Droughts remain a relatively common phenomenon in India even today, largely due to lack of irrigation facilities in most parts of the country. While the condition of most farmers in India remains precarious to this day (and thousands of suicides are reported each year), it is a far cry from what it was during the colonial era. With inadequate (at times non existent) famine relief and usurious taxation, one failed monsoon could easily spell death for millions during the British Raj.
Bengal- the first region to come under British rule- started its tryst with the Raj with the Great Bengal Famine (1769-70) (known in Bangla as ৭৬-এর মন্বন্তর/ Chhiattōrer monnōntór), which claimed an estimated 10 million lives- roughly a third of the population of the region. That famine proved to be the predecessor of many under British rule. Between 1769 and 1900, over 50 million Indians died due to famines across the length and breadth of India. Nonetheless, by the 20th century famines had became a thing of the past…
…until 1943, when Bengal’s tryst with the Raj ended with another colossal famine. Seven decades after after it happened, its time we recounted that man-made holocaust.
Prelude to Tragedy
Rice, the staple diet in Bengal, used to be grown in three crops in Bengal. Aman (harvested in November/ December) was the most important crop, followed by the minor boro crop (harvested in February/ March) and aus (harvested in August September), which sustained people until the aman would be harvested in the winter. The rice available in Bengal at the beginning of a calendar year used to be in the form of the aman crop plus whatever reserve grains would be available.
Due to unfavourable weather conditions in the region, the average annual production of rice between 1938-39 to 1942-43 dropped to 24.4 million tonnes from 25.8 million tonnes between 1933-34 and 1937-38. The drop in production, coinciding with a period of rapidly rising population, resulted in grain shortages every year, which was not a major problem as shortages could be met either through imports from neighbouring Burma or by transporting foodgrains from other parts of the country. The combination of the two plus the brilliance of the administrators ensured that there were virtually no deaths despite a potentially disastrous drought in 1940-41. Unfortunately, a lot changed in the two years that followed.
On 29th November 1941, the British government gave provinces the power to exercise prohibition of movement of foodgrains under the Defence of India Rules, 1939. With a war currently underway, the Provinces naturally rushed to prohibit movement of foodgrains outside their respective areas, which meant that it became virtually impossible to transport surplus grains from one province to the other. It didn’t help that by virtue of the Government of India Act 1936, the central government no longer had absolute control over the provinces they way it once did.
The government’s fears were scarcely unfounded, as the Japanese were quickly overrunning south east Asia at the time. It was only a matter of time before they would become a threat to the empire in India.
The Japanese Come Calling
The expected Japanese invasion of Burma started in January 1942. By March, Burma was occupied by the Japanese, which meant that the British government confronted a hostile enemy barely a few hundred kilometres across the Bay of Bengal. From a food supply point of view, it also meant that an essential source of supply of rice was now cut off.
In preparation of war, the military authorities put in place a ‘denial policy’ under which rice and paddy stocks estimated to be in excess of local requirements were removed from the coastal districts of Midnapore, Bakarganj and Khulna (the last two are in present day Bangladesh). In addition, all boats capable of carrying 10 or more passengers were removed.
While it made for sound military strategy, the denial policy effectively ensured that there would be no reserve stocks in case of a poor harvest in areas near the coast. The British government compounded it by stepping up food grains exports to Europe. The export of rice between January and July 1942 jumped to 3,20,000 tonnes as compared to just 1,32,000 tonnes for the corresponding period in 1941.
The increased exports, coinciding with the loss of rice from Burma and the prohibition imposed by other provinces set the stage for the tragedy that followed.
The morning of 16th October 1942 a cyclone followed by torrential rains stuck the western districts of Bengal. A few hours later came three massive tidal waves. The combination of tidal waves and torrential rains pushed up the water levels in the rivers Hoogly, Rupnarayan, Haldi and Rasalpur. The resulting floods severely damaged the aman crop over an estimated area of over 8,000 square kilometres. In many areas in the interiors, the torrential downpours even destroyed the reserve stock of grains. After the floods receded, fungus set in, further damaging the crop.
