The imperial roots of hunger
16 June 2014
From the British Raj to today, the dictates of global markets still deny millions in India the opportunity to feed themselves.
In September 1900, while India suffered through one of the most severe famines in its history, a British official charged with identifying suitable recipients for free food shared his travails with the British Times. “The main difficulty in these inquiries is the unlimited mendacity of the Hindu farmer,” he complained. In his experience, many supplicants for aid had “starved themselves into a state of emaciation in the hope that they would receive gratuitous doles, rather than go to work for their living” in a food-for-labour programme. The civil servant went on to describe his interrogation of a typical “starved-looking wretch”:
Why is he not working? He says he has not the strength. But why did he not go to work before his strength failed? He pretends he does not understand; he only repeats that he cannot; and he falls on his knees and places his head in the dust and calls you his ‘father and mother’ and ‘protector of the poor.’ It is very pitiable – the mental and moral state more than the physical.
The civil servant did not mention that the taxes wrung from these very farmers paid his salary, and would pay his pension when he retired home to Britain. For that would come close to conceding that an imperial system of extortion had maintained India in an almost continuous state of starvation throughout the latter half of the 19th century, as Mike Davis detailed in Late Victorian Holocausts (2001). In that period India suffered a famine every few years, resulting in 25 million deaths even by a conservative count. The proximate cause of the famines was usually drought, although colonial administrators also blamed them on the tendency of natives to breed excessively. (Apart from the mendacity, masochism, indolence and obsequiousness cited by the above official, the alleged attributes of the Indian also included lechery.) But throughout the 19th century India was on average producing enough food to feed its people – which indicates that the roots of starvation lay elsewhere.
Nationalist Dadabhai Naoroji and pioneering economic historian Romesh Chunder Dutt demonstrated that British Indian famines arose from the way the colony had been forcibly incorporated into the global economy. High taxes, which had to be paid even when the crop failed, forced farmers to relinquish to the market whatever harvest they could gather – and to the moneylender or taxman almost all the cash they thereby earned. As a result, the poor had too little money left in hand to buy enough grain for their own needs. Their ever-diminishing purchasing power relative to consumers abroad, in concert with rigorously enforced free-trade policies, ensured that a substantial portion of the surrendered harvest left the colony’s shores. As Dutt calculated, each year India exported agricultural goods equal in value to the cereal requirements of 25 million people. These exports, in turn, earned India the foreign exchange to pay the Home Charge: the administrative and other expenses that the colony owed Britain for the privilege of having white men shoulder its burdens. By the end of the Victorian era, the Home Charge came to 20 million pounds a year.
With much of the harvest as well as all of its income ending up abroad, the price of what food remained in India was often too high for those clinging to survival. The foreign exchange that the colony’s starving farmers earned allowed the United Kingdom to pay off a third of its trade deficits with the United States and Europe – which meant that a state of intermittent famine in India was integral to the prosperity of the imperial nation.
Exploitation of the colony’s resources intensified during imperial wars, leading to inflation, food scarcities, and epidemics exacerbated by malnutrition. Such factors contributed to the demise of roughly 12 million Indians from Spanish flu during World War I, and at least 3 million from famine during World War II. As I demonstrated inChurchill’s Secret War (2010), Indians starved by the tens of millions because control over their economy resided not with them but with His Majesty’s Government, which prioritised the comforts of British civilians far above the survival needs of ‘natives’.
Hungry voters and hungry states
Colonial subjects did not, of course, vote in British elections, and so could not hold decision-makers accountable. Nobel-laureate economist Amartya Sen has argued that democracy protects against famine. “In democratic countries, even very poor ones, the survival of the ruling government would be threatened by famine, since elections are not easy to win after famines,” he said in a 2002 interview to the London Observer. He cites in illustration the Bengal famine of 1943 and the massive famine in Maoist China between 1958 and 1961, comparing it with the relative lack of famines in democratic India. Nevertheless, to ignore issues of sovereignty when assigning culpability for colonial-era famines seems akin to blaming an airplane crash on the pilot (and possibly the passengers) without examining the instructions sent by the air-traffic controller. Democracy is an attribute of a nation state; to focus exclusively on its role is to confine responsibility within national borders and exonerate external actors.
Paucity of democracy also fails to account for recent near-famines aggravated by neo-imperialism. In the middle of 2008, for instance, disparate countries around the world erupted in food riots. As listed by economist Jayati Ghosh, these included Haiti, Guinea, Mauritania, Mexico, Morocco, Egypt, Senegal, Uzbekistan, Yemen, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Indonesia. “In several countries in Asia, such as Pakistan and Thailand, troops had to be deployed to guard food stocks and prevent seizure of grain from warehouses,” she wrote. Wall Street speculation in financial instruments based on cereals, coming on top of the First World’s use of grain for ethanol production, had caused global prices to rise by 80 percent in eighteen months. While Goldman Sachs likely made hundreds of millions of dollars, more than 100 million people worldwide descended into hunger.
