The Great Bengal Famine 1943 is very well etched as one of the darkest hours in Indian history. In the year 1942 after the rice harvest failure, the sheer mis-governance of the British, Churchill’s prejudice against Indians and the growing gap between supply and demand – led to dubious handling of funds and resources. It created a cut throat survival scenario where tonnes of resources vanished into the government policies. This caused a holocaust accounting approximately for horrific 1.5 million deaths for the famine and epidemics.
We are fairly aware of the severe economic repercussions and irreversible damage to humanity. There is one another aspect of the lives which took a great fall- the social mindset. By saying so, this is not referring to any socialist ideology. It refers to the paradigm shift in the mere state of affairs like standards of living, employment, education, health, security, norms in the Bengal society synonym to the ‘Bhadralok’ society earlier.
Let us have a look on the summary of events leading to the Famine. Below is one of the reports of the US board of economic warfare 1943:
- There was diversion of Indian railway equipment and men to meet the Allied railway requirements by British.
- Since the US War department denied food allocations and shipping space to Britain, the British procured food grains from India to export to west Asian war fronts.
- Eastern part of India was being prepared for war, with an impending danger of provincial invasion by Japanese troops.
- Under Churchill‘s instruction the Indian shipping services were reduced in the Indian Ocean with their boats and ships confiscated.
- Rice considered in excess of local consumption was taken away and rice import from Burma was stopped.
- It brought out the middle class, writers, artists to use their work to reach out to public. In 2010, Bengali author Madhusree Mukherjee wrote a book about the famine called “Churchill’s Secret War,” where she explicitly blamed Churchill for worsening the starvation in Bengal by ordering the diversion of food away from Indians and toward British.
- The cost of living increased with a decline in living standards.
- Black markets, business loomed in criminal activities. The situation worsened with hoarding practices.
- The population of Calcutta increased by 20.9 % during 1941-50 leading to congestion in dwelling.
- And further, it led to decline in literacy.
- The controversies of communal agitations further delayed the handling of famine crisis.
Indiscretion in political affairs, nepotism in award of govt jobs and meddling funds was becoming a trend.
One such scenario was just before the famine of 1943 during the Fazlul Huq ministry. The deal to acquire food grains on behalf of government was awarded to Isaphani Ltd on the behest of HS Suhrawardy. HS Suhrawardy was part of Muslim League and Isaphani a business magnet was his close friend. In this phase Congress was considered as hostile party and the Muslim league as a cordial ally by the British. Isaphani went on to make a good deal of money under Isaphani Ltd.
N.M Iyyar, ICS, Director of Civil supplies mentioned that the Govt. Of Bengal was paying Rupees 16- 20 per maund of rice, whereas the prices were considerably lower in Bihar!
This era of political misgivings, ill-advised measures, induced inflation and unscrupulous handling of relief funds seen during the colonial rule, unfortunately set the trend. This culture kept moving to the next generations to come in Indian nation. By now, it is not the question of a single state but the country as a whole. The famine created a whole new Black market culture, so much so that today, we are ironically very much accustomed to reports of criminal activities gnawing away our nation’s growth.
Such episodes have only dented the growth of the states, distorted the social well being. A lot of awareness and transparency is required between the people and the government to free the country from the web of political, socio-economical fraudulence.
References: The Defining Moments in Bengal – Sabhyasachi Bhattacharya