Demographic crisis: Revisiting the Bengal famine of 1943–4

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 4 (July/August 2010), Volume 18

Refugee women and children queueing for food in Calcutta in December 1943. Having to queue for hours for food forced such migrants to indulge in unhygienic practices and created unhealthy conditions in the localities where shops were located. (William Vandivert, Life)

Refugee women and children queueing for food in Calcutta in December 1943. Having to queue for hours for food forced such migrants to indulge in unhygienic practices and created unhealthy conditions in the localities where shops were located. (William Vandivert, Life)

The Great Bengal Famine of 1943–4 resulted in the deaths from starvation and famine-related diseases of over two million people. In pre-partition Bengal it reawakened dim collective memories of Chhiatt?rer monn?ntór, the massive but poorly documented famine that had produced devastation in 1770. In India and Bangladesh both famines are seen as colonial famines: the earlier as the product of the East India Company’s rapacity, the later the result of a lack of concern on the part of an imperial power focused on waging World War II. The 1943–4 famine is noteworthy for being India’s—though not Bangladesh’s—last major famine.

War-related

Crucially, the famine was a war-famine. Rangoon had fallen to the Japanese in March 1942. In the following months they sank a destroyer and several merchantmen in the Bay of Bengal and sporadically bombed Bengali cities, including Calcutta. Although the Japanese were too thinly spread to risk an invasion, Bengal remained exposed and vulnerable. Its usual supplies of Burmese rice were cut off. More importantly, on military advice, officials removed rice deemed surplus to local requirements from coastal districts, and requisitioned and destroyed any boats of potential use to invaders. This ‘boat denial policy’ compromised the livelihoods of fishermen and boatmen. Moreover, the authorities prioritised Calcutta and its war-related production over the rest of the province. Concern for the city’s ‘priority classes’ accounted for the forcible requisition of rice from mills and warehouses in and around the city in late December 1942.

Even before the end of 1942 Bengal’s prospects were already causing disquiet in London, Delhi and Calcutta. In early December a memorandum from Delhi informed the secretary of state in London of an impending crisis owing to a combination of the loss of Burmese rice, natural disasters and an indifferent rice crop in Bengal. By March/April the situation was already critical both in coastal Midnapur, where a tsunami had struck in October, and in eastern Bengal. Relief works began, albeit on a small scale, in Dacca in March, and food rations were supplied to government employees at controlled prices. An outbreak of cholera in Calcutta in May 1943 drew media attention to the growing influx of poor people from the surrounding countryside. Having to queue for hours for food forced the migrants to ‘indulge in unhygienic practices and create unhealthy conditions in the localities where shops are located’. The poor were also blamed for the appalling state of the city’s dustbins and for a considerable increase in petty crime. Meanwhile, it was announced that labourers’ food rations in Calcutta in future would consist of equal shares of atta (a kind of wheat flour) and rice, in order to release rice for the rural areas. In early July the government opened its first food shop in Calcutta, selling rice at a subsidised price to the very poor.

At the outset the official stance was that there would be no problem as long as people were not panicked into excess purchasing or hoarding. Until the crisis degenerated into out-and-out famine, the mantra was that the problem was ‘grave maldistribution’. And although Bengal’s food minister, H.S. Suhrawardy, warned Delhi in early July that the province was ‘in the grip of a very great famine’, representatives of other Indian provinces ignored him and applauded instead the claim that ‘the only reason why people are starving in Bengal is that there is hoarding’. In late July the viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, changed his tune and demanded food imports as a matter of extreme urgency, no matter ‘how unpalatable this demand must be to HMG’.
Churchill’s lack of empathy

The Hindustan building in the centre of Calcutta. In many respects life proceeded as normal, since the authorities prioritised the city and its war-related production over the rest of the province (note the military vehicles). Concern for Calcutta’s ‘priority classes’ accounted for the forcible requisition of rice from mills and warehouses in and around the city in late December 1942.

The Hindustan building in the centre of Calcutta. In many respects life proceeded as normal, since the authorities prioritised the city and its war-related production over the rest of the province (note the military vehicles). Concern for Calcutta’s ‘priority classes’ accounted for the forcible requisition of rice from mills and warehouses in and around the city in late December 1942.

