|Bengal famine of 1943|
From the photo spread in The Statesman on 22 August 1943 showing famine conditions in Calcutta. These photographs made world headlines and spurred government action, saving many lives.
|Location||Bengal and Orissa|
|Total deaths||Estimated 2.1 to 3 million in Bengal alone|
The Bengal famine of 1943 (Bengali: pañcāśēra manvantara) was a major famine of the Bengal provincein British India during World War II. An estimated 2.1–3 million, out of a population of 60.3 million, died of starvation, or of malaria and other diseases aggravated by malnutrition, population displacement, unsanitary conditions and lack of health care. Millions were impoverished as the crisis overwhelmed large segments of the economy and social fabric. Historians have frequently characterised the famine as "man-made", asserting that wartime colonial policies created and then exacerbated the crisis. A minority view holds that the famine arose from natural causes.
Bengali, also known by its endonym Bangla, is an Indo-Aryan language primarily spoken by the Bengalis in South Asia. It is the official and most widely spoken language of Bangladesh and second most widely spoken of the 22 scheduled languages of India, behind Hindi. In 2015, 160 million speakers were reported for Bangladesh, and the 2011 Indian census counted another 100 million.
A famine is a widespread scarcity of food, caused by several factors including war, inflation, crop failure, population imbalance, or government policies. This phenomenon is usually accompanied or followed by regional malnutrition, starvation, epidemic, and increased mortality. Every inhabited continent in the world has experienced a period of famine throughout history. In the 19th and 20th century, it was generally Southeast and South Asia, as well as Eastern and Central Europe that suffered the most deaths from famine. The numbers dying from famine began to fall sharply from the 2000s.
The Bengal Presidency (1757–1912), later reorganized as the Bengal Province (1912–1947), was once the largest subdivision (presidency) of British India, with its seat in Calcutta. It was primarily centred in the Bengal region. At its territorial peak in the 19th century, the presidency extended from the present-day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan in the west to Burma, Singapore and Penang in the east. The Governor of Bengal was concurrently the Viceroy of India for many years. Most of the presidency's territories were eventually incorporated into other British Indian provinces and crown colonies. In 1905, Bengal proper was partitioned, with Eastern Bengal and Assam headquartered in Dacca and Shillong. British India was reorganised in 1912 and the presidency was reunited into a single Bengali-speaking province.
Bengal's economy was predominantly agrarian. In the years before the famine, between half and three-quarters of the rural poor were living in a "semi-starved condition". capita availability of rice and growing numbers of land-poor or landless laborers. A high proportion also laboured beneath a chronic and spiraling cycle of debt that ended in debt bondage and the loss of their landholdings due to land grabbing. More proximate causes of the crisis involved large-scale natural disasters in southwestern Bengal and the consequences of the war. Military buildup and financing sparked war-time inflation, while land was appropriated from thousands of Bengalis. Following the Japanese occupation of Burma (modern Myanmar) rice imports were lost, then much of Bengal's market supplies and transport systems were disrupted by British "denial policies" for rice and boats (a "scorched earth" response to the occupation). The British government also pursued prioritised distribution of vital supplies to the military, civil servants and other "priority classes". These factors were compounded by restricted access to grain: domestic sources were constrained by emergency inter-provincial trade barriers, while access to international sources was largely denied by Churchill's War Cabinet, arguably due to a wartime shortage of shipping. The relative impact of each of these contributing factors to the death toll and economic devastation is an ongoing matter of controversy.Stagnant agricultural productivity and a stable land base were inadequate for the rapidly increasing population, resulting in both a long-term decline in the per
An agrarian society, or agricultural society, is any community whose economy is based on producing and maintaining crops and farmland. Another way to define an agrarian society is by seeing how much of a nation's total production is in agriculture. In an agrarian society, cultivating the land is the primary source of wealth. Such a society may acknowledge other means of livelihood and work habits but stresses the importance of agriculture and farming. Agrarian societies have existed in various parts of the world as far back as 10,000 years ago and continue to exist today. They have been the most common form of socio-economic organization for most of recorded human history.
Debt bondage, also known as debt slavery or bonded labour, is the pledge of a person's services as security for the repayment for a debt or other obligation, where the terms of the repayment are not clearly or reasonably stated, and the person who is holding the debt and thus has some control over the laborer, does not intend to ever admit that the debt has been repaid. The services required to repay the debt may be undefined, and the services' duration may be undefined, thus allowing the person supposedly owed the debt to demand services indefinitely. Debt bondage can be passed on from generation to generation.
Land grabbing is the contentious issue of large-scale land acquisitions: the buying or leasing of large pieces of land by domestic and transnational companies, governments, and individuals. While used broadly throughout history, land grabbing as used in the 21st century primarily refers to large-scale land acquisitions following the 2007–08 world food price crisis. Obtaining water resources is usually critical to the land acquisitions, so it has also led to an associated trend of water grabbing. By prompting food security fears within the developed world and new found economic opportunities for agricultural investors, the food price crisis caused a dramatic spike in large-scale agricultural investments, primarily foreign, in the Global South for the purpose of industrial food and biofuels production. Although hailed by investors, economists and some developing countries as a new pathway towards agricultural development, investment in land in the 21st century has been criticized by some non-governmental organizations and commentators as having a negative impact on local communities. International law is implicated when attempting to regulate these transactions.
The provincial government's policy failures began with denial that a famine existed. Humanitarian aid was ineffective through the worst months of the food crisis, and the government never formally declared a state of famine. It first attempted to influence the price of rice paddy (unmilled rice) through price controls. These measures created a black market and encouraged sellers to withhold stocks. Hyperinflation resulted from speculation and hoarding after controls were abandoned. Aid increased significantly when the Indian Army took control of aid in October 1943, but effective relief arrived only after a record rice harvest that December. Deaths from starvation began to decline, but over half the famine-related deaths occurred in 1944, after the food security crisis had abated, as a result of disease.
Humanitarian aid is material and logistic assistance to people who need help. It is usually short-term help until the long-term help by government and other institutions replaces it. Among the people in need are the homeless, refugees, and victims of natural disasters, wars and famines. Humanitarian aid is material or logistical assistance provided for humanitarian purposes, typically in response to humanitarian relief efforts including natural disasters and man-made disaster. The primary objective of humanitarian aid is to save lives, alleviate suffering, and maintain human dignity. It may therefore be distinguished from development aid, which seeks to address the underlying socioeconomic factors which may have led to a crisis or emergency. There is a debate on linking humanitarian aid and development efforts, which was reinforced by the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016. However, the approach is viewed critically by practitioners.
A black market, underground economy, or shadow economy is a clandestine market or series of transactions that has some aspect of illegality or is characterized by some form of noncompliant behavior with an institutional set of rules. If the rule defines the set of goods and services whose production and distribution is prohibited by law, non-compliance with the rule constitutes a black market trade since the transaction itself is illegal. Parties engaging in the production or distribution of prohibited goods and services are members of the illegal economy. Examples include the drug trade, prostitution, illegal currency transactions and human trafficking. Violations of the tax code involving income tax evasion constitute membership in the unreported economy.
Speculation is the purchase of an asset with the hope that it will become more valuable in the near future. In finance, speculation is also the practice of engaging in risky financial transactions in an attempt to profit from short term fluctuations in the market value of a tradable financial instrument—rather than attempting to profit from the underlying financial attributes embodied in the instrument such as capital gains, dividends, or interest.
From the late nineteenth century through the Great Depression, social and economic forces exerted a harmful effect on the structure of Bengal's income distribution and the ability of its agricultural sector to sustain the populace. These included a rapidly growing population, increasing household debt, stagnant agricultural productivity, increased social stratification, and alienation of the peasant class from their landholdings. These processes left social and economic groups mired in poverty and indebtedness, unable to cope with the economic shocks they faced in 1942 and 1943, in the context of the Second World War.
The Great Depression was a severe worldwide economic depression that took place mostly during the 1930s, beginning in the United States. The timing of the Great Depression varied across nations; in most countries it started in 1929 and lasted until the late-1930s. It was the longest, deepest, and most widespread depression of the 20th century. In the 21st century, the Great Depression is commonly used as an example of how intensely the world's economy can decline.
