Starving an 'Inconsequential' Race: Looking at the Bengal Famine 75 Years On

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The Thread offers context to news through EPW Archives.
19 September 2018

This reading list examines the culpability of the British Raj in causing the Bengal famine of 1943.

“Why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?” 75 years on, Winston Churchill’s apathetic response to the Bengal famine unfailingly brings back memories of unspeakable suffering. In Churchill’s view, the famine was no more than a distraction, and since Indians didn’t vote in British elections, he wasn’t beholden to their pleas for help. Contrary to his opinions, however, the famine did not occur because Indians were "breeding like rabbits" but rather due to a series of policy decisions aimed at draining Indian resources to support the British war effort. 

The shortage of rice starved Bengal, but how did it come about? From the cyclone of 1942,  the British’s scorched earth tactics to arrest the advent of the Japanese army from Burma, to the indiscriminate purchase of foodgrain to support the British war effort, this compilation of articles from the EPW archives explores the various causes that led to the Bengal famine. 

1) An Eyewitness Account of the Famine 

In 1989, EPW published an excerpt from Asok Mitra’s autobiography Three Score and Ten: Memoirs of a Bengal ICS, which paints a depressing image of the author’s experience as a civil servant in 1943 Bengal, terming the famine a “holocaust.” From the British’s Denial Policy—denying traders to maintain stock of rice (in order to feed the British Army) to later denying the existence of a famine itself—to their refusal to import rice from other states, the author especially criticises the then Bengal Governor John Herbert’s“bloody-minded” policies for having created the Bengal famine.  


The entire population, so full of health and vigour and literally bubbling over with energy and enterprise barely a year before, rapidly withered like blighted plants. People had somehow held body and soul together as far as July, steadily eating into the reserves of their bodies. The disintegration started in August when things suddenly began falling apart. More than half the people you met on the street looked haggard, drawn, listless with vacant stares... The skin on the face looked like parchment, the bones stuck out. Coarse unhealthy hair stood out like pins on the legs and the arms on thin, dry, skins. Even now this transformation haunts me more than the actual deaths that came the following months. One is used to the thought of death from an early age, but not to the utter physical dissolution of a whole people under nutritional assault. 


2) Three Million Dead, But Who’s Counting? 

The Famine Inquiry Commission, set up in 1944 to investigate the cause of the Bengal Famine, posited that while the non-availability of rice was one of the basic causes, the grain’s stock wasn’t sufficiently low to cause a famine—hinting that the cause was rather a lack of supply. Madhusree Mukerjee’s 2014 article, however, points out that the commission used projected rather than actual data on rice availability, arguing that the role of the commission was not to explain the famine, but rather to absolve the British Empire of aggravating it.

The commission did not share all information with its Indian members, it refrained from interviewing army staff who implemented scorched earth policies in eastern Bengal, did not publish records stating that rice exports from India continued even during the famine, and not to mention that it underestimated total deaths by nearly two million people. 

(Leo) Amery suggested deflecting the inquiry into a Malthusian direction–a broad study that would “do no harm even if pursued now, prospect of investigation by one or two experts into relation between growth of population and available supplies of foodgrains”  

The Bengal administration’s record of having repeatedly and stridently claimed sufficiency placed the Famine Commission in a bind. It was required to find that the famine was due to food shortage, as Amery had all but specified. At the same time, it could not admit that the government had all along deliberately misled the public.


3)  Exchanging an Acre for a Bag of Rice


From December 1942 to November 1943, the price of rice saw an 800% jump, accompanied by a sharp fall in real wages of unskilled labourers. Debarshi Das’ article looks at the inextricable link between the price rise and the land market, arguing that the exorbitant price of rice forced the poor to sell all their assets and that this sudden influx of liquid money further drove up the food prices, which translated into shrinking purchasing power.

The end result is not difficult to discern. Since the rest of the economy is capable of protecting their food entitlement in the face of rising prices, the rural poor will be left with lesser food to consume compared to the situation when shortfall of food supply had not taken place. For the class as a whole, selling off land and other assets did nothing to expand their exchange entitlement. Moreover, they are now bereft of productive assets. The landless will surely be the hardest hit victims of the whole process. They were not behind the food price rise and are left in a deeper misery by virtue of it... it appears that if the poor knew what they would end up with, they would not have sold off their assets. But surely this requires a high degree of coordination among the rural poor, which can hardly be expected in a large agrarian economy with millions of desperate families fighting their isolated battles as the tide of food prices inundates them. In other words, they are stuck in a prisoner’s dilemma like situation.


Read More:

What is a Famine? | Morris David Morris, 1974.

Winston Churchill’s Plan for Post-War India | Madhusree Mukerjee, 2010.

Aid Agencies, NGOs and the Institutionalisation of Famine | Mike Zmolek, 1990.


Infant and Child Mortality During Famines in Late 19th and Early 20th Century India | Arup Maharatna, 1996.



Famine and famine Policies: Some Empirical Evidence | N S Jodha, 1975.



Needed – A New Famine Policy | Morris David Morris, 1975




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The Thread offers context to news through EPW Archives.
19 September 2018