Bengal famine of 1943
|Bengal famine of 1943
|Total deaths||1.5 to 4 million|
|Observations||Policy failure, war|
The Bengal Famine of 1943 (Bengali: পঞ্চাশের মন্বন্তর) struck the Bengal Province of pre-partition British India. It is estimated that, out of Bengal's 60.3 million population, between 1.5 and 4 million people died of starvation, malnutrition and disease, half of them dying from disease after food became available in December 1943. As in previous Bengal famines, the highest mortality was not in previously very poor groups, but among artisans and small traders whose income vanished when people spent all they had on food and did not employ cobblers, carpenters, etc. The food crisis increased from the beginning of 1943, becoming a serious famine from mid-1943. This ended with the harvesting of the December 1943 rice crop, though continuing famine relief was needed for the next few months.
India, and Bengal in particular, had food shortages by the beginning of 1943. The food situation in India was tight from the beginning of the Second World War with a series of crop failures and localized famines which were dealt with successfully under the Indian Famine Codes. In Bengal in 1940-41 there was a small scale famine although quick action by the authorities prevented widespread loss of life. India as a whole faced a food shortage in 1943. After the Japanese occupation of Burma in March 1942, Bengal and the other parts of India and Ceylon which were normally supplied by Burma had to find food elsewhere. However, there were poor crops and famine situations in Cochin, Trivandrum, and Bombay on the west coast and Madras, Orissa and Bengal in the east. It fell on the few surplus Provinces, mainly the Punjab, to supply the rest of India and Ceylon. India as a whole had a deficit, but exported small quantities to meet the urgent needs of the Indian Army abroad, and those of Ceylon. India had imported 2 million tons of grain a year in previous years but there were only small net imports in 1943..
Bengal’s winter 1942 ‘aman’ rice crop, the most important one, was well below average. In addition, Bengal was hit by a cyclone and three tidal waves on 16 October 1942. An area of 450 square miles were swept by tidal waves, 400 square miles affected by floods and 3200 square miles damaged by wind and torrential rain, destroying food crops. This killed 14,000 people. Reserve stocks in the hands of cultivators, consumers and dealers were destroyed.‘ The homes, livelihood and property of nearly 2.5 million Bengalis were ruined or damaged.’ The districts affected were normally an important supplier of food to Greater Calcutta.
The crop was then hit by a fungus infection, Helminthosporium oryzae, triggered by exceptional weather conditions: this hit the main December 1942 crop and caused serious falls in yield, as much as 50% to 90% in some varieties. This was believed to have had more serious effects on supply than the cyclone. The only evidence by an expert in the subject concludes, 'The only other instance [of disease damage]that bears comparison in loss sustained by a food crop and the human calamity that followed in its wake is the Irish Potato Famine of 1845.'.
Bengal had been a food importer for the previous decade. Calcutta was normally supplied by Burma. The Allies had suffered a disastrous defeat at Singapore in 1942 against the Japanese military, which then occupied Burma. Burma was the world's largest exporter of rice in the inter-war period. By 1940 15% of India's rice came from Burma. From January 1942 until the end of the war, no Burmese rice reached India.
Carry-over stocks of grain, the stocks over and above the new crop, usually a protection against food shortages, were well below the normal two months' supply, because the 1941 crop was below average, because of the lack of imports from Burma, because of exports from Bengal to provinces with shortages, and because of compulsory purchases by government for military and civil service use in 1942. Normally the carry-over would give extra supplies, cushioning the effect of a bad crop. Bengal’s food needs rose at the same time from the influx of refugees from Burma: the exact number is not known, but estimates range from 100,000 to 500,000. In addition, a substantial body of troops were stationed in Bengal to defend against the anticipated invasion.
Some politicians, officials, and traders stated from late 1942 that these factors alone made a serious famine in 1943 inevitable. Other politicians and officials stated that in spite of these factors, Bengal had plenty of food available to feed its population, and even to export, and they acted as though this was certainly the case. It is not known what they really believed. The Famine Inquiry Commission showed in detail that the people who stated that Bengal had plenty of food dominated the political and administrative decision-making up to mid 1943 at least, losing influence as the evidence accumulated that their assumptions were contradicted by observations on the ground, as their policies proved ineffectual, and as it became clear that a major famine was in progress. It was not until the new Viceroy, Archibald Wavell, who was a successful general, took office in August 1943, that substantial quantities of grain started to move to Bengal: half a million tons of grain were eventually shipped there, but there was never enough food available to provide the minimum relief specified in the Famine Code.
The Famine Inquiry Commission was damning about the policies, actions and failures to act of the Government of India, of the Bengal Government, of other provincial governments and of the rice trade. It also called attention to the general corruption. Few governments have ever published such critical reports on their actions: the Government of India printed very few copies of the extremely embarrassing report and suppressed the evidence that the report was based on. By 1945 it was generally agreed that governments, politicians, officials, firms and individuals were all, to some extent, responsible for the failure to deal with the famine, and were to some extent responsible for the fact that there was a famine at all.
