The Bengal Famine of 1943 in which out of a population of 60.3 million, an estimated 2.1–3 million died of starvation, malaria and other diseases during 1943 and 1944, was according to white Paper, due to combine effort of hoarding resulting from fall of Burma, the air raids on Calcutta, the cyclone of October 1942 and the floods, which breached the main railway lines.
The Japanese campaign for Burma began in late December 1941, which set off an exodus of more than half of the Indians then living in Burma into India. The influx of refugees created demand for more food, clothing and medical aid, straining the resources of the province of Bengal.
On 26 April 1942, Allied forces were ordered to retreat from Burma into India. The troops arrived: pushing the refugees aside, laying hands on all supplies, and utilizing all available transport. Japanese warships and aircraft sunk merchant shipping in the Bay of Bengal, which put additional strain on the railways. The Quit India movement also targeted road and rail link.
The Japanese attack provoked a scramble for rice across India, and sparked unprecedented price inflation in rice producing regions of India.
The fall of Burma brought Bengal close to the war front. The major urban areas (most especially Calcutta) swelled with ever-increasing numbers of workers in the military industries. Unskilled labourers from Bengal and nearby provinces were employed by military contractors for numerous projects, particularly the construction of American and British airfields. These enormous public expenditures increased demand, leading to price inflation across India, especially in Bengal.
Hundreds of thousands of troops arrived into the province from the United States, United Kingdom, India and placing further strains on domestic supplies and resulting in local scarcities across a wide range of daily necessities. Nearly the full output of India's cloth, wool, leather and silk industries were sold to the military.
By the end of 1942, cloth prices had more than tripled from their pre-war levels; they had more than quadrupled by mid-1943. Much of the goods left over for civilian use were purchased by speculators. The hardships of the crisis was not alleviated until military forces began distributing relief supplies; for example, the United States Army Air Forces flew 100 tons of warm clothing into eastern Bengal.
The military buildup caused massive displacement of Bengalis from their homes. Farmland purchased for airstrip and camp construction is "estimated to have driven between 30,000 and 36,000 families (about 150,000 to 180,000 persons) off their land". The urgent need for housing for the massive influx of workers and soldiers from 1942 onward also created problems. Military barracks were scattered around Calcutta. A thousand homes, including entire villages, were requisitioned for military use and at least 60,000 occupants expelled.
The British military authorities feared that the Japanese would invade British India via the eastern border of Bengal. As a preemptive measure, they launched a scorched-earth initiative in eastern and coastal Bengal to prevent or impede the invasion by denying access to food supplies, transport and other resources.
First, a "denial of rice" policy was carried out in southern districts along the coast of the Bay of Bengal that were expected to have surplus of rice. The fraudulent, corrupt and coercive practices by the purchasing agents removed far more rice than officially recorded, not only from designated districts, but also in unauthorised areas.
As a second prong, a "boat denial" policy was designed to deny Bengali transport to any invading Japanese army. Under this policy, the Army confiscated approximately 46,000 rural boats, severely disrupting river-borne movement of labour, supplies and food, and compromising the livelihoods of boatmen and fishermen.
Many Indian provinces and princely states imposed inter-provincial trade barriers beginning in mid-1942, preventing other provinces from buying domestic rice. Provincial governments began erecting trade barriers that prevented the flow of food grains (especially rice) and other goods between provinces.
In January 1942, Punjab banned exports of wheat. The Central Provinces prohibited the export of food grains outside the province two months later. Madras banned rice exports in June, followed by export bans in Bengal and its neighboring provinces of Bihar and Orissa in July. Bengal was unable to import domestic rice; this policy helped transform market failures and food shortage into famine and widespread death.
The food member of the Indian Government said that that there was a huge surplus of food grains in the Punjab, but the grain is not coming from the villages, because zamindars believe that sooner or later their wheat would be purchased at a very high rate. On Wednesday 8th September 1943, Mr. Suhrawardy, Minister of Civil Supplies, Bengal, arrived at Lahore by Frontier Mail to attend the food conference, between Bengal, Punjab and Central government.
On 29th October 1943, Major General Wakely flew from Patna to Calcutta to take charge of the movement of food grains. Maj. Gen. R Richardson proceeded to Calcutta to take other help like Army medical and other stores. Arrangement was made to dispatch, 70,000 tons of wheat excluding wheat from Punjab and Australia; 40,000 tons of barley; 15,000 tons of millets, and 10,000 tons of gram.
