For years there has been debate surrounding the late Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s culpability in the 1943 Bengal famine in the then-British India. A new study provides scientific backing that the 1943 famine, which is estimated to have killed three million people, was the only one in modern Indian history not linked to drought or crop failure as originally thought, but the result of “complete policy failure” during the British colonial era.
The study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, was conducted by the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar, the India Meteorology Department and the University of California in Los Angeles. It looked at the history of droughts and famines in the Indian subcontinent using weather data and a soil moisture database. Researchers led by Professor Vimal Mishra conducted a study which simulated soil conditions/ moisture levels from 1870 to 2016 to reconstruct agricultural drought conditions. Bengal endured six major famines between 1873 and 1943, all famines during that period were attributed to droughts, except the one in 1943. The study’s abstract states, “We find that a majority of famines were caused by large-scale and severe soil moisture droughts that hampered the food production. However, one famine was completely due to the failure of policy during the British era.”
Rainfall was above average in late 1943, and between June and September during the peak of the famine, indicating that drought was not to blame. The famine occurred irrespective of above-average rainfall. Although, the region suffered from drought for much of the 1940s, the most extreme conditions were in 1941 a couple of years prior to the infamous famine of 1943.
Earlier evidence and studies further reinforce the argument that the Bengal famine was due to Churchill’s decision-making. In 2010, Madhusree Mukerjee published ‘Churchill’s Secret War’, which provided evidence and documentation from the British war transport office and the diary of Lord Cherwell, the former PM’s doctor, to prove Churchill’s direct involvement. The famine was caused and exacerbated by a policy decision made by the Churchill government during the war to stockpile grain for the British. As part of the Western war effort, Churchill ordered the diversion of grains and essential supplies from starving Indians to military stockpiles to support already well-supplied British troops. Churchill’s cabinet in London was warned repeatedly that the diversion and exhaustive consumption of Indian resources for the British war effort could cause a famine, despite these warnings food exports continued. Even when Britain officially declared a famine, Churchill exported 70,000 tonnes of rice to the UK. Rice continued to be transported even when London denied India’s viceroy’s urgent requests for 1 million tonnes of emergency wheat supplies.
The British Secretary of State for India, Leopold Amery, told Churchill the impact the famine was having – rotting corpses lined the streets of Kolkata. Churchill’s apathetic response was asking how, if the food shortages were so severe, Mahatma Gandhi was still alive and he blamed the famine on the Indians, saying it was their fault for “breeding like rabbits.”
Another factor which intensified the famine was the Japanese capture of Burma (now Myanmar), which was a major source of rice imports to India. The British administration placed restrictions on imports and halted the import of rice. In the past, famines were not as deadly due to incoming rice from Burma and relief aid from the British government. Furthermore, Britain’s military policies caused the confiscation of supplies of rice and boats from coastal Bengal. The policy’s intent was to deny resources to the Japanese military in the event of a potential invasion.
The British response to the 1943 famine was one of inaction and negligence; however, it could have been easily preventable. During a past famine in Bihar, East India in 1873-74, the local government led by Sir Richard Temple responded quickly by importing food supplies and providing welfare to assist the poor. Few people starved, but Temple’s response garnered criticism from British authorities for his heavy expenditure. Subsequent famines in south and western India received less aid, and consequently mortality rates soared.
India gained independence from the British colonial administration in 1947. Despite immense population growth since the colonial era, the study indicated famine deaths in modern India have been significantly reduced. The impact of drought has been minimized due to the expansion of irrigation, higher seed yields, generation of rural employment, more effective food distribution and the welfare system, as well as improved transportation links, which allows the movement of emergency food stocks to deprived areas.