Famine of 1943

Under the British Raj, India suffered countless famines. But the worst hit was Bengal Famine of 1943. The first of these was in 1770, followed by severe ones in 1783, 1866, 1873, 1892, 1897 and lastly 1943.

Background to the Famine of 1943      

The Great Bengal Famine of 1943 took a heavy toll of life. The root cause of the famine lay in a series of crop failures that Bengal experienced from 1938 and in the conditions created by the Second World War. The normal import of rice from Burma stopped and the trade and movement of food grains was dislocated because of controls and nearness of Bengal to the theatre of war in the East. This famine might be called "more man-made than an act of God." Man exploited the situation created by nature and war.

Relief measures were belated and inadequate. The delay in facing the problem of relief and the non declaration of the famine were bound up with the unfortunate war propaganda policy of "no shortage". Relief expenditure was at one stage limited on financial grounds. Above all, the Central Government showed a callous disregard for the misfortunes of Bengal and wanted the Provincial Government of Bengal to undertake and organise famine relief.

Famine of 1943

Amartya Sen is "inclined to pick a figure around 3 million as the death toll of the Bengal famine". Paul Greenough would put it somewhere " between 3.5 and 3.8 million", while the more recent estimate of Tim Dyson and Arup Maharatna puts it at 2.1 million as the figure for excess deaths caused by the Bengal famine. Even if we go by the most conservative estimate, the famine was a catastrophe of such magnitude that history of the subcontinent had never known before. Bengali public opinion was unanimous that it was a "man made" famine. There were a few natural factors of course, like a devastating cyclone in Modnapur, but that alone did not cause the famine. As Greengough points out, the per capita entitlement of rice was gradually going down in Bengal over a long period. In 1943, it reached a crisis point due to multiple factors, such as the breakdown of an already vulnerable rice marketing system, which had for long remained completely unsupervised and uncontrolled, leading to hoarding and speculation. What added to this were a government procurement policy that prioritised official and military requirements over local needs of subsistence and wartime stresses, like the 'denial policy', the refugee influx from Burma into Chittagong, and the disappearance of imported rice from Burma. The relief operations failed miserably, while the Government tried to save Calcutta at the expense of the countryside, the Marwari Relief Committee and the Hindu Mahasabha relief committees targeted only the middle classes. The peasantry, the worst sufferers of the famine, had nowhere to go. It is true that this unusual scarcity of food caused by the exorbitant price of rice- that shot beyond the reach of ordinary people- did not cause any food riot in Bengal, instead the violence, as Greengough argues, turned "inward" and "downward" destroying all conventional relationships of patronage and dependency.

The communists responded adequately to the food situation. They held meetings at various places in Bengal criticising the government's food policy and undertook-through BKPS and Mahila Samitis- extensive relief work in the villages. In 1943, the BKPS membership reached 83,160- the highest among all the provincial Kisan Sabhas in the country. Although they preferred a conciliatory policy at this stage- under the People's War strategy- the involvement of poor peasants often got BPKS engaged in clashes with zamindars, grain dealers and other vested interests. This gradually prepared the ground for the Tebhaga movement in support of a long standing demand of the sharecroppers for two-third share of the produce, instead of customary half.

Salient points regarding Famine of 1943

  • It was a man-made famine.
  • Around 2 million people lost their lives due to this famine.
  • The worst affected areas were south-west Bengal comprising the Tamluj-Contai-Diamond Harbour region, Dacca, Faridpur, Tippera and Noakhali.
  • The major causes of the famine were as follows-
  1. A major reason was the cyclone of October 1942 which washed away the crop that year, leaving very little rice till the next harvest season, next year.
  2. The rice imports from Burma and Southeast Asia had been stopped.
  3. Scorched Earth Policy- With the advent of the Second World War and the onward march of the Japanese on the South East Asian frontier, the empire was increasingly nervous of a Japanese invasion of India, especially after Burma fell. That is when a cornered empire announced the implementation of the scorched earth policy, one where both, the military and civil administration was instructed to destroy all industrial, military and transport facilities along with means by which the enemy army can gain sustenance so that even if the area falls in the enemy s hands, the enemy can t do much about it. This would mean that water stocks and food should be kept to the bare essential minimum quantities that the local population would require.
  4. The need to feed a vast Army diverted food grains.
  5. The famine got aggravated by gross mismanagement and deliberate profiteering, rationing methods were belated and were confined to big cities.


Book: "Churchill's Secret War" by Madhusree Mukerjee

Much has been written on the Bengal famine in India and America, but mostly concentrating on local factors. Madhusree Mukerjee's Churchill's Secret War, however, sets the disaster in its imperial context, showing how the story of the famine was interwoven with the history of Gandhi's "Quit India" movement and the attitudes and priorities of Churchill and his war cabinet. It establishes how Churchill and his associates could easily have stopped the famine with a few shipments of foodgrains but refused, in spite of repeated appeals from two successive Viceroys, Churchill's own Secretary of State for India and even the President of the United States.

Churchill reportedly said that famine or no famine, Indians would 'continue to breed like rabbits'.

Documentary: "Bengal Shadows"

The documentary, Bengal Shadows, made by two Bengali-origin French filmmakers, revolves around the British empire's role, especially that of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in causing and exacerbating the Bengal famine, which starved nearly five million people to death.

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