The Government of India's Famine Commission Report (1945) described Bengal as "a land of rice growers and rice eaters". Rice dominated the agricultural output of the province, accounting for nearly 88% of its arable land use and 75% of all crops sown. Overall, Bengal produced one third of India's rice – more than any other single province. Rice also accounted for 75–85% of daily food consumption. Fish was the second major food source, supplemented by small amounts of wheat. The consumption of other foods was typically relatively small.
Arable land is, according to one definition, land capable of being ploughed and used to grow crops. In Britain, it was traditionally contrasted with pasturable land such as heaths which could be used for sheep-rearing but not farmland.
There are three seasonal rice crops in Bengal. By far the most important is the winter crop of aman rice, sown in May and June and harvested in November and December. This produces about 70% of the rice crop grown in a given year.Crucially, the (debated) shortfall in rice production in 1942 occurred during the all-important aman harvest.
A clash between decades of declining rice production and simultaneously climbing population in Bengal was one of the preconditions of the 1943 famine.Bengal had a population of about 60 million in an area of 77,442 square miles, according to a 1941 census. Its population had increased by 43% between 1901 and 1941—from 42.1 million to 60.3 million. Over the same period India's population as a whole increased by 37%. Bengal's economy was almost solely agrarian, but agricultural productivity was among the lowest in the world. Land quality and fertility had been deteriorating in Bengal and other regions of India, but the loss was especially severe here, as agricultural expansion damaged the natural drainage courses and left them moribund. Rice yield per acre had been stagnant since the beginning of the twentieth century.
Prior to about 1920, the food demands of Bengal's growing population could be met in part by cultivating undeveloped lands. Gráda writes, "Bengal's rice output in normal years was barely enough for bare-bones subsistence ... the province's margin over subsistence on the eve of the famine was slender." These conditions left a large proportion of the population continually on the brink of malnutrition or even starvation.During the first quarter of the twentieth century Bengal began to experience an acute shortage of such land, leading to a chronic and growing shortage of rice. Its inability to keep pace with rapid population growth changed it from a net exporter of foodgrains to a net importer. Although imports were a small portion of the total available food crops, this may have been accompanied by a decrease in average consumption levels; it was estimated in 1930 that the Bengali diet was the least nutritious in the world. Ó
Structural changes in the credit market and the rights of land transfer in rural Bengal not only helped push it into recurring danger of famine, but also dictated which economic groups would suffer the greatest hardship.The Indian system of land tenure, particularly in Bengal, was very complex, with rights unequally divided among three diverse economic and social groups: traditional absentee large landowners or zamindars ; the upper-tier "wealthy peasant" jotedars ; and, at the lower socioeconomic level, the ryot (peasant) smallholders and dwarfholders, bargadars (sharecroppers), and agricultural labourers. Zamindar and jotedar landowners were protected by law and custom, but those who actually cultivated the soil, with small or no landholdings, suffered persistent and increasing losses of land rights and welfare. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the power and influence of the landowners fell and that of the jotedars rose. Particularly in less developed regions, jotedars began to make substantial profits and gained power through their roles as grain or jute traders and, more importantly, by making loans to sharecroppers, agricultural labourers and ryots. They gained power over their tenants using a combination of debt bondage through the transfer of debts and mortgages, and parcel-by-parcel land-grabbing.
Typically, land-grabbing was accomplished by manipulating the informal credit market. Many formal credit market entities had disappeared during the Great Depression; peasants with small landholdings generally had to resort to informal local lendersto purchase basic necessities during lean months between harvests. Moreover, if a labourer did not possess means of production such as seed or cattle for ploughing, he would go into debt to purchase them. Particularly during years of poor crops, smallholders fell deeper and deeper into a cycle of debt to purchase these and other essentials, often eventually forfeiting their lands to their creditors.
Small landholders and sharecroppers acquired debts that were often swollen by usurious rates of interest.Any poor harvest exacted a heavy toll; the accumulation of consumer debt, seasonal loans and crisis loans began a cycle of spiraling, perpetual indebtedness. It was then relatively easy for the jotedars to use litigation to force debtors to sell all or part of their landholdings at a low price or forfeit them at auction. Debtors then became landless or land-poor sharecroppers and labourers, usually working the same fields they had once owned. The accumulation of household debt to a single, local, informal creditor bound the debtor almost inescapably to the creditor/landlord; it became nearly impossible to settle the debt after a good harvest and simply walk away. In this way, the jotedars effectively dominated and impoverished the lowest tier of economic classes in several districts of Bengal.
The end result of this process of exploitation, exacerbated by Muslim inheritance practices that divided up land among multiple siblings,was growing inequalities in land ownership. At the time of the famine, millions of Bengali agriculturalists held little or no land. In absolute terms, the social group which suffered by far the most of every form of impoverishment and death during the Bengal famine of 1943 were the landless agricultural labourers.
Water provided the only reliable means of transport across most of the province during the rainy seasons, and all the time in areas such as the vast delta of the coastal southeastern Sundarbans. River transport was integral to many facets of Bengal's economic system, and was nearly irreplaceable in the production and distribution of rice.It provided the livelihoods of fishermen and transport workers, and was indispensable for the movement of the supplies and finished goods of various artisan trades, such as potters, weavers, and basket makers. Roads were scarce and generally in poor condition, and Bengal's extensive railway system was employed largely for military purposes until the very late stages of the crisis.
The development of railways in Bengal between roughly 1890 and 1910 contributed to the excessive mortality of the famine. The construction of a network of railway embankments disrupted natural drainage and divided Bengal into innumerable poorly drained "compartments".This brought about excessive silting, increased the tendency toward flooding, created stagnant water areas, damaged crop production, contributed (in some areas) to a partial shift away from the productive aman rice cultivar to less productive cultivars, and provided a more hospitable environment for water-borne diseases such as cholera and malaria. Such diseases clustered around the tracks of railways.
The soil profile in Bengal differs between east and west. The sandy soil of the east and the lighter sedimentary soil of the Sundarbans tended to drain more rapidly after the monsoon season than the laterite or heavy clay regions of western Bengal.Soil exhaustion required large tracts in western and central Bengal to be left fallow; eastern Bengal had far fewer fallow fields. The flooding of fallow fields created a breeding place for malaria-carrying mosquitoes; malaria epidemics lasted a month longer in the central and western areas with slower drainage.
Rural areas lacked access to safe water supplies. Water came primarily from large earthen tanks, rivers and tube wells. In the dry season, partially drained tanks became a further breeding area for malaria-vector mosquitoes.Tank and river water is susceptible to contamination by cholera; tube wells are much safer in this respect. However, as many as one-third of the existing wells in wartime Bengal were in disrepair.
Throughout 1942 and into early 1943, military and political events combined with natural disasters and plant disease to place widespread stress on Bengal's economy.While Bengal's food needs rose from increased military presence and an influx of refugees from Burma, its ability to obtain rice and other foodgrains from outside the province was restricted by interprovincial trade barriers.
The Japanese campaign for Burma began in late December 1941, and set off an immediate exodus for India of more than half of the one million Indians then living in Burma.On 26 April 1942, all Allied forces were ordered to retreat from Burma into India. Immediately, the demands of the military became the focus of official attention; according to author Hugh Tinker, “The Indians were left to their own devices. ... the troops arrived: pushing the refugees aside, laying hands on all supplies, and utilizing all available military transport.” By mid May 1942, the monsoon rains became heavy in the Manipur hills, further inhibiting civilian movement. Tens of thousands of refugees fell victim to dysentery, smallpox and malaria, and later to cholera, often before they reached India.
By April 1942, Japanese warships and aircraft had sunk approximately 100,000 tons of merchant shipping in the Bay of Bengal.According to General Wavell, Commander-in-Chief of the army in India, both the War Office in London and the commander of the British Eastern Fleet acknowledged that the fleet was powerless to mount serious opposition to Japanese naval attacks on Ceylon, southern or eastern India, or on shipping in the Bay of Bengal. The Japanese raids put additional strain on the railways, which also endured flooding in the Brahmaputra, a malaria epidemic, and the Quit India movement targeting road and rail communication. Throughout the period, the rail transportation of relief and civil supplies was compromised by the railways' increased military obligations, and by the dismantling of the rail tracks that had been carried out in some areas of eastern Bengal in 1942 to hamper a potential Japanese invasion.
