India was very sick, both in mind and body. While some people had prospered during the war, the burden on others had reached breaking point, and as an awful reminder of this came famine, a famine of vast dimensions affecting Bengal and east and south India. It was the biggest and most devastating famine in India during the past 170 years of British dominion, comparable to those terrible famines which occurred from 1766 to 1770 in Bengal and Bihar as an early result of the establishment of British rule. Epidemics followed, especially cholera and malaria, and spread to other provinces, and even today they are taking their toll of scores of thousands of lives. Millions have died of famine and disease and yet that spectre hovers over India and claims its victims.*
This famine unveiled the picture of India as it was below the thin veneer of the prosperity of a small number of people at the top—a picture of poverty and ugliness of British rule. That was the culmination and fulfillment of British rule in India. It was no calamity of nature or play of the elements that brought this famine, nor was it caused by actual war operations and enemy blockade. Every competent observer is agreed that it was a man-made famine which could have been foreseen and avoided. Every one is agreed that there was amazing indifference, incompetence, and complacency shown by all the authorities concerned. Right up to the last moment, when thousands were dying daily in the public streets, famine was denied and references to it in the Press were suppressed by the censors. When the Statesman, newspaper of Calcutta, published gruesome and ghastly pictures of starving and dying women and children in the streets of Calcutta, a spokes-man of the Government of India, speaking officially in the central assembly, protested against the ‘dramatization’ of the situation; to him apparently it was a normal occurrence for thousands to die daily from starvation in India. Mr. Amery, of the India Office in London, distinguished himself especially by his denials and statements. And then, when it became impossible to deny or cloak the existence of widespread famine, each group in authority blamed some other group for it. The Government of India said it was the fault of the provincial government, which itself was merely a puppet government functioning under the Governor and through the civil service. They were all to blame, but most of all inevitably that authoritarian government which the Viceroy represented in his person and which could do what it chose anywhere in India. In any democratic or semi-democratic country such a calamity would have swept away all the governments concerned with it. Not so in India where everything continued as before.
Considered even from the point of view of the war, this famine took place in the very region which stood nearest to the theatre of war and possible invasion. A widespread famine and collapse of the economic structure would inevitably injure the capacity for defence and even more so for offence. Thus did the Government of India discharge its responsibility for India’s defence and the prosecution of the war against the Japanese aggressors. Not scorched earth but scorched and starved and dead human beings by the million in this vital war area were the emblems of the policy that Government had pursued.
Indian non-official organizations from all over the country did good work in bringing relief, and so did those efficient humanitarians, the Quakers of England. The central and provincial governments also at last woke up and realized the immensity of the crisis and the army was utilized in the relief operations. For the moment something was done to check the spread of famine and mitigate its after-effects. But the relief was temporary and those after-effects continue, and no one knows when famine may not descend again on an even worse scale. Bengal is broken up, her social and economic life shattered, and an enfeebled generation left as survivors.
While all this was happening and the streets of Calcutta were strewn with corpses, the social life of the upper ten thousand of Calcutta underwent no change. There was dancing and feasting and a flaunting of luxury, and life was gay. There was no rationing even till a much later period. The horse races in Calcutta continued and attracted their usual fashionable throngs. Transport was lacking for food, but racehorses came in special boxes by rail from other parts of the country. In this gay life both Englishmen and Indians took part for both had prospered in the business of war and money was plentiful. Sometimes that money had been gained by profiteering in the very foodstuffs, the lack of which was killing tens of thousands daily.
India, it is often said, is a land of contrasts, of some very rich and many very poor, of modernism and medieval-ism, of rulers and ruled, of the British and Indians. Never before had these contrasts been so much in evidence as in the city of Calcutta during those terrible months of famine in the latter half of 1943. The two worlds, normally living apart, almost ignorant of each other, were suddenly brought physically together and existed side by side. The contrast was startling, but even more startling was the fact that many people did not realize the horror and astonishing incongruity of it and continued to function in their old grooves. What they felt one cannot say; one can only judge them by their actions. For most Englishmen this was perhaps easier for they had lived their life apart and, caste-bound as they were, they could not vary their old routine, even if some individuals felt the urge to do so. But those Indians who functioned in this way showed the wide gulf that separated them from their own people, which no considerations even of decency and humanity could bridge.
The famine, like every great crisis, brought out both the good qualities and the failings of the Indian people. Large numbers of them, including the most vital elements, were in prison and unable to help in any way. Still the relief works, organized unofficially, drew men and women from every class who laboured hard under discouraging circumstances, displaying ability, the spirit of mutual help and co-operation and self-sacrifice. The failings were also evident in those who were too full of their petty rivalries and jealousies to co-operate together, those who remained passive and did nothing to help others, and those few who were so denationalized and dehumanized as to care little for what was happening.
