Bengal famine of 1943

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Bengal famine of 1943
Statesman j.jpg
From the photo spread in The Statesman on 22 August 1943 showing famine conditions in Calcutta. These photographs altered world opinion on colonialism.
Country British India
Location Bengal and Orissa
Period 1943–1944
Total deaths Estimated 2.1 million[A]

The Bengal famine of 1943 (Bengali: Pañcāśēra manwantara) was a major famine in the Bengal province[B] in British India during World War II. An estimated 2.1 million,[A] out of a population of 60.3 million,[10] died from starvation, malaria and other diseases aggravated by malnutrition, population displacement, unsanitary conditions, and lack of health care. Millions were impoverished as the crisis overwhelmed large segments of the economy and social fabric.

Bengal's economy was predominantly agrarian. For at least a decade before the crisis, between half and three quarters of those dependent on agriculture were already at near-subsistence levels. Soaring population levels clashed with stagnant agricultural productivity and a stable land base to create both a long-term decline in the per capita availability of rice and growing numbers of land-poor or landless laborers.[C] The latter was exacerbated by debt bondage and land grabbing.[11] Proximate causes[need quotation to verify] involve local natural disasters—a cyclone, storm surges and flooding, and rice crop disease—and various consequences arising from the war. These included war-time inflation; loss of rice imports due to the Japanese occupation of Burma (modern Myanmar); disruption of Bengal's market supplies and transport systems by the British "scorched earth" response to the occupation (the "denial policies" for rice and boats); and later, massive inflation brought on by repeated policy failures, war profiteering, speculation, and perhaps hoarding. The British government prioritised military and defense needs, allocating medical care and food disproportionately to the military, civil servants and other "priority classes". These factors were compounded by restricted access to grain: domestic sources were constrained by emergency inter-provincial trade barriers, while access to international sources was largely denied by Churchill's War Cabinet. The relative impact of each of these contributing factors to the death toll and economic devastation is still a matter of controversy.

The government[which?] was slow to provide humanitarian aid and never formally declared a state of famine. It first attempted to influence the price of rice paddy (unmilled rice) through price controls. These created a black market and encouraged sellers to withhold stocks; moreover, prices soared when the controls were abandoned. Relief efforts were both insufficient and ineffective through the worst months of the food crisis phase. These increased significantly when the military[which?] took control of crisis relief in October 1943, and more effective aid arrived after a record rice harvest that December. Deaths from starvation began to decline, but over half the famine-related deaths occurred in 1944, after the food security crisis had abated, as a result of disease.[12]


From the late nineteenth century through the Great Depression, social and economic forces exerted a harmful effect on the structure of Bengal's income distribution and the ability of its agricultural sector to sustain the populace. These included a rapidly growing population, increasing household debt, stagnant agricultural productivity, increased social stratification, and alienation of the peasant class from their landholdings. The interaction of these processes left clearly defined social and economic groups mired in poverty and indebtedness, unable to cope with the sudden economic shocks they faced in 1942 and 1943, in the context of the Second World War.[13] Millions were vulnerable to starvation, and had been for decades.[14]


Rice farmers ploughing a rice field with water buffaloes near Gushkara, Bengal, 1944

The Government of India's Famine Commission Report (1945) described Bengal as "a land of rice growers and rice eaters".[D] Rice dominated the agricultural output of the province, accounting for nearly 88% of its arable land use[15] and 75% of all crops sown.[E] Overall, Bengal produced one third of India's rice – more than any other single province.[15] Rice also accounted for 75–85% of daily food consumption.[16] Fish was the second major food source,[17] supplemented by small amounts of wheat.[F] The consumption of other foods was typically relatively small.[16]

There are three seasonal rice crops in Bengal. By far the most important is the winter crop of aman rice, sown in May and June and harvested in November and December. This comprises about 70% of the rice crop grown in a given year.[18] Crucially, the (debated) shortfall in rice production in 1942 occurred during the all-important aman harvest.[19]

Population and agricultural productivity

British India

A clash between decades of declining rice production and simultaneously climbing population in Bengal was one of the preconditions of the 1943 famine.[20] Bengal had a population of about 60 million[21] in an area of 77,442 square miles, according to a 1941 census.[22][G] According to census figures, its population had increased by 43% between 1901 and 1941—from 42.1 million to 60.3 million. Over the same period India's population as a whole increased by 37%.[23][H][I] Bengal's economy was almost solely agrarian, but agricultural productivity was among the lowest in the world.[25] Land quality and fertility had been deteriorating in Bengal and other regions of India, but the loss was especially severe here, as agricultural expansion damaged the natural drainage courses and left them moribund.[26] Rice yield per acre had been stagnant since the beginning of the twentieth century.[27]

Prior to about 1920, the food demands of Bengal's growing population could be met in part by cultivating undeveloped lands.[28] During the first quarter of the twentieth century Bengal began to experience an acute shortage of such land,[29][J] leading to a chronic and growing shortage of rice.[30] Its inability to keep pace with rapid population growth changed it from a net exporter of foodgrains to a net importer.[31] Although imports were a small part of the total production,[32] this may have been accompanied by a decrease in average consumption levels;[27] it was estimated in 1930 that the Bengali diet was the least nutritious in the world.[33] Ó Gráda writes, "Bengal's rice output in normal years was barely enough for bare-bones subsistence ... the province's margin over subsistence on the eve of the famine was slender."[34] These conditions left a large proportion of the population continually on the brink of malnutrition or even starvation.[35]

Rural credit and land-grabbing

Structural changes in the credit market and the rights of land transfer in rural Bengal not only helped push it into recurring danger of famine, but also dictated which economic groups would suffer the greatest hardship.[36] The Indian system of land tenure, particularly in Bengal, was very complex, with rights unequally divided among three diverse economic and social groups: traditional absentee large landowners or zamindars;[K] the upper-tier "wealthy peasant" jotedars; and, at the lower socioeconomic level, the ryot (peasant) smallholders and dwarfholders, bargadars (sharecroppers), and agricultural labourers.[37][L] Zamindar and jotedar landowners were protected by law and custom,[38] but those who actually cultivated the soil, with small or no landholdings, suffered persistent and increasing losses of land rights and welfare. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the power and influence of the landowners fell and that of the jotedars rose. Particularly in less developed regions, jotedars began to make substantial profits and gained power through their roles as grain or jute traders and, more importantly, by making loans to sharecroppers, agricultural labourers and ryots.[39][M] They gained power over their tenants using a combination of debt bondage[N] through the transfer of debts and mortgages, and parcel-by-parcel land-grabbing.[40]

Typically, land-grabbing was accomplished by manipulating the informal credit market. Many formal credit market entities had disappeared during the Great Depression; peasants with small landholdings generally had to resort to informal local lenders[41] to purchase basic necessities during lean months between harvests.[42][O] Moreover, if a laborer did not possess means of production such as seed or cattle for ploughing, he would go into debt to purchase them.[43] Particularly during years of poor crops, smallholders fell deeper and deeper into a cycle of debt to purchase these and other essentials, often eventually forfeiting their lands to their creditors.[44]

Small landholders and sharecroppers acquired debts that were often swollen by usurious rates of interest.[45][P] Any poor harvest exacted a heavy toll; the accumulation of consumer debt, seasonal loans and crisis loans began a cycle of spiraling, perpetual indebtedness. It was then relatively easy for the jotedars to use litigation to force debtors to sell all or part of their landholdings at a low price or forfeit them at auction. Debtors then became landless or land-poor sharecroppers and labourers, usually working the same fields they had once owned.[46] The accumulation of household debt to a single, local, informal creditor bound the debtor almost inescapably to the creditor/landlord; it became nearly impossible to settle the debt after a good harvest and simply walk away. In this way, the jotedars effectively dominated and impoverished the lowest tier of economic classes in several districts of Bengal.[47]

The end result of this process of exploitation, exacerbated by Muslim inheritance practices that divided up land among multiple siblings,[48] was growing inequalities in land ownership.[49][Q] At the time of the famine, millions of Bengali agriculturalists held little or no land.[R] In absolute terms, the social group which suffered by far the most of every form of impoverishment and death during the Bengal famine of 1943 were the landless agricultural labourers.[50]


Satellite imagery of the Sundarbans forest along the Bay of Bengal

Water provided the only reliable means of transport across most of the province during the rainy seasons, and all the time in areas such as the vast delta of the coastal southeastern Sundarbans. River transport was integral to many facets of Bengal's economic system, and was nearly irreplaceable in the production and distribution of rice.[51] It provided the livelihoods of fishermen and transport workers, and was indispensable for the movement of the supplies and finished goods of various artisan trades, such as potters, weavers, and basket makers.[52] Roads were scarce and generally in poor condition,[53] and Bengal's extensive railway system was employed largely for military purposes until the very late stages of the crisis.[54]

The development of railways in Bengal between roughly 1890 and 1910 contributed to the excessive mortality of the famine. The construction of a network of railway embankments disrupted natural drainage and divided Bengal into innumerable poorly drained "compartments".[55] This brought about excessive silting, increased the tendency toward flooding, created stagnant water areas, damaged crop production, contributed (in some areas) to a partial shift away from the productive aman rice cultivar to less productive cultivars, and provided a more hospitable environment for water-borne diseases such as cholera and malaria. Such diseases clustered around the tracks of railways.[56][S]

Soil and water supply

The soil profile in Bengal differs between east and west. The sandy soil of the east and the lighter sedimentary soil of the Sundarbans tended to drain more rapidly after the monsoon season than the laterite or heavy clay regions of western Bengal.[57] Soil exhaustion required large tracts in western and central Bengal to be left fallow; eastern Bengal had far fewer fallow fields. The flooding of fallow fields created a breeding place for malaria-carrying mosquitoes;[58] malaria epidemics lasted a month longer in the central and western areas with slower drainage.[57]

Rural areas lacked access to safe water supplies. Water came primarily from large earthen tanks, rivers and tube wells. In the dry season, partially drained tanks became a further breeding area for malaria-vector mosquitoes.[59] Tank and river water is susceptible to contamination by cholera; tube wells are much safer in this respect.[60] However, as many as one-third of the existing wells in wartime Bengal were in disrepair.[60]

Pre-famine shocks and distress

Throughout 1942 and into early 1943, military and political events combined with natural disasters and plant disease to place widespread stress on Bengal's economy.[61] While Bengal's food needs rose from increased military presence and an influx of refugees from Burma,[62] its ability to obtain rice and other foodgrains from outside the province was restricted by interprovincial trade barriers.[63]

February–April 1942: Japanese invasion of Burma

Indian refugees flee Burma along the Prome Road from Rangoon to Mandalay and eventually on to India, January 1942
Map of Indian civilian exodus from Burma into Manipur, Bengal, and Assam, between January and July 1942.