On Monday 1st November 1943, 178 sick destitute were admitted to the hospitals in Calcutta and suburbs and 76 died. Deaths from all causes in Calcutta during the week ending 30th October 1943, totaled 2,214, compared with 2,155 in the previous week, 581 in the corresponding week last year … There were 152 cases of cholera this week of which 67 proved fatal, as against 296 and 102, respectively, of the previous week … Deaths of paupers during the period numbered 1,306 against 1361 in the previous week, the total number of paupers from 1st August to 30th October being 10,631.
Central Province offered 10,000 tons of rice, of which 5,000 tons have been allotted to Bengal and the remainder to Bombay, Travancore and Cochin … CP has also declared surplus of 5000 tons of millets plus 6000 tons of millets from the Punjab states, has been allotted to Bombay, Madras, Mysore and the Deccan states.
On Tuesday 2nd November 1943, 110 bodies of sick destitute were disposed of in Calcutta. On Wednesday 3 November 1943, the number of corpses of sick and destitute disposed of in Calcutta totaled 100 … The total number of Hindu dead bodies picked up from the streets of Dacca in the month of October is 121 … The total number of Muslim dead bodies picked up from streets of Dacca from 19th September to 31 October was 373 … The total number of admissions of starvation cases in the Comilla Saddar Hospital upto 31st October 1943 was 1378. The number of deaths totaled 248 … A trade in destitute girls aged 3 to 12 in the prostitute quarters at the rate of 10 annas to Rs. 1-8 each.
On Wednesday 3 November 1943, In Commons debate Sir Alfred Knox said that he was convinced that the cause of the present position in India was economic nationalism – the jealousy and determination of the different provinces of India to save their own people, to keep their reserves of grain, and not let them to province, which had deficits. Surely, it was the duty of the Government of India to override that, and force government, which had excesses to give up their grain to others.
Sir George Schuster said that there had been a failure to take adequate and comprehensive action. It was a story of half measures and vacillations … He would put first the necessity of introducing a comprehensive and coherent policy - an All India policy covering finance, prices and rationing. Secondly, he urged that the British Government should give every possible assistance in allowing India to import wheat … The Food Department should have been set up a year or two earlier.
Mr. Cove (Labour), said, the war has provided an acid test of our rule in India. We have been there for 200 years, and when a war of this character breaks out, our machinery in India, so far as morale etc. is concerned, has broken down. We have lamentably failed.
Mr. Ridley (Labour) said there was a complete absence of any ability to comprehend the consequences of the situation and to deal with them. The powers now being used could have been used with greater effect months ago … The inescapable and uncomfortable fact remained that they were dealing with a normally heavily undernourished people. The mass of the people had been living at an economic and nutritional level to which human beings should never be subject. It was an astonishing fact that despite greatly increased knowledge of scientific methods of agriculture, the total agricultural production in India remained static.
Mr. Godfrey Nicholson (Conservative) said: It is a disgrace to us that we have so allowed an administration to deteriorate that such a thing came about.
Winding up the debate Sir John Anderson revealed that in 1942 government of India made an urgent appeal for help in procuring additional supplies of wheat. At that time a decision had just been taken to divert certain ships earmarked for military purposes in order that they might be put on the North Atlantic route to improve the British food supply position, which was then seriously running down. It was decided, nevertheless that a number of those ships should be again diverted to meet India’s requirements. This year further urgent appeals were received from the Government of India on the ground of very serious situation developing in Bengal. Action was taken, as a result of which supplies of grain were now flowing freely into Bengal. That process will go on until the end of the year.
Mr. Seymore Cocks (Labour) said that the people of India were subjects of the King-Emperor just as the people of London, and if they were dying in Calcutta, it was the same thing as if they were dying in London … it was very important that wheat should be sent to India even if it involved three or six months of war with Japan.
During the week ending 6th November 1943, deaths from all causes in Calcutta numbered 1875 compared to 2214 for the previous week. There were 100 attacks and 51 deaths from Cholera, as against 152 and 67 in the previous week. 526 paupers died in the week as against 1734 in the preceding week … Gen. Auchenleck revealed that several thousand troops were employed on this work including motorized units. Nine hundred tons of food is being sent daily from Calcutta, to about 20 distributing centres in the mofussel. Besides preventing looting of food in transmission, troops help in unloading, and storing food … Two-third of units were motorized and could use their own transport to carry grain … a casuality clearing station which is a large hospital, several field ambulances which are mobile hospitals … Army was feeding its own labour in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa including 50,000 men, women and children in Bengal alone, the issue of rice to British troops had been stopped, the issue to Indian troops had been cut by two-thirds and atta had been substituted for rice.