The famine was a direct result of war conditions and the carelessness and complete lack of foresight of those in authority. The indifference of the authorities to the problem of the country’s food passes comprehension when every intelligent man who gave thought to the matter knew that some such crisis was approaching. The famine could have been avoided, given proper handling of the food situation in the earlier years of the war. In every other country affected by the war full attention was paid to this vital aspect of war economy even before the war started.
In India, the Government of India started a food department three and a quarter years after the war began in Europe and over a year after the Japanese war started. And yet it was common knowledge that the Japanese occupation of Burma vitally affected Bengal’s food supply. The Government of India had no policy at all in regard to food till the middle of 1943 when famine was already beginning its disastrous career. It is most extraordinary how inefficient the Government always is in every matter other than the suppression of those who challenge its administration. Or perhaps it is more correct to say that, constituted as it is, its mind is completely occupied in its primary task of ensuring its own continuance. Only an actual crisis forces it to think of other matters. That crisis again is accentuated by the ever-present crisis of want of confidence in the Government’s ability and bona fides.**
Though the famine was undoubtedly due to war conditions and could have been prevented, it is equally true that its deeper causes lay in the basic policy which was impoverishing India and under which millions lived on the verge of starvation. In 1933 Major General Sir John Megaw, the Director-General of the Indian Medical Service, wrote in the course of a report on public health in India: ‘Taking India as a whole the dispensary doctors regard 39 per cent of the people as being well nourished, 41 per cent as poorly nourished, and 20 per cent as very badly nourished. The most depressing picture is painted by the doctors of Bengal who regard only 22 per cent of the people of the province as being well nourished while 31 per cent are considered to be very badly nourished.’
The tragedy of Bengal and the famines of Orissa, Malabar, and other places are the final judgment on British rule in India. The British will certainly leave India, and their Indian Empire will become a memory, but what will they leave when they have to go, what human degradation and accumulated sorrow? Tagore saw this picture as he lay dying three years ago: ‘But what kind of India will they leave behind, what stark misery? When the stream of their centuries’ administration runs dry at last, what a waste of mud and filth they will leave behind them!’
* Estimates of the number of deaths by famine in Bengal in 1943-44 vary greatly. The Department of Anthropology of the Calcutta University carried out an extensive scientific survey of sample groups in the famine areas. They arrived at the figure of about 3,400,000 total deaths by famine in Bengal. It was also found that during 1943 and 1944, 46 per cent of the people of Bengal suffered from major diseases. Official figures of the Bengal Government, based largely on unreliable reports from village patwaris or headmen, gave a much lower figure. The official Famine Inquiry Commission, presided over by Sir John Woodhead, has come to the conclusion that about 1,500,000 deaths occurred in Bengal ‘as a direct result of the famine and the epidemics which followed in its train.’ All these figures relate to Bengal alone. Many other parts of the country also suffered from famine and epidemic diseases consequent upon it.
** The Famine Inquiry Commission, presided over by Sir John Woodhead (Report published in May, 1945), reveal in restrained official language the tragic succession of official errors and private greed which led to the Bengal famine. ‘It has been for us a sad task,’ they say, ‘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 victims 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 administrative breakdowns.’ They refer to the low economic level of the province, to the increasing pressure on land not relieved by growth of industry, to the fact that a considerable section of the population was living on the margin of subsistence and was incapable of standing any severe economic stress, to the very bad health conditions and low standards of nutrition, to the absence of a ‘margin of safety’ as regards either health or wealth. They consider the more immediate causes to be: the failure of the season’s crop, the fall of Burma leading to stoppage of imports of Burma rice, to the ‘denial’ policy of Government which brought ruin to certain poorer classes, to the military demands on food and transport, and the lack of confidence in the Government. They condemn the policy, or often the lack of policy or the ever-changing policy, of both the Government of India and of the Bengal Government; their inability to think ahead and provide for coming events; their refusal to recognize and declare famine even when it had come; their totally inadequate measures to meet the situation. They go on to say: ‘But often 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. Further, that the Government of India failed to recognize at a sufficiently early date the need for a system of planned movement of food grains…. The Government of India must share with the Bengal Government responsibility for the decision to decontrol in March, 1943 … 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 … might have led to serious catastrophies in various parts of India.’
After referring to the apathy and mismanagement of the governmental apparatus both at the centre and in the province, the Commission say that ‘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.’ The total profit made in this traffic of starvation and death is estimated at 150 crores of rupees (Rs. 1,500 millions). Thus if there were a million and a half deaths by famine, each death was balanced by roughly a 1,000 rupees of excess profit!