The secretary for state for India, Leo Amery, now began to listen and to argue the case at the war cabinet. The head of British forces in India, echoing Amery’s request, pleaded with London that ‘so far as shipping is concerned, the import of food is to my mind just as if not more important than the import of munitions’. But to no avail. Another rebuff by the war cabinet prompted Amery to muse in his diary that ‘Winston [Churchill] may be right in saying that the starvation of anyhow under-fed Bengalis is less serious than sturdy Greeks, at any rate from the war point of view, but he makes no sufficient allowance for the sense of Empire responsibility in this country’. Although in mid-October Amery was still referring in public only to ‘scarcity verging on famine’, in private he knew that the game was up. Churchill’s lack of empathy for India did not help; his immediate reaction to Amery’s last-ditch plea for more shipping was ‘a preliminary flourish on Indians breeding like rabbits and being paid a million a day by us for doing nothing about the war’.

Bengal’s rice output in normal years was barely enough for bare-bones subsistence. It is hardly surprising, then, that almost from the outset there was controversy about an issue that has dominated the historiography of the Bengal famine: the extent of the aman (autumn rice) harvest shortfall in late 1942 and of food availability in 1943. Although the authorities in London and New Delhi expected political leaders in Bengal to argue the case for adequacy, the weak coalition government that ruled until late March 1943 was hardly reassuring: in February it announced that estimated rice production in 1942/3 (6.9 million tons) was far short of consumption requirements (9.3 million).

As members of the Muslim League government that took over in early April intensified their attacks on hoarders and speculators, opposition spokesmen blamed the authorities for ‘clouding issues on the assumption that there are hoards of foodstuffs in the rural areas of Bengal which, if made available, will solve the problem’. The numbers produced by food minister Suhrawardy, buttressed by a ‘surmise’ regarding the carry-over of rice stocks from the previous year, were immediately attacked as faulty by independent experts. The opposition accused ministers of obfuscating reality by focusing on carry-over and hoarded stocks, and demanded that Bengal be declared a famine area. Later, Bengal’s main English-language newspaper would criticise politicians for their ‘disgraceful’ record of ‘false or ignorant prophecy’, noting how Amery, Delhi and Suhrawardy’s ‘inept’ predecessors had ‘proclaimed that food-shortage in India and Bengal was practically non-existent’.

Confessional tensions

The province’s woes were complicated by confessional tensions. Bengali Muslims were in a majority in the undivided province, and well mobilised politically. The poorest strata among the peasantry were disproportionately Muslim, and Muslim leaders prominent in 1943 had cut their political teeth on populist communal politics in the 1920s and 1930s, supporting pro-peasant land reforms and controls on moneylending. Hindu politicians were more likely to represent landlord and trading interests, as well as the genteel and literate bhadralok. Communal rioting took on an economic hue, with Muslim wrath directed particularly against Hindu and Marwari traders and moneylenders. Moneylending was mainly in the hands of Hindu banias (traders), mahajans (usurers) and landowners, and the Bengal Moneylenders’ Act of 1940 had hit them hard. Religious affiliation thus influenced the positions taken by leading actors during the famine, as well as the attribution of blame, both in its wake and subsequently.

The crisis was at its height in the second half of 1943. Price controls led to rice shortages even in Calcutta, and many dealers found it virtually impossible to obtain rice. Others disposed of their stocks before price control and shut up shop. Between August and December 1943 a huge gap separated official and black market prices. Prices began to fall as soon as producers were reassured about the quality of the new aman crop. While considerable shortages persisted in some areas, the new crop began to appear in bazaars in the interior in late November. The general opinion seemed to be that prices would continue to drop unless the government proceeded to buy up the crop, in which case cultivators and speculators would hold back, driving the price up again. The relative buoyancy of prices in early 1944, however, given the general impression that the late 1943 aman harvest had been a good one, argues against the presence of excessive hoarding on a large scale at the height of the famine. It would be silly to claim that no merchants or traders tried their hand at speculation; the point is that had the famine-inducing prices of summer and autumn 1943 been mainly due to hoarding, then the release of hoarded rice thereafter would have forced prices down more than they actually fell. In early 1944 the real price of rice was roughly the same as two years earlier.