Lack of Meaningful StatisticsEdit
Indian statisticians at the time considered that grossly unreliable statistics and gaps in the statistics were an important cause of the failure to recognize and tackle the famine. They launched a major programme to identify the weaknesses, and to remedy them. The consensus of this research programme was that the statistics available in 1942 and 1943 were meaningless and there was no possible statistical support for the view that Bengal had plenty of food, and no reason to reject or accept estimates that the rice crop was half to two thirds of the average. There was no statistical support for the view that India needed imports, let alone statistics of the imports required.
It was known by administrators and statisticians  well before the famine that India’s agricultural production statistics were ‘not merely guesses, "but frequently demonstrably absurd guesses"', ‘entirely untrustworthy’, ‘useless for any purpose’ and that there were ‘no meaningful production statistics’. Senior officers then changed the guessed or calculated statistics according to their whim: about half the estimates were adjusted and adjustments of 30-40 per cent were common; changes of 60-70 per cent were not unknown. It was suggested that 1942 estimates were adjusted for political reasons. Bengal’s agricultural statistics were particularly bad.
There were no crop estimates, just crop forecasts, which are necessarily less accurate and less reliable. In 1942, a revenue officer would guess at the area planted and the probable yield for a 750,000 acre (310,000 ha) area to give a crop forecast for that area. These forecasts were aggregated and "adjusted" by successive levels of officials. There were no measures of actual yields or area. Nobody had any experience of this type of fungus outbreak, so they had no idea of how much of the crop was affected, nor of the loss in yield. Enumerators were instructed to ignore areas that were damaged by flood, disease, wind, etc., and only record undamaged crops when estimating average yield creating a particularly serious overestimate for the December 1942 crop when disease, flood and wind were critical.
The official Third Crop Forecast was for a crop 1.2m tons lower than the ten year average of 6.2m tons. Others believed that these crop forecasts were wrong. The Director of Agriculture had believed even before the cyclone and the fungus outbreak that the official forecast overstated actual expected production by a quarter, which implies a crop a third below the average, ignoring the effect of the cyclone and the fungus. Traders acted on their belief that there was a serious shortage and made a lot of money. They warned the Bengal Government of a famine situation. These estimates all indicated that a famine was imminent.
Subsequent research done by the Indian Statistical Institute using statistically valid samples and crop cutting rather than eye estimate of yield showed large errors in the official crop forecasts, with survey estimates being between 47% and 153% of the official estimate. The discrepancies also varied from year to year, with the sample estimate of the jute crop being 2.6% above the official estimate in 1941 and 52.6% above it in 1946. This rules out analysis based on the level of the production forecast and, in particular, on year to year differences in production forecasts.
The production forecasts did not cover any foods apart from rice, though these amounted to a third of calories consumed in normal years. There were no figures for food going into and out of Bengal. There are some figures on deliveries of rice and wheat to Calcutta by rail and by steamer, but none on exports and imports by Bengal as a whole—most trade being informal, by country boat. It was not known how many people had to be fed. Censuses of populations in poor countries at the time were known to be to be unreliable at best, and the 1941 Indian Census was particularly bad. There were no statistics on the number of refugees from Burma, nor the refugees from Bengal to other parts of India, escaping the threat of invasion, bombing and famine.
Inaction of the Indian GovernmentEdit
India had suffered frequent famine situations because of the impact of a variable climate, the many different ecological zones, and the agricultural systems of the time. For the previous sixty years provincial governments had handled these efficiently and routinely using the Indian Famine Codes, first ensuring that there was adequate food available in the affected areas, then making it available to those who could not afford to buy it, by food for work and by giving rations to the poor. Neither of these policies was carried out in Bengal in 1943 though they were used effectively in the Bombay Presidency and Travanacore for instance: ‘For the first time in the long history of famine administration in India since 1860, an attempt was made by the Government to meet the Bengal crisis in 1943 by control of prices and regulation of trade in foodgrains.
The Government of India had the task of ensuring that India as a whole had enough food, and then coordinating the action of the different provinces and princely states so that those with deficits got enough food. The responsibility for famine relief lay firmly with the democratically elected government of Bengal, and as such the Government of India itself could not interfere, according to the Government of India Act of 1935.
It was widely believed by politicians, the Government of India, the Government of Bengal, other provincial governments, some administrators, some public servants and some of the general public that Bengal had plenty of food available and food shortages were due to hoarding, speculation and inflation and so should be dealt with administratively, not by providing starving people in Bengal with food. ‘And at the Third Food Conference in Delhi on the 5th to 8 July, … the suggestion that "the only reason why people are starving in Bengal is that there is hoarding" was greeted at the Conference by the other Provinces with applause.’  Similarly, some officials in the Government of India refused to accept the evidence on the ground, preferring their own idiosyncratic interpretations of the market. The Viceroy wrote to Governor of Bengal in June 1943, when the famine was well underway, ‘I understand that Christie. (ICS; Deputy Secretary, Food Department, Government of India), has been in Calcutta recently and that he came away with a feeling of very cautious optimism. ‘ . . . as late as November 1943, ‘The Government of India would admit no intrinsic shortage in Bengal in the Spring of 1943 and, even in November, at the height of the famine, the Director-General of Food in the Council of State said that "the major trouble in Bengal has been not so much an intrinsic shortage of essential foodgrains as a breakdown of public confidence.’  On 19 October 1943, when the famine was serious, the new Viceroy, Wavell, noted in his journal "On the food situation Linlithgow [The outgoing Viceroy] says chief factor morale."
