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Famine, 1943

Famine, 1943 generally referred to as panchaxer manvantar (the famine of fifty, that is the Bengali year 1350), was a great calamity. This led to a marked decline in the economic position and social status of about seven lakh families or 38 lakh persons in the province through the sale of their tangible assets such as land, plough, cattle, jewellery, utensils, tools and implements and 3.5 lakh families were reduced to destitution. According to one calculation, during the period 1943-46, between 3.5 and 3.8 million people died as a result of the famine and the epidemic diseases that accompanied it. These were deaths in excess of normal mortality. Indeed, this was the worst of the famines that had struck any part of the sub-continent after 1770.

Famine, 1943 [Sketch: Zainul Abedin]

Following the Famine Inquiry Commission the causes and the chain of events that led to this famine may be discussed from the fall of Burma early in 1942. Agricultural prices, especially the price of food crops, which had been rising since the outbreak of World War II, now increased further. This was due to three factors. Firstly, there was a widespread fear of an imminent Japanese invasion of the province and a general feeling of uncertainty prevailed in large areas. Consequently, the cultivators were cautious in selling their produce. At the same time the pressure of demand on the market supply increased as the consumers, anxious to ensure supplies, were making large purchases. Incidentally when Japan declared war the government publicly exhorted the people to keep two months' stocks in their houses. Secondly, the import of rice from Burma was now stopped and at the same time the export of rice to other Indian provinces, which depended on Burmese imports, increased. Thirdly, the danger of Japanese invasion compelled the military authorities to put into operation early in 1942 a 'denial' policy involving two measures. One was the removal from the coastal districts of Midnapore, Bakerganj and Khulna of the rice and paddy estimated to be in excess of the local requirements till the end of the crop year. As per the other decision, all boats capable of carrying 10 passengers or more were withdrawn from the coastal districts which were considered vulnerable to invasion. Fourthly, the fall of Burma brought Bengal close to the war front and the province saw civil and military construction on an unprecedented scale. This led to inflationary pressure as printing notes to a large extent, financed the war expenditures.

In view of the rise in price level the government decided to intervene and in June (1942) issued an order fixing the statutory maximum prices of coarse and medium rice in Calcutta market. Immediately supplies disappeared from Calcutta and several districts. At this point the stocks of the 'denial' rice proved most useful. A portion of these stocks was moved into Calcutta and distributed through (a) controlled shops to the general public, (b) issues to the employers of the industrial labour who had organised their own purchasing schemes and grain shops and (c) Calcutta Corporation. Very soon the ineffectiveness of the statutory price limit became clear. District officers were therefore instructed not to try to enforce the price limits except in cases of gross profiteering. This decision, together with the embargo on exports to other Indian provinces, somewhat eased the situation supplies and prices appeared to have again reached something like a state of equilibrium.

Famine, 1943 [Sketch: Zainul Abedin]

But the situation deteriorated very soon. In October a cyclone of great intensity struck the coastal districts comprising an area of 3200 square miles, causing considerable damage to standing aman crop. After cyclone came crop disease and consequently the aman crop harvested towards the end of 1942 was short. As a result the price-rise, which had been arrested in September/October once again, gained momentum. Air raids on Calcutta took place on 20, 22, 23 and 24 December and these led to the closing down of a considerable number of food grain shops. In the circumstances the government decided to requisition stocks in the city and distribute them through controlled shops and 'approved' markets. Having been compelled to requisition stocks in Calcutta the government had now to maintain supplies. This, in turn, led to launching of a procurement drive on a more extensive scale than had been contemplated after the air raids. Seven agents were selected from the trade for this purpose and the maximum buying prices were prescribed. But the results were not satisfactory and consequently the procurement drive was abandoned and the limit on the price of paddy and rice was withdrawn. There was now an increase in the volume of supplies to Calcutta but at the same time there was a sharp rise in the price level. The price of coarse rice in Calcutta increased from Rs 15/- per maund (1 maund= around 40kg) on 3 March 1943 to about Rs 31/- on 17 May. But in January 1942 rice was selling at less than Rs 6/- per maund in Calcutta. As the crisis unfolded, in some districts rice sold at over Rs 100/- per maund.

The abnormal rise in the price-level was caused partly by the deficit in food supply and more importantly by other ‘man-made’ factors. The deficit was due to the fact that aman harvest in November/ December (1942) was poor and there was no import of rice form Burma. The Famine Inquiry Commission was of the opinion that there was also a shortage in the stock of old rice carried forward from 1942 to 1943. According to this Commission, there was a deficiency in the supply of about three weeks’ requirements (about six percent). However, the deficit was not such as to justify the scale of the rise in the price-level nor the starvation and death that followed. In other words, the increase in rice price was grossly disproportionate with the decline in its supply.

Indeed, as mentioned earlier, from the beginning (in 1942) the price-rise was not justified by the supply conditions. For import from Burma and export to other Indian provinces did not constitute a large part of the total production in Bengal. But prices increased disproportionately because the producers were reluctant to release the entire surplus at their disposal in expectation of a better price and/or out of fear, the consumers tended to purchase more than their immediate requirements and the traders resorted to speculative buying and hoarding. The cyclone that struck the western districts, low aman yield, air-raids on Calcutta, influx of refugees from Burma, rice procurement and the decision to abandon price-control measures aggravated this tendency of the producers, consumers and traders.

