Saturday, December 2, 2023

The Great Bengal Famine of 1943 – Man-Made Disaster or Natural Calamity

Written By Pratichi Satpathy (Grade 7)

19 – 28 million of the 70 – 85 million deaths that took place in World War 2 were caused by famine. Out of this, 2.1 to 3million were caused by the Bengal Famine of 1943 alone. 

A famine is a natural disaster most commonly caused by other natural disasters like droughts, floods, cyclones, to name a few. The Bengal Famine of 1943 was, however, rather different. An outbreak of the Brown Spots (Helminthosporium oryzae fungus) ruined the crop of 1942, leading to a huge threat. A cyclone off the coast of Bengal on 9 January 1943 made things worse. During those days, India was under the clutches of the British. The British Government failed to sense the impending danger of famine, and instead of sending out food relief, there were massive exports of food from India to Britain to feed British war troops fighting in the Second World War. The food that was sent away would have been enough to feed 4,00,000 Indians for a whole year. 1942 was marked by the capture of Burma (now Myanmar) by Japanese Forces, pausing the rice imports from Burma. 

Researchers from USA and India recently unearthed some interesting information pointing towards the famine being anthropogenic. Out of all the five major famines that took place in India between 1876 and 2016, (1876, 1877, 1896-97, 1899, and 1943), four were linked to lack of moisture in the soil and hampered food production, while the one in 1943 was not. Even though the years 1937-45 are associated with drought, the last drought in the Bengal area was from August-December 1941, much before the 1943 famine. There was also a surplus rainfall of 17% that year. This further elucidated the impression that the Bengal Famine was no less than a massacre targeted towards India. 

Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom at the time, stopped imports of wheat from Australia to India to supply for his troops. Churchill’s visible hatred towards Indians added fuel to the fire. He stated, and I quote, that he “hated Indians” and that we were “beastly people with a beastly religion.” He also said that any relief efforts made to help Indians would be useless as “Indians breed like rabbits.” He quipped that amongst all the dead people, he regretted that Bapu was not one of them! 

Of course, not everything was the fault of the British policymakers. Bengal was an agrarian province that mainly depended on rice cultivation. Due to famine, rice became rare, its prices shot up, and the rich resorted to hoarding. This resulted in the food that was left being barely enough for the poor in Bengal. The streets of Bengal were littered with rotting corpses of those who had succumbed to hunger. People stick thin from lack of nutrition either roamed the place, begging for food with cupped hands, or lay on the side of the streets, having accepted their fate of death. It went so far that many even resorted to cannibalism. The poor sold everything, including their dwelling and their land, just for a bowl of expensive rice. Men left their families to fight in the war and women turned to prostitution to earn money. Everyone in the affected area, regardless of religion or caste, was desperate for food. The pictures of the suffering people captured during those times are heart-wrenching.

The Bengal Famine is one of the worst tragedies that ever took place in India, and with no apology from the British Government, Indians remain scarred by the horrifying inhumanity shown by the British policymakers at the time. It is said that one must leave the past behind, but each one of these horrifying incidents makes it harder to do so.

Featured Image Courtesy – The Guardian


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