1943 Famine in Bengal - 1

Famine Inquiry Commission 1943

Editor's Note: According to Richard Stevenson's book "Bengal Tiger And British Lion, An Account of the Bengal Famine of 1943," on November 9, 1943, the Mayor of Calcutta sent a telegram to the Emperor of India asking him to "appoint a Royal Commission to investigate the causes that led to the famine in Bengal causing death of thousands of men women and children in the Province." In June 1994, the Viceroy set up a Famine Inquiry Commission to "investigate and report to the Central Government upon the causes of the food shortage and subsequent epidemics in India, and in particular in Bengal, in the year 1943." This Commission was headed by a retired ICS officer, Sir John Ackroyd Woodhead, and  included Mr. Afzal Husain, who wrote a minute of dissent (available on this website), and Sir Manilal Nanavati,who secretly saved the detailed papers of the Commission against the Chairman's orders.

The conclusions of the Commission are reproduced below. The complete report is available in the attached pdf files. Photos of the Bengal famine are available at http://www.oldindianphotos.in/2009/12/bengal-famine-of-1943-part-1.html



1. The Background.-The economic level of the population previous to the famine was low in Bengal, as in the greater part of India. Agricultural produc­tion was not keeping pace with the growth of population. There was increasing pressure on land which was not relieved by compensatory growth in industry. A considerable section of the population was living on the margin of subsistence and was incapable of standing any severe economic stress. Parallel conditions prevailed in the health sphere\; standards of nutrition were low and the epidemic diseases which caused high mortality during the famine were prevalent in normal times. There was no "margin of safety" as regards either health or wealth. These underlying conditions, common indeed to many other parts of India, were favourable to the occurrence of famine accompanied by high mortality.

2. The basic causes of the famine.-Shortage in the supply of rice in 1943 was one of the basic causes of the famine. The main reason for this was the low yield of the aman crop reaped at the close of 1942. Another reason was that the stocks carried over from the previous year (1942) were also short. The aman crop reaped at the end of 1940 was exceptionally poor and in conse­quence stocks were heavily drawn upon during 1941. The aman crop reaped in December 1941 was a good one, but not so good as to enable stocks to be replenished materially. After the fall of Burma early in 1942, imports from that country ceased, but exports from Bengal to areas which were more seriously dependent on imports from Burma, increased during the first half of the year. This also contributed to some extent to the smallness of the carry-over from 1942 to 1943. Again, during 1943 the loss of imports from Burma was only partially offset by increased imports from other parts of India. It appears pro­bable that the total supply during 1943 was not sufficient for the requirements of the province and that there was an absolute deficiency of the order of 3 weeks' requirements. This meant that even if all producers sold their entire surplus stocks without retaining the usual reserve for consumption beyond the next harvest, it was unlikely that consumers would have secured their normal requirements in full.

In the summer of 1942, that is, some months before the failure of the aman crop in Bengal, a situation had arisen in the rice markets of India, including those in Bengal, in which the normal trade machinery was beginning to fail to distribute supplies at reasonable prices. This was due to the stoppage of im­ports of rice from Burma and the consequent transfer of the demands of Ceylon, Travancore, Cochin, and Western India, formerly met from Burma, to the markets in the main rice producing areas of India. Other circumstances arising out of the war also accentuated the disturbances to normal trade. In Bengal, owing to its proximity to the fighting zone and its position as a base for military operations in Burma, the material and psychological repercussions of the war on the life of the people were more pronounced in 1942, and also in 1943, than elsewhere in India. The failure of the aman crop at the end of 1942, in combi­nation with the whole existing set of circumstances, made it inevitable that, in the absence of control, the price of rice would rise to a level at which the poor would be unable to obtain their needs. It was necessary for the Bengal Government to undertake measures for controlling supplies and ensuring their distribution at prices at which the poor could afford to buy their requirements. It was also necessary for the Government of India to establish a system of planned movement of supplies from surplus to deficit provinces and states.

There was delay in the establishment by the Government of India of a system of planned movement of supplies. The Bengal Government failed to secure control over supply and distribution and widespread famine followed a rise of prices to abnormal levels-to five to six times the prices prevailing in the early months of 1942. This rise in prices was the second basic cause of the famine. Famine, in the form in which it occurred, could have been prevented by resolute action at the right time to ensure the equitable distribution of available supplies.