The fall of Rangoon in March 1942 cut off the import of Burmese rice into India and Ceylon.Due in part to rises in local populations, prices for rice were already 69% higher in September 1941 than in August 1939. The loss of Burmese imports lead to further increased demand on the rice producing regions. This, according to the Famine Commission, was in a market in which the "progress of the war made sellers who could afford to wait reluctant to sell." The Japanese attack had not only provoked a scramble for rice across India, but had also sparked a dramatic and unprecedented price inflation in Bengal, and in other rice producing regions of India. Across India and particularly in Bengal, this caused a "derangement" of the rice markets. Particularly in Bengal, the price effect of the loss of Burma rice was vastly disproportionate to the size of the loss. Despite this, Bengal continued to export rice to Ceylon for months afterward, even as the beginning of a food crisis began to become apparent. The influx of refugees created more demand for food, clothing and medical aid, further straining the resources of the province. All this, together with transport problems that were to be created by the government's "boat denial" policy, were the direct causes of inter-provincial trade barriers on the movement of foodgrains, and contributed to a series of failed government policies that further exacerbated the food crisis.
The fall of Burma brought Bengal close to the war front; the war's impact fell more strongly on Bengal than elsewhere in India.As 1942 and especially 1943 wore on, major urban areas (most especially Calcutta) swelled with ever-increasing numbers of workers in the military industries and troops from many nations. Unskilled labourers from Bengal and nearby provinces were employed by military contractors for numerous projects, particularly the construction of American and British airfields. These enormous public expenditures increased demand, leading to price inflation across India, especially in Bengal.
Hundreds of thousands of troops arrived into the province from the United States, United Kingdom, India and China,placing further strains on domestic supplies and resulting in local scarcities across a wide range of daily necessities. Prices rose rapidly, spreading across the entire spectrum of goods and services. The productive capacity of Indian industry, which had been relatively meagre after the Great Depression, faced significant capacity constraints that further drove up prices of Indian goods and commodities. The rise in prices of essential goods and services was "not disturbing" until 1941, when it became more alarming. Then in early 1943, the rate of inflation for foodgrains in particular took an unprecedented upward turn.
Nearly the full output of India's cloth, wool, leather and silk industries were sold to the military.In the system that the British Government used to procure goods through the Government of India, industries were left in private ownership rather than facing outright requisitioning of their productive capacity. Firms were required to sell goods to the military on credit and at fixed, low prices. However, firms were left free to charge any price they desired in their domestic market for whatever they had left over. In the case of the textiles industries that supplied cloth for the uniforms of the British military, for example, they charged "a very high price indeed" in domestic markets. By the end of 1942, cloth prices had more than tripled from their pre-war levels; they had more than quadrupled by mid-1943. Much of the goods left over for civilian use were purchased by speculators. As a result, "civilian consumption of cotton goods fell by more than 23 per cent from the peace time level by 1943/44". The hardships of the crisis were felt by the rural population through a severe "cloth famine" that was not alleviated until military forces began distributing relief supplies; for example, the United States Army Air Forces flew 100 tons of warm clothing into eastern Bengal.
The method of credit financing was also tailored to UK wartime needs. The UK agreed to pay for defence expenditures over and above the amount that India had paid in peacetime (adjusted for inflation). However, their purchases were made entirely on credit accumulated in the Bank of England and not redeemable until after the war. At the same time, the Bank of India was permitted to treat those credits as assets against which it could print currency up to two and a half times more than the total debt incurred. India's money printing presses then began running overtime, printing the currency that paid for all these massive defence expenditures. The tremendous rise in nominal money supply coupled with a scarcity of consumption goods spurred monetary inflation, reaching its peak in 1944–45.The accompanying rise in incomes and purchasing power fell disproportionately into the hands of industries in Calcutta (in particular, munitions industries).
Finally, military buildup caused massive displacement of Bengalis from their homes. Farmland purchased for airstrip and camp construction is "estimated to have driven between 30,000 and 36,000 families (about 150,000 to 180,000 persons) off their land", according to Greenough. They were paid for the land, but they had lost their employment.The urgent need for housing for the massive influx of workers and soldiers from 1942 onward also created problems. Military barracks were scattered around Calcutta. Perhaps a thousand homes, including entire villages, were requisitioned for military use and at least 60,000 occupants expelled. The Famine Commission report of 1945 stated that the owners had been paid for these homes, but "there is little doubt that the members of many of these families became famine victims in 1943."
British military authoritiesfeared that the Japanese would proceed through Burma and invade British India via the eastern border of Bengal. As a preemptive measure, they launched a two-pronged scorched-earth initiative in eastern and coastal Bengal to prevent or impede the invasion by denying access to food supplies, transport and other resources.
First, a "denial of rice" policy was carried out in three southern districts along the coast of the Bay of Bengal – Bakarganj (or Barisal), Midnapore and Khulna – that were expected to have surpluses of rice. John Herbert, the governor of Bengal, issued an urgent directive in late March 1942 requiring stocks of paddy (unmilled rice) deemed surplus, as well as other food items, to be removed or destroyed in these districts, beginning immediately. Official figures for the amounts impounded were relatively small and would have contributed only modestly to local scarcities. However, evidence that fraudulent, corrupt and coercive practices by the purchasing agents removed far more rice than officially recorded, not only from designated districts, but also in unauthorised areas, suggests a greater impact. Far more damaging were the policy's disturbing impact on regional market relationships and contribution to a sense of public alarm.
As a second prong, a "boat denial" policy was designed to deny Bengali transport to any invading Japanese army. It applied to districts readily accessible via the Bay of Bengal and the larger rivers that flow into it. May after an initial registration period, the policy authorised the Army to confiscate, relocate or destroy any boats large enough to carry more than ten people, and allowed them to requisition other means of transport such as bicycles, bullock carts, and elephants. Under this policy, the Army confiscated approximately 46,000 rural boats, severely disrupting river-borne movement of labour, supplies and food, and compromising the livelihoods of boatmen and fishermen. Leonard G. Pinnell, a British civil servant who headed the Bengal government's Department of Civil Supplies, told the Famine Commission that the policy "completely broke the economy of the fishing class". Transport was generally unavailable to carry seed and equipment to distant fields or rice to the market hubs. Artisans and other groups who relied on boat transport to carry goods to market were offered no recompense; neither were rice growers nor the network of migratory labourers. The large-scale removal or destruction of rural boats caused a near-complete breakdown of the existing transport and administration infrastructure and market system for movement of rice paddy. No steps were taken to provide for the maintenance or repair of the confiscated boats, and many fishermen were unable to return to their trade. The Army took no steps to distribute food rations to make up for the interruption of supplies.Implemented on 1
This array of harmful effects had important political ramifications. The Indian National Congress and many other groups staged protests denouncing the denial policies for placing draconian burdens on Bengali peasants; these were part of a nationalist sentiment and outpouring that later peaked in the "Quit India" movement.
Many Indian provinces and princely states imposed inter-provincial trade barriers beginning in mid-1942, preventing other provinces from buying domestic rice. One underlying cause was the anxiety and soaring prices that followed the fall of Burma,but a more direct impetus in some cases (for example, Bihar) was the trade imbalances directly caused by provincial price controls. The power to restrict inter-provincial trade had been conferred on provincial governments in November 1941 as an item under the Defence of India Act, 1939. Provincial governments began erecting trade barriers that prevented the flow of foodgrains (especially rice) and other goods between provinces. These barriers reflected a desire to see that local populations were well fed, thus forestalling civil unrest.
In January 1942, Punjab banned exports of wheat;this increased the perception of food insecurity and led the enclave of wheat-eaters in Greater Calcutta to increase their demand for rice precisely when an impending rice shortage was feared. The Central Provinces prohibited the export of foodgrains outside the province two months later. Madras banned rice exports in June, followed by export bans in Bengal and its neighboring provinces of Bihar and Orissa that July.
