Bengal Famine of 1943

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Bengal province was a province under British India. It was a very important province in terms of political influence. It experienced a deadly famine in the period of 1943, parallel to the Second World War.
Out of the 60 million population, around 3 million died- because of the famine. Most of the people died due to starvation, hunger, malaria, malnutrition, insufficient sanitation, etc. A large number of people were found panhandling on the streets and food riots took place in many areas.

There a was huge food inflation, thus many people had to resort to joining the British Army to take care of their family and feed them.

There were many narratives regarding the cause of the famine and most of the researchers were of the view that the famine was caused due to some manmade reason. A small minority researcher group believed that it was due to a natural cause.

Backdrop of Famine

The famine of 1943 in Bengal left people of Bengal to die out of hunger and starvation that can be thought of as a consequence that the Bengal province was predominantly a rural province with people getting mere subsistence amount of food after selling their crops.

As most of the citizens were poor by the origin and their occupation was famine, they had to rely on the land to feed their family. Although, due to stagnant agricultural production and stable land base, the situation was not growing, as the per capita production was falling fast. 

On the other hand, the population of Bengal province was growing. So there was a huge risk of food scarcity. During World War 2, there were different concerns like wartime inflation, British war policy, etc. which aggravated the situation. There was a high rate of debt bondage due to the high tax on poor farmers. 

Similarly, if we see that the payment of peasants and sharecroppers were through wages and not through kind proportion related to the crop produced, hence a sudden spike in the food prices created problems.

British wartime policy also restricted rice import from Burma as Japan occupied Burma then. This policy suddenly created a food crisis and there was also not any wartime assistance to Bengal province at that point.

Then the Bengal Chamber of Commerce also proposed to prioritise crops to the people related directly to war which again created a domestic shortage of food crops. There were many shreds of evidence where we can see that food crop was diverted for the British army and frontline workers that resulted in the poor countrymen to die in the open.   

Bengal Famine a Result of British Wartime Strategies

Everything started with the air raids in Calcutta during 1942 and from this time British started to frame new policies as it’s wartime strategies. 

After this period from the start of 1943, many deaths were reported from different eastern districts like Chittagong, Mymensingh, Noakhali etc. These deaths were initially reported and found to be based on starvation.

But as time passed we saw that starvation related deaths were replaced to disease-related deaths. As Bengal was a riverine area and Malaria is a major cause of death, similarly, Cholera related deaths also spiked due to pollution of water in rural regions.

One major thing to point out is most of the starvation related deaths were reported from Eastern districts and less from Western districts of Bengal province. This was because eastern districts were found to be directly impacted by the British “boat denial” policy.

British restriction of import of Burma rice, monetary payment of wages to cultivators and more dependence on Jute production caused a greater impact to eastern districts like Rajshahi, Chittagong than Western districts like 24 Parganas.

Though there was a shortage of rice production in western districts that year, due to the kind payment of harvest the people suffered less in this situation. Famine inquiry commission was set up in 1945 however nothing constructive cause could be found.

It was thought that prompt action by Churchill war administration could have saved millions of lives if they could have rolled out a war relief package for at least the eastern districts of Bengal province.

Written by - Bodhiswatta Mukherjee
Edited by - Ivanova

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