What the starving countries shared was not absence of democracy, but dependence on imports – at least in part a consequence of economic imperialism. Take the first country on the list, Haiti, which until the 1980s was largely self-sufficient in its staple food, rice. Starting in 1986, however, the International Monetary Fund forced Haiti to reduce the tariffs that protected its domestic rice production from 35 to 3 percent, so as to qualify for a loan. Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate and former chief economist of the World Bank, has described the extent to which the IMF is controlled by the United States, in particular by Wall Street financiers who use the institution to impose on debtor countries conditions that favour their own interests. Cheap rice imports from the US, where production is highly subsidised, flooded out Haitian rice so that farmers gave up on farming and moved to cities. Domestic rice production collapsed. By the middle of 2008, when international rice prices soared by more than three times since early 2007, Haiti was importing most of its staple. The Philippines, which also features in Ghosh’s list, similarly turned from rice exporter to importer during the 1980s and 1990s, when it implemented ‘structural adjustments’ demanded by the World Bank which reduced support to farmers.
A debilitating dependence on imports may be induced in other ways. As economist Utsa Patnaik observes in her important book The Republic of Hunger (2007), during the 1970s and 1980s the IMF and the World Bank coerced several sub-Saharan countries into giving their prime agricultural land over to the cultivation of bananas, roses, fresh vegetables and the like for the European market, leaving less land on which to grow food for domestic consumption. Free-market economists had argued that with ample earnings from high-value exports, poor countries could buy cheap foreign grain to feed their people. But with many tropical countries simultaneously seeking to export their products, prices for these fell, earnings failed to meet expectations, and elites became reluctant to use scarce foreign exchange to import sufficient food. Meanwhile, in less than a decade, cereal output per head declined by a shocking third in the six most populous countries of this region. Even with food aid, per capita calorie intake declined for four of these countries. Sub-Saharan Africa is now one of the hungriest regions of the world, perpetually on the verge of famine.
This global trend has a surprising root: the glorious diversity of tropical flora and fauna. Recall that colonialism itself arose from the desire to acquire spices, silks, cottons and tea for the European market; so urgent was this need that the United Kingdom even waged war on China to force it to accept opium (itself coercively grown in India) in exchange for its tea and silks. Patnaik observes that an average supermarket in a rich Western country stocks about 12,000 items, of which roughly 70 percent contain ingredients such as sugar, tea, cocoa or coffee that are grown in tropical or subtropical climes. Although once considered luxuries, since the 19th century their everyday use has become crucial to the sense of well-being of consumers in rich countries – most of them former colonial powers.
“A civilisation with an unnatural appetite must feed on numberless victims, and these are being sought in the parts of the world where human flesh is cheap,” commented Rabindranath Tagore in his timeless essay, The robbery of the soil. With the decline of traditional colonialism after World War II, the First World crafted new ways to induce the Third World to grow the crops and mine the minerals that the affluent needed, and to accept in exchange either high-priced manufactured goods or the few varieties of crops that cooler climates do produce. Thus were born powerful new institutions dominated by the West – the IMF, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation – which could use loan programmes and trade agreements to mould the domestic policies of debtor nations. As a result many ex-colonies, including India, once again lost a significant portion of their economic sovereignty, won just decades earlier through the sacrifices of countless heroes and heroines.
Rich countries with warm regions also sought to colonise as much as they could the Third World’s seed varieties, developed over centuries by indigenous farmers. For instance, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), set up in the 1960s by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, managed to get hold of more than 16,000 varieties of rice developed by Indian farmers. These varieties, along with tens of thousands of rice samples collected elsewhere in Asia, ended up in seed repositories and biotechnology labs in the United States. In 1996, the International Food Policy Research Institute estimated that roughly three-quarters of US rice fields were sown with varieties descendant from IRRI material. The Texas-based company RiceTec went so far as to patent a hybrid strain of basmati rice that also appears to have been derived from the IRRI collection. (India, under pressure from its civil society, contested the patent with partial success.)
To be sure, the IRRI also provided some of the so-called HYVs, or ‘high-yielding’ varieties, that contributed to the Green Revolution and helped India feed itself. These varieties may be more accurately labeled as ‘high-responsive’: although very productive when given ample and expensive inputs, their yields fall steeply in the absence of adequate water, fertilisers, and pesticides. In his treatise Beyond Developmentality (2009), ecologist Debal Deb observes that the yield of HYV varieties per unit of water is in fact significantly lower than that of most indigenous varieties. Activist Vandana Shiva further notes that much of the purported gains of India’s Green Revolution can actually be attributed to intensive irrigation (which allows the same field to produce two or three crops a year instead of just the single monsoon-fed harvest), as well as to vast increases in the land area under cultivation for the chosen crops. In the Punjab, for instance, the total area under rice cultivation increased ten-fold and that under wheat increased three-fold in the four decades following 1960, whereas the area under cultivation for pulses decreased ten-fold. When such factors are accounted for, at most 17 percent of the global gains from the Green Revolution may be attributed to the HYVs themselves.
The problems associated with such industrialised agriculture are now becoming apparent. Excessive pumping of underground water is salinising fields and depleting aquifers (leading to falling water tables, and indirectly to arsenic poisoning in southern Bengal); overuse of fertilisers is spurring soil degradation and erosion; and rampant spraying of pesticides is contaminating food supplies and drinking water (causing a cancer epidemic in the Punjab). Pests are developing resistance to the very chemicals that all too readily kill farmers, and yields are either stagnant or falling. At the same time, with HYVs monopolising fields, native varieties are vanishing rapidly just when the need for their irreplaceable qualities, such as resistance to specific pests, is becoming most urgent.
Enter the ‘Second Green Revolution’. In 2005 Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and US president George W. Bush agreed upon the Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture (KIA), touted as the new route to abolishing hunger. It called for collaborative efforts that would result in US-based biotechnology companies getting access to the genetic resources of the vast network of institutes, universities and research projects supervised by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. According to analyst Kavitha Kuruganti, the KIA also empowered US corporations – including the multinational Monsanto, which features on its board and which already controls about a quarter of the world’s proprietary seed market – to influence the legal regime in India to their advantage.
