Bengaluru: Indians have been claiming it for decades, but now they have science to offer as further evidence. The 1943 Bengal famine that caused the death of over 30 lakh people in British India was caused by the then-British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s policies, and not a drought.
The study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters was conducted by researchers from IIT-Gandhinagar, University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), and the Indian Meteorological department.
They studied simulated soil conditions from 1870 to 2016, and concluded that while all the other famines during this period were caused by drought, the one in 1943 wasn’t.
Over the past century and a half, India has experienced seven major drought periods: 1876-1882, 1895-1900, 1908-1924, 1937-1945, 1982-1990, 1997-2004, and 2011-2015. During these times, India experienced six major famines, in the years 1873-74, 1876, 1877, 1896-97, 1899, and 1943.
The team analysed the causes of these famines using historical weather and soil data. They found that the first five famines were accompanied by indicators of droughts, mainly low soil moisture. They concluded that the 1943 famine was caused due to policy failures alone and no natural causes.
A loss in soil moisture leads to failure of crops, thus setting the stage for famines, which are prolonged periods of food shortage in a given area.
Though India suffered a drought period from 1937-1945, the worst of it was reportedly experienced in 1941.
According to the researchers, there was abundant rain during the 1943 famine.
“The Bengal famine of 1943 was completely because of policy failure,” Vimal Mishra, the lead author of the study, told CNN. Such policies included not the large-scale export of rice, and prioritizing vital supplies for soldiers engaged in the Second World War.
“There have been no major famines since independence,” said Mishra. “And so we started our research thinking the famines would have been caused by drought due to factors such as lack of irrigation.”
Acknowledging that the role of agriculture remains undefined in famines, Mishra and his team set out to study the state of agriculture in the country during these periods of famine.
Using station‐based historical observations and simulations from a computer fed with a hydrological model, the researchers were able to reconstruct and determine the link between famines and droughts in India. Moisture depletion showed a clear pattern of hampering food production for all famines except in 1943.
Other studies and investigations have also pointed to the famine’s origins in the unfair policies of Churchill, who is widely celebrated in the West for his leadership of Britain during the Second World War.
Journalist Madhushree Mukerjee, in her book Churchill’s Secret War, noted the policies that enabled the famine.
Japan, an Axis power fighting the British-led Allied nations, had an active naval presence in the waters of the Bay of Bengal in the early 1940s, and had annexed Burma (now Myanmar) in 1942. Churchill diverted large supplies of crops and rice, using thousands of boats, from the coastal areas to deny supplies to the Japanese forces should they invade India.
This was a part of Britain’s 1942 “Denial Policies”. Fearing a Japanese invasion via Burma, the British Raj set about devising a double attack. First, rice was denied to districts along the southern coast of Bay of Bengal, which typically have a surplus of rice. John Herbert, the then-governor of Bengal, directed rice and paddy to be removed or destroyed in these cities immediately.
The second part of the directive was to deny boats and other forms of transport. All boats that were large enough to carry more than 10 people (and crops) were destroyed, disrupting distribution of food.
As Mukherjee notes, over 46,000 boats were destroyed, and the scale of damage led to a near-complete breakdown of transportation infrastructure.
Indians ‘breed like rabbits’
The areas that constitute modern-day Bihar were ravished by a famine a few decades prior, in 1873. At the time, the lieutenant-governor of the Bengal Presidency, Sir Richard Temple, acted swiftly, importing half a million tonnes of rice from neighbouring Burma.
As a result, the mortality was very low and millions of lives were saved. However, Temple was castigated by the British government for being too extravagant. He was transferred to Madras during the famine of 1877, with the British Raj implementing “less expensive” policies for mitigation. As a result, millions died.
However, the British were unmoved. When British officials pointed out to Churchill that millions of Indians were dying in the famine, he reportedly asked, “Why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?” He has also been quoted as saying that the famine was Indians’ own fault “for breeding like rabbits”.
Meanwhile, several high-ranking British officers, including the governor of Bengal John Herbert, governor-general and viceroy of India, Linlithgow, the secretary of state for India, Leo Amery, commander-in-chief of the Indian Army, General Auchinleck, and the then supreme commander of south-east Asia, Admiral Louis Mountbatten, had been making urgent requests to London for emergency import of rice and wheat.
In fact, Sen stated that the rice supply in 1943 was in surplus as compared to 1941, which saw no famine. The recent study supports this data.
As Mishra notes, India has rarely seen famines since independence, thanks to efficient irrigation practices, strong distribution systems, better transport, efficient stocking, and improved seed yields.