4 THE BENGAL FAMINE
In 1943 Bengal suffered from a famine that resulted in perhaps 1.5 million deaths from hunger and the same number of deaths in the epidemics that hit a population weakened by hunger. The Commission of Inquiry that was appointed on the famine produced two remarkably detailed reports on the famine, the efforts that were made to control it, and the measures needed to prevent further famines (Famine Inquiry Commission - referred in future as FIC - 1945a, 1945b). The reports have been the main source of information for subsequent studies. They were highly critical of the Bengal Government, the Government of India, the Viceroy, the Imperial Government and the grain traders. Indeed only Wavell, who took over as Viceroy in October 1943, escaped with his reputation untarnished. An indication of the quality of the report is that it accepted and documented nearly all the criticisms of the authorities made in the highly critical, highly political books on the famine written by Hindu and Muslim nationalists (e.g. Dutt, 1944; T.C.Ghosh, 1944; K.C.Ghosh, 1944; Rajan, 1944), and it added a good number of criticisms of its own. The Viceroy was only too well aware of the political embarrassment that would be caused by exposing the inefficiency of the administration (Wavell in Moon(1973) pp 36-7), and it was widely believed that the Indian Government tried to limit the damage by printing only a few copies on inferior paper (Aykroyd, 1974). The English editor of the Calcutta Statesman, who had done most to bring the famine to the notice of officialdom in Calcutta, Delhi, London and Washington (defying censorship and the wrath of the local officials to do so) commented "The Famine Commission's report is as complete, painstaking and balanced an account of what happened and why, as will ever be achievable." (Stevens, 1966).
Very few people have had the opportunity to check Sen's work against its sources,and only a handful have done so - myself, my referees and a few researchers.
When Pergamon proposed to publish The Famine Commission Report as a classic and relevant account some years ago, Sen made a strong recommendation that the report was so flawed as not really to be worth putting out as a book. As a result it is still virtually impossible for most people to check his work.
Not only does this mean that misstatements have gone undetected, it means that Sen has been credited with presenting new insights, new analysis and new data when they appear fully developed in the Famine Commission Report.
Other sources must be collected from specialist libraries in London, Oxford and Cambridge for instance. It is time consuming and expensive to get it. Again, it is impossible for most of his readers to get hold of.
I would be very pleased to assist readers in obtaining source documents.
Rice is the staple food of Bengal, accounting for 80-90% of the calories consumed. There are three rice crops. The aman' crop, harvested in November or December, provides 74% of the rice supply, with the upland aus' crop harvested in August and September providing 24 % and the boro' crop harvested in February or March providing 3 %.
In December 1940 there was a much reduced aman' crop, and, as a result, there were shortages and isolated outbreaks of famine in 1941, which were easily handled with relief measures and market intervention. (The graph inside the front cover shows how these events were related to price changes.)
In December 1941 the rice crop was well above average, but prices started high and rose throughout the following year.
In July 1941 Japanese assets in the Empire were frozen. On 28th July Japan invaded Indo-China. On 8th December war broke out. There were air raids on Rangoon on 23rd January 1942 and on 7th March Rangoon fell. On l5th February Singapore fell. On 5th and 6th April Ceylon and Eastern India were bombed.
This meant a serious reduction in supply to India, as Bengal and other areas such as Madras relied on imports from Burma to make up their normal deficit, as did Ceylon.Indeed, it meant that India had at least a first-degree shortage which required strict control and rationing throughout the war to prevent further famines (Aykroyd, 1974; Moon, 1973 pp 32, 174). The threat of invasion meant that many producers held onto some of their stocks as an emergency supply. It also caused demand to rise. There was an influx of refugees from Burma, and at the same time consumers tried to build up their emergency stocks. These supply and demand changes caused prices to rise throughout India. As Bengal had had a good December 1941 crop, some surplus rice was exported to the other areas of India which had been hit by the loss of the Burma rice.
On October l6th 1942 a cyclone accompanied by torrential rains hit West Bengal, causing wind and rain damage and flooding. Three tidal waves laid waste a strip of land seven miles wide along the coast and three miles wide along river banks. The resulting high tides increased the flooding caused by the rain. Some 4000 square miles were affected.14,500 people and 190,000 cattle were killed; crops and grain stores were damaged.Fungus disease and root-rot then hit the sodden crops, causing even more severe damage than the flooding itself.