In 2007, India’s Genetic Engineering Approval Committee suddenly announced that genetically modified foods would no longer require approvals. Adverse publicity and judicial activism led to the order being held in abeyance; nonetheless, confirming widespread fears of a fresh attempt to colonise India’s food chain, the committee subsequently approved Monsanto’s Bt brinjal for the Indian market despite inadequate assurances of its safety. Leo Saldanha of the Environmental Support Group charges that Monsanto had earlier, and illegally, accessed several varieties of brinjal from India, where the plant likely originated, in order to develop this genetically engineered variety.
Adamant opposition from the Indian states, along with nationwide hearings on the issue initiated by the then Minister of Environment Jairam Ramesh, led to a moratorium on the introduction of Bt brinjal. That setback appears to have motivated others in the Indian government to formulate a biotechnology bill that would empower an unaccountable new body to take all decisions on the safety and marketing of GM products, while curtailing the powers of states to regulate the new products as well as the public’s ability to learn about their environmental and health effects. Brazenly, the proposed legislation would also have punished, with steep fines and jail terms of at least six months, any attempt to “misinform” the public about GM products without “scientific evidence”. After having laid bare the corporate agenda that has possessed key figures in the Indian government, this controversial clause has been dropped from the latest version of the bill.
Demanding a fair share
Of course when India was colonised for the first time, the perpetrator was also a corporation backed by a powerful country and aided by native collaborators. Ever since Manmohan Singh ushered in the era of neoliberal ‘reforms’ in the 1990s, India has surrendered significant control over its economy to outsiders. Not only is it giving away the intellectual property of Indian farmers; in accordance with the diktats of the international financial institutions, it has also promoted cash crops and expensive corporate-controlled seeds, precipitously reduced investment in agriculture, and removed protective tariffs, thereby subjecting its cultivators to international prices that are either dangerously volatile (because of speculation) or artificially low (because of subsidies of a billion dollars a day enjoyed by First World agriculturists).
Small family farms are becoming unprofitable. Indeed, many analysts believe that traditional cultivation has deliberately been rendered unviable with the aim of forcing farmers off the land and ushering in a new era of industrialised and corporatised agriculture. According to journalist P Sainath, between 1995 and 2011 more than 270,000 Indian farmers – overwhelmingly growers of cash crops such as cotton, sugarcane and groundnut – committed suicide, and every single day at least 2000 farmers are giving up on farming.
Take the oilseeds debacle. Analyst Devinder Sharma reports that in the mid-1990s, India achieved 97 percent self-sufficiency in edible oils, extracted from groundnuts and other seeds grown on marginal lands. The World Bank argued, however, that India should import US or European oil because it was cheaper – without noting the huge subsidies that kept it that way. The neo-colony accordingly slashed import duties from 300 percent to practically zero, devastating its dry-land farmers. It is now the world’s second-largest importer of edible oil, for which it annually pays more than USD 10 billion. Most of this is palm oil, produced by decimating the rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia and their resident orangutans, as the World Wildlife Fund has complained.
In India since 1990, the area growing coarse grains – which the poor depend on – has decreased by a quarter, with much of that land being given over to cash crops such as jatropha, a toxic plant used for biofuel. Overall, the quantity of cereal available to the average Indian has fallen from 435.3 grams per day in 1990 to a disturbing 401.7 grams per day in 2010. This decline, compounded by increasing poverty in villages, has led to a 10 percent fall in per capita calorie consumption in rural areas in the first decade of the new millennium. The availability of pulses has halved since 1961, contributing to widespread protein deficiency as well.
Forcible seizure of the commons is exacerbating the problem. Indian villagers survive mainly on the grain and vegetables they grow and the water, firewood, fish, tubers, fruits and edible leaves that they get for free from their environs. Tens of millions of them are losing not only their fields and seeds, but also their forests, swamps, rivers and coasts – and therefore their ability to provide for themselves – to mines, dams and other development. “Dispossession amounts to pushing them off a platform on which they can stay alive,” observes the pioneering doctor Binayak Sen. Indigenous peoples, who account for two-fifths of those displaced, are predictably the worst hit. Dr Sen notes that 41.9 percent of India’s scheduled tribes have a body mass index of less than 18.5, indicating a state of incipient famine. (Norms drawn up by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network designate any community in which far more than 40 percent of the members have a body mass index of below 18.5 as suffering from famine.) Hunger deaths are routinely reported across tribal India.
Astoundingly, the country harbours enormous grain stockpiles, largely because, with the universal Public Distribution System that used to provide cheap food to all having been truncated (at the urging of the World Bank), too few people can now afford to buy the food they need. As the abysmal agricultural and nutritional statistics show, this bounty is a grotesque illusion, and it will fade fast. Much of the country’s wheat and rice harvest comes from HYVs that guzzle water, derived in turn from underground aquifers that are rapidly being emptied. “India’s water-based food bubble may be about to burst,” writes environmentalist Lester Brown. In the near future the country will have to import food if it is to prevent outright famine of the kind in which villagers migrate en masse to cities in search of nourishment and foul the pavements with their corpses.