In provinces with grain surpluses there was a belief among many politicians, public servants, district officials and the public that Bengal had enough food. Possibly more important was the general belief that farmers were being asked to sell their grain below the market price, so that it could be sent to Bengal where it would be sold cheaply to merchants who would make fantastic black market profits from it. Both sets of beliefs made it politically difficult for an elected Provincial government to export. The surplus provinces had committed themselves to send ‘an agreed total of nearly 370,000 tons of rice to Bengal over a period to be reckoned from December 1942. Actually, in the 7 months December 1942 to June 1943 only a little over 44,000 tons reached Bengal’, a little over a tenth of the agreed amount.
With the permission of the central government, trade barriers between provinces were introduced by the democratically elected Provincial governments in 1942. The politicians and civil servants of surplus provinces like the Punjab introduced regulations to prevent grain leaving their provinces for the famine areas of Bengal, Madras and Cochin. There was the desire to see that, first, local populations and, second, the populations of neighbouring provinces were well fed, partly to prevent civil unrest. Politicians and officials got power and patronage, and the ability to extract bribes for shipping permits. Marketing and transaction costs rose sharply. Traders could not get grain to Bengal, however profitable it might be.
In December 1942, Calcutta’s grain supplies were very small and a major but unsuccessful campaign was launched to obtain grain from Bengal. ‘There is no doubt that the stocks in Calcutta at the beginning of the year  were being consumed far more rapidly than they were being replaced. By the beginning of March, stocks were down to such a low level that ilooked as if the city must starve within a fortnight unless large supplies arrived quickly.’ That is to say 2 to 4 million urban people in the second biggest city in the Empire, faced imminent famine. The provinces with grain surpluses were prevailed upon to supply enough grain to feed Calcutta throughout the famine year, though not the rest of Bengal.
The Government of India realized a mistake had been made and decreed a return to free trade. The surplus provinces refused. "The Punjab representative at the Fourth Food Conference emphasized that some 50 per cent of the combatant ranks of the Indian Army at that time were drawn from the farming classes of the Punjab and that ‘grave administrative and political repercussions; would follow if rationing, statutory price control and requisition of food grains were put into force."
The Government of India Act 1935 had removed most of the Government of India’s authority over the provinces, so even when the Government of India decreed that there should be free trade in grain, politicians, civil servants, local government officers and police obstructed the movement of grain to famine areas. ‘But men like Bhai Permanand say that though many traders want to export food [to Bengal] the Punjab Government would not give them permits. He testified to large quantities of undisposed-of rice being in the Punjab’ In some cases provinces seized grain in transit from other provinces to Bengal.
Most contemporary commentators thought the Hindu-Muslim conflict an important factor, both within Bengal and in India generally. It was even claimed by a leading politician that ‘Bengal had been deliberately starved out by other provinces’ which refused to permit the export of grain.
Role of the Bengal GovernmentEdit
It was generally agreed that in 1943 the Bengal Government failed completely in its remit of famine relief. It did not declare a famine or institute relief in the areas hit by the cyclone and tidal waves, though the Bengal Famine Code stated that relief should commence instantly. Indeed, it did not declare an official famine situation even after the much wider scale of the famine became apparent, initially because of a belief that it was unnecessary, later on the grounds that there was not enough food available to give the rations laid down in the Bengal Famine Code. Only in August, nine months after the cyclone, was a committee set up to tackle the famine on orthodox lines and action started on setting up famine relief systems. The Bengal Government failed to implement the rationing programme recommended by the Government of India in 1942 until 1944 though it had proved very successful in Bombay. The supporters of the two democratically elected Bengal Governments involved, that of A. K. Fazlul Huq (December 1941 to March 1943) and of Khawaja Nazimuddin's Muslim League (April 1943 to March 1945) each held the other government responsible for the catastrophe, because of its inaction and corruption. Both of these clashed with the Governor of Bengal, John Herbert, who, it has been claimed, bore as much of the responsibility.
At one stage in 1943 the Government of Bengal limited relief to save money, though the money could have been obtained.
Until two thirds of the way through the famine year at least, the Government of Bengal acted on the premise that there was plenty of food available but hoarding, speculation and inflation meant that it was not put on the market for consumers to buy. The Government of India civil supplies officer in Bengal, the Bengal civil supplies officer and Bengali district officers managing relief all report trying one government policy addressing it, then when it failed switching to another then switching back, each time finding that the hidden supplies did not materialize, if they existed.
