Bengal famine of 1943: Wikis


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The Bengal famine of 1943 is one among several famines that occurred in British-administered Bengal. It is estimated that around 3 million people[1] died from starvation and malnutrition during the period.


Possible Causes

The United Kingdom had suffered a disastrous defeat at Singapore in 1942 against the Japanese military, which then proceeded to invade Burma in the same year. Burma was the world's largest exporter of rice in the inter-war period, the British having encouraged production by Burmese smallholders, which resulted in a virtual monoculture in the Irrawaddy Delta and Arakan.[2] By 1940 15% of India's rice overall came from Burma, whilst in Bengal the proportion was slightly higher given the province's proximity to Burma.[3]

It seems unlikely, however, that these imports can have amounted to more than 20% of Bengal's consumption, and this alone is insufficient to account for the famine, although it ensured that there were fewer reserves to fall back on. British authorities feared a subsequent Japanese invasion of British India proper by way of Bengal (see British Raj), and emergency measures were introduced to stockpile food for British soldiers and prevent access to supplies by the Japanese in case of an invasion.

A "scorched earth" policy was implemented in the Chittagong region, nearest the Burmese border. In particular, the Army confiscated many boats (and motor vehicles, carts and even elephants), fearing that the Japanese would commandeer them to speed an advance into India. The inhabitants used the boats for fishing, and the Army failed to distribute rations to replace the fish.[4]

Large amounts of rice continued to be exported to the Middle East to feed British and Indian troops there and locally recruited labour corps, and to Ceylon, which had been heavily dependent on Burmese rice before the war, and where large military establishments were being created as it was feared that the Japanese might invade the island.

On 16 October 1942 the whole east coast of Bengal and Orissa was hit by a cyclone. A huge area of rice cultivation up to forty miles inland was flooded, causing the autumn crop in these areas to fail. This meant that the peasantry had to eat their surplus, and the seed that should have been planted in the winter of 1942-3 had been consumed by the time the hot weather began in May 1943.[5] This was exacerbated by exports of food and appropriation of arable land.

However, noted economist and Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen holds the view that there was no overall shortage of rice in Bengal in 1943: availability was actually slightly higher than in 1941, when there was no famine.[6] It was partly this which conditioned the sluggish official response to the disaster, as there had been no serious crop failures and hence the famine was unexpected. Its root causes, Sen argues, lay in rumours of shortage which caused hoarding, and rapid price inflation caused by war-time demands which made rice stocks an excellent investment (prices had already doubled over the previous year). In Sen's interpretation, while landowning peasants who actually grew rice and those employed in defence-related industries in urban areas and at the docks saw their wages rise, this led to a disastrous shift in the exchange entitlements of groups such as landless labourers, fishermen, barbers, paddy huskers and other groups who found the real value of their wages had been slashed by two-thirds since 1940. Quite simply, although Bengal had enough rice and other grains to feed itself, millions of people were suddenly too poor to buy it.[7]


The Bengal government reacted to the crisis lazily and incompetently, refusing to stop the export of food from Bengal.

Bayly and Harper claim that in contrast to the incompetence of the civil service, the British military commanders and the British military in general performed as best as it could to combat the famine,[8] providing food to the suffering and organising relief. During the course of the famine the government organised roughly 110,000,000 free meals[9] which proved too small to cope with the disaster.

