(Last Updated on : 31/01/2009)
In his lecture , titled "Public Action to Remedy Hunger", delivered on 2nd August, 1990 in London, the Nobel Laureate, Amartya Sen, has defined famine:
"Famines are transient but violent events - they come and go, decimating the population and causing extreme misery and widespread death."
Indeed, sociologists, economists, and historians had viewed the infamous Bengal famine of 1943-4, as a man-made catastrophe. It drastically wiped of 3 million people of pre-partitioned Bengal ( independent Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal
The severe defeat of the British Kingdom in the iron hands of the formidable Japanese at Singapore in 1942, menanced the British foothold in Burma. Burma happened to be the the world's largest exporter of rice in the inter-war period.The British for their own sake patronized the Burmese production of rice, to gurantee food-suply to the British camp during the wartime period. By 1940, 15% of the total consumption of rice in India, had its source in India.
However, these imported quantity of rice , amounting to only 20% of Bengal's food-consumption, was inadequate to afford for the hungry stomachs of the starved millions of Bengal.
Meanwhile , British government apprehensive of Japanese intrusion into the province of Bengal, through the bypass of Bengal, blockaded all ways to fetch supplies from Japan, in order to evade the peril of invasion.
The merciless 'scorched earth' policy, means destruction of anything, e.g., food crops , dwellings, communication-systems, etc. for erasing alls scopes of advantage for the enemy. This horrible strategy was employed, in the Chittagong area, in vicinity to the Burmese boundaries .
Simultaneously, sacks of rice were carried to the Middle East to gurantee a sufficient food-reserve for British military force . Moreover, Ceylon, the nucleus of the operatiions of the South East Asia Command ,also used to derive the maximum its of food-grains from Burma.
It was thus evident, that food available, was mainly getting utilised and preserved for war-times exigency, at the expense of the hapless civilians of Bengal, writhing in the unbearable pains of hunger.
On 16th October 1942 , a devastating cyclone scathed the entire east coast of Bengal and Orissa
. Lands of rice-cultivation stretching upto forty miles inland was inundated, and hence the prospective autumn harvest was left damaged. There was no other options left than to depend on the excess of grains , stored for future purpose .The winter crop of 1942-43, had long before been eaten way . By May 1943, this unexpected scarcity strained the granary.
The topsy-turvy situation was aggravated with the exports of food and governmental confiscation of fertile lands.
But the eminent economist Amartya Sen, had pointed out that rice-availability in 1943's Bengal, was more than that of 1941. There was actually no such deficiency of food-grains.
Sen has transferred the onus on the malicious buzz of food-shortage that precipated the catastrophe. The outcome was the illegal exploitation of the economy, namely, speculation, hoarding, and profiteering by the opulent and the corrupt became the order of the day. The market was emptied of food-grains and sold.
The spark of fire to the funeral pyre of the declining Bengal economy was provided by the sudden rise in the cost of food grains. The market was emptied of food-grains and sold at higher bidding or inflated prices, all because of the excess demand and reduced supply.
From 1940, the hikes in the salaries of those in the military services , the docks, and the landlords were compensated by a considerable deduction in the wages of the Have-nots, like, landless labourers, fishermen, barbers, paddy huskers and other groups. Inevitably, buying these food-grains of soaring costs, was much beyond their limit. Inevitably, they had no "entitlement" ,i.e. could not claim ownership over the harvest they reap on others field, because the land they are tilling or the pond from which they had fetched the fish for selling, is not their property. Hence, buying these food-grains of soaring costs, was much beyond the limit of these impoverished class. They were left as destitutes, crying for a single grain to quench their appetite.
Amartya Sen has excavated the inability of the British Government to understand the prime cause of the famine . He highlighted that the need of the hour was the distribution of free famine relief among the famine-afected victims. Finally, even if it was late, the government took the wise initiative of importing 1,000,000 tons of grain to Bengal from Britain, which decreased food prices and revived the flow of food in the market.
The famine thus ended, but left a deep scar in the history of the human race as the great annihilation .