The Japanese campaign for Burma began in late December 1941, and set off an immediate exodus for India of more than half of the one million Indians then living in Burma.[64] On April 26, 1942, all Allied forces were ordered to retreat from Burma into India.[65] Immediately, the demands of the military became the focus of official attention;[65] according to author Hugh Tinker, “The Indians were left to their own devices. ... the troops arrived: pushing the refugees aside, laying hands on all supplies, and utilizing all available military transport.”[66] By mid May 1942, the monsoon rains became heavy in the Manipur hills, further inhibiting civilian movement.[67] The refugees fell victim to dysentery, smallpox and malaria, and later to cholera.[68] According to one estimate, between 10,000 and 50,000 refugees died from various causes even before they reached India.[69]

By April 1942, Japanese warships and aircraft had sunk approximately 100,000 tons of merchant shipping in the Bay of Bengal.[70] According to General Wavell, Commander-in-Chief of the army in India, both the War Office in London and the commander of the British Eastern Fleet acknowledged that the fleet was powerless to mount serious opposition to Japanese naval attacks on Ceylon, southern or eastern India, or on shipping in the Bay of Bengal.[70] The Japanese raids put additional strain on the railways, which also faced flooding in the Brahmaputra, a malaria epidemic, and the Quit India movement targeting road and rail communication.[71] Throughout the period, the rail transportation of relief and civil supplies was further compromised by the railways' increased military obligations, and by the dismantling of the rail tracks that had been carried out in some areas of eastern Bengal in 1942 to hamper a potential Japanese invasion.[72]

The fall of Rangoon in March 1942 cut off the import of Burmese rice into India and Ceylon.[73][T] With the increase in demand created by the larger population, the price of rice by September 1941 was already 69% higher than in August 1939.[74] After the loss of Burmese imports there was increased demand on the rice producing regions.[75] This, according to the Famine Commission, was in a market in which the "progress of the war made sellers who could afford to wait reluctant to sell."[75] The Japanese attack had not only provoked a scramble for rice across India, but had also sparked a dramatic and unprecedented price inflation in Bengal, and in other rice producing regions of India.[76] Across India and particularly in Bengal, this caused a "derangement" of the rice markets.[76][U] Particularly in Bengal, the price effect of the loss of Burma rice was vastly disproportionate to the size of the loss.[77] Despite this, Bengal continued to export rice to Ceylon[V] for months afterward, even as the beginning of a food crisis began to become apparent.[W] The influx of refugees created more demand for food.[78] More clothing and medical aid were needed, further straining the resources of the province.[79] All this, together with transport problems that were to be created by the government's "boat denial" policy, were the direct causes of inter-provincial trade barriers on the movement of foodgrains,[80] and contributed to a series of failed government policies that further exacerbated the food crisis.[81]

1942–45: Military build-up, inflation, and displacement

Hawker Hurricane Mark IIBs and IICs of No. 67 Squadron RAF lined up at Chittagong.

The fall of Burma had brought Bengal close to the war front; the war's impact fell more strongly on Bengal than elsewhere in India.[82] As 1942 and especially 1943 wore on, major urban areas (most especially Calcutta) swelled with ever-increasing numbers of workers in the military industries and troops from many nations. Unskilled labourers from Bengal and nearby provinces were employed by military contractors for numerous projects, particularly the construction of American and British airfields.[83] These enormous public expenditures and resulting increases in demand sparked wartime inflation across India, but especially in Bengal.[84]

Hundreds of thousands of troops also poured into the province from the United States, the UK, India, and China,[85] placing further strains on domestic supplies, and causing local scarcities in a wide range of daily necessities.[86] Prices rose rapidly due to the war-time inflationary pressures, spreading across the entire spectrum of goods and services.[87] The productive capacity of Indian industry, which had been relatively meagre after the Great Depression, faced significant capacity constraints that further drove up prices of Indian goods and commodities. The rise in prices of essential goods and services was "not disturbing" until 1941, when they became more alarming.[88] Then in early 1943, the rate of inflation for foodgrains in particular took an unprecedented upward turn.[89]

Nearly the full productive output of India's cloth, wool, leather, and silk industries were sold directly to the military.[90] In the system that the UK Government used to procure goods through the Government of India, industries were left in private ownership rather than facing outright requisitioning of their productive capacity. Firms were required to sell goods to the military on credit and at fixed, low prices.[91] However, firms were left free to charge any price they desired in their domestic market for whatever they had left over. In the case of the textiles industries that supplied cloth for the uniforms of the UK military, for example, they charged "a very high price indeed" in domestic markets.[91] By the end of 1942, cloth prices had more than tripled from their pre-war levels; they had more than quadrupled by mid-1943.[92] Much of the goods left over for civilian use were purchased by speculators.[93] As a result, "civilian consumption of cotton goods fell by more than 23 per cent from the peace time level by 1943/44" [94] The hardships of the crisis were felt by the rural population through a severe "cloth famine" that was not alleviated until military forces began distributing relief supplies; for example, the United States Air Force flew 100 tons of warm clothing into eastern Bengal.[95]

The method of credit financing was also tailored to UK wartime needs. The UK agreed to pay for defence expenditures over and above the amount that India had paid in peacetime (adjusted for inflation). However, their purchases were made entirely on credit accumulated in the Bank of England and not redeemable until after the war. At the same time, the Bank of India was permitted to treat those credits as assets against which it could print currency up to two and a half times more than the total debt incurred. India's money printing presses then began running overtime, printing the currency that paid for all these massive defence expenditures. The tremendous rise in nominal money supply coupled with a scarcity of consumption goods spurred monetary inflation, reaching its peak in 1944–45.[96] The accompanying rise in incomes and purchasing power fell disproportionately into the hands of industries in Calcutta (in particular, munitions industries).[97]

Finally, military buildup caused massive displacement of Bengalis from their homes. Airstrip construction is estimated to have dispossessed "between 30,000 and 36,000 families, [or] about 150,000 to 180,000 persons" of their housing.[98] The urgent need for housing for the massive influx of workers and soldiers from 1942 onward also created problems. Military barracks were scattered around Calcutta.[99] Perhaps a thousand homes, including entire villages, were requisitioned for military use and at least 60,000 occupants expelled.[100] The Famine Commission report of 1945 stated that the owners had been paid for these homes, but "there is little doubt that the members of many of these families became famine victims in 1943."[101]

March 1942: Denial policies

British military authorities[X] feared that the Japanese would proceed through Burma and invade British India via the eastern border of Bengal. As a preemptive measure, they launched a two-pronged scorched-earth initiative in eastern and coastal Bengal to prevent or impede the invasion by denying access to food supplies, transport and other resources.[Y]

First, a "denial of rice" policy was carried out in three southern districts along the coast of the Bay of Bengal – Bakarganj (or Barisal), Midnapore and Khulna – that were expected to have surpluses of rice. John Herbert, the governor of Bengal, issued an urgent directive in late March 1942 requiring stocks of paddy (unmilled rice) deemed surplus, as well as other food items, to be removed or destroyed in these districts,[102] beginning immediately.[103] Official figures for the amounts impounded were relatively small and would have contributed only modestly to local scarcities.[104] However, evidence that fraudulent, corrupt and coercive practices by the purchasing agents removed far more rice than officially recorded, not only from designated districts, but also in unauthorised areas, suggests a greater impact.[105] Far more damaging were the policy's disturbing impact on regional market relationships and contribution to a sense of public alarm.[106]

As a second prong, a "boat denial" policy was designed to deny Bengali transport to any invading Japanese army. It applied to districts readily accessible via the Bay of Bengal and the larger rivers that flow into it.[Z] Implemented on 1 May after an initial registration period,[107] the policy authorised the Army to confiscate, relocate or destroy any boats large enough to carry more than ten persons, and allowed them to requisition other means of transport such as bicycles, bullock carts, and elephants.[108] Under this policy, the Army confiscated approximately 46,000 rural boats,[109] severely disrupting river-borne movement of labour, supplies and food, and compromising the livelihoods of boatmen and fishermen.[110] Leonard G. Pinnell, a British civil servant who headed the Bengal government's Department of Civil Supplies, told the Famine Commission that the policy "completely broke the economy of the fishing class".[111] Transport was generally unavailable to carry seed and equipment to distant fields or rice to the market hubs.[112] Artisans and other groups who relied on boat transport to carry goods to market were offered no recompense; neither were rice growers nor the network of migratory labourers.[113] The large-scale removal or destruction of rural boats caused a near-complete breakdown of the existing transport and administration infrastructure and market system for movement of rice paddy.[114] No steps were taken to provide for the maintenance or repair of the confiscated boats,[115] and many fishermen were unable to return to their trade.[113] The Army took no steps to distribute food rations to make up for the interruption of supplies.[116]

This array of harmful effects had important political ramifications. The Indian National Congress and many other groups staged protests denouncing the denial policies for placing draconian burdens on Bengali peasants; these were part of a nationalist sentiment and outpouring that later peaked in the "Quit India" movement.[117]

Mid-1942: Trade barriers and prioritised distribution

Powers to restrict inter-provincial trade had been conferred on provincial governments in November 1941, as an item under the Defence of India Act, 1939.[AA] Provincial governments began erecting trade barriers that prevented the flow of foodgrains (especially rice) and other goods between provinces, as a step towards ensuring sufficient food for their own population and thus forestalling civil unrest.[118] In January 1942, Punjab banned exports of wheat;[119][AB] this increased the perception of food insecurity and led the enclave of wheat-eaters in Greater Calcutta to increase their demand for rice precisely when an impending rice shortage was feared.[120] The Central Provinces prohibited the export of foodgrains outside the province two months later.[121] Madras banned rice exports in June,[122] followed by export bans in Bengal and its neighboring provinces of Bihar and Orissa that July.[123]

The Famine Inquiry Commission of 1945 would characterise this "critical and potentially most dangerous stage" in the crisis as a key policy failure. "The trade machinery for the distribution of food [between provinces] throughout the east of India was slowly strangled, and by the spring of 1943 was dead."[124] Bengal was unable to import domestic rice; this policy helped magnify market failures and food shortage into famine and widespread death.[125]

Following the loss of Burma, the British government greatly expanded its system of prioritised distribution of goods and services.[126] The Government of India divided socioeconomic groups into "priority" and "non-priority" classes according to the relative importance of their contributions to the war effort.[127] Workers in prioritised sectors such as military and civilian construction, paper and textile mills, engineering firms, the Indian Railways, coal mining, and government administration,[128] were given significant advantages and benefits. To a large extent, these priority classes were composed of bhadraloks, who were upper-class or bourgeois middle-class, socially mobile, educated, urban, and sympathetic to Western values and modernisation.[129] Protecting their interests was a major concern of both private and public relief efforts.[130][131] The prioritisation of medical facilities to these classes reduced levels of care available to the general population, and "milked the hospitals of India to the danger-point".[132]

With food prices rising, the Government of Bengal and the Chamber of Commerce devised a "Foodstuffs Scheme" to benefit workers in essential war industries.[133] Rice was directed away from the starving rural districts, to workers in industries considered vital to the military effort.[134][AC] By December 1942 the total number of prioritised individuals, with their families, was approximately 1,000,000;[135] this high number forced the government to seize rice by force from mills and warehouses in Greater Calcutta.[136] Any civilians not members of these privileged groups received severely reduced access to food and medical care;[137] "vast areas of rural eastern India were denied any lasting state-sponsored distributive schemes".[138]

August 1942: Civil unrest

Secret Cipher Telegram from C. in C. India to the UK War Office, dated 17 August 1942, describing the civil unrest in wake of the Quit India Resolution, August 9, 1942

Discontent, resentment, and fear of the Raj among rural agriculturalists and business and industrial elements in Greater Calcutta had been simmering since the outset of the war.[139] The unfavorable military situation of the Allies after the fall of Burma led the US and China to urge the UK to enlist India's full cooperation in the war by negotiating a peaceful transfer of political power to an elected Indian body; this goal was also supported the Labour Party in Britain. British prime minister Winston Churchill responded to the new pressure through the Cripps' mission, broaching the post-war possibility of an autonomous political status for India in exchange for its full military support, but negotiations collapsed in early April 1942.[140]

On 8 August 1942 the Indian National Congress launched the Quit India movement, intended as a nationwide display of nonviolent resistance.[141] The British authorities reacted by imprisoning the Congress leaders;[142] without its leadership, the movement changed its character and took to sabotaging factories, bridges, telegraph and railway lines, and other government property,[142] thereby threatening the British Raj's war enterprise.[142] The British acted to suppress the movement, arresting tens of thousands and killing some 2,500.[142] In Bengal, the movement was strongest in the Tamluk and Contai subdivisions of Midnapore district,[143] where rural discontent ran deep.[144] In Tamluk, by April 1942 the government had destroyed some 18,000 boats in pursuit of its denial policy, while war-related inflation further alienated the rural population, who became eager volunteers when local Congress recruiters proposed open rebellion.[145] The disorder and distrust that were the effects and aftereffects of rebellion and civil unrest placed political, logistical, and infrastructural constraints on the Government of India that contributed to later famine-driven woes.[146]

According to historians Bayly and Harper, quite apart from the exigencies of war, it was difficult not to conclude that the Churchill war ministry and Winston Churchill himself had a visceral hostility toward India; "The prime minister believed that Indians were the next worst people in the world after the Germans. Their treachery had been plain in the Quit India movement. The Germans he was prepared to bomb into the ground. The Indians would starve to death as a result of their own folly and viciousness."[147]

