Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1940 to 1945. During his tenure, the Bengal province of India faced a devastating famine called the Bengal Famine of 1943.
The famine of 1943 was so brutal that it claimed at least three millions lives out of the population of sixty million. Specifically, the poor people in the rural areas were affected the most by the famine.
The famine affected only the province of Bengal and its neighbouring province of Orissa. Since the early months of 1943, there were reports of imminent famine from various parts of Bengal. In May and June of 1943, the famine was apparent and death tolls started rising.
During that time it was assessed that the famine was initiated by natural causes of soil moisture shortage that lead to droughts and subsequent crop failure. "The Report on Bengal" from 1945 by the "Famine Inquiry Commission (FIC)" specified the reason behind the famine. Specifically, it assessed that the famine was initiated by the shortages in the supply of rice. In that regard, it evaluated the low yield of Aman crop reaper at the end of 1942.
Additionally, the report claimed that there was a shortage of the stock carried over from the previous year of 1942. According to the Famine Inquiry Commission, the Aman crop of 1940 was exceptionally poor but the Aman crop of 1941 was good but not good enough to ensure adequate stocks. Additionally, when Burma became occupied by the Japanese, normal trade and rice import was interrupted which worsened the shortage.
Another study by R. Passmore entitled "Famine in India: An Historical Survey" published in "The Lancet" in 1951 also explained that the Bengal famine in 1943 was caused by drought. R. Passmore in his paper said that the majority of the people in India and Pakistan depended on agriculture with 70 percent of Indian families getting their food from their land which they ploughed and sowed.
Moreover, despite the development of irrigation systems, most of them were heavily dependent on the monsoon rain. The people usually awaited the monsoon and if it ever failed all over India, it would have caused starvation for over fifty million people. Passmore also acknowledged the interruption of rice imports from Burma as a key contributor to the famine in 1943. So it is clearly evident that R. Passmore identified both climatic and man-made factors contributing to the famine of 1943.
But after seventy-six years, a group of Indo-American researchers lead by Mishra published an article titled "Drought and famine in India, 1870-2016" in the journal of "Geophysical Research Letters" where they found that the famine of 1943 was not caused by climatic factors. The SAD analysis (severity, area, and duration) from 1937 to 1945, found that this famine could not be directly attributed to the lack of soil moisture, drought or crop failure.
Mishra and his associates found that there was a drought during August and September 1941 that was prior to 1943. They also find out that the famine-affected area received 15, 3, 9 and 4 percent of rainfall during June, July, August and September respectively, which was better than average. Although the research paper of Mishra concluded that the Bengal province faced famines in the years 1873-74, 1876, 1877, 1896-97 and 1899 due to the soil moisture/drought, it concluded that the 1943 famine was not related to soil moisture/drought but something else.
Nobel-prize winning economist Amartya Sen in his book "Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation" indicated that the supply of food in 1943 was only 5 percent lower than the average of the preceding five years but it was 13 percent higher than that of 1941 even though no famine had been observed in 1941. Sen also indicated that the supply of rice and wheat in 1943 was 11 percent higher than it was in 1941.
Furthermore, Sen also studied the per capita supply and found that the per capita availability index for 1943 was 9 percent higher than that for 1941. In his book, he also wrote that there was no base for "carry-over", as Mr M. Afzal Hussain (a member of FIC) noted in his meeting as there was no data available regarding the stock of rice on a monthly and annual basis.
Now if we analyse the Famine Inquiry Commission (FIC) and R. Passmore's report we find that they claimed that the Bengal famine was due to a shortage in (a) stock of old rice carried over from 1942 (b) loss of import from Burma and (c) low yield of Aman rice, indicating food availability decline due to climatic conditions and war. But the Indo-American researchers (Mishra and group) found that the soil moisture in the year 1943 was normal and that the Bengal famine of 1943 was not caused by the drought but by. Churchill's policy failures.
Moreover, Amartya Sen found that there had been enough supply of food to feed the region and concluded that the reason behind the Bengal famine was war-time inflation and panic that pushed the price of the food beyond the purchasing capacity of the poor. So according to the research by the Indo-American researchers and the book of Amartya Sen, the famine of 1943 was the result of Churchill's gammy policies that prioritised the distribution of vital supplies to the military, civil services and other war-related efforts not droughts or low crop yields. If Winston Churchill had taken initiative, the famine could have been avoided. Instead, he was quoted to say that the Indians bred rabbits and questioned how bad the shortages were if Mahatma Gandhi was still alive.
The authors are students from the Department of History and the Department of Environmental Sciences at Jahangirnagar University
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