Way back in the 19th century the Bihar and Bengal famines of 1873-1874 were dealt with by the import of rice from Burma, ensuring that there was no loss of life through malnutrition. But 70 years later things couldn’t have been more different. Britain was at war and suffered a huge reverse when Burma and Singapore fell to the Japanese in 1942. This halted rice exports to India, but losing a Burmese food supply was not the reason why there was a savage famine in Bengal the following year.
The loss of rice imports was indeed significant, but insufficient to create famine. A reduced rice harvest caused by a cyclone in October 1942 that damaged the autumn rice crop was not the cause, either. It put pressure on the following year’s crop, because to survive many subsistence farmers and their families were forced to eat rice reserved for planting. But in fact the 1943 crop would still have been perfectly adequate to feed everyone, but for special wartime factors that turned a difficult situation into disaster.
Fearing Japanese invasion, British authorities stockpiled food to feed defending troops, and also exported considerable quantities to British forces in the Middle East. They also confiscated boats, carts and elephants in Chittagong, where the invasion was expected. This deprived fishermen and their many customers of the ability to operate and generally inhibited the sort of low-level commerce upon which many peasants relied for survival.
But the real killer was fear – fear of an imaginary shortage that caused hoarding, speculation and consequent price inflation – that put even a basic subsistence diet beyond the means of Bengal’s legion of poorly paid laborers. An incompetent and complacent government failed to halt rice exports or seek relief supplies from elsewhere in India, precipitating a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions.
Where: Bengal, India
Death toll: Around three million Bengalis died of malnutrition or disease.
You should know: During 1943 the Bengal government – with a lot of help from the British Army – did manage to distribute over 110 million free meals, and it is an indication of the intensity and scale of the famine that this effort barely scratched the surface of the starving populace’s need.