1942–43: Price chaos and policy failures

Throughout April 1942, British and Indian refugees continued to flee from Burma, many through Bengal, as the cessation of Burmese imports continued to drive up rice prices. In June, the Government of Bengal decided to establish price controls for rice, and on 1 July fixed prices at a level considerably lower than the prevailing market price. The principal result of the fixed low price was to make sellers reluctant to sell; stocks disappeared, either into the black market or into storage.[AD] The government then let it be known that the price control law would not be enforced except in the most egregious cases of war profiteering.[148] This plus the prohibition of exports created about four months of relative price stability.[149] In mid-October, though, southwest Bengal was struck by a series of natural disasters that destabilised prices again.[150] This caused another rushed scramble for rice, greatly to the benefit of the Calcutta black market.[151] Between December 1942 and March 1943 the government made several attempts to "break the Calcutta market" by bringing in rice supplies from various districts around the province,[152] but their efforts were unsuccessful.[152]

On 11 March 1943, the provincial government rescinded its price controls,[153] resulting in dramatic rises in the price of rice.[154] The period of inflation between March and May 1943 was especially intense;[155] May was the month of the first reports of death by starvation in Bengal.[156] The government attempted to re-establish public confidence by insisting that the crisis was being caused almost solely by speculation and hoarding,[157] but their propaganda failed to dispel the widespread belief that there was a shortage of rice.[AE] The provincial government never formally declared a state of famine, even though its Famine Code would have triggered a sizable increase in aid, since such a declaration would have contradicted the government's own propaganda.[63]

When inter-provincial trade barriers were abolished on 18 May, free trade caused prices to drop temporarily in Calcutta, but they soared in the neighbouring provinces of Bihar and Orissa, as Bengali traders rushed to purchase stocks.[158] The government's attempts to locate and seize any hoarded stocks failed to find significant hoarding.[159] In Bengal, prices were soon five to six times higher than they had been before April 1942.[160] Free trade was abandoned in late July and early August 1943,[161] and price controls were reinstated in August.[153] Despite this, there were unofficial reports of rice being sold in late 1943 at roughly eight to ten times the prices of late 1942[162] Purchasing agents were sent out by the government to obtain rice, but their attempts largely failed. Prices remained high, and the black market was not brought under control.[153]

October 1942: Natural disasters

Brown spot disease: symptoms of Cochliobolus miyabeanus on rice

In late 1942 Bengal was affected by a series of natural disasters. First, the winter rice crop was afflicted by a severe outbreak of fungal brown spot disease. Then, on 16–17 October a cyclone and three storm surges in October ravaged croplands, destroyed houses and killed thousands, at the same time dispersing high levels of fungal spores across the region and increasing the spread of the crop disease.[163] The fungus reduced the crop yield even more than the cyclone.[AF] According to Padmanabhan (1973), the outbreak compared to the potato blight of the Irish Great Famine, and was so destructive that "nothing as devastating ... has been recorded in plant pathological literature."[164][AG]

The Bengal cyclone came through the Bay of Bengal, landing on the coastal areas of Midnapore and 24 Parganas,[165] It killed 14,500 people and 190,000 cattle; while rice paddy stocks in the hands of cultivators, consumers, and dealers were destroyed.[166] It also created local atmospheric conditions that contributed to an increased incidence of malaria.[167] The three storm surges which followed the cyclone destroyed the seawalls of Midnapore and flooded large areas of Contai and Tamluk.[168] Waves swept an area of 450 square miles (1,200 km2), floods affected 400 square miles (1,000 km2), and wind and torrential rain damaged 3,200 square miles (8,300 km2). For nearly 2.5 million Bengalis, the accumulative damage of the cyclone and storm surges to homes, crops and livelihoods was catastrophic:[169]

Corpses lay scattered over several thousand square miles of devastated land. 7,400 villages were partly or wholly destroyed by the storm, and standing flood waters remained for weeks in at least 1,600 villages. Cholera, dysentery and other water-borne diseases flourished. 527,000 houses and 1,900 schools were lost. Over 1000 square miles of the most fertile paddy land in the province was entirely destroyed, and the standing crop over an additional 3000 square miles was damaged.[170]

Following these events, official forecasts of crop yields predicted a significant shortfall.[171] Traders warned of an impending famine,[150] but the Bengal Government did not act on these predictions,[172] doubting their accuracy and observing that forecasts had predicted a shortfall several times in previous years, while no significant problems had occurred.[173]

December 1942: Air raids on Calcutta

The Famine Inquiry Commission's Report of 1945, discussing contributing factors to the famine, singled out the first Japanese air raids on Calcutta, which began on 20 December 1942. The daylight attacks, largely unchallenged by Allied defenses, continued throughout the week, triggering an exodus of thousands from the city.[174] As evacuees traveled to the countryside, food-grain dealers in the city closed their shops. To ensure that workers in the prioritised industries in Calcutta would be fed, the authorities seized rice stocks from wholesale dealers, shattering any trust the rice traders had in the government.[97] "From that moment," the 1945 report stated, "the ordinary trade machinery could not be relied upon to feed Calcutta. The [food security] crisis had begun."[175]

1942–43: Shortfall and carryover

The question as to whether the famine arose primarily from a crop shortfall or from distribution failure has been the subject of later debate.[176] According to Amartya Sen: "The ... [rice paddy] supply for 1943 was only about 5% lower than the average of the preceding five years. It was, in fact, 13% higher than in 1941, and there was, of course, no famine in 1941."[177] The Famine Commission Report concluded that the overall deficit in rice in Bengal in 1943, taking into account an estimate of the amount of carryover of rice from the previous harvest,[AH] was about three weeks' supply. In any circumstances, this was a significant shortfall requiring a considerable amount of food relief, but not a deficit large enough to create widespread deaths by starvation.[178] According to this view, the famine "was not a crisis of food availability, but of the [unequal] distribution of food and income."[179]

Several contemporary experts cite evidence of a much larger shortfall.[180] Commission member Wallace Aykroyd wrote in 1975 that there had been a 25% shortfall in the harvest of the winter of 1942,[181] while L. G. Pinnell, responsible to the Government of Bengal for managing food supplies from August 1942 to April 1943, estimated the crop loss at 20%, with crop disease accounting for more of the loss than the cyclone; other government sources privately admitted the shortfall was "2 million tons".[182] Rutger's University economist George Blyn argues that with the cyclone and floods of October and the loss of imports from Burma, the 1942 Bengal rice harvest had been reduced by one-third.[183]

1942–44: Refusal of imports

From late 1942 high-ranking government officials and military officers made repeated requests for food imports, but the British War Cabinet either rejected these outright or reduced them to a fraction of the original amount.[184] Although Viceroy Linlithgow began making appeals in mid-December 1942, he did so with assurances that the military would be given preference over civilians when the imports were distributed.[AI]

Early in January the Secretary of State for India, Leo Amery sent the first of many requests to the UK for food aid, beginning a cycle of requests and refusals that continued through 1943 and into 1944,[185] Rather than mentioning worsening conditions in the countryside, Amery initially stressed that Calcutta's industries must be fed or its workers would return to the countryside. Rather than meeting this request, the UK promised a relatively small amount of wheat that was specifically intended for western India (that is, not for Bengal) in exchange for an increase in rice exports from Bengal to Ceylon.[AJ]

The tone of Linlithgow's warnings to Amery grew increasingly serious over the coming months, as did Amery's requests to the War Cabinet; on 4 August 1943[AK]—less than three weeks before The Statesman's graphic photographs of starving famine victims in Calcutta would focus the world's attention on the severity of the crisis[187]—Amery noted the spread of famine, and specifically stressed the effect upon Calcutta and the potential effect on the morale of European troops. The cabinet again offered only a relatively small amount, explicitly referring to it as a token shipment.[188]

The explanation generally offered for these repeated refusals was insufficient shipping,[189] particularly in light of Allied plans to invade Normandy.[190] The Cabinet also refused offers of food shipments from several different nations.[AL] When such shipments did begin to increase modestly in late 1943, the transport and storage facilities were understaffed and inadequate.[AM]

An example of experts' disagreement over political issues can be found in differing explanations of the War Cabinet's refusal to free shipping for the transport of grain to Bengal. For example, Collingham (2012, p. 153) holds that although the massive global dislocations of supplies caused by World War II virtually guaranteed that hunger would occur somewhere in the world, Churchill's animosity and even racism toward Indians decided the exact location where famine would fall. Similarly, Mukerjee (2010, pp. 112–14; 273) makes a stark accusation: "The War Cabinet's shipping assignments made in August 1943, shortly after Amery had pleaded for famine relief, show Australian wheat flour traveling to Ceylon, the Middle east, and Southern Africa—everywhere in the Indian Ocean but to India. Those assignments show a will to punish." In contrast, Tauger (2009, p. 193) strikes a more supportive stance: "In the Indian Ocean alone from January 1942 to May 1943, the Axis powers sank 230 British and Allied merchant ships totaling 873,000 tons, in other words, a substantial boat every other day. British hesitation to allocate shipping concerned not only potential diversion of shipping from other war-related needs but also the prospect of losing the shipping to attacks without actually [bringing help to] India at all."

Famine, disease, and the death toll

Conditions drifted towards famine at different rates in different Bengal districts. The Government of India dated the beginning of the Bengal food crisis from the air raids on Calcutta in December 1942,[175] the acceleration to full-scale famine by May 1943 being a consequence of price decontrol.[191] However, in some districts the food crisis had begun as early as mid-1942,[192] although the effects were muted as rural poor were able to draw upon various survival strategies for a few months.[193][AN] After December 1942 reports from various commissioners and district officers began to cite a "sudden and alarming" inflation, nearly doubling the price of rice; this was followed in January by reports of distress caused by serious food supply problems.[194] In May 1943, six districts—Rangpur, Mymensingh, Bakarganj, Chittagong, Noakhali and Tipperah—were the first to report deaths by starvation. Chittagong and Noakhali, both "boat denial" districts in the Ganges Delta (or Sundarbans Delta) area, were the hardest hit.[156] While some districts of Bengal were relatively less affected throughout the crisis,[195] no demographic or geographic group was completely immune to increased deaths by disease, although deaths from starvation were confined to the rural poor.[196]

Contemporary mortality statistics are unreliable, particularly for the rural areas where methods were rudimentary even in normal times. Thus, many of those who died or migrated were unreported.[197] However, it appears that from May to October 1943, starvation was the principal cause of excess mortality, filling the emergency hospitals in Calcutta and accounting for the majority of deaths in some districts.[198] Deaths by starvation had peaked by November 1943;[199] by December, disease had become the most common cause of death. [200] Disease-related mortality then continued to take its toll through early-to-mid 1944.[198]

Among diseases, malaria was the biggest killer.[201] From July 1943 through June 1944, the monthly death toll from malaria averaged 125% above rates from the previous five years, reaching 203% over average in December 1943.[201] Malaria parasites were found in nearly 52% of blood samples examined at Calcutta hospitals during the peak period, November–December 1944.[202] Statistics for malaria deaths are almost certainly inaccurate, since the symptoms often resemble those of other fatal fevers, but there is little doubt that it was the main killer.[203] Other famine-related deaths resulted from dysentery and diarrhea, typically through consumption of poor-quality food or deterioration of the digestive system caused by malnutrition.[204] Cholera is a waterborne disease associated with social disruption, poor sanitation, contaminated water, crowded living conditions (as in refugee camps), and a wandering population – problems brought on after the October cyclone and flooding and then continuing through the crisis.[205] Smallpox was an airborne disease often associated with crowded living arrangements. Statistics for smallpox and cholera are probably more reliable than those for malaria, since their symptoms are more easily recognisable.[206]

Map of Bengal districts 1943

The mortality statistics present a confused picture of the distribution of deaths among age and gender groups. Although very young children and the elderly are usually more susceptible to the effects of starvation and disease, overall in Bengal it was adults and older children who suffered the highest proportional mortality rises.[207] However, this picture was inverted in some urban areas, perhaps because the cities attracted large numbers of very young and very old migrants.[208] In general, males suffered generally higher death rates than females,[209] although the rate of female infant death was higher than for males, perhaps reflecting a discriminatory bias.[210] A relatively lower death rate for females of child-bearing age may have reflected a reduction in fertility, brought on by malnutrition, which in turn reduced maternal deaths.[211]

Regional differences in mortality rates were influenced by the effects of migration,[212] and of natural disasters.[213] In general, excess mortality was higher in the east, even though the relative shortfall in the rice crop was worst in the western districts of Bengal.[214] Eastern districts were relatively densely populated,[215] were closest to the Burma war zone, and normally ran grain deficits in pre-famine times.[216] These districts also were subject to the boat denial policy, and had relatively high jute production.[213] Workers in the east were more likely to receive monetary wages than payment in kind with a portion of the harvest, a common practice in the western districts. When prices rose sharply, their wages failed to follow suit; this drop in real wages left them less able to purchase food.[213]

The following table, excerpted from Maharatna (1992, p. 243) shows trends in excess mortality for 1943–44 as compared to prior non-famine years. Death rates are with respect to the population in 1941. Percentages for 1943–44 are of excess deaths as compared to rates from 1937–41, while those for 1937–41 are with respect to the average annual deaths of that period.

