The Bengal Famine: Who’s to Blame?

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The disaster that gripped Bengal in the northeast of British India was truly incomprehensible in scale; though there was no combat in Bengal, its 1943 famine’s death toll exceeded that of Japan’s over the entirety of World War Two. The causes of the famine have been polarising in examining the impacts of the British Empire on its territories, and in particular the legacy of the wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. It is clear that British wartime policies intensified the crisis: it is the extent of this culpability that remains subject to historical debate.

Prior to the Second World War, Bengal’s agriculture was in a precarious position: rice yields had been stagnating for years, yet the population was still rapidly increasing. The worldwide impact of the Great Depression had compounded these issues, resulting in shortages and spiralling poverty. As the economy was largely subsistence-based and agrarian, there were few alternative sources of income to alleviate this hardship.

When the war came to India, the situation deteriorated rapidly. The Japanese military crushed the British government in Burma rapidly in 1942, leading to a build-up of British military forces in neighbouring India. Almost 30,000 families were expelled from their homes to make way for airstrips and camps for soldiers. As such, there was less land available for agriculture and more economic resources had to be dedicated to the war effort instead of food production, stretching already limited supplies to their breaking points.

Meanwhile, inflation spiked. The military’s purchase of goods was funded with credit from the Bank of England, which could only be claimed after the war ended, and so the Bank of India had to subsidise this by printing money. By increasing the supply of currency rapidly, Britain wrecked India’s economy out of fear of a looming Japanese invasion.

In fact, Britain was so sure of this imminent invasion that the Governor of Bengal, John Herbert, carried out a scorched-earth campaign with the intent of restricting the resources available to an invading force. These denial policies came twofold: the ‘denial of rice’ and the ‘boat denial’.

The ‘boat denials’ were to prevent the Japanese from using Bengali boats by confiscating all boats capable of carrying more than ten men. Thus, the transportation of rice and other food staples became incredibly difficult, meaning that, where there were regional issues of food supply, these communities suffered and starved. Furthermore, provincial trade barriers prevented food transport into Bengal through land routes, with the intention of keeping sufficient supplies of rice in the neighbouring provinces of Assam and Orissa.

In tandem, the ‘denial of rice’ policy was to seize and destroy surplus rice supplies in coastal and border regions so that it would not fall into Japanese hands should they invade. This had a grave impact on local communities whose diets consisted overwhelmingly of rice. The amount of rice destroyed did not cause widespread famine (indeed, it was only the surplus that was taken) but it made the supply vulnerable to even a slight shortfall in the harvest and so risked exacerbating even the mildest crisis.

In late 1942, this crisis struck. A fungal blight along with several cyclones ravaged the rice crop , resulting in a harvest 5% below average for the last five years. However, it is believed this alone, whilst devastating, would have been insufficient to cause a famine of the scale that occurred – British policies turned a problem into a disaster.

Most academics agree with Amartya Sen’s description of the Bengal famine as an ‘entitlements famine’. In short, this perspective is that the famine was largely caused by the conjunction of structural vulnerability and a shock that disrupts the food market (in this case, the Japanese invasion of Burma). Sen proposed that famines are often not caused by a lack of food supply alone, but rather by the inability of people to exchange their entitlements (the value of goods they produce) for food instead.

Until this point, responsibility largely rested on the local colonial government; however, this was soon to change. Starting in December 1942, various British officials, including Viceroy Linlithgow and Admiral Louis Mountbatten, requested permission from Churchill’s cabinet to redirect food shipments to Bengal. These appeals were repeatedly rejected by the war cabinet.

Of a population of 60 million, between 2.1 and 3.8 million Bengalis were estimated to have died from starvation or the malaria outbreak early into 1944.  Estimates vary due to insufficient data and whether deaths from particular causes are included or excluded as famine-related. Approximately 100,000 of the starving and sick fled to Bengal’s capital, Calcutta, itself famine-struck after frequent Japanese air raids and government compulsory purchase orders. The disposal of the dead that littered the streets of the city became a serious issue, as did the increase in the exploitation of women in prostitution and abandoned children being sold into slavery.

By winter 1943, deaths caused by starvation were peaking: the British Raj lifted provincial trade barriers to finally deliver aid to Calcutta. Whilst the aid was insufficient at first, it was this aid that eventually resolved the crisis: rice prices stabilised, and food was distributed to the starving.

Some claim that the failure to support India was an act of deliberate punishment for the growing independence movement. The obvious counter-argument is that the redirection of Australian grain shipments from India was because of pressing needs elsewhere (including Britain itself), and so the famine was a result of oversight, not malice. However, there is compelling evidence to support the former claim. Wheat was distributed to many other British colonies at the time, yet not India, which was in such dire need. Leo Amery, the Secretary of State for India at the time, even reported that Churchill said that aid to India would not help as “the Indians [were] breeding like rabbits”.

The famine proved to be significant in inciting the independence movement: ‘Quit India’. This was a nonviolent nationwide sabotage of government facilities and infrastructure in response to growing resentment of the Raj and the ruling class, who had been the beneficiaries of the government’s prioritised distribution of food. This unrest was met with swift suppression from the British, who detained over 66,000 and fired live ammunition on more than 2,500 Indians. Such actions only strengthened the need for the movement in the eyes of its supporters.

Many revisionists have placed under increasing scrutiny the war cabinet’s failures with respect to the Bengal Famine, and Churchill’s in particular. Conversely, the British Famine Commission of 1945 attempted to absolve all British fault in the tragedy, attributing it to a weak harvest following the rice blight. Both of these issues contributed to the scale of the disaster and should not be ignored by any means. The failure to divert supplies to Bengal in 1943, especially given the acuteness of their need, was a severe misjudgement and one that cannot be explained away by excuses of need for the war effort, since much of the cause of the famine was the arrival of the war to Bengal. However, a focus on these issues distracts from the main cause. The erroneous responses of the local British government to the Japanese invasion of Burma, along with the mismanagement of wartime inflation, artificially constricted the food supply and created the potential of catastrophe.

Famine Inquiry Commission, 1945. Famine Inquiry Commission Final Report (pp2-65).

Maharatna, A., 1996. The Demography of Famines: an Indian Historical Perspective. Oxford University Press

Sen, A., “Famines as Failures of Exchange Entitlements.” Economic and Political Weekly 11, no. 31/33 (1976): 1273–80.

Sen, A., “Starvation and Exchange Entitlements: A General Approach and Its Application to the Great Bengal Famine.” Cambridge Journal of Economics 1, no. 1 (1977): 33–59.