CHENNAI, Nov 10: “I shuddered to see men, women and children with no flesh on their bodies and all skeletons as if they were half dead”, war historian Srinath Raghavan quotes from a letter sent during the Second World War, discussing the famines of 1943-44 in Travancore. “Not many people know that Kerala witnessed the second worst famine after Bengal”, he asserted.
According to Raghavan, India’s participation in the Second World War could have been one of the factors that had contributed to the famines in the country between 1941 and 1943. The printing of extra currency between 1941-42 so as to cater to the monetary needs of the Indian war economy, brought about adverse impacts on the availability and prices of food items, both in the urban and rural areas.
“Although the aggregate income had increased because of greater production, the expenditure on food nearly doubled due to the inflation”, Raghavan claimed. The inflation had also led to reduced food consumption during the period.
“The great Bengal famine of 1943 is estimated to have claimed the lives of around three million Indians”, he said. While instances of famines were not uncommon in India throughout history, mostly because of periodic drought or monsoons, mankind was partly responsible for the tragedy in Bengal, making it an even greater catastrophe of recent global history.
In Amartya Sen’s ‘Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and deprivation’, he argues that famines may not necessarily be caused by food shortages. It can also be the product of various socio-political factors. In the book’s sixth chapter, which discusses the Bengal famine, Sen pointed out Bengal’s war economy as the cause of the famine; “The price increase was much more acute in Bengal than elsewhere. This was, to a great extent, a result of general inflationary pressure in a war economy. Bengal saw military and civil construction at a totally unprecedented scale, and the war expenditures were financed to a great extent by printing notes.” (Pg. 75).The famine, according to Sen, can be described as a ‘boom famine’ related to powerful inflationary pressures initiated by public expenditure expansion.
In 1943, in order to tackle the famines sweeping its troubled colony, the British War Cabinet held meetings. But for British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the famines in India were not that serious an issue, deducible from Sir Wavell’s account of the meetings; “Apparently it is more important to save the Greeks and liberated countries than the Indians and there is reluctance either to provide shipping or to reduce stocks in this country.”
Author Madhusree Mukherjee, in her book ‘Churchill’s Secret War’, asserts that the food shortage, especially in Bengal, was caused by large scale exports of food from India for use in war theatres and consumption in Britain. She further argued about how the cutting down of imports to India might have also influenced the increase in food prices.
Meanwhile in Bengal, the situation was exploited by hoarders to fill their pockets. There was even grain available to alleviate the problem, but in late 1941, British gave Indian provinces autonomy over their food stocks, making it conducive to the huge price increase.
The situation was further aggravated by Churchill’s pushing of a scorched earth policy – which went by the sinister name of Denial Policy – in coastal Bengal where the colonizers feared the Japanese would land. The authorities removed boats (the lifeline of the region) and the police destroyed and seized rice stocks.
In 1942, when Japan seized Burma, an important rice exporter, the British bought up massive amounts of rice but hoarded it. The famine only ended because Bengal thankfully delivered a strong rice harvest by 1944.
In the famines of 1943, some three million Indians died and the majority of the deaths were in Bengal.
These calamities were not just confined to Bengal, there were famines all over the country.
During the period 1942-44, famine camps were pitched for rehabilitation in some parts of the country . “Madras was the first presidency to set up famine camps, initiated already by the late 1942”, said Raghavan.
However, such kind of efforts across the country could not save the lives of almost six million who died due to starvation and malnourishment.
From a letter from the Madras presidency, sent by a father to his son, Raghavan cited: “Death and death everywhere, starvation and epidemics sweep away daily a good number.”