The Government of Bengal claimed initially that the food shortages evident from December 1942 were due to hoarding. Hoarding previous to the famine year provided valuable food security, but it was believed in Delhi that there was an increase in these hoards after the December 1942 crop. No evidence on hoarding was ever produced nor was there discussion of how many people could afford to buy grain to store, or who had the space to store it. For hoarding to have created the amount of hunger and death recorded if there had, indeed, been adequate supplies, it would have been necessary that the richest 10% of Bengal's population, the only ones who could afford it, to lay in two years' rice supply for themselves, in addition to the stocks accumulated in the previous two years, and to keep it in stock until the end of the war, while their neighbours starved.
This belief developed into the belief that Bengal had enough rice to feed everybody, if the hoarded stocks were released, which strongly influenced the policies advocated by politicians and public servants and the actions and failures to act of the Government of India and of provincial governments, including the Government of Bengal. There was a large propaganda campaign telling the public that Bengal had plenty of food and hoarding was unnecessary. In April and May there was a propaganda drive to convince the population that the high prices were not justified by the any shortages, the goal being that the propaganda would induce hoarders to sell their stocks. When these propaganda drives failed, there was a drive to locate hoarded stocks. H.S.Suhawardy, Bengal’s Minister of Civil Supplies from 24 April 1943, announced that there was no shortage of rice in Bengal and introduced a policy of intimidating ‘hoarders’: this caused looting, extortion and corruption but did not increase the amount of food on the market. When these drives continually failed to locate large stocks, the government realized that the scale of the loss in supply was larger than they had initially believed.
There was a widespread claim that there was no shortage really, that there was plenty of rice available but traders were stockpiling it to make speculative profits. There was no evidence for this: there were no statistics on public or private stocks of food, and evidence produced later contradicted the belief.
Much of the policy of the Bengal Government and the Government of India was based on this belief: repeated attempts were made to ‘break the Calcutta market’ by releasing quantities of grain onto it, in the belief that this would either bring prices down, or frighten the speculators into releasing stocks. The quantities released at any time were substantial in that they were approximately a month to two month’s supply for Calcutta city, and these quantities were expected to have an immediate impact if, indeed, Bengal had plenty of grain. They had no impact even though 600,000 tons of grain were imported over the year.
New evidence emerged that the traders were not in fact stockpiling large quantities: The officials responsible for food used a wide range of other estimates, cross-checking them against observable facts. They were able to make use of information obtained from mail censorship, police, reports from Special Branch, informers, other departments etc. They also used trade estimates. When they raided stores looking for speculative stocks, it was found that the stores contained significantly smaller amounts than they had in normal years. This was confirmed when there was no release of the one to two million of tons of surplus stocks claimed to exist when the famine ended. Only if speculators had stored more than usual, and not released it during the famine year, would they have increased the number of deaths: there is ample evidence that they did not.
Such claims of speculation causing famine have been ridiculed by economists since Adam Smith.
It was widely claimed that wartime inflation caused the famine. The Working Class Cost of Living Index and the General Index of Wholesale Prices rising by an average of 17% per year from the outbreak of war to the end of 1945. It was not explained why such a modest wartime inflation should cause famine when much higher rates in many other countries over the previous thirty years had not (not even the hyperinflations in Austria and Germany with inflation rates more than 80 times as high), nor was any economic model produced to show how printing money in Delhi could have had this effect on the rural population of certain districts of Bengal, and only on them.
Similarly, it was claimed, without evidence or calculation, that the 1% to 2% of the Bengal population whose purchasing power increased because of the wartime inflation and war expenditure  ate so much more than usual that two thirds of the population went hungry – 10% very hungry indeed, with half of this 10% dying of starvation and disease. A quick calculation would have shown that this explanation requires that on 1 November 1942 the small group with increased purchasing power started eating 12 to 46 times more than usual per head and that they reverted to normal consumption in December 1943.
Many contemporary accounts by public servants, politicians and the public, people from different communities, refer to massive corruption by public servants, politicians and trading companies, particularly in Bengal. Most obvious was the fact that the Bengal Government had made the firm of a politician, M.M. Ispahani – a personal friend of H.S. Suhrawardy, the Minister for Civil Supplies, who was responsible for famine relief – the only permitted importer of grain. Abul Mansur Ahmed, a member of coalition governments with each of the First Ministers at different times, gave an insider’s view on this. It was widely believed in Bengal, as in the grain surplus provinces, that he imported at a below-market price, and sold on to other merchants at a price reflecting the black market price they expected to make. B.R. Sen, later Director General of The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, was a district officer working in the countryside trying to get grain for relief in 1943 and blamed Suhrawardy for not controlling this corruption. In order to maximize revenue from this it was in the importer’s interest to restrict imports. Abul Mansur Ahmed also noted that ‘the rice dealers . . . and the local politicians became involved in profiteering during the famine . . . During relief work volunteers and village headmen kept a major share of relief goods for their own consumption or for sale in the blackmarket.’ 