The Famine Inquiry Commission of 1945 characterised this "critical and potentially most dangerous stage" in the crisis as a key policy failure: "Every province, every district, every [administrative division] in the east of India had become a food republic unto itself. The trade machinery for the distribution of food [between provinces] throughout the east of India was slowly strangled, and by the spring of 1943 was dead."Bengal was unable to import domestic rice; this policy helped transform market failures and food shortage into famine and widespread death.
The loss of Burma served to reinforce the strategic importance of Calcutta, then producing "as much as 80% of the armament, textile and heavy machinery production used in the Asian theater."To support this centre of wartime mobilisation, the Government of India categorised socioeconomic groups of the population into "priority" and "non-priority" classes, according to the relative importance of their contributions to the war effort. To a large extent, these priority classes were composed of bhadraloks , who were upper-class or bourgeois middle-class, socially mobile, educated, urban, and sympathetic to Western values and modernisation. Protecting their interests was a major concern of both private and public relief efforts. This placed the rural poor in direct competition for scarce basic supplies with workers in public agencies, war-related industries, and in some cases even politically well-connected middle-class agriculturalists.
As food prices rose and the signs of famine became apparent from July 1942, – particularly in the area around Greater Calcutta. Workers in prioritised sectors –private and government wartime industries, military and civilian construction, paper and textile mills, engineering firms, the Indian Railways, coal mining, and government workers of various levels — were given significant advantages and benefits. Essential workers received subsidised food, and were frequently paid in part in weekly allotments of rice sufficient to feed their immediate families, further protecting them from inflation. By December of that year, the total number of individuals covered (workers and their families) was approximately a million.the Government of Bengal and the Chamber of Commerce devised a Foodstuffs Scheme to provide preferential distribution of goods and services to workers in essential war industries, to prevent them from leaving their positions. Rice was directed away from the starving rural districts to workers in industries considered vital to the military effort
Medicine and medical care were also directed to these priority groups –particularly the military. Public and private medical staff at all levels were transferred to military duty, while medical supplies were monopolised. This directly reduced levels of care available to the general population, and "milked the hospitals of India to the danger-point".
Rural labourers and any civilians who were not members of these groups received severely reduced access to food and medical care, generally available only to those who migrated to selected population centres.Otherwise "vast areas of rural eastern India were denied any lasting state-sponsored distributive schemes". For this reason, the policy of prioritised distribution is sometimes discussed as one cause of the famine.
Discontent, resentment, and fear of the Raj among rural agriculturalists and business and industrial elements in Greater Calcutta had been simmering since the outset of the war.The unfavorable military situation of the Allies after the fall of Burma led the US and China to urge the UK to enlist India's full cooperation in the war by negotiating a peaceful transfer of political power to an elected Indian body; this goal was also supported by the Labour Party in Britain. British prime minister Winston Churchill responded to the new pressure through the Cripps' mission, broaching the post-war possibility of an autonomous political status for India in exchange for its full military support, but negotiations collapsed in early April 1942.
On 8 August 1942 the Indian National Congress launched the Quit India movement, intended as a nationwide display of nonviolent resistance. & Harper (2005 , p. 286) speculate that this reduced the British War Cabinet's willingness to provide famine aid at a time when supplies were also needed for the war effort. In several ways, then, the political and social disorder and distrust that were the effects and aftereffects of rebellion and civil unrest placed political, logistical, and infrastructural constraints on the Government of India that contributed to later famine-driven woes.The British authorities reacted by imprisoning the Congress leaders. Without its leadership, the movement changed its character and took to sabotaging factories, bridges, telegraph and railway lines, and other government property, thereby threatening the British Raj's war enterprise. The British acted to suppress the movement, arresting tens of thousands and killing some 2,500. In Bengal, the movement was strongest in the Tamluk and Contai subdivisions of Midnapore district, where rural discontent was well-established and deep. In Tamluk, by April 1942 the government had destroyed some 18,000 boats in pursuit of its denial policy, while war-related inflation further alienated the rural population, who became eager volunteers when local Congress recruiters proposed open rebellion. The violence of the "Quit India" movement was condemned around the world and did much to harden British opinion in many sectors against India and Indians in general; moreover, Bayly
Throughout April 1942, British and Indian refugees continued to flee from Burma, many through Bengal, as the cessation of Burmese imports continued to drive up rice prices. In June, the Government of Bengal decided to establish price controls for rice, and on 1 July fixed prices at a level considerably lower than the prevailing market price. The principal result of the fixed low price was to make sellers reluctant to sell; stocks disappeared, either into the black market or into storage.The government then let it be known that the price control law would not be enforced except in the most egregious cases of war profiteering. This easing of restrictions plus the ban on exports created about four months of relative price stability. In mid-October, though, southwest Bengal was struck by a series of natural disasters that destabilised prices again, causing another rushed scramble for rice, greatly to the benefit of the Calcutta black market. Between December 1942 and March 1943 the government made several attempts to "break the Calcutta market" by bringing in rice supplies from various districts around the province; however, these attempts to drive down prices by increasing supply were unsuccessful.
On 11 March 1943, the provincial government rescinded its price controls,resulting in dramatic rises in the price of rice, due in part to soaring levels of speculation. The period of inflation between March and May 1943 was especially intense; May was the month of the first reports of death by starvation in Bengal. The government attempted to re-establish public confidence by insisting that the crisis was being caused almost solely by speculation and hoarding, but their propaganda failed to dispel the widespread belief that there was a shortage of rice. The provincial government never formally declared a state of famine, even though its Famine Code would have mandated a sizable increase in aid.
When inter-provincial trade barriers were abolished on 18 May, free trade caused prices to drop temporarily in Calcutta, but they soared in the neighbouring provinces of Bihar and Orissa, as Bengali traders rushed to purchase stocks.The provincial government's attempts to locate and seize any hoarded stocks failed to find significant hoarding. In Bengal, prices were soon five to six times higher than they had been before April 1942. Free trade was abandoned in late July and early August 1943, and price controls were reinstated in August. Despite this, there were unofficial reports of rice being sold in late 1943 at roughly eight to ten times the prices of late 1942. Purchasing agents were sent out by the government to obtain rice, but their attempts largely failed. Prices remained high, and the black market was not brought under control.
In late 1942 Bengal was affected by a series of natural disasters. First, the winter rice crop was afflicted by a severe outbreak of fungal brown spot disease. Then, on 16–17 October a cyclone and three storm surges in October ravaged croplands, destroyed houses and killed thousands, at the same time dispersing high levels of fungal spores across the region and increasing the spread of the crop disease.The fungus reduced the crop yield even more than the cyclone. According to Padmanabhan (1973), the outbreak compared to the potato blight of the Irish Great Famine, and was so destructive that "nothing as devastating ... has been recorded in plant pathological literature."
The Bengal cyclone came through the Bay of Bengal, landing on the coastal areas of Midnapore and 24 Parganas. It killed 14,500 people and 190,000 cattle; while rice paddy stocks in the hands of cultivators, consumers, and dealers were destroyed. It also created local atmospheric conditions that contributed to an increased incidence of malaria. The three storm surges which followed the cyclone destroyed the seawalls of Midnapore and flooded large areas of Contai and Tamluk. Waves swept an area of 450 square miles (1,200 km2), floods affected 400 square miles (1,000 km2), and wind and torrential rain damaged 3,200 square miles (8,300 km2). For nearly 2.5 million Bengalis, the accumulative damage of the cyclone and storm surges to homes, crops and livelihoods was catastrophic:
Corpses lay scattered over several thousand square miles of devastated land. 7,400 villages were partly or wholly destroyed by the storm, and standing flood waters remained for weeks in at least 1,600 villages. Cholera, dysentery and other water-borne diseases flourished. 527,000 houses and 1,900 schools were lost. Over 1000 square miles of the most fertile paddy land in the province was entirely destroyed, and the standing crop over an additional 3000 square miles was damaged.
Following these events, official forecasts of crop yields predicted a significant shortfall.Traders warned of an impending famine, but the Bengal Government did not act on these predictions, doubting their accuracy and observing that forecasts had predicted a shortfall several times in previous years, while no significant problems had occurred.