Cause-specific death rates and relative importance of different causes of death during pre-famine and famine periods: Bengal[217]
Cause of death Pre-famine
1943 1944
Rate % Rate % Rate %
Cholera 0.73 3.72 3.60 23.88 0.82 0.99
Smallpox 0.21 1.06 0.37 1.30 2.34 23.69
Fever 6.14 31.08 7.56 11.83 6.22 0.91
Malaria 6.29 31.82 11.46 43.06 12.71 71.41
Dysentery/Diarrhea 0.88 4.47 1.58 5.83 1.08 2.27
Respiratory 1.52 7.67 1.30 -1.82 1.39 -1.44
Injury 0.37 1.86 0.33 -0.33 0.27 -1.05
All other 3.32 18.32 5.57 16.26 3.91 3.23
All causes 19.46 100.00 31.77 100.00 28.75 100.00

Overall, the table shows the dominance of malaria as the cause of death throughout the famine. Though excess mortality due to malarial deaths peaked in December 1943, rates remained high throughout the following year.[218] Scarce supplies of quinine (the most common malaria medication)[219] were very frequently diverted to the black market.[220] Advanced anti-malarial drugs such as mepacrine (Atabrine) were distributed almost solely to the military and to "priority classes"; DDT (then relatively new and considered "miraculous") and pyrethrum were sprayed only around military installations. Paris Green was used as an insecticide in some other areas.[221] This unequal distribution of anti-malarial measures may explain a lower incidence of malarial deaths in population centres, where the greatest cause of death was "all other" (probably migrants dying from starvation).[222]

Deaths from dysentery and diarrhea peaked in December 1943, the same month as for malaria.[218] Cholera deaths peaked in October 1943 but receded dramatically in the following year, brought under control by a vaccination program overseen by military medical workers.[223] A similar smallpox vaccine campaign started later and was pursued less effectively;[224] smallpox deaths peaked in April 1944.[225] "Starvation" was generally not listed as a cause of death at the time; many deaths by starvation may have been listed under the "all other" category.[226] Here the death rates rather than percentages reveal the peak in 1943.

The two waves—starvation and disease—also interacted and amplified one another, increasing the excess mortality.[227] Widespread starvation and malnutrition first compromised immune systems, and reduced resistance to disease led to death by opportunistic infections.[228] Second, the social disruption and dismal conditions caused by a cascading breakdown of social systems brought mass migration, overcrowding, poor sanitation, poor water quality and waste disposal, increased vermin, and unburied dead. All of these factors are closely associated with the increased spread of infectious disease.[229]

Social disruption

A family on the sidewalk in Calcutta during the Bengal famine of 1943

Despite the organised and sometimes violent civil unrest immediately before the famine, there was no organised rioting when the famine took hold.[230] However, the crisis overwhelmed the provision of health care, funerals, street sweeping and other social services. A long-standing system of rural patronage, in which peasants relied on large landowners to supply subsistence in times of crisis, collapsed as patrons exhausted their own resources and abandoned the peasants.[231][AO]

Families also disintegrated, with cases of abandonment, child-selling, and both voluntary and forced prostitution.[232] Lines of small children begging stretched for miles outside cities; at night, children could be heard "crying bitterly and coughing terribly ... in the pouring monsoon rain ... stark naked, homeless, motherless, fatherless and friendless. Their sole possession was an empty tin".[233] A schoolteacher in Mahisadal witnessed "children picking and eating undigested grains out of a beggar's diarrheal discharge".[234] Author Freda Bedi wrote that it was "not just the problem of rice and the availability of rice. It was the problem of society in fragments."[235]

Mass migration and family dissolution

The famine fell hardest on the rural poor. As the distress continued, families adopted increasingly desperate means for survival. First, they reduced their food intake and began to sell jewelry, ornaments, and smaller items of personal property. As expenses for food or burials became more urgent, the items sold became larger and less replaceable. Eventually, families disintegrated; men sold their small farms and left home to look for work or to join the army, and women and children became homeless migrants, often travelling to Calcutta or another large city in search of organised relief:[236]

Husbands deserted wives and wives husbands; elderly dependents were left behind in the villages; babies and young children were sometimes abandoned. According to a survey carried out in Calcutta during the latter half of 1943, some breaking up of the family had occurred in about half the destitute population which reached the city.[230]

In Calcutta, evidence of the famine was "... mainly in the form of masses of rural destitutes trekking into the city and dying on the streets".[237] Estimates of the number of the sick who flocked to Calcutta ranged between 100,000 and 150,000.[238] Once they left their rural villages in search of food, their outlook for survival was grim: "Many died by the roadside – witness the skulls and bones which were to be seen there in the months following the famine."[239]

Sanitation and undisposed dead

Image of Midnapore famine victim from Chittaprosad's Hungry Bengal, five thousand copies of which were burned by Indian police. The caption read "His name was Kshetramohan Naik."

The general disruption of many core elements of society brought a catastrophic breakdown of sanitary conditions and hygiene standards.[200] The weekly newspaper Biplabi commented in November 1943 on the levels of putrefaction, contamination, and vermin infestation:

Bengal is a vast cremation ground, a meeting place for ghosts and evil spirits, a land so overrun by dogs, jackals and vultures that it makes one wonder whether the Bengalis are really alive or have become ghosts from some distant epoch.[240]

Disposal of corpses in rivers and water supplies contaminated drinking water. Large scale migration led to the abandonment of the utensils and facilities necessary for washing clothes or preparation of food.[241] Many people drank contaminated rainwater from streets and open spaces where others had urinated or defecated.[242] Conditions did not improve for those under medical care:

Conditions in certain famine hospitals at this time ... were indescribably bad ... Visitors were horrified by the state of the wards and patients, the ubiquitous filth, and the lack of adequate care and treatment ... [In hospitals all across Bengal, the] condition of patients was usually appalling, a large proportion suffering from acute emaciation, with 'famine diarrhoea' ... Sanitary conditions in nearly all temporary indoor institutions were very bad to start with ...[243]

Disposal of corpses soon became a problem for the government and the public, as numbers overwhelmed cremation houses, burial grounds, and those collecting and disposing of the dead: "We couldn't bury them or anything. No one had the strength to perform rites. People would tie a rope around the necks and drag them over to a ditch."[244] Corpses were stacked along the streets of Calcutta, tossed by the tens of thousands into sources of drinking water, and left to rot and putrefy in open spaces. The bodies were picked over by vultures and dragged away by jackals. Sometimes this happened while the victim was still living.[245] The sight of corpses beside canals, ravaged by dogs and jackals, was common; during a seven-mile boat ride in Midnapore in November 1943, a journalist counted at least five hundred such sets of skeletal remains.[246]

Cloth famine

Mother with child on a Calcutta street. Bengal famine 1943

As a further consequence of the crisis, a "cloth famine" left the poorest in Bengal clothed in scraps or naked through the winter.[247][248] The British military consumed nearly all the textiles produced in India by purchasing Indian-made boots, parachutes, uniforms, blankets, and other goods at heavily discounted rates.[249] India produced 600,000 miles of cotton fabric during the war, from which it made two million parachutes and 415 million items of military clothing.[249] It exported 177 million yards of cotton in 1938–1939 and 819 million in 1942–1943.[250] The country's production of silk, wool and leather was also used up by the military.[249]

The small proportion of material left over was purchased by speculators for sale to civilians, subject to similarly steep inflation;[249] in May 1943 prices were 425 percent higher than in August 1939.[250] With the supply of cloth crowded out by commitments to Britain and price levels affected by profiteering, those not among the "priority classes" faced increasingly dire scarcity:

The robbing of graveyards for clothes, disrobing of men and women in out of way places for clothes ... and minor riotings here and there have been reported. Stray news has also come that women have committed suicide for want of cloth ... Thousands of men and women ... cannot go out to attend their usual work outside for want of a piece of cloth to wrap round their loins.[92]

Many women "took to staying inside a room all day long, emerging only when it was [their] turn to wear the single fragment of cloth shared with female relatives."[251]

Exploitation of women and children

One of the classic effects of famine is that it intensifies the exploitation of women; the sale of women and girls, for example, tends to increase.[252] The sexual exploitation of poor, rural, lower-caste and tribal women by the jotedars had been difficult to escape even before the crisis.[253] In the wake of the cyclone and later famine, many women lost or sold all their possessions, and lost a male guardian due to abandonment or death. Those who migrated to Calcutta frequently had only begging or prostitution available as strategies for survival; often regular meals were the only payment.[254] Das suggests that a large proportion of the girls aged 15 and younger who migrated to Calcutta during the famine disappeared into brothels;[255] in late 1943, entire boatloads of girls for sale were reported in ports of East Bengal.[256] Girls were also sold to the military, with boys acting as pimps.[AP] Families sent their young girls to wealthy landowners overnight in exchange for very small amounts of money or rice,[258] or sold them outright into prostitution; girls were sometimes enticed with sweet treats and kidnapped by pimps. Very often, these girls lived in constant fear of injury or death, but the brothels were their sole means of survival.[259] Women who had been sexually exploited could not later expect any social acceptance or a return to their home or family.[260] Bina Agarwal writes that such women became permanent outcastes in a society that valorised female chastity, rejected by both their birth family and husband's family.[261]

In addition to the tens of thousands of children who were orphaned,[262] many were abandoned by the roadside or at orphanages or sold by their parents for as much as two maunds (37 kg or 82 lb) or as little as one seer (1 kg or 2.2 lb) of unhusked rice, or for trifling amounts of cash. Sometimes they were purchased as household servants, where they would "grow up as little better than domestic slaves".[263][264] Others were also purchased by sexual predators. There were cases recorded of parents abandoning their children by the roadsides or at orphanages.[265] Altogether, the fate of these women and children was an immense social cost of the famine.[AQ]

Relief efforts

Orphans who survived the famine

Until the military assumed control of relief efforts in September 1943, government aid provided little help to the rural poor, directing most of its cash and grain supplies to the relatively wealthy landowners and urban bhadraloks.[266] After an initial spate of humanitarian aid for the cyclone-stricken areas around Midnapore in October 1942, the government response was slow, and relief efforts remained very limited until April 1943.[267][AR] The response was hampered by a failure to grasp the nature and scope of the problem and by a public propaganda campaign declaring "sufficiency" in Bengal's rice supply, denying that there had been any significant crop shortfall, and blaming rising prices on war profiteering and hoarding.[268] In April, more cash and grain began to flow to the outlying areas, but these efforts were largely misdirected. The relief provided came in three major forms:[269] agricultural loans (for the purchase of paddy seed, plough cattle, and maintenance expenses),[270] gratuitous relief, and test works.[AS] Agricultural loans offered no assistance to the large numbers of rural poor who had little or no land. Grain relief was divided between cheap grain shops and the open market, with far more going to the markets. Supplying grain to the markets was intended to lower grain prices, but in practice put the rural poor in direct competition with wealthier Bengalis at greatly inflated prices. As the depth and scope of the famine became unmistakable, the government began setting up gruel kitchens in August 1943; the gruel, which often provided barely a survival-level caloric intake,[271] was sometimes unfit for consumption—moldy or contaminated with dirt, sand, and gravel.[272]

There was also rampant corruption and nepotism in the distribution of government aid; often as much as half of the goods disappeared into the black market or into the hands of friends or relatives.[273] Despite a long-established and detailed Famine Code that would have triggered a sizable increase in aid, and a statement privately circulated by the government in June 1943 that a state of famine might need to be formally declared,[274] this never happened.[275] Significant aid was not provided until the military took over crisis relief in October 1943, especially after November. In particular, grain was imported from the Punjab, and medical resources were made far more available.[276] Crucial relief from the food crisis then came from a record rice harvest that December.[277]

Economic and political effects

The famine's aftermath greatly accelerated pre-existing socioeconomic processes leading to poverty and income inequality,[278] severely disrupted important elements of Bengal's economy and social fabric, and ruined millions of families.[279] The crisis overwhelmed and impoverished large segments of the economy. A key source of impoverishment was the widespread coping strategy of selling assets for food. As the famine wore on, nearly 1.6 million families—roughly one-quarter of smallholders and dwarfholders—tried to save themselves by selling or mortgaging their paddy lands, thus falling from the status of landholders to that of labourers.[280] Land transfers increased by 504%, 665%, 1,057% and 872% over the four years following 1941.