But a dependence on imports is unfeasible. Diversion of food crops to ethanol production by both the United States and the European Union – cars having greater entitlement to nourishment than the global poor – has steeply increased global prices of all cereals. The US is using about 40 percent of its corn crop for ethanol, adding more than a billion dollars a year to the food import bills of poor countries. Just as worrisome, in recent years drought and fires induced by climate change have damaged harvests in major grain exporting countries such as Australia, Russia and the US. Global cereal prices are now almost as high as during the crisis of 2008. Speculation is rife, global stocks are low, and the United Nations has warned that any more severe weather could trigger a food crisis this very year. Although swathes of Africa are already starving, a new land grab is underway there as investors and corporations, ironically some of them from India, rush to secure access to well-watered, fertile soil that can continue to supply flowers and luxury foods to those who can afford them.
“The resource base for First World lifestyles – whether they are enjoyed within the geographical territories of the rich or the poor nations – is the entire planet,” observe economists Aseem Shrivastava and environmentalist Ashish Kothari in their devastating book, Churning the Earth (2012). The wealthiest fifth of the globe’s population reaches far beyond national borders to consume four-fifths of the earth’s total land, water, minerals, carbon recycling capacity and other resources. And the earth is crumbling under the strain. In the 1970s, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had constructed an elaborate computer model of industrial civilisation and its interactions with the earth’s biosphere. They forecasted that unless humanity drastically changed course to live within the earth’s capacity to sustain life, pollution and a shortage of natural resources would cause society to collapse.
Australian scientist Graham Turner finds that in the four decades since that model was developed, actual global population, industrial production, pollution and other variables have tracked the most alarming set of predictions with sinister precision. Although global warming will deal the ultimate blow, he finds that the most immediate danger of collapse comes from rising petroleum prices, which will cause nations to divert ever more of their financial resources to securing oil supplies (as is already happening in India). With capital thereby drained from agriculture, the model predicts that harvests will dive, killing billions in famines by as early as the 2030s.
The saving grace: agriculture in the Third World is not yet fully industrialised. Tens of millions of farmers still know how to grow food using their own seeds, and without the dubious benefits of petroleum-based fertilisers and pesticides. The only imaginable way to avert disaster is to protect and nurture the remaining pockets of organic, labour-intensive, community-supported agriculture, based on tradition and improved by science, but free of dependence on capital, oil or corporations. Genetically modified foods must be fended off, if only because they imply monoculture and corporate control, and therefore a dangerous loss of biodiversity and sovereignty.
A groundbreaking United Nations report published in 2011 argues that small-scale farmers could double their productivity and cut costs by turning their plots into thriving ecosystems, for instance by using ducks and fish in flooded rice fields to control pests and weeds and to nourish the plants with their droppings. Such creatures can also provide the poor with protein, as indeed they used to before pesticides sterilised most rice fields. Deb has similarly shown that organic rice production using traditional seeds and manure can be as productive as industrialised rice farming with hybrid varieties and expensive fertilisers and pesticides. His collection of more than 860 rice cultivars, garnered mainly from eastern India and available to farmers through his open seed bank Vrihi, contains specimens that can tolerate diverse pests, floods and drought – necessary qualities in a warming world.
Unlike the IRRI collection, most of which now consists of dead grains that are useless to farmers but possess genetic information that can be accessed by corporations, Deb keeps his seeds alive by growing and replanting them every year. After Cyclone Aila hit the Sunderban in 2009, salinising more than 20,000 acres of fields, Deb distributed samples of four traditional salt-tolerant rice varieties among local farmers and found two of them using others. Sadly, some of the recipients threw their samples away: having been repeatedly exhorted by government agriculturists to embrace modern technology, many cultivators have come to despise their own traditions. Thanks to Deb’s persistence, however, more than 100 farmers are now planting, harvesting, propagating and sharing all of these varieties, greatly increasing the resilience of the region’s crop. Another 200 farmers in Odisha, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala and Maharashtra have received seeds of flood- and drought-tolerant varieties from Vrihi, enabling them to rejuvenate their marginal farms.
“In bitterer moments, one is inclined to ask if the labour and money spent in endeavouring to save such people is not wasted,” the British official quoted at the beginning of this essay had complained of Indian farmers. The fact is, they need no help from imperialists masquerading as saviours. All they need is a fair share of the earth’s surface to call their own, the democracy and sovereignty to determine what to do with it, and allies to help defend their rights and enhance their knowledge. Granted these, they will feed not only themselves but the rest of us as well.
~This article was first published in our quarterly issue Farms, Feasts, Famines (Vol 26 Number 2).
~Madhusree Mukerjee, a former physicist, has served as an editor at Scientific American magazine and is the author of two books, Churchill’s Secret War (2010) andThe Land of Naked People (2003).
|Calcutta Riots, 1946|
|As the caption says, Lord and Lady Mountbatten, with Nehru in the middle.|
|Partition of India, 1947|
Bengal famine of 1943
||The neutrality of this article is disputed. (September 2011)|
||This article possibly contains original research. (August 2015)|
|Bengal famine of 1943
Photograph depicting Bengal famine, 1943
|Total deaths||1.5 to 4 million|
|Observations||Policy failure, war|
The Bengal famine of 1943 (Bengali: পঞ্চাশের মন্বন্তর) struck the Bengal Province of pre-partition British India (present-day West Bengal, Odisha, Bihar and Bangladesh) during World War II following theJapanese occupation of Burma. Approximately 3 million people died due to famine. Generally the estimates are between 1.5 and 4 million, taking into account death due to starvation, malnutrition and disease, out of Bengal’s 60.3 million population. Half of the victims died from disease after food became available in December 1943. Generally it is thought that there was a serious decrease in food production during that time, coupled with Bengal’s continuing export of grain. However, according to Amartya Sen, there was no significant decrease in food production in 1943 (in fact food production was higher compared to 1941). As in previous Bengal famines, the highest mortality was not in previously very poor groups, but among artisans and small traders whose income vanished when people spent all they had on food and did not employ cobblers, carpenters, etc. The famine also caused major economic and social disruption, ruining millions of families.