The first batch of Bengal orphans, numbering 64, left Calcutta for Punjab on Monday night by the Howrah Express. At Lahore, the orphans will be kept in Vedic Ashram, Krishma Nagar. They will be medically examined and then sent to different orphanages in the province. Another batch will leave Calcutta on Friday.
Permits for 30 wagons have been obtained, and the wagons will be loaded from different stations for dispatch to Howrah. A batch of Volunteers left Lahore for Calcutta on Tuesday to make arrangements for free kitchens in the moffasil areas.
Nawab of Mamdot, President of the Punjab Provincial Muslim League has opened the Bengal relief Fund under the auspices of the Punjab Muslim League. Mamdot has donated Rs. 5,000 to it.
On Saturday 13th November 1943, Mr. Shambhudayal Misra, a Congress member of Central assembly, moved that public trial of Lord Linlithgow, Mr. Amery and Sir John Herbert be held in connection with the Bengal crisis … KB Lal (nationalist) urged the appointment of a committee, consisting of officials and non-officials to inquire the condition prevailing in the country and to suggest remedies.’
On Monday 15th November 1943, Over 100,000 infants and nursing mothers in the worst affected areas in Bengal are being given milk daily out of supplies made available by the Red Cross … The Government of Bengal has purchased five lakh pounds of condensed milk and five lakhs of powered milk from South Africa. Besides the British Admiralty is transferring nine lakhs pounds of American milk to Bengal.
On Wednesday 22nd December 1943, It was suggested that instead of the Sindh Ministry’s proposal to buy and sell rice at Rs. 12 per maund, the Sindh Government should buy rice at Rs. 9 as at present, and sell to other provinces at Rs.12. Mr. M H Gazdar, Minister for information, Sind, said not speculators and vested interests but the entire province is crying for the increase. The rural population forming the bulk of growers would not be affected by the rise.
On Monday 15th November 1943, Fifty-seven destitute died in various Hospitals in Calcutta. 63 dead bodies were disposed off by Hindu Satkar Samity and the Anjuman Mafidul Islam. 68 destitute died on Sunday.
On Friday 19th November 1943, the Council of State began three day debate on the food situation. A revised plan came into operation on 1st August 1943. During three months of its operation, the principal recipient had been Bengal with 300,300 tons; Bombay 84,000 tons; Madras 79,200 tons; Travancore and Cochin 51,300 tons; and the Deccan states 6,500 tons.
Sir AP Petro regretted that the famine had been made the sport of politics in Bengal. He thought that two parties were fighting for power and the result was that people were starving.
Till 1st December 1943, a total of 15,886 sick destitute were admitted in the different hospitals of Calcutta’s industrial areas, of whom 5,989 died and 7974 were discharged.
On Friday 3rd December 1943, Amery replying to a question said that military assistance in Bengal is getting into its stride and outlying centres as well as Calcutta are now receiving adequate supplies, though distribution from these centres to more remote villages still present a problem. Plans for rationing in urban areas are proceeding and should be in operation in Calcutta by middle of this month. Deaths in Calcutta, during the fortnight ending 28th October totaled 3,132 … it is reported that 2,233,000 people are being fed daily from food kitchens … a serious outbreak of Cholera in Bengal has followed upon the famine. During October deaths in the province from this disease averaged 5,349 per week. In the first week of November they were 4,464. The Army is providing assistance in the provision of Doctors and medical equipment and a mass inoculation campaign is being planned.
Field Marshal Archibald Wavell replaced Linlithgow on 1st October 1943 as viceroy; within two weeks he had requested military support for the transport and distribution of crucial supplies. This assistance was delivered promptly, including a full division of 15,000 British soldiers, military lorries and the Royal Air Force, and distribution to even the most distant rural areas began on a large scale. In particular, grain was imported from the Punjab, and medical resources were made far more available. Rank-and-file soldiers, who had sometimes disobeyed orders to feed the destitute from their rations, were held in esteem by Bengalis for the efficiency of their work in distributing relief. That December, the largest [rice] paddy crop ever seen, in Bengal was harvested, and the price of rice began to fall. Wavell made several other key policy steps, including promising that aid from other provinces would continue to feed the Bengal countryside, setting up a minimum rations scheme, and prevailing upon Great Britain to increase international imports. He has been widely praised for his decisive and effective response to the crisis.
All official food relief work ended in January 1944.