The Famine Inquiry Commission's Report of 1945, discussing contributing factors to the famine, singled out the first Japanese air raids on Calcutta, which began on 20 December 1942. The attacks, largely unchallenged by Allied defenses, continued throughout the week, triggering an exodus of thousands from the city. As evacuees traveled to the countryside, food-grain dealers in the city closed their shops. To ensure that workers in the prioritised industries in Calcutta would be fed, the authorities seized rice stocks from wholesale dealers, shattering any trust the rice traders had in the government. "From that moment," the 1945 report stated, "the ordinary trade machinery could not be relied upon to feed Calcutta. The [food security] crisis had begun."
The question as to whether the famine arose primarily from a crop shortfall or from distribution failure has been the subject of later debate.According to Amartya Sen: "The ... [rice paddy] supply for 1943 was only about 5% lower than the average of the preceding five years. It was, in fact, 13% higher than in 1941, and there was, of course, no famine in 1941." The Famine Commission Report concluded that the overall deficit in rice in Bengal in 1943, taking into account an estimate of the amount of carryover of rice from the previous harvest, was about three weeks' supply. In any circumstances, this was a significant shortfall requiring a considerable amount of food relief, but not a deficit large enough to create widespread deaths by starvation. According to this view, the famine "was not a crisis of food availability, but of the [unequal] distribution of food and income."
Several contemporary experts cite evidence of a much larger shortfall. L. G. Pinnell, responsible to the Government of Bengal for managing food supplies from August 1942 to April 1943, estimated the crop loss at 20%, with crop disease accounting for more of the loss than the cyclone; other government sources privately admitted the shortfall was "2 million tons". Rutger's University economist George Blyn argues that with the cyclone and floods of October and the loss of imports from Burma, the 1942 Bengal rice harvest had been reduced by one-third.Commission member Wallace Aykroyd wrote in 1975 that there had been a 25% shortfall in the harvest of the winter of 1942, while
Beginning around December 1942–January 1943, high-ranking government officials and military officers (including John Herbert, the Governor of Bengal; Viceroy Linlithgow; Leo Amery the Secretary of State for India; General General Auchinleck, Commander-in-Chief of British forces in India,and Admiral Louis Mountbatten, Supreme Commander of South-East Asia ) began requesting food imports for India through government and military channels, but for months these requests were either rejected or reduced to a fraction of the original amount by Churchill's War Cabinet. The colony was also not permitted to spend its own sterling reserves, or even use its own ships, to import food.. Although Viceroy Linlithgow appealed for imports from mid-December 1942, he did so on the understanding that the military would be given preference over civilians. The Secretary of State for India, Leo Amery, was on one side of a cycle of requests for food aid and subsequent refusals from the British War Cabinet that continued through 1943 and into 1944. Amery did not mention worsening conditions in the countryside, stressing that Calcutta's industries must be fed or its workers would return to the countryside. Rather than meeting this request, the UK promised a relatively small amount of wheat that was specifically intended for western India (that is, not for Bengal) in exchange for an increase in rice exports from Bengal to Ceylon.
The tone of Linlithgow's warnings to Amery grew increasingly serious over the first half of 1943, as did Amery's requests to the War Cabinet; on 4 August 1943 —less than three weeks before The Statesman 's graphic photographs of starving famine victims in Calcutta focussed the world's attention on the severity of the crisis —Amery noted the spread of famine, and specifically stressed the effect upon Calcutta and the potential effect on the morale of European troops. The cabinet again offered only a relatively small amount, explicitly referring to it as a token shipment. The explanation generally offered for the refusals included insufficient shipping, particularly in light of Allied plans to invade Normandy. The Cabinet also refused offers of food shipments from several different nations. When such shipments did begin to increase modestly in late 1943, the transport and storage facilities were understaffed and inadequate.
A sample of historians' differing explanations of the political dimension can be found in the greatly varying scholarly accounts of the War Cabinet's refusal to allocate the ships needed to transport sufficient grain to Bengal. For example, while Collingham (2012 , p. 153) notes the massive global dislocations of supplies caused by World War II – which virtually guaranteed that hunger would occur somewhere in the world – he also holds that Churchill's animosity and racism toward Indians decided the exact location where famine would fall. Similarly, Mukerjee (2010 , pp. 112–14; 273) makes a stark accusation: "The War Cabinet's shipping assignments ... in August 1943, shortly after Amery had pleaded for famine relief, show Australian wheat flour traveling to Ceylon, the Middle East, and Southern Africa—everywhere in the Indian Ocean but to India. Those assignments show a will to punish." In contrast, however, Tauger (2009 , p. 193) makes the point that: "In the Indian Ocean alone from January 1942 to May 1943, the Axis powers sank 230 ... Allied merchant ships totaling 873,000 tons... [The] British hesitation to allocate shipping concerned ... [both the] potential diversion of shipping from other war-related needs ... [and] the prospect of losing the shipping to attacks without actually [bringing help to] India at all."
Conditions drifted towards famine at different rates in different Bengal districts. The Government of India dated the beginning of the Bengal food crisis from the air raids on Calcutta in December 1942,the acceleration to full-scale famine by May 1943 being a consequence of price decontrol. However, in some districts the food crisis had begun as early as mid-1942, although the effects were muted as rural poor were able to draw upon various survival strategies for a few months. After December 1942 reports from various commissioners and district officers began to cite a "sudden and alarming" inflation, nearly doubling the price of rice; this was followed in January by reports of distress caused by serious food supply problems. In May 1943, six districts—Rangpur, Mymensingh, Bakarganj, Chittagong, Noakhali and Tipperah—were the first to report deaths by starvation. Chittagong and Noakhali, both "boat denial" districts in the Ganges Delta (or Sundarbans Delta) area, were the hardest hit. While some districts of Bengal were relatively less affected throughout the crisis, no demographic or geographic group was completely immune to increased deaths by disease, although deaths from starvation were confined to the rural poor.
Contemporary mortality statistics were to some degree under-recorded, particularly for the rural areas where methods were rudimentary even in normal times. Thus, many of those who died or migrated were unreported.It appears that from May to October 1943, starvation was the principal cause of excess mortality, filling the emergency hospitals in Calcutta and accounting for the majority of deaths in some districts. Deaths by starvation had peaked by November 1943; by December, disease had become the most common cause of death. Disease-related mortality then continued to take its toll through early-to-mid 1944.
Among diseases, malaria was the biggest killer. – problems brought on after the October cyclone and flooding and then continuing through the crisis. Smallpox was an airborne disease often associated with crowded living arrangements. Statistics for smallpox and cholera are probably more reliable than those for malaria, since their symptoms are more easily recognisable.From July 1943 through June 1944, the monthly death toll from malaria averaged 125% above rates from the previous five years, reaching 203% over average in December 1943. Malaria parasites were found in nearly 52% of blood samples examined at Calcutta hospitals during the peak period, November–December 1944. Statistics for malaria deaths are almost certainly inaccurate, since the symptoms often resemble those of other fatal fevers, but there is little doubt that it was the main killer. Other famine-related deaths resulted from dysentery and diarrhea, typically through consumption of poor-quality food or deterioration of the digestive system caused by malnutrition. Cholera is a waterborne disease associated with social disruption, poor sanitation, contaminated water, crowded living conditions (as in refugee camps), and a wandering population
The mortality statistics present a confused picture of the distribution of deaths among age and gender groups. Although very young children and the elderly are usually more susceptible to the effects of starvation and disease, overall in Bengal it was adults and older children who suffered the highest proportional mortality rises.However, this picture was inverted in some urban areas, perhaps because the cities attracted large numbers of very young and very old migrants. In general, males suffered generally higher death rates than females, although the rate of female infant death was higher than for males, perhaps reflecting a discriminatory bias. A relatively lower death rate for females of child-bearing age may have reflected a reduction in fertility, brought on by malnutrition, which in turn reduced maternal deaths.