||The neutrality of this section is disputed. (June 2013)|
The food situation in India was tight from the beginning of the Second World War, with a series of crop failures and localized famines which were dealt with successfully under the Indian Famine Codes. InBengal in 1940-41 there was a small scale famine, although quick action by the authorities prevented widespread loss of life. Food prices increased throughout India, and the Central Government was forced to undertake meetings with local government officials and release regulations of price controls
The proximate cause of the famine was a reduction in supply with some increase in demand. The winter 1942 ‘aman’ rice crop, which was already expected to be poor or indifferent, was hit by a cyclone and three tidal waves in October. 450 square miles were swept by tidal waves, 400 square miles affected by floods and 3200 square miles damaged by wind and torrential rain. Reserve stocks in the hands of cultivators, consumers and dealers were destroyed. This killed 14,500 people and 190,000 cattle. ‘The homes, livelihood and property of nearly 2.5 million Bengalis were ruined or damaged.’ A fungus causing the disease known as “brown spot”, hit the rice crop and this was reported to have had an even greater effect on yield than the cyclone. The fungus, Helminthosporium oryzae, destroyed 50% to 90% of some rice varieties.
It was argued that the normal carryover stocks did not exist in Bengal, because 1941 was a short year, and people started eating the December 1941 crop as soon as it was harvested (as they certainly did when the December 1943 crop was harvested). As a result, the good December 1941 crop did not mean the normal surplus stocks were carried over into 1943. In other years and in other provinces, there had been several good or average crops between bad years, and stocks had built up.
Bengal had been a food importer for the last decade. Calcutta was normally supplied by Burma. The British Empire had suffered a disastrous defeat at Singapore in 1942 against the Japanese military, which then proceeded to invade Burma in the same year. Burma was the world’s largest exporter of rice in the inter-war period. By 1940 15% of India’s rice overall came from Burma, while in Bengal the proportion was slightly higher given the province’s proximity to Burma. After the Japanese occupation of Burma in March 1942, Bengal and the other parts of India and Ceylon, normally supplied by Burma, had to find food elsewhere. However, there were poor crops and famine situations in Cochin, Trivandrum and Bombay on the West coast and Madras, Orissa and Bengal in the East. It fell on the few surplus Provinces, mainly the Punjab, to supply the rest of India and Ceylon.
India as a whole had a deficit, but still exported small quantities to meet the urgent needs of the British-Indian Army abroad, and those of Ceylon.
Bengal’s food needs rose at the same time from the influx of refugees from Burma. The enormous expansion of the Indian Army probably did not increase total food demand in India, but it did mean significantly more local demand in Bengal (up to 200,000 tons grain imported, as well as an unknown quantity of grain and a lot of fresh food bought in Bengal). However, the effects of army consumption in causing the famine was clearly limited, as ‘the army, mainly wheat-eaters, consumed very little extra in relation to India’s supplies, and the army in Bengal was supplied externally’
Lack of statistics
Lack of statistics was an important cause of the failure to recognize and tackle the famine. It was known by administrators and statisticians well before the famine that India’s agricultural production statistics were “not merely guesses, ‘but frequently demonstrably absurd guesses'”. The statistics were described as “entirely untrustworthy” and “useless for any purpose”. It was also stated that “no dependable statistics existed in Bengal”, that what statistics existed “were disbelieved by the very Government which issued them”, and that there were “no meaningful production statistics”; the raw data were guesses or were “invented”, and the averaging procedure increased the error. Senior officers then changed the calculated figures according to their whim. About half the estimates were adjusted; adjustments of 30% to 40% were common, and changes of 60% to 70% were not unknown.
Bengal’s agricultural statistics were particularly bad, because of its land tax system. In 1942, a revenue officer would guess at the area planted and the probable yield for a 750,000 acre (310,000 ha) area to give a crop forecast for that area. These forecasts were aggregated and “adjusted” by successive levels of Department of Agriculture officials. It is not known if the forecasts were adjusted after the cyclone, or on what basis this could be done. There were no measures of actual yields or area. The official First Crop Forecast on 5 October, before the cyclone, was reduced by 6% for the Second Crop Forecast in December, at harvest time, and by a further 6% for the final Third Crop Forecast in February, making it 1.2 million tons lower than the ten-year average of 6.2 million tons. It is not known if these adjustments were meant to allow for the cyclone. However, the Director of Agriculture had believed before the cyclone that his department’s official forecast overstated actual expected production by a quarter.
The officials responsible for food, such as Pinell and Braund, used a wide range of other estimates, cross checking them against observable facts. They were able to make use of information revealed in mail censorship, such as information in letters from farmers, landlords and traders on crop yields, as well as reports from Special Branch (the secret police), reports from other departments, etc. Traders acted on their belief in a serious shortage and made a lot of money. They warned the Bengal government of a famine situation. These sources all indicated that a famine was imminent, and that the crop forecasts were wrong.