3. The Government of Bengal.-When the price of rice rose steeply in May and June 1942, the Government of Bengal endeavoured to bring the situation under control by the prohibition of exports and by fixing statutory maximum prices. In the absence of control over supplies, price control failed, but by September 1942, supplies and prices appeared to have reached a state of equili­brium. This month was a critical one in the development of the famine. If the Government of Bengal had set up at that time a procurement organization, the crisis, which began about two months later, would not have taken such a grave turn.

With the partial failure of the aman crop at the end of 1942, the supply position became serious and prices again rose steeply. If a breakdown in distri­bution was to be averted, it was essential that Government should obtain con­trol of supplies and prices. The measures taken by the Government of Bengal to achieve control of supplies and prices during 1943 were inadequate and, in some instances wrong in principle. In January and February 1943, the Provin­cial Government endeavoured unsuccessfully to obtain control of supplies and to regulate prices by means of procurement operations. Better success would have been achieved if procurement had been undertaken by an official agency instead of by agents chosen from the trade, and if Government had made it clear that they would not hesitate to requisition from large producers as well as from traders, in case supplies were held back. The decision in favour of "de-control" in March 1943 was a mistake. In the conditions prevailing in Bengal at the time, it was essential to maintain control\; its abandonment meant disaster. We refer to this matter again in the immediately succeeding para­graph. The Government of Bengal erred in pressing strongly for "unrestricted free trade" in the Eastern Region in May 1943 in preference to the alternative of "modified free trade". The introduction of "unrestricted free trade" was a mistake. It could not save Bengal and was bound to lead to severe distress, and possibly starvation in the neighbouring areas of the Region.

One result of the policy underlying "de-control" and "unrestricted free trade" was that the greater part of the supplies reaching Calcutta was not under the control of Government. So long as this policy was followed it was not possible to introduce rationing in Greater Calcutta. Even after the policy was reversed, there was considerable delay in the introduction of rationing. The absence of control over the distribution of supplies in Calcutta and the failure to introduce rationing at any time during 1943 contributed largely to the, failure of control over supplies and prices in the province a, a whole.

The arrangements for the receipt, storage, and distribution of food supplies despatched to Bengal from other parts of India during the autumn of 1913 were thoroughly inadequate and a proportion of the supplies received during the height of the famine, was not distributed to the needy in the districts, where such food was most required. Better arrangements for the despatch and distribution would have saved many lives.

While reports of distress in various districts were received from Commis­sioners and Collectors from the early months of 1943, the Provincial Government did not call for a report on the situation in the districts until June, and detailed instructions relating to relief were not issued till August. Famine was not declared. The delay in facing the problem of relief and the non-declaration of famine were bound up with the unfortunate propaganda policy of "No Shortage" which, followed during the months April to June with the support of the Govern­ment of India, was unjustified when the danger of famine was plainly apparent. The measures initiated in August were inadequate and failed to prevent further distress, mainly because of the disastrous supply position which had been allowed to develop. A Famine Relief Commissioner was not appointed till late in September. It appears that at one stage in 1943, the expenditure on relief was limited on financial grounds. There is no justification, whatsoever, for cutting down relief in times of famine on the plea of lack of funds. If neces­sary, funds should be provided by borrowing in consultation with the Reserve Bank or the Government of India. This principle bolds even when, as in the Bengal famine, food was more -urgently required than money for relief purposes. The medical relief provided during 1943 was also inadequate. Some of the mortality which occurred, could have been prevented by more efficient medical and public health measures.

Between the Government in office and the various political parties, and in the early part of the year, between the Governor and his Ministry, and between the administrative organization of Government and the public there was lack of co-operation which stood in the way of a united and vigorous effort to prevent and relieve famine. The change in the Ministry in March-April 1943, failed to bring about political unity. An "all-party" Government might have created public confidence and led to more effective action, but no such Government came into being. It may be added that during and preceding the famine, there were changes in key officers concerned with food administration. In 1943, there were three changes in the post of Director of Civil Supplies.

Due weight has been given in our report to the great difficulties with which the Bengal Government were faced. The impact of the war was more severe in Bengal than in the rest of India. The "denial" policy had its effect on focal trade and transport, and in particular affected certain classes of the population, for instance, the fishermen in the coastal area. The military demands on trans­port were large. There was a shortage of suitable workers available for recruit­ment into Government organizations concerned with food administration and famine relief. The cyclone and the partial failure of the aman crop were serious and unavoidable natural calamities. But after considering all the circumstances, we cannot avoid the. conclusion that it lay in the power of the Government of Bengal, by bold, resolute and well-conceived measures at the right time to have largely prevented the tragedy of the famine as it actually took place. While other Governments in India were admittedly faced with a much less serious situation than the Government of Bengal, their generally successful handling of the food problem, and the spirit in which those problems were approached, and the extent to which public co-operation was secured stand in contrast to the failure in Bengal.