Winston Churchill was the Prime Minister of the time, his involvement in the disaster and indeed his knowledge of it remains a mystery. When in response to an urgent request by the Secretary of State for India, Leo Amery, and Wavell to release food stocks for India, Churchill responded with a telegram to Wavell asking, if food was so scarce, "why Gandhi hadn’t died yet."[10] Initially during the famine he was more concerned with the civilians of Greece (who were also suffering from a famine) compared with the Bengalis.[11] In the end Churchill did ask for US assistance, writing to Roosevelt that he was "no longer justified in not asking for aid" but the American response was negative.[12]

The Bengal Government failed to prevent rice exports, and made little attempt to import surpluses from elsewhere in India, or to buy up stocks from speculators to redistribute to the starving. Overall, as Sen shows, the authorities failed to understand that the famine was not caused by an overall food shortage, and that the distribution of food was not just a matter of railway capacity, but of providing free famine relief on a massive scale: "The Raj was, in fact, fairly right in its estimation of overall food availability, but disastrously wrong in its theory of Famines".[13] The famine ended when the government in London agreed to import 1,000,000 tons of grain to Bengal, reducing food prices.[14]

Famines and democracies

Citing the Bengal Famine and other examples from the world, Amartya Sen argues that famines do not occur in functioning democracies. Nobel Laureate Kenneth Arrow provides a discussion of this argument. [2] It should be noted that between 1950 and 1984, as the Green Revolution transformed agriculture around the globe, world grain production increased by 250%.[15][16]

The Bengal Famine may be placed in the context of previous famines in Mughal and British India. Deccan Famine of 1630-32 killed 2,000,000 (there was a corresponding famine in northwestern China, eventually causing the Ming dynasty to collapse in 1644). During the British rule in India there were approximately 25 major famines spread through states such as Tamil Nadu in South India, Bihar in the north, and Bengal in the east; altogether, between 30 and 40 million Indians were the victims of famines in the latter half of the 19th century (Bhatia 1985).

Though malnutrition and hunger remain widespread in India, there have been no famines since the end of the British rule in 1947 and the establishment of a democratic government. There has been a recurrent threat of famine in Bangladesh[3][4], which unlike India has spent a considerable period of its existence under military rule.

"Food availability decline" or "man made"

Year Rice production
(in million of tons)
1938 8.474
1939 7.922
1940 8.223
1941 6.768
1942 9.296
1943 7.628

Severe food shortages were worsened by World War II, with the British administration of India exporting foods to Allied soldiers. The shortage of rice forced rice prices up, and wartime inflation compounded the problem.

The civil administration did not intervene to control the price of rice, and so the price of rice exceeded the means of ordinary people. People migrated to the cities to find food and employment; finding neither, they starved.

Amartya Sen has cast doubt on the idea that the rice shortage was due to a fall in production. He quotes official records for rice production in Bengal in the years leading up to 1943 as reported in the table to the right.

The 1943 yield, while low, was not in itself outside the normal spectrum of recorded variation, and other factors beyond simple crop failure may thus be invoked as a causal mechanism.

Diseased rice vs. total rice yield

It has been argued that the famine was primarily due to an epidemic of brown spot disease Cochliobolus miyabeanus (formerly Helminthosporium oryzae), affecting the crop. This argument, based on data collected by S. Y. Padmanabhan, has been developed by the historian Mark Tauger.

In the rice growing season of 1942, weather conditions were exactly right to encourage an epidemic of the rice disease brown spot following a cyclone and flooding. The outbreak of the disease caused a variation in the 1942 crop ranging from a 236.6% gain to a 90% crop loss in Bankura and Chinsurah according to Padmanabhan.

Tauger argues that Sen's analysis based economic entitlement overlooks the role of food shortage. Tauger argues that the yield in 1942 was low (based on Padmanabhan's data) causing a serious food shortage in Bengal and was the most important cause of the famine. Others dispute this argument, primarily based on the fact that Padmanabhan's data is yield per acre for different varieties, and from this data it is impossible to estimate total production without knowing the total area of the different varieties. Tauger has not estimated the total production, the article by Padmanabhan only describes the crop losses in two Rice Research Stations in West Bengal, but not the total crops in Bengal. Also, if you look at the figures supplied by Padmanabham it is clear that for the most used varieties of rice, either he has no figures or very little loss ( about 6 percent). That was within the Rice Research Centres,because Padmanabhan never gave any figures what kind of rice seeds were used in 1943 in different areas.