Subsequent research done by the Indian Statistical Institute using statistically valid samples and crop cutting showed large errors: survey estimates ranged from 47% to 153% of the official estimate. The discrepancies also varied from year to year. For instance, the sample estimate of the jute crop was 2.6% above the official estimate in 1941 and 52.6% above it in 1946. This rules out analysis based on the level of the production forecast and, in particular, on year-to-year differences in production forecasts.
There are some figures on shipping and rail deliveries of rice to Calcutta, but none on imports by Bengal as a whole; most trade was informal and took place by river boat. There are no statistics on public or private stocks, until some commercial stock figures were kept in 1943.
The number of people to be fed was not known. The Census of Population was known to be unreliable at best, and the 1941 Census was particularly badly conducted. There are no statistics on the number of refugees from Burma, nor the refugees from Bengal, escaping war, bombing and famine. Details of military requirements and procurement have not been published. There is no indication of how much food the military provided to Bengali soldiers and war workers.
“If food is so scarce, why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?”
Whatever the cause of the famine, deaths could only be prevented by supplies of food from elsewhere in India. This was not forthcoming.
||The neutrality of this section is disputed. (June 2013)|
In normal regional famines the Indian Government had provided the starving with money, and let the trade bring in grain which worked for regional famines, though this had been disastrous in Orissa in 1888 when, as in 1943, the shortage was not regional but national. In 1942, with the permission of the central government, trade barriers were introduced by the democratically elected Provincial governments. The politicians and civil servants of surplus provinces like the Punjab introduced regulations to prevent grain leaving their provinces for the famine areas of Bengal, Madras and Cochin. There was the desire to see that, first, local populations and, second, the populations of neighbouring provinces were well fed, partly to prevent civil unrest. Politicians and officials got power and patronage, and the ability to extract bribes for shipping permits. Marketing and transaction costs rose sharply. The market could not get grain to Bengal, however profitable it might be. The main trading route, established for hundreds of years was up the river system and this ceased to operate, leaving the railway as the only way of getting food into Bengal. Grain arrivals stopped and in March 1943, Calcutta, the second biggest city in the world, had only two weeks food supply in stock.
The Government of India realized a mistake had been made and decreed a return to free trade. The Provinces refused. ‘In this, again, the Government of India misjudged both its own influence and the temper of its constituents, which had by this time gone too far to pay much heed to the Centre.’ The Government of India Act 1935 had removed most of the Government of India’s authority over the Provinces, so they had to rely on negotiation.
Thus, even when the Government of India decreed that there should be free trade in grain, politicians, civil servants, local government officers and police obstructed the movement of grain to famine areas. In some cases Provinces seized grain in transit from other Provinces to Bengal. ‘But men like Bhai Permanand say that though many traders want to export food [to Bengal] the Punjab Government would not give them permits. He testified to large quantities of undisposed-of rice being in the Punjab’
Eventually there was a clear threat by the Government of India to force the elected governments to provide grain, when the new Viceroy, Wavell, who was a successful general, was about to take office. For the first time substantial quantities of grain started to move to Bengal.
The Government of Bengal was slow in starting relief measures and at one stage in 1943 it limited relief to save money, though the money could have been obtained. The supporters of the two Bengal Governments involved, that of A. K. Fazlul Huq (December 1941 to March 1943) and of Khawaja Nazimuddin‘s Muslim League (April 1943 to March 1945) each held the other government responsible for the catastrophe, because of its inaction and corruption. Bengal’s chief minister, A. K. Fazlul Huq, had warned of the risk of famine but he was ignored and replaced. The government had done almost nothing to prepare for famine, and critics noted “the feebleness of its moral and administrative standards”.
Contemporary commentators believed that there was substantial hoarding by those consumers who could afford it, by firms and by those farmers who produced surpluses. This started in July 1941 when war with Japan was inevitable, increased when Burma was attacked in December 1941 and when Ceylon, then Calcutta were bombed in 1942. India would have entered the famine year with substantial surplus private stocks. These stocks do not appear to have been released and there was no political drive to get people to give or sell the surpluses. An official ‘Food Drive’ in Bengal did not result in release of hoarded stocks. It was believed that fear of the famine actually increased hoarding.
Why Bengal was refused food
The elected Provincial governments, their public servants and some key people in the Indian civil service believed, or said they believed, that Bengal had plenty of food, which could be made available with good administration. There were no meaningful production statistics which could support this, and those ‘hopelessly defective’ production statistics that did exist indicated a serious shortage.
There were claims that hoarding was the cause of the famine, and this should be dealt with administratively, not by providing starving people in Bengal with food. ‘And at the Third Food Conference in Delhi on the 5 to 8 July, … the suggestion that “the only reason why people are starving in Bengal is that there is hoarding” was greeted at the Conference by the other Provinces with applause.’ Similarly, some officials in the Government of India refused to accept the evidence on the ground, preferring their own idiosyncratic interpretations of the market: as late as November 1943, ‘The Government of India would admit no intrinsic shortage in Bengal in the Spring of 1943 and, even in November, at the height of the famine, the Director-General of Food in the Council of State said that “the major trouble in Bengal has been not so much an intrinsic shortage of essential food grains as a breakdown of public confidence.’ On 19 October 1943, when the famine was at its peak, Wavell noted in his journal “On the food situation Linlithgow [The outgoing Viceroy] says chief factor morale.[i.e. panic hoarding]” For hoarding to have created the amount of hunger and death recorded if there had, indeed, been adequate supplies, it would have been necessary that the richest 10% of Bengal’s population, the only ones who could afford it, to lay in two years’ rice supply for themselves, in addition to the stocks accumulated in the previous two years, and to keep it in stock until the end of the war, while their neighbours starved. There was never any suggestion that anything of the sort happened, which is strong evidence against the hoarding explanation.