4. The Government of India.-The Government of India failed to recognize at a sufficiently early date, the need for a system of planned movement of food-grains, including rice as well as wheat, from surplus to deficit provinces and states\; in other words, the Basic Plan should have come into operation much earlier than it did. With regard to wheat, an agreement should have been reached at an early stage between the Government of India and the Govern­ment of the Punjab about the price level to be maintained and the establish­ment in that province of an adequate procurement organization. If this had been done, the price of wheat would have remained under control and it should have been possible to send to Bengal a large proportion of the supplies which reached 'that province towards the close of the year, at an earlier period when they would have been much more useful. In the closing months of 1942, and the first two months of 1943, the supplies of wheat reaching Calcutta were only a fraction of normal requirements. If adequate supplies had been available in these months, the pressure on the Calcutta rice market, in so far as it arose out of the shortage of wheat, would have been reduced. Again, if the Basic Plan in regard to rice had come into operation in the beginning of 1943, it would have been possible to provide Bengal at an earlier date with supplies of rice in approximately those quantities which were obtained later in the year from other provinces and states.

The Government of India must share with the Bengal Government respon­sibility for the decision to de-control in March 1943. That decision was taken in agreement with the Government of India and was in accordance with their policy at the time. By March the position had so deteriorated that some mea­sure of external assistance was indispensable if a disaster was to be avoided. The correct course at the time was for the Government of India to have announced that they would provide, month by month, first, the full quantity of wheat required by Greater Calcutta, and secondly, a certain quantity of rice. It would, then have been possible for the Government of Bengal to have main­tained controlled procurement, and secured control over supply and distribution in Greater Calcutta. The Government of India erred in deciding to introduce "unrestricted free trade" in the Eastern Region in 1943 in preference to "modified free trade". The subsequent proposal of the Government of India to introduce free trade throughout the greater part of India was quite unjustified' and should not have been put forward. Its application, successfully resisted by many of the provinces and states, particularly by the Governments of Bombay and Madras, might have led to serious catastrophe in various parts of India.

By August 1943, it was clear that the Provincial Administration in Bengal was failing to control the famine. Deaths and mass migration on a large scale were occurring. In such circumstances, the Government of India, whatever the constitutional position, must share with the Provincial Government the responsibility for saving lives. The Government of India sent large supplies of wheat and rice to Bengal during the last five months of 1943, but it was not till the end of October, when His Excellency the Viceroy, Lord Wavell, visited Bengal, as his first duty on taking office, that adequate arrangements were made to ensure that these supplies were properly distributed. After his visit, the whole situation took an immediate turn for the better.

We feel it necessary to draw attention to the numerous changes in the individuals in charge of food administration of the Government of India during the crucial year of the famine. Mr. N. R. Sarker, the Food Member, resigned in February 1943, and His Excellency the Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, held the food portfolio without a Member to assist him until May. The Secretary of the Food Department, Mr. Holdsworth, fell ill during this period and died. His place was taken by the Additional Secretary, Major-General Wood, a Military Officer new to the problems of civil administration. Sir Azizul Haque became Member in charge of the Food Department in May. He was succeeded by Sir J. P. Srivastava in August and a new Secretary of the Department, Mr. Hutchings, was appointed in September.

In Bengal, the new Ministry took office towards the end of April and Sir Thomas Rutherford became Governor in September 1943, replacing the late Sir John Herbert, then suffering from the illness of which he subsequently died.

Thus, during the various critical stages in the famine, heavy responsibility fell on individuals who were new to their posts.

5. The people and the famine.-We have criticized the Government of Bengal for their failure to control the famine. It is the responsibility of the Government to lead the people and take effective steps to prevent avoidable catastrophe. But the public in Bengal, or at least certain sections of it, have also their share of blame. We have referred to the atmosphere of fear and greed which, in the absence of control, was one of the causes of the rapid rise in the price level. Enormous profits were made out of the calamity, and in the circumstances, profits for some meant death for others. A large part of the community lived in plenty while others starved, and there was much indiffer­ence in face of suffering. Corruption was widespread throughout the province and in many classes of society.

It has been for us a sad task to inquire into the course and causes of the Bengal famine. We have been haunted by a deep sense of tragedy. A million and a half of the poor of Bengal fell victim to circumstances for which they themselves were not responsible. Society, together with its organs, failed to protect its weaker members. Indeed there was a moral and social breakdown, as well as an administrative breakdown.


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