Land alienation in Bengal, 1940–41 to 1944–45: number of sales of occupancy holdings[281]
1940–41 1941–42 1942–43 1943–44 1944–45
141,000 711,000 938,000 1,491,000 1,230,000

This fall into lower income groups happened across a number of occupations. In absolute numbers, the hardest hit by post-famine impoverishment were women and landless agricultural labourers. In relative terms, those engaged in rural trade,[AT] fishing and transport (boatmen and bullock cart drivers) suffered the most.[282] In absolute numbers, agricultural labourers faced the highest rates of destitution and mortality.[283]

The "panicky responses" of the British government in the wake of the fall of Burma had profound political consequences. "It was soon obvious to the bureaucrats in New Delhi and the provinces, as well as the GHQ (India)," wrote Bhattacharya (2002b), "that the disruption caused by these short-term policies—and the political capital being made out of their effects—would necessarily lead to a situation where major constitutional concessions, leading to the dissolution of the Raj, would be unavoidable."[138] For example, nationwide opposition to the boat denial policy, as typified by Mahatma Gandhi's vehement editorials, helped strengthen the Indian independence movement, since the dispute "galvanized both the Nationalist struggle in India and London's extreme response to the same, contributing significantly to the way that the 'Quit India' movement of 1942 played out."[284]

Media coverage and other depictions

The People's War, an organ of the Communist Party of India, published graphic photos of the famine by Sunil Janah.

Calcutta's two leading English-language newspapers were The Statesman (at the time British-owned)[285][AU] and Amrita Bazar Patrika. In the early months of the famine, the government applied pressure on newspapers to "calm public fears about the food supply"[286] and follow the official stance that there was no rice shortage. This effort had some success; The Statesman published editorials asserting that the famine was due solely to speculation and hoarding, while "berating local traders and producers, and praising ministerial efforts."[286][AV] News of the famine was also subject to strict war-time censorship – even use of the word "famine" was prohibited[287] – leading The Statesman later to remark that the UK government "seems virtually to have withheld from the British public knowledge that there was famine in Bengal at all".[288]

Beginning in mid-July 1943 and more so in August, however, these two newspapers began publishing detailed and increasingly critical accounts of the depth and scope of the famine, its impact on society, and the nature of British, Hindu, and Muslim political responses.[289] A turning point in news coverage came in late August 1943, when the editor of The Statesman, Ian Stephens, solicited and published a series of graphics photos of the victims. This greatly affected domestic and international perceptions of the famine and sparked an international media frenzy.[287] In Britain, The Guardian called the situation "horrible beyond description".[290] Not only had the rest of the world been unaware of the famine, but many in India too had had little idea of its scope.[291] The images had a profound effect and marked "for many, the beginning of the end of colonial rule".[290] Stephens' decision to publish them and to adopt a defiant editorial stance won accolades from many (including the Famine Inquiry Commission),[292] and has been described as "a singular act of journalistic courage and conscientiousness, without which many more lives would have surely been lost".[287] The photographs spurred Amrita Bazar Patrika and the Indian Communist Party's organ, People's War, to publish similar images; the latter would make photographer Sunil Janah famous.[293]

The famine has been portrayed in celebrated novels, films and art. The novel Ashani Sanket by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay is a fictional account of a young doctor and his wife in rural Bengal during the famine. It was adapted into a film of the same name (Distant Thunder) by director Satyajit Ray in 1973. The film is listed in The New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made.[294] Also well-known are the novel So Many Hungers! (1947) by Bhabani Bhattacharya and the 1980 film Akaler Shandhaney by Mrinal Sen.

A contemporary sketchbook of iconic scenes of famine victims, Hungry Bengal: a tour through Midnapur District in November, 1943 by Chittaprosad, was immediately banned by the British and 5,000 copies were seized and destroyed.[295] One copy was hidden by Chittaprosad's family and is now in the possession of the Delhi Art Gallery.[296] Another artist famed for his sketches of the famine was Zainul Abedin.[297]

Debate about causes

Debate about the causes of the famine covers complex issues in an attempt to assign culpability, whether to natural forces, market failures, failure or malfeasance by governmental institutions, war profiteering or other unscrupulous acts by private business. The questionable accuracy of much of the available statistical data is a complicating factor, as is the fact that the debates and their conclusions are both political and politicised.[298]

The issue of the degree of crop shortfall in late 1942 and its impact in 1943 has dominated the historiography of the famine.[34][AW] The issue reflects a larger debate between two perspectives: one emphasises the importance of food availability decline (FAD) as a cause for famine, and another focuses on the failure of exchange entitlements (FEE). The FAD explanation blames famine on crop failures brought on principally by crises such as drought, flood, or man-made devastation from war. The FEE account agrees that such external factors are in some cases important, but holds that famine is primarily the interaction between pre-existing "structural vulnerability" (such as poverty) and a shock event (such as war or political interference in markets) that disrupts the economic market for food. When these interact, some groups within society can become unable to purchase or acquire food even though sufficient supplies are available.[299]

Both the FAD and FEE perspectives would agree that Bengal experienced at least some grain shortage in 1943 due to the loss of imports from Burma, damage from the cyclone, and brown-spot infestation. However, FEE analyses do not consider shortage the main factor,[300] while FAD-oriented scholars such as Bowbrick (1986), Alamgir (1980), and Goswami (1990) hold that a sharp drop in the food supply was the pivotal determining factor. Tauger (2003) and Padmanabhan (1973), in particular, argue that the impact of brown-spot disease was vastly underestimated, both during the famine and in later analyses. The signs of crop infestation by the fungus are subtle; given the social and administrative conditions at the time, local officials would very likely have overlooked them.[301]

Academic consensus generally follows the FEE account, as formulated by A. Sen (1977) and A. Sen (1981a), in describing the Bengal famine of 1943 as an "entitlements famine". On this view, the prelude to the famine was generalised war-time inflation, and the problem was exacerbated by prioritised distribution and abortive attempts at price control,[302] but the death blow was devastating leaps in the inflation rate due to heavy speculative buying.[303][AX] This in turn caused a fatal decline in the real wages of landless agricultural workers,[304] transforming what should have been a local shortage into a horrific famine.

More recent analyses often stress political factors.[AY] Discussions of the government's role split into two broad camps: those which suggest that the government unwittingly caused or was unable to respond to the crisis,[305] and those which assert that the government willfully caused or ignored the plight of starving Indians. The former see the problem as a series of avoidable war-time policy failures and "panicky responses"[138] from a government that was spectacularly inept,[306] overwhelmed[307] and in disarray; the latter as a conscious miscarriage of justice by the "ruling colonial elite"[308] who abandoned the poor of Bengal.[309]

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1943

Scholars such as Cormac Ó Gráda, for example, while agreeing that there was indeed a food shortage (FAD), emphasise a "lack of political will" and the pressure of wartime priorities that drove the British government and the provincial government of Bengal to make fateful decisions: the "denial policies", the use of heavy shipping for war supplies rather than food, the refusal to officially declare a state of famine, and the Balkanisation of grain markets through inter-provincial trade barriers.[310][AZ] On this view, these policies were designed to serve British military goals at the expense of Indian interests,[311], reflecting the War Cabinet's willingness to "supply the Army's needs and let the Indian people starve if necessary".[312][BA] Far from being accidental, these dislocations were fully recognised beforehand as fatal for identifiable Indian groups whose economic activities did not directly, actively, or adequately advance British military goals.[313] The policies may have met their intended wartime goals, but only at the cost of large-scale dislocations in the domestic economy. The British government, this argument maintains, thus bears moral responsibility for the rural deaths.[84]

A related argument, present since the days of the famine[BB] but expressed at length by Mukerjee (2010), accuses key figures in the British government (particularly Prime Minister Winston Churchill)[BC] of genuine antipathy toward Indians and Indian independence—an antipathy arising mainly from a desire to protect imperialist privilege, but tinged also with racist undertones.[314] This is attributed to British anger over widespread Bengali nationalist sentiment and the perceived treachery of the violent Quit India uprising.[315]

For its part, the Famine Commission Report absolved the British government from all major blame.[316] It laid some responsibility at the feet of unavoidable fate, but reserved its most forceful finger-pointing for local politicians in the Government of Bengal:[317] "But after 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."[318] Some sources allege that the Famine Commission deliberately declined to blame the UK or was even designed to do so;[319] however, Bowbrick (1985, p. 57) forcefully defends the report's accuracy. British accusations that Indian officials were responsible began as early as 1943, as an editorial in The Statesman on 5 October noted disapprovingly.[187]

Greenough (1982) stands somewhat apart from other analysts by emphasizing a pattern of victimization. In his account, the famine was set up by population pressure and market inefficiencies and triggered by a dire combination of war, political strife, natural causes and clumsy government response.[BD] The crucial aspect, however, was a series of cultural choices that resulted in the abandonment of dependents by their providers at every level of society: male heads of peasant households abandoned weaker family members; landholders abandoned the various forms of patronage that (according to Greenough) had traditionally been maintained, and the government abandoned the rural poor. These abandoned groups had been socially selected for death.[320]

A final line of blame-laying holds that major industrialists either caused or at least significantly exacerbated the famine through speculation, war profiteering, hoarding, and corruption—"unscrupulous, heartless grain traders forcing up prices based on false rumors".[321][BE] Working from an assumption that the Bengal famine claimed 1.5 million lives, the Famine Inquiry Commission made a "gruesome calculation" that "nearly a thousand rupees [£88 in 1944; equivalent to £3,557[322] or $1,223[323] in 2016] of profits were accrued per death".[324] As the Famine Inquiry Commission put it, "a large part of the community lived in plenty while others starved ... corruption was widespread throughout the province and in many classes of society."[325] British Field Marshal Viscount William Slim observed that "the horrible thing about Calcutta was the contrast of the blatant wealth of some of its citizens with the squalid misery, beyond mere poverty, at their very doors."[326]

See also


  1. ^ a b Cormac Ó Gráda (2007): "[E]stimates of mortality in Bengal range from 0.8 million to 3.8 million; today the scholarly consensus is about 2.1 million (Hall-Matthews 2005; Sen 1981; Maharatna 1996)."[3]

    The estimate in 1945 of the Famine Inquiry Commission—appointed in 1944 by the government of India and chaired by Sir John Woodhead, governor of Bengal—was around 1.5 million deaths in excess of the average mortality rate, out of Bengal's population of 60.3 million.[4] That figure covered January 1943 to June 1944.[5] K. P. Chattopadhyay, an anthropologist at the University of Calcutta, estimated in 1944 that 3.5 million famine-related deaths had occurred in 1943.[5] Amartya Sen estimated between 2.7 and 3 million for the period 1943–1946.[6][7][8]

    Paul R. Greenough suggested there had been 3,685,140 (3.7 million) deaths in Bengal in 1943, based on data from the Indian Statistical Institute (1945). That, minus a normal mortality figure of 1.7 million based on 1941–1942 data, gave him the figure of 2 million deaths in 1943 as a result of the famine, 800,000 more than Amartya Sen had calculated for 1943. Adding 800,000 to Sen's figure of 2.7 to 3 million for 1943–1946 produces a total of 3.5 to 3.8 million deaths as a result of the famine.[9]

    See Maharatna (1996) or Dyson & Maharatna (1991) for a review of the data and estimates.