The prevailing environment of greed and fear set in motion a chain reaction which pushed up the price-level beyond the purchasing power of a large number among the non-producing poorer classes (including the agricultural labourers) and a section of the cultivators who did not produce enough for their domestic needs.

Incidentally, in the late 1930s about 40 per cent of the cultivators 'owned' less than two acres per family and about eight per cent of the rural population were agricultural labour. Moreover, a considerable number engaged in various crafts, fishing, husking paddy and similar other professions was also poor. Thus, even in normal times a considerable number among the poorer classes was living on the margin of subsistence, because they did not grow enough food and did not earn sufficient money to buy the food they needed. For them the balance between starvation and bare subsistence was so delicate that a slight tilting of the scale in the price and the supply of food was enough to put it out of their reach and cause starvation and death. This was Bengal's predicament in 1943.

The above interpretation of the causes of the famine of 1943 by the Famine Inquiry Commission has been rejected by Amartya Sen. The Nobel Prize winning economist Sen argues that there was no major grain shortage in Bengal in 1943. But still famine occurred because there was a failure in the exchange entitlement of a large section of the population. In other words, for a variety of circumstances food prices increased much more than the wage of agricultural labourers and prices of the goods and services sold by certain non-agricultural classes. However, on closer reflection it seems that there is little difference between Amartya Sen and the Famine Inquiry Commission. This is because whereas Sen maintains that there was no major food shortage, according to the Famine Inquiry Commission, deficit in food supply was of the order of only about six per cent.  

More importantly, while Sen argues that exchange entitlement failed for a section of the people, the Commission found that food prices went beyond the purchasing power of the poorer section of the people, including agricultural labourers and marginal farmers. Thus, the basic contention is similar.

In the early months of 1943 there were reports of distress from various parts of the province. In May and June famine became clearly evident in Chittagong and Noakhali and there was a marked rise in mortality in these districts. By July most of the province was involved and the death rate in almost all the districts was in excess of normal. From this point there was a sharp increase in the number of deaths. According to the Famine Inquiry Commission, about six million (the number might have been higher) consisting of the poorer classes in the rural areas were affected. The majority remained in their homes. But thousands flocked into towns and cities. Their number in Calcutta in October (1943) was estimated to have been of the order of one hundred thousand.

Political developments in the province following the launching of the quit india movement by the Congress, communal rivalry, friction between the Governor and the ministers, administrative incompetence and obsession with the needs of Calcutta made it impossible for the government to pay to the overall food situation the attention it deserved. Consequently starvation and death continued and the highest point in the death rate was reached in December 1943. With the harvest of aman crop in the same month and the arrival of supplies from other parts of India there was a considerable decline in rice-price and the intensity of the famine was reduced. But the death rate remained high throughout 1944. This was due to the tripple outbreak of epidemic of cholera, smallpox and malaria. Hunger, economic distress and disease continued throughout 1945 and 1946 but at a much reduced rate.

The Famine Inquiry Commission was appointed by the government of India during the height of the famine in response to vigorous public demand. It was asked to investigate the causes of the food shortage and subsequent epidemics in India and, in particular, in Bengal, and to make recommendations for prevention of their recurrence. Sir John Woodhead was the Chairman of the Commission and its members were SV Ramamurty, Manilal Nanavati, M Afzal Hussain and WR Aykroyd. The Commission met in Delhi in July 1944 and then it travelled to Bengal and certain other parts of India. During its stay in Bengal the Commission heard 130 witnesses, all in camera. The report submitted by the Commission was divided into three parts consisting of, altogether, 19 chapters and eight appendices containing relevant information. There was considerable disagreement within the Commission on matters like the extent of grain shortage and the distribution of existing supplies and one of its members, M Afzal Hussain, submitted a separate minute. The Commission failed to publish six volumes of testimony it had collected and one of the commissioners accused the Chairman of trying to destroy the proof-copy of the testimony. In identifying the causes of the famine in the manner described above, the Commission blamed the Bengal ministers and food bureaucrats for a whole series of policies and decisions which aggravated the situation.

Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen has rejected what he calls the standard view that famine is caused by Food Availability Decline (FAD) with regard to the Bengal famine (1943) he holds the Famine Inquiry commission responsible for advocating this view. His own contention is that the famine struck the province not because there was a FAD in 1943 either in absolute or per capita terms, the tragedy unfolded because of the failure in exchange, and entitlement to food for a large section of the population. In other words, for a multiplicity of causes, independent of FAD, foodgrain prices increased faster than the wage of agricultural laboure and prices of goods and services sold by a section of non-agricultural people. But from the above discussion it is clear that the Famine Inquiry Commission did not basically argue that there was a deficit in foodgrains supply on a significant scale in 1943. The problem was created by the commission itself, for while discussing the factors behind the sharp rise in the price level in 1943, at one point invertently it is said that, there was a 'serious shortage' in foodgrain supply. [M Mufakharul Islam]