When this poor winter crop was harvested, prices rose rapidly, doubling within a month in the country areas. By March 1943 there was hunger throughout Bengal, and from July to November, the famine was in full spate. Relief measures of the kind mentioned in Appendix I were introduced immediately in the area affected by the famine (FIC pp 32,65, 66, 236). They were extended throughout the country as the famine hit. The measures were totally inadequate in most areas and were only really adequate in Calcutta.
In December 1943 the Bengal Government thought that the shortage was mainly psychological. (See Appendix II for a detailed description of the actions of the Bengal Government through the famine.) They believed that there was no real shortage and that the price rises were caused by speculators. As a result, their main strategy throughout the famine was to "break the Calcutta market", releasing imported, purchased or seized grain on the market in an attempt to frighten speculators and hoarders into selling off their surplus stocks. They had great difficulty in buying any rice in the country areas in the first quarter of 1943, even when officials were told that there was no limit on the price they could pay. They were able to buy only 23,000 tons out of a normal annual consumption of 9.6 million tons, and releasing this had no impact on market prices. A further 28,000 tons was imported in March, which, again, had no effect. In June and July a further 90,000 tons were imported, again with no effect on prices.
In April and May there was a propaganda drive to persuade speculators and hoarders to release their stocks, with no apparent effect.
In June 1943 there was a house-to-house search for secret stockpiles, but it was found that there was very little in stock, not enough to last to the November harvest. It was around this time that the Bengal Government came to believe that there was in fact a serious shortage.
Throughout the famine imports into Bengal were low. Initially, this was because the Bengal Government thought that the shortage was no more serious than that of 1941, and thought that it would be possible to manage with the food available. In the second quarter of 1943 it was thought that imports of 300,000 tons would be sufficient to cure the famine (This was the quantity eventually imported). From the middle of the year government began to believe that much bigger imports were needed. It was found though that other provinces refused to permit exports to Bengal. India as a whole had a first degree shortage and prices were rising, so any exports from a province would cause further price rises and would cause civil unrest. For a brief period in June and July, Bihar and Orissa permitted exports to Bengal (after much pressure from the Indian Government), but they stopped these when their own prices rose sharply. The Imperial Government would not provide grain or shipping.
In November 1943 the new Viceroy, Wavell, increased exports to Bengal and sent in the army to improve the physical and organisational distribution of the grain. The September crop helped, but the famine did not end until an exceptionally good, though rather late,crop was harvested in December. However, epidemics now took over as the main killer,and as many people died between November 1943 and July 1944 as in the previous period.
It is estimated that between one and two million people starved and the same number died from disease, giving a total of between two and four million deaths. Sen (1977 p 33)calls this famine "possibly the biggest famine in the last hundred years". However,Masefield (1963 pp l2-14), who he quotes on the history of famine, mentions half a dozen where the death toll was higher, nearly ten times greater than the official death toll in Bengal (which includes death by disease) in one case:
India, 1876/7 5 million
China, 1876/7 9 - 13 million
Russia, 1920-1 "Millions"
China, Hunan 1929 2 million
Russia 1932/3 3 - 10 million.
The Sahel Famine of the 1970s could be said to have had a smaller death toll, but only if redefined into many small famines.
Again, Sen's statement clearly conflicts with the facts in his source.
How many people were affected by the famine, apart from those who died? I am inclined to accept that "it would probably be an underestimate to say that two thirds of the total population were affected by it" (Department of Anthropology, Calcutta University, quoted by Rajan (1944)). An independent estimate was made by Mahalanobis, Mukkerjee and Ghosh (1946), based on a sample survey of the survivors. They estimate that of the 10.2 million families in the rural population, 1.6 million sold some or all of their land or mortgaged it, 1.1 million sold plough cattle and in 0.7 million the head of the household changed to a lower-status occupation (including 0.26 million becoming destitute). These figures are not mutually exclusive: many families suffered loss of land and cattle, and many became destitute because they had sold all they had. Taking an average family size of 5.4, it seems that perhaps 10 to 15 million people were affected in these ways. However many more were affected in ways that would not have been recorded in these statistics. Most went hungry; many were hit by disease; many were impoverished but kept the same occupation; many sold all they had except their land.
"Village labourers and artisans, at a somewhat higher economic level, sold their domestic utensils, ornaments, parts of their dwellings such as doors, windows and corrugated iron sheets, trade implements, clothes and domestic animals if they had any -sold indeed anything on which money could be raised - to more fortunate neighbours."
(FIC p 67)
Previous | Return to main | Next