  2. ^ The area now constitutes part of Bangladesh and the Indian states of West Bengal and Tripura. The famine also affected the neighbouring province of Orissa, albeit to a far smaller degree.[1] Orissa was hit by a cyclone on 10 April 1943.[2]
  3. ^ See for example Greenough (1982, pp. 61–84), Das (1949, Chapter XI, pp. 96–111) 
  4. ^ Famine Inquiry Commission (1945a, p. 5): "The total extent of the cultivated land in Bengal is nearly 29 million acres. Some of this is cropped more than once, and the total area sown under various crops is normally 35 million acres. The principal crop is rice which accounts for a little less than 26 million acres. In fact, Bengal may be described as a land of rice growers and rice eaters. The area under other staple foodgrains is small; that under wheat, for instance, is less than 200,000 acres, and the total area under food crops of all kinds other than rice is somewhat over 4 million acres. This includes land devoted to the cultivation of fruits and vegetables. The most important non-food crop is jute, which accounts normally for between 2 million and 2.5 million acres."
  5. ^ Some land produced more than one crop a year, sometimes rice in one season and other crops in another, reducing rice's yearly proportion of total crops sown (Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, p. 10).
  6. ^ Wheat was considered a staple by many in Calcutta, but nowhere else in Bengal (Knight 1954, p. 78). The wheat-eating enclave in Calcutta were industrial workers who had come there from other provinces (Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, p. 31).
  7. ^ Famine Inquiry Commission (1945a, p. 4) describes the ratio of population to land in European terms: "The area of the province is 77,442 square miles, rather more than the area of England, Wales, and one-half of Scotland. The population is a little over 60 millions, which is well in excess of that of the [entire] United Kingdom, and not much less than the aggregate population of France, Belgium, Holland, and Denmark."
  8. ^ Famine Inquiry Commission (1945): "According to the Census Report of 1941, over 54 per cent of the people of Bengal are Muslims, about 42 per cent Hindus, and approximately 4 per cent members of other communities. ... According to the census figures, the population of the province increased from 42.1 millions in 1901 to 60.3 millions in 1941. While the population of India increased by 37 per cent between the years 1901 and 1941, that of Bengal increased by 43 per cent. Nine-tenths of the people of Bengal live in about 84,000 villages. Of these nearly 70,000 are small villages, with less than a thousand inhabitants. The urban population numbers about 6 million. About two-thirds of this number live in Greater Calcutta ..."[24]
  9. ^ Census statistics were considerably more accurate than those for foodgrain production (Knight 1954, p. 22).
  10. ^ Washbrook (1981, p. 670) suggests that Bengal may have reached this ecological constraint as early as 1860, far earlier than most of India.
  11. ^ Colonial India at the time had four major land tenure systems: zamindari, mahalwari, ryotwari, and jagirdari, but the landholdings of Bengal were almost exclusively zamindar-owned. (Bekker 1951, pp. 319 & 326)
  12. ^ Iqbal (2009) suggests that the importance of the bhadralok, or "non-cultivating middle-class gentry" (p.1325), has been overlooked in the standard account. However, they fulfilled roughly the same role and pursued roughly the same strategies as the jotedar.
  13. ^ "... a peasant [i.e., ryot] differs from a landless labourer in terms of ownership (since he owns land, which the labourer does not), the landless share-cropper differs from the landless labourer not in their respective ownerships, but in the way they can use the only resource they own, viz. labour power. The landless labourer will be employed in exchange for a wage, while the share-cropper will do the cultivation and own a part of the product [including especially rice] (A. Sen 1981a, p. 5).
  14. ^ "Agricultural labourers, with no means except their labour power, pledged their labour to the jodedars for a few rupees of loan, becoming bonded labourers in the course of their perpetual borrowings" (Ray & Ray 1975, p. 84). 
  15. ^ For around nine months of every year, a large fraction of Bengal's population had access to an amount of palatable rice available for consumption that was roughly equivalent to the amount required for sustenance.
  16. ^ For example, "[over] and above the half share of the product that was the customary rent, the jotedars commonly recovered grain loans with 50% interest and seed loans with 100% interest at the time of harvest... they [also] arbitrarily levied a wide variety of [extra charges]." (S. N. Mukherjee 1987, pp. 256–57)
  17. ^ See Iqbal (2010, chapter 5, particularly p. 107) and Ram (1997).
  18. ^ Two contemporary reports—the 1940 Report of the Land Revenue Commission of Bengal (Government of Bengal 1940b) and the field survey published in Mahalanobis, Mukherjea & Ghosh (1946)—agree that even before the famine of 1943, at least half of the nearly 46 million in Bengal who depended on agriculture for their livelihood were landless or land-poor labourers under consistent threat of food insecurity. Approximately 2 acres of farmland would provide subsistence-level food for an average family,(Mahalanobis, Mukherjea & Ghosh 1946, p. 366) According to the 1940 Land Revenue Board report, 46% of rural families owned two acres or less or were landless tenants. The 1946 field survey, conducted by the Indian Statistical Institute under the guidance of P. C. Mahalanobis, found that 77.5% did not own sufficient land to provide subsistence for themselves.
  19. ^ Iqbal (2010, Chapter 7) suggests that the water hyacinth, a very rapidly growing invasive species, clogged waterways, reduced fish stocks, caused hardship to livestock due to its poor nutritional content, increased the incidence of water-borne epidemics and (in some areas) contributed to the partial shift away from the aman cultivar.
  20. ^ "The usual supplies of rice from Burma, albeit a small proportion of aggregate consumption, were cut off."[73]
  21. ^ "When Burma fell in April 1942 the hidden mechanism which had for years kept supply and demand in Bengal was rudely jarred... The transport network was already stretched thin by military demands... no [other provinces] were willing to accept loss of supply... The result was a derangement of the entire rice market of India..." Greenough 1982, p. 103 
  22. ^ Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) was a vital asset in the Allied war effort. It was "one of the very few sources of natural rubber still controlled by the Allies" (Axelrod & Kingston 2007, p. 220). It was further a vital link in "British supply lines around the southern tip of Africa to the Middle East, India and Australia". (Lyons 2016, p. 150) Churchill noted Ceylon's importance in maintaining the flow of oil from the Middle East, and considered its port of Colombo "the only really good base" for the Eastern Fleet and the defense of India. (Churchill 1986, pp. 152, 155 & 162)
  23. ^ In late January 1943, for example, the Viceroy Linlithgow wrote to the Secretary of State for India, Leo Amery: "Mindful of our difficulties about food I told [the Premier of Bengal, A. K. Fazlul Huq] that he simply must produce some more rice out of Bengal for Ceylon even if Bengal itself went short! He was by no means unsympathetic, and it is possible that I may in the result screw a little out of them. The Chief [Churchill] continues to press me most strongly about both rice and labour for Ceylon" (Mansergh 1971, p. 544, Document no. 362). Quoted in many sources, for example A. Sen (1977, p. 53), Ó Gráda (2008, pp. 30–31), Mukerjee (2010, p. 129), and J. Mukherjee (2015, p. 93).
  24. ^ Sources agree that the impetus came from the military, see for example Ó Gráda (2009, p. 154). Some such (J. Mukherjee 2015, p. 58) add that Herbert was "instructed through central government channels". 
  25. ^ At least two sources have suggested that the avowed objective of denying supplies to an invading Japanese army was less important than a covert goal of controlling available rice stocks and means of transport so the rice supplies could be directed toward the armed forces, see Iqbal (2010, p. 282) and De (2006, p. 12)
  26. ^ The Ganges and its distributaries the Padma and Hooghly, the Brahmaputra and its distributaries the Jamuna and Meghna.
  27. ^ "On 29 November 1941 the central government conferred, by notification, concurrent powers on the provincial governments under the Defence of India Rules (DIR) to restrict/prohibit the movement of food grains and also to requisition both food grains and any other commodity they considered necessary. With regard to food grains, the provincial governments had the power to restrict/stop, seize them and regulate their price, divert them from their usual channels of transportation and, as stated, their movement"  (De 2006, p. 8).
  28. ^ Note that this was not due to any shortage of wheat; on the contrary, the Punjab ran a huge surplus. A shortage of rice throughout India in 1941 caused foodgrain prices in general to rise. Agriculturalists in the Punjab wished to hold onto stocks to a small extent to cover their own rice deficit, but more importantly to profit from the price increases. To aid the rest of India in their domestic food purchases, the Government of India placed price controls on Punjabi wheat. The response was swift: so many wheat farmers held onto their stocks that wheat disappeared, and the Government of the Punjab began to assert that it now faced famine conditions (Yong 2005, pp. 291–94).
  29. ^ The Famine Commission report of Famine Inquiry Commission (1945a, p. 101) stated that "about two-thirds of the supplies of rice reaching Calcutta under the control of Government, much of which was secured from outside the province, was consumed in Greater Calcutta".
  30. ^ "Once the black market was introduced it was easily found out that the government had neither any reserve of stock for dumping on the market to preserve their [controlled price rate] nor an effective organisation to punish breaches of the control" Greenough 1982, p. 105, quoting Navanati Papers, "Memo of Rice Mills Association", pp. 181–82. 
  31. ^ See especially Ó Gráda (2015).
  32. ^ Braund (1944) quotes the February 1943 evidence to the Second Food Conference on this. See also Famine Inquiry Commission (1945a, p. 32)
  33. ^ The findings of Padmanabhan (1973) are discussed at length in Tauger (2009, pp. 176–79).
  34. ^ In this context, "carryover" is not the same as excess supply or "surplus". Rice stocks were typically aged for at least two or three months after harvest, since the grain became much more palatable after this period. This ongoing process of deferred consumption had been interrupted by a rice shortfall two years before the famine, and some speculate that supplies had not yet fully recovered. There is very considerable debate about the amount of carryover available for use at the onset of the famine. The debate began at the same time as did analyses of the crisis (Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, pp. 15, 35–36; 179–87 and has continued since (A. Sen 1977, pp. 47, 52; De 2006, p. 30; Mukerjee 2014, p. 73).
  35. ^ Mukerjee (2010, p. 139) states: "At no recorded instance did either the [Bengal] governor or the viceroy express concern for their subjects: their every request for grain would be phrased in terms of the war effort. Contemporaries attested that Herbert cared about the starvation in Bengal; so prioritising the war effort may reflect his and Linlithgow's estimation of which concerns might possibly have moved their superiors."
  36. ^ Janam Mukherjee (2015): "On 8 January 1943, Amery sent a memorandum to the Minister of War Transport in London, Lord Leathers, outlining Linlithgow's entreaty. 'It is the urban population,' Amery wrote, 'who are the first to experience any shortage, and since it is the urban population on whose labour the Indian munitions and supply industries depend, any marginal shortage of food tends to reduce the output of those industries. Such a shortage may have the effect of driving labour from factory centres back to the country where they may be lost to industry and constitute a threat to law and order with the possibility of food riots.' ... A meeting of the War Cabinet was held and at length it was agreed that in lieu of the 600,000 tons of grains requested by the viceroy, a maximum of 130,000 tons might be made available by the end of April. In return for these minimal promises, the War Cabinet pressed for Indian assistance on Ceylon. Ceylon was also a critical strategic base against Japan and there too rice was in short supply. The 130,000 tons of grains promised was specifically for wheat to supply western India. Rice from Bengal would be the trade-off. The viceroy approached Fazlul Huq [Prime Minister of Bengal] with the Ceylon problem: 'Mindful of our difficulties about food I told him that he simply must produce some more rice out of Bengal for Ceylon, even if Bengal itself went short!'"[186]
  37. ^ Ó Gráda (2015, p. 53) incorrectly gives the date as 31 July
  38. ^ The stated reason for the refusals was that shipping was needed for other purposes during wartime; it may also have reflected an animosity that Prime Minister Churchill held toward Indians. See J. Mukherjee (2015, pp. 241–2). This topic is also discussed at length in Mukerjee (2010, Chapter Nine, "Run Rabbit Run", pp. 191–218).
  39. ^ See for example Famine Inquiry Commission (1945a, pp. 223–25,  Annexures I and II to Appendix V), as cited in Greenough 1980, p. 214
  40. ^ "[W]hen crops begin to fail the cultivator [sells or barters]... his wife's jewelry, grain, cattle...[or reduces] his current food intake... Starving Indian peasants, once they fail in the market, forage in fields, ponds and jungles; they beg on a large scale; they migrate, often over long distances by travelling ticketless on the railways;... [and they] take shelter in the protection of a rural patron (Greenough 1980, pp. 205–07)
  41. ^ The unraveling of the system of rural patronage began earlier, in the Great Depression (Washbrook 1981, p. 709).
  42. ^ "A section of the contractors has made a profession of selling girls to the military. There are places in Chittagong, Comilla and Noakhali where women sell themselves literally in hordes, and young boys act as pimps for the military." [257]
  43. ^ Greenough (1980, p. 232): "The abandonment or exclusion of women and of children constituted the greatest social cost of the famine, excepting excess deaths."
  44. ^ For an analysis of government famine relief in Bengal in 1943, see Brennan 1988.
  45. ^ Test works were essentially labour camps that offered food and perhaps a small amount of money in exchange for strenuous work; if enough people took the offer, then famine conditions were assumed. (J. Mukherjee 2015, p. 29). The types of labour at test works included "stone quarries, metal breaking units, [water] tank and road building schemes" (Bhattacharya 2002a, p. 103).
  46. ^ "[In] Bengal there were tens of thousands of petty traders who bought [rice] from cultivators, and...[these commercial] relationships were highly personal" (J. Mukherjee 2015, pp. 86).
  47. ^ The Statesman was sold in 1962 to "a consortium of Indian industrialists" (Hirschmann 2004, p. 155)
  48. ^ Note also that The Statesman was the only major newspaper that had acquiesced to (or been persuaded by) government pressure to present the Quit India movement in a negative light (Greenough 1983, p. 355, note 7Greenough 1999, p. 43, note 7).
  49. ^ See for example A. Sen (1977), A. Sen (1981a), A. Sen (1981b), Bowbrick (1986), Goswami (1990), Tauger (2003), Islam (2007a) and Devereux (2010).
  50. ^ "The 1943–44 famine has become paradigmatic as an 'entitlements famine,' whereby speculation born of greed and panic produced an 'artificial' shortage of rice, the staple food."(Ó Gráda 2015, p. 90)
  51. ^ See for example Devereux 2000, pp. 21–23: "The conclusion is inescapable: famines are always political."
  52. ^ "...the lack of political will to divert foodstuffs from the war effort rather than [market] speculation... was mainly responsible for the famine." (Ó Gráda 2015, p. 90)
  53. ^ This alleged callousness was far from universal among the British in India; other British officials sharply criticised their own government, and were "keen to make amends". (Bhattacharya & Zachariah 1999, p. 89)
  54. ^ See Greenough (1983) for contemporary incendiary rhetoric to this effect from the Nationalist paper Biplabi. As Greenough opines, "Biplabi hammered away at the argument that the British had deliberately fostered the famine... The fact that the famine originated in large part because of the government's disruption of the paddy market, and also because of the niggardliness of official relief, was terribly obvious to the inhabitants of Midnapur" (p. 375).
  55. ^ For a discussion of sources that either blame Churchill and the Raj or elide Churchill's role entirely see Hickman (2008).
  56. ^ " unperceived but gradual decline in the per capita availability of rice, along with an inefficient grain-market system... were the underlying conditions... the disruptions arising from a full-tilt war effort... local disasters, political struggle and clumsy market interventions triggered the onset of the lurking food crisis." Greenough 1982, p. 138 
  57. ^ See for example J. Mukherjee (2015, pp. 2–6).



