India’s Food Crises and WWII

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.


Some three million died in the Bengal Famine after Winston Churchill ordered the diversion of food from starving Indians to British soldiers and European stockpiles.

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.”