By the end of December, it was obvious to all that the aman crop was going to be woefully inadequate. Not surprisingly, speculators started hoarding up grains, expecting a windfall. They were not to be disappointed. From Rs. 5/10/0 per maund in January 1942, the price had shot up to Rs. 12/8/0 per maund in the Calcutta wholesale market by January 1943
(Note: Maund was the old unit of weight, equal to 37.3242 kgs. There is no equivalent to the ana in today’s terms, but in those days the Indian rupee consisted of 16 anas of 12 pice each. Prices used to be denominated in Rs/ Anas/ Pice. The old units of measures disappeared after India adopted the metric system in a phased manner between 1955 and 1962).
By December, fears of a Japanese attack proved to be true. The Japanese bombardment of Calcutta started on 20th December. There were five air raids in the last days of December 1942, followed by more in January 1943. The air raids threw the entire distribution system out of gear. Desperate to secure supplies to keep the city running- an imperative, as Calcutta was the base for securing the government against Japanese aggression- the government of Bengal decided to procure grains not only for supply, but also to serve as buffer stocks.
After two months experimenting with various measures, none of which succeeded in securing the food supply for Calcutta, the government announced that it was going to abrogate any attempts at price control on 11th March. The decision made sense from the point of view of securing food supplies for the city of Calcutta, as the measures already undertaken had achieved precious little.
But for the average Bengali, the outcome was bound to be an unmitigated disaster. From an already unaffordable Rs. 15 per maund in early March, the wholesale prices had leapt to Rs. 30/10/0 by 17th May. In many districts, the prices were nudging 50- and we’re talking only about wholesale prices. In an era when the vast majority of Indians lived on daily earnings that seldom exceeded a few anas, the skyrocketing prices put food grains well out of reach. By the second quarter of 1943, millions were starving.
The most sensible thing to be done under the circumstances, was to stop exports of food grains from India and divert them to Bengal, which is what Leopold Amery (Secretary of State for India) and Field Marshal Wavell (who would become viceroy in the summer of 1943) strongly advocated. Unfortunately for them and for millions of starving Bengalis, the then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was more concerned about starving Greeks (who were, coincidentally, reeling under a famine at the very same time) than starving Indians. In any case, Churchill had a marked hatred for Indians. In his own words:
I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.
Worse still, offer for aid from the USA and Canada were turned down. Tonnes of wheat from Australia sailed past India to the Balkans and the Mediterranean region, even as millions of Indians were starving. His response to the first telegram from Delhi about the famine was to inquire why Gandhi hadn’t died yet. Whatever spin apologists for Mr. Churchill might put, the undeniable reality is that he bears no little responsibility for the tragedy of 1943.
The famine could have been contained by cracking down on hoarding. After all, an even greater food scarcity in 1940-41 had caused virtually no deaths. In the event the combination of human greed, administrative incompetence and Mr. Churchill’s callousness ensured that no effective measures were carried out. For their folly, millions of Indians paid a heavy price.
- By common consensus, 2 to 3 million people died in the man made famine (some estimates place the human cost even higher)
- The British authorities never officially declared a famine
- Lord Wavell, who took over the office of Viceroy in October 1943, lost no time in initiating famine relief arrangements.
- A strong monsoon coupled with favourable weather conditions would result in an excellent harvest in the winter of 1943-44, bringing the famine to an end
- Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India would say that that sight of well fed British soldiers at he height of the famine was “the final judgement on British rule in India”.
- The economic dislocations caused by the famine, war in the east and the partition of Bengal four years later sent the region of Bengal on a vicious downward spiral. Once the most prosperous province of India, Bengal remains to this day an economically backward region
- Historian Madhusree Mukherjee in her 2010 book “Churchill’s Secret War” described then British Prime Minister Churchill’s role in the famine in extremely scathing terms
- Outside of the state of West Bengal in present day India, the 1943 famine is a virtually forgotten chapter in colonial history.
- Famine Inquiry Commission, Report on Bengal, Usha Publications, New Delhi (1960)