  1. ^ Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, pp. 1, 144–145; Maharatna 1992, pp. 320–333.
  2. ^ Pati 1999.
  3. ^ Ó Gráda 2007, p. 19.
  4. ^ Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, pp. 109–110.
  5. ^ a b Greenough 1982, p. 300.
  6. ^ A. Sen 1980, p. 202.
  7. ^ A. Sen 1981a, p. 201.
  8. ^ Greenough 1982, p. 303.
  9. ^ Greenough 1982, p. 309. See "Appendix C: Famine mortality, 1943–46", pp. 299–309.
  10. ^ Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, p. 203.
  11. ^ Chaudhuri 1975; Chatterjee 1986, pp. 170–72.
  12. ^ A. Sen 1977, p. 36; A. Sen 1981a, pp. 55 & 215.
  13. ^ Mishra 2000, p. 81; J. Mukherjee 2015, pp. 6–7.
  14. ^ Greenough 1982, p. 84.
  15. ^ a b Mahalanobis, Mukherjea & Ghosh 1946, p. 338.
  16. ^ a b Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, p. 10.
  17. ^ De 2006, p. 13; Bayly & Harper 2005, pp. 284–285.
  18. ^ A. Sen 1977, p. 36; Tauger 2009, pp. 167–68.
  19. ^ Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, pp. 32–33.
  20. ^ Das 2008, p. 61; Islam 2007a, pp. 433–34.
  21. ^ Dyson 1991, p. 279; Weigold 1999, p. 73.
  22. ^ Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, p. 4.
  23. ^ Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, pp. 4, 203.
  24. ^ Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, pp. 4–5.
  25. ^ Islam 2007b, p. 185.
  26. ^ Roy 2006, pp. 5393–94; Roy 2007, p. 244.
  27. ^ a b Islam 2007a, p. 433.
  28. ^ Washbrook 1981, p. 670.
  29. ^ Mahalanobis, Mukherjea & Ghosh 1946, p. 382; S. Bose 1982, p. 469.
  30. ^ Mahalanobis 1944, p. 70.
  31. ^ Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, p. 181; Mahalanobis, Mukherjea & Ghosh 1946, p. 339; Islam 2007b, p. 56.
  32. ^ Islam 2007a, p. 433; Islam 2007b, p. 56.
  33. ^ C. Bose 1930, pp. 96–101.
  34. ^ a b Ó Gráda 2015, p. 12.
  35. ^ Alamgir 1980, p. 79.
  36. ^ Mukherji 1986, p. PE-21; Iqbal 2009, pp. 1346–51.
  37. ^ Das 2008, p. 60.
  38. ^ Cooper 1983, p. 230.
  39. ^ Ray & Ray 1975, p. 84; Brennan, Heathcote & Lucas 1984, p. 9.
  40. ^ Mukherji 1986; S. Bose 1982, pp. 472–73.
  41. ^ Ali 2012, pp. 135–140.
  42. ^ Chatterjee 1986, pp. 176–77.
  43. ^ Greenough 1982, p. 66.
  44. ^ Mukherji 1986, p. PE-18; J. Mukherjee 2015, p. 39.
  45. ^ S. Bose 1982, pp. 471–72; Ó Gráda 2009, p. 75.
  46. ^ Chatterjee 1986, p. 179.
  47. ^ S. Bose 1982, pp. 472–73; Das 2008, p. 60.
  48. ^ Ali 2012, p. 128; Roy 2006, p. 5393; S. Bose 1982, p. 469.
  49. ^ Hunt 1987, p. 42.
  50. ^ Mahalanobis, Mukherjea & Ghosh 1946, p. 341; A. Sen 1981a, p. 73.
  51. ^ J. Mukherjee 2015, pp. 63–4; Iqbal 2011, pp. 272–3.
  52. ^ J. Mukherjee 2015, p. 90.
  53. ^ Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, p. 8; Natarajan 1946, pp. 10–11; Mukerjee 2014, p. 73; Brennan 1988, p. 542 & 548, note 12.
  54. ^ Mukerjee 2014, p. 73; Iqbal 2011, pp. 273–4.
  55. ^ Iqbal 2010, pp. 14–15.
  56. ^ Kazi 2004, pp. 154–57; Iqbal 2010, chapter 6, see for example the map on page 187; Klein 1973.
  57. ^ a b Iqbal 2010, p. 58, citing McClelland (1859, pp. 32 & 38)
  58. ^ Hunt 1987, p. 127; Learmonth 1957, p. 56.
  59. ^ Roy 2006, p. 5394.
  60. ^ a b Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, p. 128.
  61. ^ Tauger 2009, pp. 194–95.
  62. ^ Maharatna 1992, p. 206.
  63. ^ a b Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, p. 98.
  64. ^ Tinker 1975, p. 2.
  65. ^ a b Tinker 1975, p. 8.
  66. ^ Tinker 1975, pp. 9–10.
  67. ^ Tinker 1975, p. 11.
  68. ^ Tinker 1975, p. 12.
  69. ^ Tinker 1975, pp. 2,4.
  70. ^ a b Wavell 2015, pp. 96–97.
  71. ^ Wavell 2015, pp. 99–100.
  72. ^ Iqbal 2011, pp. 273–4.
  73. ^ a b Ó Gráda 2008, p. 20.
  74. ^ Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, p. 23.
  75. ^ a b Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, p. 28.
  76. ^ a b Greenough 1982, p. 103.
  77. ^ S. Bose 1990, p. 703 & 715.
  78. ^ Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, p. 187; Maharatna 1992, p. 206.
  79. ^ Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, pp. 23–24; 28–29; 103.
  80. ^ Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, p. 24.
  81. ^ Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, p. 29.
  82. ^ Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, p. 103.
  83. ^ Iqbal 2011, p. 278.
  84. ^ a b S. Bose 1990, p. 716.
  85. ^ J. Mukherjee 2015, p. 132.
  86. ^ Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, pp. 170–71; Greenough 1980, p. 222; J. Mukherjee 2015, pp. 40–41, 110 & 191; De 2006, p. 2.
  87. ^ A. Sen 1981a, pp. 50, 67–70.
  88. ^ Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, pp. 19–20.
  89. ^ S. Bose 1990, p. 715.
  90. ^ Mukerjee 2010, pp. 221–22.
  91. ^ a b Rothermund 2002, pp. 115–122.
  92. ^ a b Natarajan 1946, p. 49.
  93. ^ Mukerjee 2010, p. 222.
  94. ^ Mukherji 1986, p. PE-25.
  95. ^ Knight 1954, p. 101.
  96. ^ S. Bose 1990, p. 715; Rothermund 2002, pp. 115–122; A. Sen 1977, p. 50; Mukherji 1986, p. PE-25.
  97. ^ a b Brennan, Heathcote & Lucas 1984, p. 12.
  98. ^ Greenough 1982, p. 90.
  99. ^ J. Mukherjee 2015, p. 150.
  100. ^ J. Mukherjee 2015, p. 214.
  101. ^ Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, pp. 27,  as cited in J. Mukherjee 2015, p. 66.
  102. ^ Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, pp. 25–26; Iqbal 2011; Ó Gráda 2009, p. 154.
  103. ^ Mukerjee 2010, p. 66; J. Mukherjee 2015, p. 217, note 23; note refers to page 59.
  104. ^ A. Sen 1977, p. 45; S. Bose 1990, p. 717.
  105. ^ Weigold 1999, p. 67; J. Mukherjee 2015, pp. 62 & 272; Greenough 1982, p. 92.
  106. ^ J. Mukherjee 2015, pp. 61–63; Ghosh 1944, p. 52.
  107. ^ J. Mukherjee 2015, p. 13; De 2006, p. 13.
  108. ^ Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, pp. 26–27; A. Sen 1977, p. 45; Bayly & Harper 2005, pp. 284–285; Iqbal 2011, p. 274; J. Mukherjee 2015, p. 66.
  109. ^ J. Mukherjee 2015, p. 9.
  110. ^ Ó Gráda 2009; Brennan 1988, pp. 542–43, note 3.
  111. ^ Mukerjee 2010, pp. 98, 139.
  112. ^ Iqbal 2011, p. 272; S. Bose 1990, p. 717.
  113. ^ a b De 2006, p. 13.
  114. ^ Greenough 1982, p. 89, citing "Army Proposal of 23 April submitted to Chief Civil Defense Commissioner, Bengal" in Pinnell (1944, p. 5); J. Mukherjee 2015, p. 9.
  115. ^ Iqbal 2011, p. 276.
  116. ^ Bayly & Harper 2005, pp. 284–285.
  117. ^ J. Mukherjee 2015, pp. 67–74; Bhattacharya 2013, pp. 21–23.
  118. ^ Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, pp. 16 & 19.
  119. ^ Knight 1954, p. 279; Yong 2005, pp. 291–94.
  120. ^ Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, p. 32.
  121. ^ Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, pp. 23 & 193.
  122. ^ Knight 1954, p. 280.
  123. ^ Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, p. 24; Knight 1954, pp. 48 & 280.
  124. ^ Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, pp. 16–17.
  125. ^ A. Sen 1977, p. 51; Brennan 1988, p. 563.
  126. ^ S. Bose 1990, p. 717.
  127. ^ Bhattacharya & Zachariah 1999, p. 77.
  128. ^ Bhattacharya 2002a, p. 39; J. Mukherjee 2015, p. 42.
  129. ^ Greenough 1982, p. 134, note 130.
  130. ^ Greenough 1982, pp. 133–136.
  131. ^ Brennan 1988, pp. 559–560.
  132. ^ Slim 2000, p. 177,  as cited in Khan (2015, p. 254) .
  133. ^ Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, p. 30, citing an August 1942 letter from the Government of Bengal to the Bengal Chamber of Commerce.
  134. ^ Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, p. 101.
  135. ^ Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, p. 30; Ó Gráda 2015, p. 40.
  136. ^ Ó Gráda 2010, p. 36; Brennan, Heathcote & Lucas 1984, p. 12; J. Mukherjee 2015, p. 86.
  137. ^ Bhattacharya 2002b, p. 101.
  138. ^ a b c Bhattacharya 2002b, p. 102.
  139. ^ Bhattacharya & Zachariah 1999, p. 99.
  140. ^ Datta 2002, pp. 644–46.
  141. ^ Bayly & Harper 2005, p. 247.
  142. ^ a b c d Bayly & Harper 2005, p. 248.
  143. ^ Bandyopadhyay 2004, p. 418.
  144. ^ Chakrabarty 1992a, p. 791; Chatterjee 1986, pp. 180–81.
  145. ^ Bandyopadhyay 2004, pp. 418–19.
  146. ^ De 2006, pp. 2, 5.
  147. ^ Bayly & Harper 2005, p. 286.
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  150. ^ a b Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, p. 33.
  151. ^ Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, p. 34.
  152. ^ a b A. Sen 1977, pp. 36 & 38.
  153. ^ a b c Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, p. 58.
  154. ^ A. Sen 1977, p. 38.
  155. ^ A. Sen 1976, p. 1280.
  156. ^ a b Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, p. 112; Aykroyd 1975, p. 74; Iqbal 2011, p. 282.
  157. ^ Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, pp. 55 & 98.
  158. ^ J. Mukherjee 2015, p. 111.
  159. ^ Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, pp. 55–58.
  160. ^ Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, pp. 40 & 104.
  161. ^ Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, p. 52; A. Sen 1977, p. 51.
  162. ^ A. Sen 1977, p. 36; S. Bose 1990, pp. 716–17.
  163. ^ Ó Gráda 2007, p. 10.
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  165. ^ Brennan 1988, p. 543.
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  167. ^ Brennan 1988,  p. 552, note 14.
  168. ^ Brennan 1988, p. 548.
  169. ^ Greenough 1982, pp. 93–96.
  170. ^ J. Mukherjee 2015, pp. 111–112.
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  172. ^ Mahalanobis 1944, p. 71.
  173. ^ Mahalanobis 1944, p. 72.
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  175. ^ a b Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, pp. 34 & 37.
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  177. ^ A. Sen 1977, p. 39; A. Sen 1981a, p. 58.
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  179. ^ Rothermund 2002, p. 119.
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  190. ^ Collingham 2012, p. 152.
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  193. ^ Greenough 1980, pp. 205–07.
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  201. ^ a b Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, p. 1.
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  205. ^ Maharatna 1992, p. 384; J. Mukherjee 2015, pp. 111–12.
  206. ^ Maharatna 1992, p. 42.
  207. ^ Maharatna 1992, pp. 263–64.
  208. ^ Maharatna 1992, pp. 262–63.
  209. ^ Dyson 1991, p. 284.
  210. ^ Maharatna 1992, p. 270.
  211. ^ Maharatna 1992, pp. 260 & 263.
  212. ^ Maharatna 1992, p. 279.
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  215. ^ Ó Gráda 2015, p. 90.
  216. ^ Ó Gráda 2009, p. 146; S. Bose 1990, p. 711.
  217. ^ Maharatna 1992, p. 243, Table 5.5.
  218. ^ a b Maharatna 1992, p. 268.
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  220. ^ Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, pp. 137–38; J. Mukherjee 2015, pp. 142 & 174.
  221. ^ Bhattacharya 2002a, p. 102.
  222. ^ Maharatna 1992, pp. 249 & 251.
  223. ^ Maharatna 1992, p. 268; Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, p. 136.
  224. ^ Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, pp. 136–37.
  225. ^ Maharatna 1992, p. 240.
  226. ^ Maharatna 1992, p. 41 & 251.
  227. ^ Maharatna 1992, p. 378.
  228. ^ Mokyr & Ó Gráda 2002, pp. 340–14; J. Mukherjee 2015, pp. 128–29.
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  232. ^ Greenough 1980, pp. 225–33; Ó Gráda 2009, pp. 59–63.
  233. ^ Mukerjee 2010, pp. 170, 186–187.
  234. ^ Mukerjee 2010, p. 248.
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  237. ^ A. Sen 1981b, p. 441; Das 1949.
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  239. ^ Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, p. 109,  as cited in A. Sen 1981a, p. 196.
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  245. ^ J. Mukherjee 2015, pp. 239–40.
  246. ^ Mukerjee 2010, p. 236.
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  248. ^ J. Mukherjee 2015, pp. 133, 221.
  249. ^ a b c d Mukerjee 2010, pp. 221–222.
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  257. ^ B. Sen 1945, p. 29.
  258. ^ Collingham 2012, pp. 147–48.
  259. ^ Mukerjee 2010, pp. 158 & 183–86; Greenough 1982.
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  276. ^ Famine Inquiry Commission 1945a, pp. 62–63, 75 & 139–140; Brennan 1988, p. 558.
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  308. ^ Ó Gráda 2015, p. 91.
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  326. ^ Slim 2000, p. 132.