Greenough’s sociological analysis of the famine concludes that ‘At the humbler levels of land-holding and household, the famine began for most Bengalis when resource-commanding and authoritative males abandoned their clients and dependents. . . In a social system largely constructed around bonds of obligation between superior providers and inferior claimants, abandonment was tantamount to social collapse.’ He shows that, if it is assumed that Bengal had plenty of food, it means that some cultivators and landlords ate far more than in normal years and increased personal security stocks (hoarding) with the result that far less rice was on the market than in 1941. People were willing to eat more than normal and keep rice off the market while their neighbours starved and many died because of the breakdown of traditional rural Bengali obligations of economic help, charity and patronage. He also sets out the evidence on corruption and political inaction. The famine 'was shaped by purposeful human conduct, and that the chief actors were - literally - Bengali men. . .'
The army saw the famine as very serious indeed - threatening civil disturbances, disaffection among soldiers whose families were starving, hampering industrial production, and threatening the army supply chain - and put strong pressure on the civil powers to take action. There were extreme submissions to the British War Cabinet by the Viceroy, Field Marshall Wavell, by Auchinleck, the Commander in Chief, India  Amery, the Secretary of State for India, and the Chiefs of Imperial General Staff informed the British War Cabinet that ‘unless appropriate help was received, the Government of India could not be responsible for the continuing stability of India, nor for her capacity to serve as a base against Japan next year.’
In August the new Viceroy, Field Marshall Wavell, received permission from the Bengal Government to send in the army to distribute food to the rural areas, which had been ignored.
However, the presence of the military in Bengal was in itself one cause of the famine. Large numbers of troops were there as a Japanese invasion was believed to be imminent. Up to 200,000 tons of grain was imported to feed them. This would imply that the army bought little local grain, There were people, however, who thought that the army acted quite independently of the civil supply officers and bought large quantities of grain which they put in store, pushing up prices and reducing market supply. There is no hard evidence available. The military certainly bought lots of local fish, meat, eggs, milk and vegetables, which normally provided up to a third of calories for local populations. In 1942 the army made compulsory purchases of food, and seized 40,000 tons of rice in areas likely to be the first to be invaded.
The army is believed to have requisitioned 175,000 acres, some for fresh vegetable production (which would, if anything, have increased food production in the province) but most for airstrips and camps, driving about 150,000 to 180000 farmers off their land. This may have reduced rice output by the equivalent of 30,000 to 50,000 tons. Compensation for the loss of land was inadequate
In the middle of 1942 a scorched earth policy was hastily implemented in the Chittagong region, nearest the Burmese border, to prevent access to supplies by the Japanese in case of an invasion. In particular, the Army confiscated many boats, fearing that the Japanese would commandeer them to speed an advance into India. The boats had been used for fishing and to take goods to market so there was some loss of food in this area. Braund argued that this was more serious: the bulk of trade within Bengal and from Bengal to the rest of India was by these river boats so the economy would come to a halt without them, and he fought successfully against the Army’s initial proposal for a much larger seizure of boats. Even the limited seizure damaged coastal trade and reduced fish supplies, and made relief very difficult in these areas though there was little food available for relief. However, it has been argued that the lack of boats made it impossible for landlords, moneylenders and traders to sell large quantities of the grain produced to feed the cities, and so saved these production areas from famine.
The compensation paid to the land owners and boat owners was inadequate and many of them died during the famine. Many of the male inhabitants into the Military Labour Corps, where at least they received rations, but the break-up of families left many children and dependents to beg or to starve.
Even though India had imported two million tons of grain in previous years, some people believed that India could have managed this food crisis without substantial imports either because there was plenty of food available, or because the famine could have been managed with careful management if the surplus provinces had supplied grain to the starving. Others believed that India had millions of tons less grain than it needed. There are and were no meaningful statistics. However substantial imports in 1943 would at the least have made it much easier to handle the situation.
The main constraint was shipping. The Battle of the Atlantic was at its peak from mid-1942 to mid-1943, with submarine wolf packs sinking so many ships that the Allies were on the verge of defeat, so shipping could not be spared for shipping from America to India. Any imports would have had to come from Australia, North America or South America. [A] By June or July 1943 it was clear that the Allies had won the battle and more ships were being built than were being sunk.
The Government of India asked for grain supplies in December 1942, but were told that shipping was not available – even the military were getting only enough for a third of their urgent requirements. It was only after the most extreme representations of the incoming Viceroy, the Commander in Chief, India, the Secretary of State for India and the Chiefs of Imperial General Staff - stating that famine conditions existed, that industrial production was being hampered, that civil disturbances could break out distracting the army, and that there would be problems with the army if their families were starving that in August 1943 the British War Cabinet agreed to supply India with 200,000 tons of grain, though India had imported two million tons a year in previous years when there was no obvious food crisis.