There was a widespread claim, unevidenced, that there was no shortage really, that there was plenty of rice available but traders were stockpiling it to make speculative profits. In fact, there was strong evidence that this was not so: extensive investigations by police, special branch and officials, backed up by rewards for information, found no examples; raids on traders found that they had significantly smaller trading stocks than they had in normal years. This was confirmed when there was no release of surplus stocks when the famine ended. Only if speculators had stored more than usual, and not released it during the famine year, would they have increased the number of deaths: there is ample evidence that they did not. Such claims of speculation causing famine have been ridiculed by economists since Adam Smith.
Similarly, it was claimed, without evidence or calculation, that the 1% to 2% of the Bengal population whose purchasing power increased because of the wartime inflation and war expenditure ate so much more than usual that two-thirds of the population went hungry – 10% very hungry indeed, with half of this 10% dying of starvation and disease. A quick calculation would have shown that this explanation requires that on 1 November 1942 the small group with increased purchasing power started eating 12 to 46 times more than usual per head and that they reverted to normal consumption in December 1943. The Working Class Cost of Living Index rose by 15% to 20% per annum from 1939–46 with a sharp rise in cities in famine districts in 1942/3 because of famine-level rice prices, returning to the average level afterwards.
Most contemporary sources refer to massive corruption by public servants, politicians and trading companies.
Most contemporary commentators thought the Hindu-Muslim conflict a serious factor. It was even claimed by a leading politician that ‘Bengal had been deliberately starved out by other provinces’ which refused to permit the export of grain.
Supplies from other countries
Any imports would have had to come from Australia, North America or South America. Some supplies from Australia entered the region. The main constraint was shipping. The Battle of the Atlantic was at its peak from mid-1942 to mid-1943, with submarine wolf packs sinking so many ships that the Allies were on the verge of defeat, so shipping could not be spared for India.
By August 1943 Churchill refused to release shipping to send food to India. Initially during the famine he was more concerned with the civilians of Nazi-occupied Greece (who were also suffering from a famine) compared with the Bengalis,noting that the “starvation of anyhow underfed Bengalis is less serious than that of sturdy Greeks”.
Administrative and policy failures
The Famine Inquiry Commission (1945) documents a large number of administrative, civil policy and military policy failures. Significantly, no other famine-struck country has published such criticisms of its own government’s actions. The failure to set up a food administration in 1939 and prepare for rationing was the key failure. The failure to enforce an India-wide food policy with an equality of sacrifice was another. Without this, the administrative controls must prevent any meaningful intervention. Political and administrative failures to set up a system for seizing surplus food in surplus areas also contributed (it was acceptable in deficit areas). There were many others which added to local shortages or otherwise increased the death rate, (e.g. Boat Denial Policy, Rice Denial Policy, various purchasing policies) but were not causes of the famine. During the Famine Inquiry Commission’s investigation, one official stated that ‘We felt difficulty about one thing. That was lack of one co-ordinating authority at the time of famine’
In the middle of 1942, British authorities feared that the Japanese would follow up their conquest of Burma with an invasion of British India proper by way of Bengal. A scorched earth policy was hastily implemented in the Chittagong region, nearest the Burmese border, to prevent access to supplies by the Japanese in case of an invasion. In particular, the Army confiscated many boats (and motor vehicles, carts and even elephants), fearing that the Japanese would commandeer them to speed an advance into India. The inhabitants used the boats for fishing and to take goods to market, and the Army failed to distribute rations to replace the fish and the food lost through the stoppage of commerce. The dislocation in the area forced many of the male inhabitants into the Military Labour Corps, where at least they received rations, but the break-up of families left many children and dependants to beg or to starve.
In December 1942 there was a shortage in Calcutta itself. Therefore, government focused on getting supplies to Calcutta by trying to buy surplus stocks in the region. The quantities that District Officers were able to locate and purchase were considered too small to end the famine, so the Government introduced free trade in rice in Eastern India, hoping that traders would sell their stocks to Bengal; however this measure also failed to move large stocks to Bengal. In April and May there was a propaganda drive to convince the population that the high prices were not justified by the supply of food, the goal being that the propaganda would induce hoarders to sell their stocks. When these propaganda drives failed, there was a drive to locate hoarded stocks. H. S. Suhawardy, Bengal’s Minister of Civil Supplies from April 24, 1943, announced that there was no shortage of rice in Bengal and introduced a policy of intimidating ‘hoarders’: this caused looting, extortion and corruption but did not increase the amount of food on the market. When these drives continually failed to locate large stocks, the government realized that the scale of the loss in supply was larger than they had initially believed.
The Indian Army and Allied troops acted only after Wavell became Viceroy and got permission from the Bengal Government. They had vehicles, fuel, men and administrators, which the civil authority did not, so they were much more effective than the civil authority in getting food to the starving outside Calcutta. The distribution was difficult and continued for five months after the November/December 1943 crop was harvested. However, they did not have much food to distribute.