The official famine inquiry commission reporting on the Bengal Famine of 1943 put its death toll at about 1.5 million Indians. Source : Famine Inquiry Commission, India (1945a),pp. 109-10. Estimates made by Prof.P.C.Mahalanobis, of the Indian Statistical Institute said, at least 5 million died directly and another 4-5 million died subsequently in famine related diseases. This information was presented in the Famine Enquiry Commission, but ignored by Amartya Sen and other pro-British writers.[citation needed]

Years later in 1974, W.R. Aykroyd, who was a member of the Famine inquiry commission and was primarily responsible for the estimation, conceded that the figures were an underestimate. Quote by W.R. Aykroyd "I now think it (the death toll) was an under-estimate, especially in that it took little account of roadside deaths".[17]

Amartya Sen has recently estimated that three million may be slightly too high an estimate and that two to two and a half million fatalities may be more accurate.[18]

The famine in Bengali culture

Artists, novelists and film-makers have tried to capture the enormity of the famine in their works. The renowned Bengali painter Zainul Abedin was one of the early documentarians of the famine, with his sketches of the dead and dying.

The novelist Bibhuti Bhusan Bandyopadhhay penned his novel Ashani Sanket with the famine serving as both backdrop and protagonist. The novel was adapted in 1973 by Satyajit Ray into an award-winning film, also titled Ashani Sanket, which focussed on the role of hoarding as a cause for the famine. Mrinal Sen also made a National Award winning film in 1980 about the famine, called Akaler Sandhane (In Search of Famine'). Sen's other films that relate to the theme of the 1943 famine are Baishey Sravan and Calcutta 71.

See also


  1. ^ Gordon, Leonard A., Review of Prosperity and Misery in Modern Bengal: The Famine of 1943-1944 by Greenough, Paul R., The American Historical Review, Vol. 88, No. 4 (Oct., 1983), p. 1051 (
  2. ^ Nicholas Tarling (Ed.) The Cambridge History of SouthEast Asia Vol.II Part 1 pp139-40
  3. ^ C.A. Bayly & T. Harper Forgotten Armies. The Fall of British Asia 1941-45 (London: Allen Lane) 2004 p284
  4. ^ Bayly and Harper (2004), pp.284-285
  5. ^ Paul Greenough Prosperity and Misery in Modern Bengal: the famine of 1943-44 (New Delhi) 1982 p150; Bayly & Harper Forgotten Armies p285
  6. ^ Amartya Sen Poverty and Famines. An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (Oxford) 1981 pp58-9
  7. ^ Sen Poverty and Famines pp70-78
  8. ^ CA Bayly and Tim Harper, "Forgotten Armies", pp. 251-253
  9. ^ Bengal Tiger and British Lion: An Account of the Bengal Famine of 1943 By Richard Stevenson
  10. ^ Exit Wounds, by Pankaj Mishra, The New Yorker, 13 August 2007.
  11. ^ S Gopal, 'Churchill and the Indians' in Churchill: A Major New Assessment of His Life and Achievements by Wm. Roger Louis and Robert Blake (eds.)
  12. ^ [1]
  13. ^ Sen Poverty and Famines pp80-83
  14. ^ Lawrence James, Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India
  15. ^ The limits of a Green Revolution?
  16. ^ The Real Green Revolution
  17. ^ Sen Poverty and Famines p52
  18. ^


  • Bhatia, B.M. (1985) Famines in India: A study in Some Aspects of the Economic History of India with Special Reference to Food Problem, Delhi: Konark Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
  • Padmanabhan, S.Y. The Great Bengal Famine. Annual Review of Phytopathology, 11:11-24, 1973
  • Sen, A. Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, 1981, Oxford University Press. ISBN# 0198284632
  • Tauger, M. 2003. Entitlement, Shortage and the 1943 Bengal Famine: Another Look. The Journal of Peasant Studies 31:45 - 72


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