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  • Greenough, Paul R. (1983). "Political Mobilization and the Underground Literature of the Quit India Movement, 1942–44". Modern Asian Studies. 17 (3): 353–386. doi:10.1017/s0026749x00007538. JSTOR 312297.  Reprinted as Greenough, Paul R. (1999). "Political Mobilization and the Underground Literature of the Quit India Movement, 1942–44". Social Scientist. 27 (7/8): 11–47. JSTOR 3518012. 
  • Hickman, John (2008). "Orwellian Rectification: Popular Churchill Biographies and the 1943 Bengal Famine". Studies in History. 24 (2): 235–243. doi:10.1177/025764300902400205. 
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  • Maharatna, Arup (1993). "Malaria Ecology, Relief Provision and Regional Variation in Mortality During the Bengal Famine of 1943–44". South Asia Research. 13 (1): 1–26. doi:10.1177/026272809301300101. 
  • Mishra, A. (2000). "Reviewing the Impoverishment Process: The Great Bengal Famine of 1943". Indian Historical Review. 27 (1): 79–93. doi:10.1177/037698360002700106. 
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  • Ó Gráda, Cormac (2010). "Revisiting the Bengal Famine of 1943–44". History Ireland. 18 (4, The Elephant and Partition: Ireland and India): 36–39. JSTOR 27823027. 
  • Osmani, S R (1993). "The Entitlement Approach to Famine: An Assessment" (PDF). Helsinki: UNU World Institute for Development Economics Research (UNU/WIDER). 
  • Padmanabhan, S. Y. (1973). "The Great Bengal Famine". Annual Review of Phytopathology. Annual Reviews. 11: 11–24. doi:10.1146/ 
  • Pati, Biswamoy (1999). "The Dialectics of Retreat: Orissa, 1943–1950". Social Scientist. 27 (7/8): 75–112. JSTOR 3518014. 
  • Rangasami, Amrita (1985). "Failure of Exchange Entitlements Theory of Famine". Economic & Political Weekly. 20 (42). 
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  • Roy, Tirthankar (30 December 2006). "Roots of Agrarian Crisis in Interwar India: Retrieving a Narrative". Economic and Political Weekly: 5389–5400. 
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  • Sen, Amartya (1976). "Famines as Failures of Exchange Entitlements". Economic and Political Weekly. 11 (31/33, Special Number: Population and Poverty): 1273+1275+1277+1279–1280. JSTOR 4364836. 
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  • Sen, Amartya (1981b). "Ingredients of Famine Analysis: Availability and Entitlements". The Quarterly Journal of Economics. 96 (3): 433–464. JSTOR 1882681. PMID 11615084. 
  • Tauger, Mark B. (2003). "Entitlement, Shortage and the 1943 Bengal Famine: Another Look" (PDF). Journal of Peasant Studies. Routledge. 31 (1): 45–72. doi:10.1080/0306615031000169125. Archived from the original (PDF) on 18 February 2017. 
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External links

  • Bengal Famine materials in the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA)
  • Hungry Bengal – War, Famine, Riots, and the End of Empire 1939–1946
  • "BBC/OU: The things we forgot to remember – The Bengal famine". 

Further reading

  • Abdullah, Abu Ahmed (Autumn 1980). "The Peasant Economy in Transition : The Rise of the Rich Peasant in Permanently Settled Bengal". The Bangladesh Development Studies. 8 (4): 1–20. JSTOR 40794299. 
  • Bose, Sugata (1982a). Agrarian Bengal: Economy, Social Structure and Politics. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521304481. 
  • Corbett, Jane (1988). "Famine and household coping strategies". World development. 16 (9): 1099–1112. doi:10.1016/0305-750x(88)90112-x. 
  • de Waal, Alex (1990). "A re-assessment of entitlement theory in the light of the recent famines in Africa". Development and Change. 21 (3): 469–490. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7660.1990.tb00384.x. 
  • Das, Suranjan (1995). "Nationalism and Popular Consciousness: Bengal 1942". Social Scientist. 23 (4/6): 58–68. JSTOR 3520215. 
  • Famine Inquiry Commission (August 1945). Final Report (pdf). Madras: Government of India Press. 
  • Government of Bengal (1940a). Report of the Land Revenue Commission, Vol. I.  With Minutes of Dissent. Alipore: Bengal Government Press. 
  • Government of Bengal (1940c). Report of the Land Revenue Commission, Vol. VI (PDF).  Replies to the Commission's questionnaire by the Associations concerned with tenants, Bar Associations, etc., and their oral evidence. Alipore: Bengal Government Press. 
  • MacMillan, Margaret (2007). Women of the Raj: The Mothers, Wives, and Daughters of the British Empire in India. Random House Trade Paperbacks. ISBN [[Special:BookSources/978-0-8129-7639-7}location=New York, NY|978-0-8129-7639-7}location=New York, NY]] Check |isbn= value: invalid character (help). 
  • Maharatna, Arup (1996). The demography of famines: an Indian historical perspective. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-563711-3. 
  • Martin, O. M. (1945). Memoirs of O. M. Martin. University of Cambridge: Centre of South Asian Studies. 
  • Narayanan, T. G. (1944). Famine over Bengal. Calcutta: The Book Company. 
  • Passmore, R. (1951). "Famine in India: an historical survey". The Lancet. 258 (6677): 303–307. doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(51)93295-3. 
  • Stevenson, Richard (2005). Bengal Tiger and British Lion: An Account of the Bengal Famine of 1943. Lincoln, Nebraska: iUniverse. ISBN 978-0-595-36209-7. 
  • Tauger, Mark B.; Sen, Amartya (24 March 2011). "The Truth About the Bengal Famine". The New York Review of Books. 
  • Tauger, Mark B.; Sen, Amartya (12 May 2011). "The Bengal Famine". The New York Review of Books. 
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