Regional differences in mortality rates were influenced by the effects of migration, , p. 243) shows trends in excess mortality for 1943–44 as compared to prior non-famine years. All death rates are with respect to the population in 1941. Percentages for 1943–44 are of excess deaths (that is, those attributable to the famine, over and above the normal incidence) as compared to rates from 1937–41.and of natural disasters. In general, excess mortality was higher in the east, even though the relative shortfall in the rice crop was worst in the western districts of Bengal. Eastern districts were relatively densely populated, were closest to the Burma war zone, and normally ran grain deficits in pre-famine times. These districts also were subject to the boat denial policy, and had relatively high jute production. Workers in the east were more likely to receive monetary wages than payment in kind with a portion of the harvest, a common practice in the western districts. When prices rose sharply, their wages failed to follow suit; this drop in real wages left them less able to purchase food. The following table, excerpted from Maharatna (1992
|Cause of death||Pre-famine|
Overall, the table shows the dominance of malaria as the cause of death throughout the famine, accounting for roughly 43% of the excess deaths in 1943 and 71% in 1944. Cholera was a major source of famine-caused deaths in 1943 (24%) but dropped to a negligible percentage (1%) the next year. Smallpox deaths were almost a mirror image: they made up a small percentage of excess deaths in 1943 (1%) but jumped to (24%) in 1944. Finally, the sharp jump in the death rate from "All other" causes in 1943 is almost certainly due to deaths from pure starvation, which were negligible in 1944.
Though excess mortality due to malarial deaths peaked in December 1943, rates remained high throughout the following year.Scarce supplies of quinine (the most common malaria medication) were very frequently diverted to the black market. Advanced anti-malarial drugs such as mepacrine (Atabrine) were distributed almost solely to the military and to "priority classes"; DDT (then relatively new and considered "miraculous") and pyrethrum were sprayed only around military installations. Paris Green was used as an insecticide in some other areas. This unequal distribution of anti-malarial measures may explain a lower incidence of malarial deaths in population centres, where the greatest cause of death was "all other" (probably migrants dying from starvation).
Deaths from dysentery and diarrhea peaked in December 1943, the same month as for malaria.Cholera deaths peaked in October 1943 but receded dramatically in the following year, brought under control by a vaccination program overseen by military medical workers. A similar smallpox vaccine campaign started later and was pursued less effectively; smallpox deaths peaked in April 1944. "Starvation" was generally not listed as a cause of death at the time; many deaths by starvation may have been listed under the "all other" category. Here the death rates rather than percentages reveal the peak in 1943.
The two waves—starvation and disease—also interacted and amplified one another, increasing the excess mortality.Widespread starvation and malnutrition first compromised immune systems, and reduced resistance to disease led to death by opportunistic infections. Second, the social disruption and dismal conditions caused by a cascading breakdown of social systems brought mass migration, overcrowding, poor sanitation, poor water quality and waste disposal, increased vermin, and unburied dead. All of these factors are closely associated with the increased spread of infectious disease.
Despite the organised and sometimes violent civil unrest immediately before the famine,there was no organised rioting when the famine took hold. However, the crisis overwhelmed the provision of health care and key supplies: food relief and medical rehabilitation were supplied too late, while medical facilities across the province were pathetically insufficient for the task at hand. A long-standing system of rural patronage, in which peasants relied on large landowners to supply subsistence in times of crisis, collapsed as patrons exhausted their own resources and abandoned the peasants.
Families also disintegrated, with cases of abandonment, child-selling, prostitution, and sexual exploitation.Lines of small children begging stretched for miles outside cities; at night, children could be heard "crying bitterly and coughing terribly ... in the pouring monsoon rain ... stark naked, homeless, motherless, fatherless and friendless. Their sole possession was an empty tin". A schoolteacher in Mahisadal witnessed "children picking and eating undigested grains out of a beggar's diarrheal discharge". Author Freda Bedi wrote that it was "not just the problem of rice and the availability of rice. It was the problem of society in fragments."
The famine fell hardest on the rural poor. As the distress continued, families adopted increasingly desperate means for survival. First, they reduced their food intake and began to sell jewelry, ornaments, and smaller items of personal property. As expenses for food or burials became more urgent, the items sold became larger and less replaceable. Eventually, families disintegrated; men sold their small farms and left home to look for work or to join the army, and women and children became homeless migrants, often travelling to Calcutta or another large city in search of organised relief:
Husbands deserted wives and wives husbands; elderly dependents were left behind in the villages; babies and young children were sometimes abandoned. According to a survey carried out in Calcutta during the latter half of 1943, some breaking up of the family had occurred in about half the destitute population which reached the city.
In Calcutta, evidence of the famine was "... mainly in the form of masses of rural destitutes trekking into the city and dying on the streets". Estimates of the number of the sick who flocked to Calcutta ranged between 100,000 and 150,000. Once they left their rural villages in search of food, their outlook for survival was grim: "Many died by the roadside – witness the skulls and bones which were to be seen there in the months following the famine."
The general disruption of many core elements of society brought a catastrophic breakdown of sanitary conditions and hygiene standards.The weekly newspaper Biplabi commented in November 1943 on the levels of putrefaction, contamination, and vermin infestation:
Bengal is a vast cremation ground, a meeting place for ghosts and evil spirits, a land so overrun by dogs, jackals and vultures that it makes one wonder whether the Bengalis are really alive or have become ghosts from some distant epoch.
Corpses were disposed of in rivers and water supplies, contaminating drinking water. Large scale migration resulted in the abandonment of the utensils and facilities necessary for washing clothes or preparation of food.Many people drank contaminated rainwater from streets and open spaces where others had urinated or defecated. Conditions did not improve for those under medical care:
Conditions in certain famine hospitals at this time ... were indescribably bad ... Visitors were horrified by the state of the wards and patients, the ubiquitous filth, and the lack of adequate care and treatment ... [In hospitals all across Bengal, the] condition of patients was usually appalling, a large proportion suffering from acute emaciation, with 'famine diarrhoea' ... Sanitary conditions in nearly all temporary indoor institutions were very bad to start with ...
Disposal of corpses soon became a problem for the government and the public, as numbers overwhelmed cremation houses, burial grounds, and those collecting and disposing of the dead: "We couldn't bury them or anything. No one had the strength to perform rites. People would tie a rope around the necks and drag them over to a ditch."Corpses were stacked along the streets of Calcutta, tossed by the tens of thousands into sources of drinking water, and left to rot and putrefy in open spaces. The bodies were picked over by vultures and dragged away by jackals. Sometimes this happened while the victim was still living. The sight of corpses beside canals, ravaged by dogs and jackals, was common; during a seven-mile boat ride in Midnapore in November 1943, a journalist counted at least five hundred such sets of skeletal remains.
As a further consequence of the crisis, a "cloth famine" left the poorest in Bengal clothed in scraps or naked through the winter.The British military consumed nearly all the textiles produced in India by purchasing Indian-made boots, parachutes, uniforms, blankets, and other goods at heavily discounted rates. India produced 600,000 miles of cotton fabric during the war, from which it made two million parachutes and 415 million items of military clothing. It exported 177 million yards of cotton in 1938–1939 and 819 million in 1942–1943. The country's production of silk, wool and leather was also used up by the military.
The small proportion of material left over was purchased by speculators for sale to civilians, subject to similarly steep inflation;in May 1943 prices were 425 percent higher than in August 1939. With the supply of cloth crowded out by commitments to Britain and price levels affected by profiteering, those not among the "priority classes" faced increasingly dire scarcity:
The robbing of graveyards for clothes, disrobing of men and women in out of way places for clothes ... and minor riotings here and there have been reported. Stray news has also come that women have committed suicide for want of cloth ... Thousands of men and women ... cannot go out to attend their usual work outside for want of a piece of cloth to wrap round their loins.
Many women "took to staying inside a room all day long, emerging only when it was [their] turn to wear the single fragment of cloth shared with female relatives."