Little hoarding of food in fact

Food being unloaded at Calcutta port. In late July 1943 the viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, demanded food imports as a matter of extreme urgency, no matter ‘how unpalatable this demand must be to HMG’. Yet by mid-October the secretary for state for India, Leo Amery, was still referring in public only to ‘scarcity verging on famine’. Churchill was even less sympathetic, referring to ‘Indians breeding like rabbits and being paid a million a day by us for doing nothing about the war’.(William Vandivert, Life)

Food being unloaded at Calcutta port. In late July 1943 the viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, demanded food imports as a matter of extreme urgency, no matter ‘how unpalatable this demand must be to HMG’. Yet by mid-October the secretary for state for India, Leo Amery, was still referring in public only to ‘scarcity verging on famine’. Churchill was even less sympathetic, referring to ‘Indians breeding like rabbits and being paid a million a day by us for doing nothing about the war’.
(William Vandivert, Life)

The ‘food drives’ of summer 1943 followed from the hoarding hypothesis, and the meagre hoards located by them are strong evidence against the claim that there was enough food for all. The first drive, which excluded the twin cities of Calcutta and Howrah, began on 7 June. It unearthed little rice, and food minister Suhrawardy’s claim that boats and carts had been used to conceal stocks impressed nobody. The drive laid bare the gravity of the situation. The second drive, targeting Calcutta–Howrah in early August 1943, forced Suhrawardy to concede that stocks in the hands of consumers, traders and employers were meagre.

The relatively small number of traders fined during the spring and summer of 1943 is further circumstantial evidence against large-scale speculative hoarding. Throughout the crisis the authorities campaigned against the twin offences of hoarding and profiteering. Traders who withheld stocks without declaring them and traders who made a false declaration were liable to fines and worse. Retailers charging more than the controlled price were similarly liable. The non-trading hoarder, whose motive was fear, was not immune, but the main target of the campaign was the creature who, ‘for sheer greed, grabs and withholds from circulation the food of his fellowmen’. In the first week of April 1943, 39 cases of profiteering were detected: eighteen related to sugar, nine to kerosene, eight to coal, two to salt and two to atta. In the following week 104 cases were dealt with, of which 55 related to sugar, 25 to kerosene, twenty to coal, one to mustard oil and three to medicines. In the last week of April the Ministry of Civil Supplies proceeded against 82 people for profiteering and hoarding; 29 cases related to sugar and 27 to coal. The pattern was repeated in the following weeks and months.
The huge increase in forced land transfers during the famine is also consistent with a poor harvest. Hundreds of thousands of smallholders were forced to sell off some or all of their land; 1.7 million land transfers were made in 1943, and 22.9% of families were forced either to sell or to mortgage all or part of their paddy land. The real price of land fell, implying that most of the sales were by smallholders normally reliant on agricultural labour to make ends meet and who needed the cash to buy food. This is hardly surprising, but even P.C. Joshi, leader of the Communist Party, conceded that the middle peasantry also suffered in 1943. ‘How is it’, he asked, ‘that even the middle peasant has to sell off; where did his rice go?’ Joshi’s answer—that ‘he got humbugged by the hoarder and tempted by the high price offered’ and ‘began sinking to the status of a pauper’—lacked conviction. But that nobody had enough food in Joshi’s view, except a small minority of landlords and moneylenders, surely implies a general supply shortage.

The Communists played a curious game during the famine. The party’s support for the war effort led to its legalisation in 1942. Its organisational and relief work won it plaudits during the famine, although its anti-Congress stance and uncritical support for the war alienated many. The party and its affiliates vigorously supported the food drives, and even after the authorities conceded that there was a food availability problem the party weekly, People’s War, continued to target the hoarder. A sympathiser later castigated the party for its ‘tame emphasis on the need to prevent food riots and unearth hoarding’.

Summary

There was a food availability problem, though its extent cannot be resolved with any accuracy. That there was a deficit may be inferred from informed commentary at the time, from the failure of the food drives and from the high incidence of forced land sales by starving peasants. In normal times Bengal might have been resilient enough to cope with the shortfall, but in 1943, given military requirements and war-related disruption to trade and communications, the consequences were disastrous.

Neither price movements nor the outcome of the food drives of the summer of 1943 support the case for excessive hoarding on a massive scale. Markets did ‘fail’ in another sense, however: the disruption of transport facilities led to huge increases in the price of rice in the east of the province. The problem in Bengal in 1943 was the failure of the imperial power to make good a harvest shortfall that would have been manageable in peacetime.  HI

Cormac Ó Gráda is Professor of Economics at University College Dublin.

Further reading:

A.K. Sen, Poverty and famines: an essay on entitlements and deprivation (Oxford, 1981).

C. Ó Gráda, Famine: a short history (Princeton, 2009).
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