During the course of the famine, 264 thousand tons of rice, 258 thousand tons of wheat and wheat products, and 55 thousand tons of millet were sent to Bengal from the rest of India and overseas in order to relieve the famine. One ton feeds 5.75 people for a year at normal consumption, perhaps 8.2 at emergency survival rates. Various guesses were that the rice production in Bengal was 1.2 – 2.5 million tons below the ten-year average.
Food prices were high in mid-1942, reflecting the belief that India was in deficit. They rose sharply when the cyclone destroyed a quarter of Bengal’s rice crop, and evidence of shortage elsewhere in India and elsewhere in the region emerged, and they continued to rise sharply as the famine bit. Repeated efforts to ‘break the Calcutta market’ and reduce prices by dumping grain on the market failed: the quantities of grain available for intervention were minuscule in relation to the shortage.There was the normal seasonal speculation which puts up prices, forcing the population to reduce consumption and so spread what is available throughout the year (as economists from Adam Smith have pointed out). The high prices determine who is to die, the poor, rather than increase the number of deaths.
The Bengal Famine may be placed in the context of previous famines in Mughal and British India. Deccan Famine of 1630–32 killed 2,000,000 (there was a corresponding famine in northwestern China, eventually causing the Ming dynasty to collapse in 1644). During the British rule in India there were approximately 25 major famines spread through states such as Tamil Nadu in South India, Bihar in the north, and Bengal in the east; altogether, between 30 and 40 million Indians were the victims of famines in the latter half of the 20th century (Bhatia 1985).
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The orthodox explanation of the famine, from the Famine Inquiry Commission of 1945 was that the Indian provincial and national governments and the British government chose to believe, without evidence and in denial of the evidence, that Bengal had plenty of food available, and so they provided far less food relief than was needed, and many people died. Amartya Sen (1976) challenged this orthodoxy, reviving the claim that there was no shortage of food in Bengal and that the famine was caused by inflation, with those benefiting from inflation eating more and leaving less for the rest of the population. Sen claimed that there was in fact a greater supply in 1943 than in 1941, when there was no famine. This is the explanation that the Bengal Government and other governments believed and acted on in 1943.
Some of the dispute is based on matters of fact. Sen bases his argument entirely on small differences in one of the series of crop forecasts over ten years. He claims these forecasts are extremely accurate, but contemporary civil servants and statisticians considered the forecasts meaningless even before they were adjusted by civil servants and politicians. Sen also rejects the orthodox belief that reduced carry over of rice from the previous crop year was a contributing factor. Bowbrick claims that Sen misrepresents the facts in his sources in more than thirty instances and Tauger makes similar claims on a different set of statements by Sen. Goswami (1990) and Dyson and Maharatna (1991) show misrepresentation too.
There is also dispute based on what the theories explain. Sen does not explain why the wartime inflation and boom did not cause famine in other war years, but the Famine Inquiry Commission explanation does. The Famine Inquiry Commission explains why the famine lasted only between one poor harvest and the next good one, which Sen’s explanation does not. Sen does not explain why the Bengal Government’s policy, which was based on the same diagnosis as his own, did not prevent the famine: the Famine Inquiry Commission explanation does. Sen does not provide evidence on what happened to the food that he says existed in Bengal: Bowbrick argues that it is physically impossible for people to eat the quantity of food needed to cause a famine in the way Sen describes, two to four-week’s normal food supply each day.
Paul Greenough (1982, pp. 118, 138) accepts Amartya Sen’s estimate of food availability and shows that this implies that some cultivators and landlords ate far more than in normal years and increased personal security stocks (hoarding) with the result that far less rice was on the market than in 1941. He says that they were able to do this because high prices meant they did not have to sell so much to meet their cash needs. They were willing to eat more than normal and keep rice off the market while their neighbours starved and many died because of the breakdown of traditional rural Bengali obligations of economic help, charity and patronage, which Greenough (1982) analyses at great length. He concludes that the famine was caused by Bengali men, ‘In short, the “man-made” famine was culturally patterned in its onset, crisis and denouement.’ (Greenough, 1982, p. 265) His analysis also works with the assumption that supply was totally inadequate in 1943.
News reports and literature
Hungry Bengal: a tour through Midnapur District in November, 1943 by Chittaprosad—This book included many sketches of the Bengal Famine drawn from life, as well as documentation of the persons depicted. The book was immediately banned by the British and 5000 copies were seized and destroyed. One copy was hidden by Chittaprosad’s family and is now in the possession of the Delhi Art Gallery. The Delhi Art Gallery showcased Chittaprosad’s Famine Series in an exhibition in September 2011. The Wall Street Journal covered the event.
Nabanna a Bengali play about the famine was written by Bijon Bhattacharya and staged by Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) in 1944 under the direction of Sombhu Mitra and later in 1948, by Bohurupee under the direction of Kumar Roy. IPTA also took the play to several parts of the country and collected funds for famine relief in rural Bengal.
Asani Sanket by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay—The book follows a young doctor and his wife in rural Bengal during the 1943 famine. The book was adapted into a film of the same name by celebrated director Satyajit Ray in 1973. The film features in “The New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made”.
Editorials in The Statesman: Two editorials were published on the famine, on 14 and 16 October 1943, by Ian Stephens, the editor of The Statesman. Ian Stephens broke ranks with the voluntary silence of other journalists, gave graphic accounts of the famine, and delivered a stinging critique of the inaction of the administration.
Monsoon Morning by Ian Stephens, the editor of The Statesman, also published a memoir about the Bengal Famine, Monsoon Morning, in 1963.
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