One of the classic effects of famine is that it intensifies the exploitation of women; the sale of women and girls, for example, tends to increase. outcastes in a society that valorised female chastity, rejected by both their birth family and husband's family.The sexual exploitation of poor, rural, lower-caste and tribal women by the jotedars had been difficult to escape even before the crisis. In the wake of the cyclone and later famine, many women lost or sold all their possessions, and lost a male guardian due to abandonment or death. Those who migrated to Calcutta frequently had only begging or prostitution available as strategies for survival; often regular meals were the only payment. Das suggests that a large proportion of the girls aged 15 and younger who migrated to Calcutta during the famine disappeared into brothels; in late 1943, entire boatloads of girls for sale were reported in ports of East Bengal. Girls were also prostituted to the military, with boys acting as pimps. Families sent their young girls to wealthy landowners overnight in exchange for very small amounts of money or rice, or sold them outright into prostitution; girls were sometimes enticed with sweet treats and kidnapped by pimps. Very often, these girls lived in constant fear of injury or death, but the brothels were their sole means of survival. Women who had been sexually exploited could not later expect any social acceptance or a return to their home or family. Bina Agarwal writes that such women became permanent
In addition to the tens of thousands of children who were orphaned, kg or 82 lb) or as little as one seer (1 kg or 2.2 lb) of unhusked rice, or for trifling amounts of cash. Sometimes they were purchased as household servants, where they would "grow up as little better than domestic slaves". Others were also purchased by sexual predators. There were cases recorded of parents abandoning their children by the roadsides or at orphanages. Altogether, the fate of these women and children was an immense social cost of the famine.many were abandoned by the roadside or at orphanages or sold by their parents for as much as two maunds (37
Aside from the relatively swift but inadequate provision of humanitarian aid for the cyclone-stricken areas around Midnapore beginning in October 1942,the response of both the Bengal Provincial Government and the Government of India was remarkably slow. A "non-trivial" yet "pitifully inadequate" amount of aid began to be distributed from private charitable organisations in the early months of 1943 and increased through time, mainly in Calcutta but to a limited extent in the countryside. In April, more government relief began to flow to the outlying areas, but these efforts were restricted in scope and largely misdirected, with most of the cash and grain supplies flowing to the relatively wealthy landowners and urban middle-class (and typically Hindu) bhadraloks. This initial period of relief included three forms of aid: agricultural loans (cash for the purchase of paddy seed, plough cattle, and maintenance expenses), grain given as gratuitous relief, and "test works". Agricultural loans offered no assistance to the large numbers of rural poor who had little or no land. Grain relief was divided between cheap grain shops and the open market, with far more going to the markets. Supplying grain to the markets was intended to lower grain prices, but in practice gave little help to the rural poor, instead placing them into direct purchasing competition with wealthier Bengalis at greatly inflated prices. Thus from the beginning of the crisis until around August 1943, private charity was the principal form of relief available for the very poor.
According to Greenough (1982) the Provincial Government of Bengal delayed its relief efforts primarily because they had no idea how to deal with a provincial rice market crippled by the interaction of man-made shocks,as opposed to localised shortage due to natural disaster. Moreover, the urban middle-class were their overriding concern, not the rural poor. They were also expecting the Government of India to rescue Bengal by bringing food in from outside the province (350,000 tons had been promised but not delivered). And finally, they had long stood by a public propaganda campaign declaring "sufficiency" in Bengal's rice supply, and were afraid that speaking of scarcity rather than sufficiency would lead to increased hoarding and speculation.
Both private and public relief efforts were neglected, abused, misdirected or disputed in some manner: private relief was greatly hampered by Hindu and Muslim communalism, with bitter accusations and counter-accusations, first charging unfair distribution of the amount or the types of grain distributed, and then unfair rationing.There was also rampant corruption and nepotism in the distribution of government aid; often as much as half of the goods disappeared into the black market or into the hands of friends or relatives. Despite a long-established and detailed Famine Code that would have triggered a sizable increase in aid, and a statement privately circulated by the government in June 1943 that a state of famine might need to be formally declared, this declaration never happened.
Grain began to flow to buyers in Calcutta after the interprovincial trade barriers were abolished in May 1943,but on 17 July a flood of the Damodar River in Midnapore breached major rail lines, severely hampering import by rail. As the depth and scope of the famine became unmistakable, the Provincial Government began setting up gruel kitchens in August 1943; the gruel, which often provided barely a survival-level caloric intake, was sometimes unfit for consumption—moldy or contaminated with dirt, sand, and gravel. Unfamiliar and indigestible grains were often substituted for rice, causing intestinal distress that frequently resulted in death among the weakest. Nevertheless, food distributed from government gruel kitchens immediately became the main source of aid for the rural poor.
The rails had also been repaired in August and pressure from the Government of India brought substantial supplies into Calcutta during September,Linlithgow's final month as Viceroy. However, a second problem emerged: the Civil Supplies Department of Bengal was undermanned and under-equipped to distribute the supplies, and the resulting transportation bottleneck left very large piles of grain accumulating in the open air in several locations, including Calcutta's Botanical Garden. Field Marshal Archibald Wavell replaced Linlithgow that October, within two weeks he had requested military support for the transport and distribution of crucial supplies. This assistance was delivered promptly, including "a full division of... 15,000 [British] soldiers...military lorries and the Royal Air Force" and distribution to even the most distant rural areas began on a large scale. In particular, grain was imported from the Punjab, and medical resources were made far more available. Rank-and-file soldiers, who had sometimes disobeyed orders to feed the destitute from their rations, were held in esteem by Bengalis for the efficiency of their work in distributing relief. That December, the "largest [rice] paddy crop ever seen" in Bengal was harvested, and the price of rice began to fall. Wavell made several other key policy steps, including promising that aid from other provinces would continue to feed the Bengal countryside, setting up a minimum rations scheme, and (after considerable effort) prevailing upon Great Britain to increase international imports. He has been widely praised for his decisive and effective response to the crisis. All official food relief work ended in December 1943 and January 1944.
The famine's aftermath greatly accelerated pre-existing socioeconomic processes leading to poverty and income inequality,severely disrupted important elements of Bengal's economy and social fabric, and ruined millions of families. The crisis overwhelmed and impoverished large segments of the economy. A key source of impoverishment was the widespread coping strategy of selling assets for food. As the famine wore on, nearly 1.6 million families—roughly one-quarter of smallholders and dwarfholders—tried to save themselves by selling or mortgaging their paddy lands, thus falling from the status of landholders to that of labourers. Land transfers increased by 504%, 665%, 1,057% and 872% over the four years following 1941.
This fall into lower income groups happened across a number of occupations. In absolute numbers, the hardest hit by post-famine impoverishment were women and landless agricultural labourers. In relative terms, those engaged in rural trade,fishing and transport (boatmen and bullock cart drivers) suffered the most. In absolute numbers, agricultural labourers faced the highest rates of destitution and mortality.
The "panicky responses" of the British government in the wake of the fall of Burma had profound political consequences. "It was soon obvious to the bureaucrats in New Delhi and the provinces, as well as the GHQ (India)," wrote Bhattacharya (2002b), "that the disruption caused by these short-term policies—and the political capital being made out of their effects—would necessarily lead to a situation where major constitutional concessions, leading to the dissolution of the Raj, would be unavoidable."For example, nationwide opposition to the boat denial policy, as typified by Mahatma Gandhi's vehement editorials, helped strengthen the Indian independence movement, since the dispute "galvanized both the Nationalist struggle in India and London's extreme response to the same, contributing significantly to the way that the 'Quit India' movement of 1942 played out."
Calcutta's two leading English-language newspapers were The Statesman (at the time British-owned) – even use of the word "famine" was prohibited – leading The Statesman later to remark that the UK government "seems virtually to have withheld from the British public knowledge that there was famine in Bengal at all".and Amrita Bazar Patrika . In the early months of the famine, the government applied pressure on newspapers to "calm public fears about the food supply" and follow the official stance that there was no rice shortage. This effort had some success; The Statesman published editorials asserting that the famine was due solely to speculation and hoarding, while "berating local traders and producers, and praising ministerial efforts." News of the famine was also subject to strict war-time censorship
Beginning in mid-July 1943 and more so in August, however, these two newspapers began publishing detailed and increasingly critical accounts of the depth and scope of the famine, its impact on society, and the nature of British, Hindu, and Muslim political responses.A turning point in news coverage came in late August 1943, when the editor of The Statesman, Ian Stephens, solicited and published a series of graphic photos of the victims. These made world headlines and marked the beginning of domestic and international consciousness of the famine. The next morning, "in Delhi second-hand copies of the paper were selling at several times the news-stand price," and soon "in Washington the State Department circulated them among policy makers." In Britain, The Guardian called the situation "horrible beyond description". The images had a profound effect and marked "for many, the beginning of the end of colonial rule". Stephens' decision to publish them and to adopt a defiant editorial stance won accolades from many (including the Famine Inquiry Commission), and has been described as "a singular act of journalistic courage and conscientiousness, without which many more lives would have surely been lost". The publication of the images, along with Stephens' editorials, not only helped to bring the famine to an end by driving the British government to supply adequate relief to the victims, but also inspired Amartya Sen's influential contention that the presence of a free press prevents famines in democratic countries. The photographs also spurred Amrita Bazar Patrika and the Indian Communist Party's organ, People's War, to publish similar images; the latter would make photographer Sunil Janah famous.