It is questionable whether substantial quantities of grain could have been delivered in time to prevent most deaths at this late stage: apart from the usual delays in assembling and shipping, and the long shipping route, submarines were causing serious losses. The railways were overstretched, with men and equipment sent to war zones, most of the capacity devoted to supplying the Burma front and US and Chinese forces, sabotage by Congress, major flood damage to the main rail routes etc. And they were not geared to shipping large quantities of bulk goods. Distributing the food to the famine areas was extremely difficult and time consuming, especially during the monsoon, even with Army help.
Some commentators have suggested that Churchill’s personal hostility to Indian politicians and to the idea of Indian independence was a key factor in the delay in releasing shipping to send food to India. 
The orthodox explanation of the famine, from the Famine Inquiry Commission of 1945 on, was that the Indian provincial and national governments and the British government chose to believe, without evidence and in denial of the evidence, that Bengal had plenty of food available, and so they provided far less food, and far less relief in the form of rations, soup kitchens, food for work etc. than was needed, and many people died. Amartya Sen (1976) challenged this orthodoxy, reviving the claim that there was no shortage of food in Bengal and that the famine was caused by inflation, with those benefiting from inflation eating more and leaving less for the rest of the population. Sen claimed that there was in fact a greater supply in 1943 than in 1941, when there was no famine. This is in fact the explanation that that the Government of India, the Bengal Government and other governments had believed and acted on in most of 1943.
Some of the dispute is based on matters of fact. Bowbrick claims that Sen misrepresents the facts in his sources in more than thirty key instances and Tauger makes similar claims on a different set of statements by Sen. Nolan Goswami and Dyson and Maharatna show misrepresentation too. Sen has not defended himself against these criticisms.
Sen bases his argument entirely on small differences in one of the series of crop forecasts over ten years. He claims these forecasts are extremely accurate, but contemporary civil servants and statisticians considered the forecasts meaningless even before they were ‘adjusted’ by civil servants and politicians.
There is also dispute based on what the theories explain. Sen does not explain why the wartime inflation and boom did not cause famine in other war years, or in other greater inflations and hyperinflations; nor why the famine lasted only between one poor harvest and the next good one; nor why the Bengal Government’s policy and the policy of other governments - which was based on the same diagnosis as his own - did not prevent the famine; nor how millions of tons of hidden grain vanished in thin air; nor does he address the claim that physically impossible for people to eat the quantity of food needed to cause a famine in the way Sen describes, eating two to four-week’s normal food supply each day. The Famine Inquiry Commission provides full explanations.
News reports, literature, other media The People's War, an organ of the Communist Party of India, published graphic photos of the famine by Sunil Janah.
Calcutta's two leading English-language newspapers were The Statesman (at that time a British-owned newspaper)[M] and Amrita Bazar Patrika. In the early months of the famine, 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, for example, initially published editorials asserting that the famine was due solely to speculation and hoarding, while "berating local traders and producers, and praising ministerial efforts."[N] News of the famine was also subject to strict war-time censorship – 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"
Beginning in mid-July 1943 and even more so that August, however, these two began to publish 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. For example, a headline in Amrita Bazar Patrika that month warned "The Famine conditions of 1770 are already upon us," alluding to an earlier Bengal famine that caused the deaths of ten million. It also published an editorial cartoon showing starving peasants gazing at distant international food aid ships with the caption "A Mirage! A Mirage!" The Statesman's reportage and commentary were similarly pointed, as for example when in late July it published accounts of individuals starving to death in the streets of Calcutta, and in later months opined that the famine was "man-made".
A turning point in news coverage regarding the famine came on 22 August 1943, when The Statesman published a series of graphic photographs of the starvation and suffering. These "gruesome" images greatly affected both domestic and international perceptions and sparked an international media frenzy. Not only was the rest of the world unaware of the famine in Bengal before The Statesman's photos, many even in India itself had little idea of the scope of social destruction. The photos of human suffering under British rule had a profound psychological effect, and marked "for many, the beginning of the end of colonial rule". The decision by editor Ian Stephens to publish the photos and adopt a defiant editorial stance won accolades from many (the Famine Inquiry Commission) has been described as "a singular act of journalistic courage and conscientiousness, without which many more lives would have surely been lost". They also spurred Amrita Bazar Patrika and the Communist Party's organ The People's War to publish similar images; the latter would make photographer Sunil Janah famous.
A contemporary sketch book 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 5000 copies were seized and destroyed. One copy was hidden by Chittaprosad's family and is now in the possession of the Delhi Art Gallery. The Delhi Art Gallery showcased Chittaprosad's Famine Series in an exhibition in September 2011.
The famine has been dealt with in celebrated novels and films. Asani Sanket by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay is a fictional account of a young doctor and his wife in rural Bengal during the 1943 famine. The book was adapted into a film of the same name (English title: Distant Thunder) by celebrated director Satyajit Ray in 1973. The film features in "The New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made". Also well-known are So Many Hungers! (1947) by Bhabani Bhattacharya, and Aakaaler Sandhane by Amalendu Chakraborty, (cinematised in 1980 by Mrinal Sen).
