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Bengal Famine of 1943

India's agricultural policies are based, in part, on a history of periodic famines, such as the famine of 1943 and chronic food shortages after independence in 1947 and into the 1950s. The response of the Indian government was to achieve greater security in food supply, especially food grains. The set of policy instruments employed for these efforts, and the resulting expansion in Indian agricultural production, is generally known as the Green Revolution.

India experienced the second Bengal famine of 1943 (the first was 1769-70). The Great Bengal famine of 1943 killed in which over 2,000,000 [and possibly 4 million people] died in what is now Bangladesh and eastern India, and the streets and highways were littered with their bodies. The British colonial government imposed wartime censorship on the Bengal famine of 1943 to avoid pressure to divert resources from the war effort. Some estimates of death put the figure of over 3 million people died. The Great Bengal famine was not caused by a crop failure, but was largely due to an increase in urban demand for food during a wartime economic boom that raised food prices for the rura1 poor. The distressing famine in Bengal in 1943-4 caused a gasp of astonishment as well as of horror in India and in the UK. The worst social and economic disasters, such as the Bengal famine of 1943, or the dislocations during China's "Great Leap Forward" (1951-1953), have occurred in the absence of democratic safeguards.

With increasing globalization, the persistence of trans-boundary plant diseases in the world poses a serious risk to world animal and plant agriculture and food security and jeopardizes international trade. In recent decades, the world has experienced devastating losses to farmers from major outbreaks, such as Brown Spot of rice in India in 1942, causing the Bengal famine in 1943. The rice-eating population had no facilities for cooking the wheat imported to relieve the famine.

Brown Spot (Helminthosporium oryzae): The disease is first seen as brownish spots on the leaves and glumes of the plant. The spots enlarge and become grey at the center and brown at the edge. The affected tissues take on a velvety feel as the fungus begins to develop aerial structures that produce the spores by which it spreads. The spores are carried in the rice seed and when it germinates, the burden imposed by the growing fungus on the developing plants is such that the seedlings are weakened and crop yields are drastically reduced. There was a major outbreak of rice brown spot in Bengal in India in 1942, with the loss of the crop leading to a famine that claimed at least two million lives.

The causes of the famine have been fully and ably dealt with in the report of the Commission which made a thorough investigation under the chairmanship of Sir John Woodhead. This dealt chiefly with the causes that actually precipitated the famine, but the report also describes the background against which the events leading to the widespread starvation in 1943 must be viewed.

"The Commission obtained evidence showing that about one-half of the 7,500,000 families depending mainly or solely on agriculture for their livelihood held less than two acres of land or owned no land at all, whereas the smallest area needed to maintain an average family in reasonable comfort was estimated as being at least five acres. In their search for evidence to show the previous state of nutrition of the people of Bengal the Commissioners had to fall back on a survey ... of the health conditions in the villages of India in 1933. This survey was carried out by sending a list of questions to a large number of doctors working in typical agricultural villages; the doctors were asked to confine their replies to facts and opinions based on their own observations. An analysis of the replies received from 69 doctors working in different parts of Bengal showed that 22% of the people were regarded as " well nourished," 47% as "poorly nourished," and 31% as "very badly nourished."

The Commission accepted these figures as "indicating in a general way the unsatisfactory state of nutrition of the people of Bengal ten years before the famine," though they also remarked that the findings could not be accepted as showing conclusively that nutritional conditions in Bengal were worse than thosc of India as a whole. While the findings were regarded as conveying a substantially true impression of conditions of rural life in British India, one of the chief objects of the survey was to show the need for a thorough investigation into the state of health of the agricultural population. It is indeed surprising that the Commissioners should have been compelled to rely on this rough-and-ready inquiry of the "Gallup poll" type as the only available evidence on so momentous a question.

The Commissioners went on to state that poverty and malnutrition in Bengal left a section of the population with few reserves, material or physical, to meet superimposed calamity; that there was no margin of safety; and that though such conditions were common to most other provinces of India they were of fundamental importance and were favourable to the occurrence of famine. Among the general conclusions it was stated that agricultural production was not keeping pace with the growth of population, and that a considerable section of the people were living on the margin of subsistence.

The significance of these statements is greatly enhanced by the fact that they carry the authority of a man who weighed his words with a deep sense of responsibility. It becomes clear that, although the factors responsible for precipitating the famine were largely unpredictable, there were also basic factors which, if allowed to operate without interruption, would have made famine inevitable sooner or later. It is also clear that these basic factors could have been observed, and that from an examination of the trend of events a forecast could have been made showing that any exceptional shortage of the harvests due to failure of the rains would precipitate a crisis.

A remarkable feature of the famine was that the actual shortage of food in 1943 was estimated as being only about 6% of the normal supply. Special attention should be paid to the ominous words already quoted that the fundamentally important basic conditions were common to most other provinces of India.

The most important lesson to be learned from the famine was the need for an organization charged with the duty of providing reliable information with regard to the nutritional condition of the people, and of preparing regular forecasts, based on the observed trends of population and food production, to show what is likely to happen not only in seasons of normal harvest but also in the event of widespread failure of the crops.

A curious sidelight on conditions in Bengal before the famine is contained in the Bengal Health Report for 1941, which was issued only a few weeks ago. It appears that in 1941 the death rate was 6.6% higher, and the birth rate 5.3% lower, than in 1940. This simultancous deterioration in the death and birth rates is very unusual; it had happened in 1918, when it was accounted for by the influenza pandemic, and again in 1938. The recurrence in rapid succession in 1938 and 1941 of so exceptional a feature in the statistics suggests that the nutritional condition of the people of Bengal was approaching the critical point at which the reproductive capacity of the people begins sharply to decline.

The statistics for India as a whole show that a relatively high birth rate can be maintained in spite of low nutritional standards, so that any considerable fall in the birth rate that cannot be explained by the occurrence of severe epidemics may well be a danger signal showing that the community is coming perilously near the breaking point at which a further reduction in the food supply is likely to precipitate famine.

Bengal was not the only part of India to suffer from distress in 1943. The Chief Minister of Travancore made a public statement in the month of October in that year to the effect that a distressing condition of under-nourishment and famine conditions had existed, unrelieved, in the State during the previous twelve months. Eyewitnesses have given detailed reports of widespread starvation, though not on so spectacular a scale as in Bengal.


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