The famine has been portrayed in celebrated novels, films and art. The novel Ashani Sanket by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay is a fictional account of a young doctor and his wife in rural Bengal during the famine. It was adapted into a film of the same name ( Distant Thunder ) by director Satyajit Ray in 1973. The film is listed in The New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made.Also well-known are the novel So Many Hungers! (1947) by Bhabani Bhattacharya and the 1980 film Akaler Shandhaney by Mrinal Sen.
A contemporary sketchbook of iconic scenes of famine victims, Hungry Bengal: a tour through Midnapur District in November, 1943 by Chittaprosad, was immediately banned by the British and 5,000 copies were seized and destroyed.One copy was hidden by Chittaprosad's family and is now in the possession of the Delhi Art Gallery. Another artist famed for his sketches of the famine was Zainul Abedin.
Debate about the causes of the famine covers complex issues in an attempt to assign culpability, whether to natural forces, market failures, failure or malfeasance by governmental institutions, war profiteering or other unscrupulous acts by private business. The questionable accuracy of much of the available statistical data is a complicating factor, as is the fact that the debates and their conclusions are both political and politicised.
The issue of the degree of crop shortfall in late 1942 and its impact in 1943 has dominated the historiography of the famine. (FAD) as a cause for famine, and another focuses on the failure of exchange entitlements (FEE). The FAD explanation blames famine on crop failures brought on principally by crises such as drought, flood, or man-made devastation from war. The FEE account agrees that such external factors are in some cases important, but holds that famine is primarily the interaction between pre-existing "structural vulnerability" (such as poverty) and a shock event (such as war or political interference in markets) that disrupts the economic market for food. When these interact, some groups within society can become unable to purchase or acquire food even though sufficient supplies are available.The issue reflects a larger debate between two perspectives: one emphasises the importance of food availability decline
Both the FAD and FEE perspectives would agree that Bengal experienced at least some grain shortage in 1943 due to the loss of imports from Burma, damage from the cyclone, and brown-spot infestation. However, FEE analyses do not consider shortage the main factor,while FAD-oriented scholars such as Bowbrick (1986) hold that a sharp drop in the food supply was the pivotal determining factor. Tauger (2003) and Padmanabhan (1973), in particular, argue that the impact of brown-spot disease was vastly underestimated, both during the famine and in later analyses. The signs of crop infestation by the fungus are subtle; given the social and administrative conditions at the time, local officials would very likely have overlooked them.
Academic consensus generally follows the FEE account, as formulated by A. Sen (1977) and A. Sen (1981a), in describing the Bengal famine of 1943 as an "entitlements famine". On this view, the prelude to the famine was generalised war-time inflation, and the problem was exacerbated by prioritised distribution and abortive attempts at price control,but the death blow was devastating leaps in the inflation rate due to heavy speculative buying and panic-driven hoarding. This in turn caused a fatal decline in the real wages of landless agricultural workers, transforming what should have been a local shortage into a horrific famine.
More recent analyses often stress political factors.Discussions of the government's role split into two broad camps: those which suggest that the government unwittingly caused or was unable to respond to the crisis, and those which assert that the government willfully caused or ignored the plight of starving Indians. The former see the problem as a series of avoidable war-time policy failures and "panicky responses" from a government that was spectacularly inept, overwhelmed and in disarray; the latter as a conscious miscarriage of justice by the "ruling colonial elite" who abandoned the poor of Bengal.
Sen, for example, does not deny that British mis-government contributed to the crisis, but sees the policy failure as a complete misunderstanding of the cause of the famine. This misunderstanding led to a wholly misguided emphasis on measuring nonexistent food shortages rather than addressing the very real and devastating inflation-driven imbalances in exchange entitlements.In stark contrast, Cormac Ó Gráda lends greater weight to the importance of a crop shortfall than does Sen, and goes on to largely reject Sen's emphasis on hoarding and speculation. He does not stop there, however, but emphasises a "lack of political will" and the pressure of wartime priorities that drove the British government and the provincial government of Bengal to make fateful decisions: the "denial policies", the use of heavy shipping for war supplies rather than food, the refusal to officially declare a state of famine, and the Balkanisation of grain markets through inter-provincial trade barriers. On this view, these policies were designed to serve British military goals at the expense of Indian interests, reflecting the War Cabinet's willingness to "supply the Army's needs and let the Indian people starve if necessary". Far from being accidental, these dislocations were fully recognised beforehand as fatal for identifiable Indian groups whose economic activities did not directly, actively, or adequately advance British military goals. The policies may have met their intended wartime goals, but only at the cost of large-scale dislocations in the domestic economy. The British government, this argument maintains, thus bears moral responsibility for the rural deaths. Law-Smith's discussion of contributing causes of the famine also lays blame on the British Government of India, primarily emphasising Viceroy Linlithgow's lack of political will to "infringe provincial autonomy" by using his authority to remove interprovincial barriers, which would have ensured the free movement of life-saving grain.
A related argument, present since the days of the faminebut expressed at length by Mukerjee (2010), accuses key figures in the British government (particularly Prime Minister Winston Churchill) of genuine antipathy toward Indians and Indian independence—an antipathy arising mainly from a desire to protect imperialist privilege, but tinged also with racist undertones. This is attributed to British anger over widespread Bengali nationalist sentiment and the perceived treachery of the violent Quit India uprising.
For its part, the report of the Famine Commission — its members appointed in 1944 by the government of India and chaired by Sir John Woodhead, a former Indian Civil Service (ICS) official in Bengal — absolved the British government from all major blame. It laid some responsibility at the feet of unavoidable fate, but reserved its most forceful finger-pointing for local politicians in the Government of Bengal: "But after considering all the circumstances, we cannot avoid the conclusion that it lay in the power of the Government of Bengal, by bold, resolute and well-conceived measures at the right time to have largely prevented the tragedy of the famine as it actually took place." Some sources allege that the Famine Commission deliberately declined to blame the UK or was even designed to do so; however, Bowbrick (1985 , p. 57) forcefully defends the report's accuracy. British accusations that Indian officials were responsible began as early as 1943, as an editorial in The Statesman on 5 October noted disapprovingly.
Greenough (1982) stands somewhat apart from other analysts by emphasizing a pattern of victimization. In his account, Bengal was at base susceptible to famine because of population pressures and market inefficiencies, and these were exacerbated by a dire combination of war, political strife, and natural causes.Above all else, however, direct blame should be laid on a series of government interventions that disrupted the wholesale rice market. Once the crisis began, morbidity rates were driven by a series of cultural decisions, as dependents were abandoned by their providers at every level of society: male heads of peasant households abandoned weaker family members; landholders abandoned the various forms of patronage that (according to Greenough) had traditionally been maintained, and the government abandoned the rural poor. These abandoned groups had been socially and politically selected for death.
A final line of blame-laying holds that major industrialists either caused or at least significantly exacerbated the famine through speculation, war profiteering, hoarding, and corruption—"unscrupulous, heartless grain traders forcing up prices based on false rumors". 3,807 or $1,252 in 2018] of profits were accrued per death". As the Famine Inquiry Commission put it, "a large part of the community lived in plenty while others starved ... corruption was widespread throughout the province and in many classes of society."Working from an assumption that the Bengal famine claimed 1.5 million lives, the Famine Inquiry Commission made a "gruesome calculation" that "nearly a thousand rupees [£88 in 1944; equivalent to £
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