A Bengali play, with this famine as the main theme in its plot, 'Nemesis' was written by Natyaguru Nurul Momen. Another Bengali play about the famine, Nabanna was written by Bijon Bhattacharya and staged by Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) in 1944 under the direction of Sombhu Mitra and later in 1948, by Bohurupee under the direction of Kumar Roy. IPTA also took the play to several parts of the country and collected funds for famine relief in rural Bengal.
News reports, literature, and other mediaEdit
Calcutta's two leading English-language newspapers were The Statesman (at that time a British-owned newspaper)[B] and Amrita Bazar Patrika. In the early months of the famine, 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, for example, initially published editorials asserting that the famine was due solely to speculation and hoarding, while "berating local traders and producers, and praising ministerial efforts."[C] News of the famine was also subject to strict war-time censorship – 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"
Beginning in mid-July 1943 and even more so that August, however, these two began to publish 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. For example, a headline in Amrita Bazar Patrika that month warned "The Famine conditions of 1770 are already upon us," alluding to an earlier Bengal famine that caused the deaths of ten million. It also published an editorial cartoon showing starving peasants gazing at distant international food aid ships with the caption "A Mirage! A Mirage!" The Statesman's reportage and commentary were similarly pointed, as for example when it opined that the famine was "man-made" and the UK government "seems virtually to have withheld from the British public knowledge that there was famine in Bengal at all".
A turning point in news coverage regarding the famine came on 22 August, 1943, when The Statesman published a series of graphic photographs of the starvation and suffering. These "gruesome" images greatly affected both domestic and international perceptions and sparked an international media frenzy. Not only was the rest of the world unaware of the famine in Bengal before The Statesman's photos, many even in India itself had little idea of the scope of social destruction. The photos of human suffering under British rule had a profound psychological effect, and marked "for many, the beginning of the end of colonial rule". The decision by editor Ian Stephens to publish the photos and adopt a defiant editorial stance won accolades from many (the Famine Inquiry Commission) has been described as "a singular act of journalistic courage and conscientiousness, without which many more lives would have surely been lost". They also spurred Amrita Bazar Patrika and the Communist Party's organ The People's War to publish similar images; the latter would make photographer Sunil Janah famous.
A contemporary sketch book 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 5000 copies were seized and destroyed. One copy was hidden by Chittaprosad's family and is now in the possession of the Delhi Art Gallery.
The novel has been dealt with in celebrated novels and films. Asani Sanket by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay is a fictional account of a young doctor and his wife in rural Bengal during the 1943 famine. The book was adapted into a film of the same name (English title: Distant Thunder) by celebrated director Satyajit Ray in 1973. The film features in "The New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made". Also well-known are So Many Hungers! (1947) by Bhabani Bhattacharya, and Aakaaler Sandhane by Amalendu Chakraborty, (cinematised in 1980 by Mrinal Sen).
A Bengali play about the famine, Nabanna was written by Bijon Bhattacharya and staged by Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) in 1944 under the direction of Sombhu Mitra and later in 1948, by Bohurupee under the direction of Kumar Roy. IPTA also took the play to several parts of the country and collected funds for famine relief in rural Bengal.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Bengal famine 1943.|
- Winston Churchill was later to state: 'The Battle of the Atlantic was the dominating factor all through the war. Never for one moment could we forget that everything happening elsewhere, on land, at sea or in the air depended ultimately on its outcome.'  The supply situation in Britain was such there was talk of being unable to continue the war, with supplies of fuel being particularly low.
- The Statesman was sold in 1962 to "a consortium of Indian industrialists" (Hirschmann 2004, p. 155)
- Note also that The Statesman was the only major newspaper that had acquiesced to (or been persuaded by) government pressure to present the Quit India movement in a negative light. (Greenough 1983, p. 355, note 7), (Greenough 1999, p. 43, note 7)
- See Dyson and Maharatna (1991) for a review of the data and the various estimates made.
- Frere (1874); Hunter (1873); Bengal Administration (1897).
- Mahalanobis,Mukkerjee, and Ghosh, (1946).
- Knight, 1954; Tauger, 2009, p.186
- Tauger, 2009, p.187
- Famine Inquiry Commission (1945a), (1945b). Knight (1954) gives a contemporary account of the Indian situation. Tauger (2006,(2009) covers both India and the region.
- Mansergh 1971, p. 357; Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, pp. 32, 65, 66, 236.
- Greenough 1982, pp. 93–96.
- (Greenough,(1982, Famine Inquiry Commission(1945), Braund(1944)
- Padmanabhan (1973), pp. 11-26.; Tauger 2006; Tauger 2009.
- Braund 1944, quotes the February 1943 evidence to the Second Food Conference on this. See also Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a p32.
- Padmanabhan (1973), p11.
- Nicholas Tarling (Ed.) The Cambridge History of SouthEast Asia Vol.II Part 1 pp139-40
- Bayly and Harper (2004), p.284
- Greenough, (1982,) Government of India, (1942)
- Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a esp. pp 179-200
- Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a.
- Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, pp. 198- 199.
