Real causes of the devastating Bengal famine, 1943


Famine refers to extreme shortage of food primarily due to supply shortages and less frequently due to in-efficient allocation of the existing supply combined with a policy failure to tackle the situation. The later was what happened in the Bengal famine of 1943.

Bengal has had its fare share of famines in the past including 1770, 1783 and 1897, but the most recent one, of which often British Raj is accused of was in 1943. The famine led to the death of around 3 to 4 million Indians, either due to starvation or due to famine related diseases. Winston Churchill’s comment on the famine, reflects the sheer neglect of British Government towards Indians and their plight:

“I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion. The famine was their own fault for breeding like rabbits.”

Causes of the famine

Typically the causes of a famine include supply side shocks including bad harvest, war time supply issues, which inevitably lead to rapid food price inflation. The causes of Bengal famine are much more complex and intertwined than just supply shortage.

In case of Bengal, the primary reason for the famine was shortages in Rice. A variety of factors led to the shortage, but most prominent among them was not supply shortage rather it was due to improper allocation of the available rice stocks. 1943 was a relatively bad year in terms of rice harvest (down 5% year-on-year), but not enough to cause a famine. What happened was a series of events which led to the disaster:

  • A relatively bad harvest in winter crop of 1942, led to supply shortages.
  • Occupation of Burma by Japan in 1942 resulted in restriction on rice imports from Burma.
  • Restriction on inter-state trade of rice and other food grains at the time further aggravated the issue. This was lifted temporarily for eastern states but then put back again as the rice prices in other states also began rising.
  • Hoarding of rice stocks by traders and farmers in anticipation of speculative rise in rice prices in future as rice shortage was becoming evident.
  • No inaction on part of British authority to import more rice from abroad to control the situation.
  • The event at the time was not declared as Famine, which would have allowed government to act on supplementary reserves. This was due to the fact that government didn’t have enough reserves to fulfill the demand.

The brunt of the famine was most born by rural Bengal, primarily landless agricultural labour. The elite and some working class in Calcutta, however, remained largely untouched by the famine as the British government implemented a policy to provide rice at fixed price to close to one million workers in key factories, in order to not affect the war.

Ignorant policymakers within India and in the British Parliament combined with local inefficiencies were the major causes of Bengal famine of 1943, rather than supply shortage (supply in 1943 was the same as 1941, which did not experience any famine).

Lord Wavell, the then Viceroy, commented on British ignorance of the issue:

“The vital problems of India are being treated by His Majesty’s Government with neglect, even sometimes with hostility and contempt.”

1. Amartya Sen’s “Poverty and Famine”.