.
Archived photographs of the Bengal Famine show millions of emaciated families who arrived in Calcutta (Kolkata - ed. note) in search of food in November 1943. People were dying of starvation in the streets, and footage of the famine showed the true horrors of Britain's "denial policy" towards India.
The Bengal Famine killed over three million people and the tragedy occurred just 80 years ago.
Fertile Soil, But Hungry People
Throughout Britain's rule over India, there were grave inequalities in the distribution of food that actually belonged to South Asians. It was grown on their soil, in their home country, and yet they died in millions because there was not enough food for them.
"In the name of the Allied cause, the policies imposed by Keynes and Churchill killed more than three million people – many times more than the total number of military and civilian casualties suffered during the entire war by Britain and the US combined. The scale of this tragedy is almost impossible to fathom," wrote anthropologist, Jason Hickel.
World War II does not justify what Churchill did to India because he and his government could have done it in other ways. According to Hickel, the US and Britain could have used their own resources instead, which would have required taxing their own citizens at just £1 per person.
Yet somehow, when Churchill's legacy is discussed, the horrors his government inflicted on the Indian people are quietly omitted.
Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen described this horrific era in India’s history as the true face of the British Empire's "fundamentally undemocratic nature."
The British government extracted goods worth trillions of dollars in today’s money from India. These goods were either consumed in Britain or re-exported for profit, while the local people's quality of life decreased.
In total, more than 15 million people died due to famines in the Indian subcontinent in between 1850 to 1899 - more than in any other 50-year period.
Human-Made Health Crisis
India of today has a much larger population than it had a century ago, but it has almost eliminated famine deaths with its effective policies.
The country has implemented better irrigation practices, stronger food distribution, a proper welfare system with transportation links that allow food to move fast to regions where people are food deprived.
India’s current state shows that avoiding famines is possible when there is empathy and proper systems in place. The British blamed the famine on weather conditions and food shortfalls, as if it were an unavoidable natural disaster.
Today, most researchers agree that the crisis was human-made, caused primarily by wartime inflation that pushed the price of food out of reach. Hence, a number of serious diseases that South Asians face today are because of under-nourishment and the poor health of their ancestors, which was a direct result of these famines and lower quality of life.
Scientists have determined that multiple-generational exposure to nutritional factors and genetic interactions that occur due to famine directly affect the future generations.
The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Sputnik.