- (Mahalanobis (1944), (Panse,(1954)
- See Dewey (1978) for a review.
- Report of the Royal Commission on Agriculture in India, Parliamentary Papers (1928) VIII, P.605.
- Mahalanobis (1944) p.77
- Bowley & Robertson (1934) P.35; Bengal Land Revenue Commission (1940) vol I p76
- Mahalanobis (1944) writing in 1943.
- Document no. 158 in Mansergh, 1973)’
- Stuart (1919)
- e.g. Trevaskis, (1931) p.200; Government of India, (1915), Revenue Proceedings IR-Ag, March, 12-24; Panse (1954) p.26.
- Panse (1954) p.26; Dewey (1978) p305, citing Noyce (1920)
- Mahalanobis(1944) writing in 1943.
- Bengal did not need accurate figures for its land tax, as the Permanent Settlement fixed land tax, while in other provinces tax was based on planted area and yield, which revenue officers had to calculate each year. (Dewey 1978)
- Famine Inquiry Commission (1945), pp. 44, 45
- Department of Agriculture, Bengal, (1922)
- Mahalanobis (1944) p71
- Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a p33; Bhatia (1967) p35
- Desai (1953 p8), Dewey (1978 p311) quoting the Imperial Council of Agricultural Research (1950). Panse (1954 p27) points out that experience shows that 'eye estimation makes for a general tonng down of fluctuations' which would help explain why the degree of shortfall was not appreciated.
- Mahalanobis (1944) p69; Dyson and Maharatna. (1991)
- Brennan, (1984); Bengal Government (1913, 1941)
- (Bhatia, 1967) p 324
- (Famine Inquiry Commission(1945)
- Braund, (1944) p31, Knight, (1954)
- 16 June 1943, Mansergh 102 IV p8
- Braund, 1944 p31, 18
- Moon, 1973 p34
- Knight, (1954)
- Mansergh, (1973) p43; Famine Inquiry Commission p51
- Famine Inquiry Commission, 1945a pp36-39.
- Famine Inquiry Commission, 1945a p 35.
- Famine Inquiry Commission, 1945a.
- Knight p 158
- Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a p57, 93
- Chandra, Mahesh, (August 1943) quoted in Stephens (1966) p181.
- Braund p12 (citing Government of India letter to all Provinces dated 13 February 1943.)
- Dutt, 1944; Ghosh, 1944; NSR Rajan 1944; Mansergh vol III 1971; Mansergh vol IV, 1973 p 358; Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a p84
- Moon (1973) p 239)
- Bengal Government (1913, 1941)
- Stevenson, (2005
- Sen, Shila 1976, pp. 174, 175.
- Stevenson, (2005) p110.
- Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, pp. 61, 99, 104, 105.
- Braund (1944)
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- see Brennan, (1988)
- Mansergh Dec 1942. This distinction between accumulated food security stocks and extra stocks appears to have been lost in all later discussion. (Bowbrick 1986)
- (Bowbrick, A refutation of Professor Sen’s theory of famines,1986)
- Famine Inquiry Commission(1945), Braund(1944). The Viceroy believed that hoarding was serious, and that there was ‘Congress agitation in favour of hoarding’. (Mansergh III p326)
- "How Sens theory can cause famines". Bowbrick.org.uk. Retrieved 2013-08-28.
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- Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a p77
- Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a; Braund 1944
- Braund, 1944; Pinnell, 1944: Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a
- Bowbrick, 1986
- Singh (1965)
- Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a esp. pp 30, 31, 63
- Department of Anthropology (1944); Mahalanobis, P.C., R.K. Mukkerjee and A. Ghosh 1946, pp 337 400.
- Bowbrick, 1986; Bowbrick, P., ‘Statistics you can use to check Amartya Sen’s calculations in "Poverty and Famines"’, http://bowbrick.org.uk/statistics_you_can_use_to_check.htm 2011
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- (Greenough, 1982, p. 274) He (1982, pp. 118, 138)
- (Greenough, 1982, p. 265)
- Mansergh IV p217
- War Cabinet Paper WP (43) 349 pf 31 July 1943 (Mansergh, IV p139)
- War Cabinet Paper W.P. (43) 407 R/30/1/4:ff 123-5.
- Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a p18, 43, 173.
- Stevenson, (2005); Braund, (1944)
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- (Greenough, 1982) p90 cites Pinell p 211 as saying 175000 acres were requisitioned by the army.
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- Bayly and Harper (2004), pp.284-285
- (Braund, 1944)
- (Stevenson, 2005)
- Bayly and Harper (2004) p.283
- Knight believed that it was barely possible; that there was a worse supply situation in India in 1946 but famine was avoided because, first, Bengal had by then set up a system of compulsory purchase and distribution by rationing similar to that operated in Bombay in 1943, and in 1946 the surplus provinces collaborated in supplying the deficit provinces.
- Costello & Hughes 1977, p. 210.
- Costello & Hughes 1977, p. 155.
- War Cabinet minutes CAB 65_38_4 April (1943 )
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