Bengal Famine (1943): A Manmade Catastrophe

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In 1943, Bengal suffered one of the worst famines in the history of Modern India. 3 million people died of starvation & disease aggravated by malnutrition and lack of healthcare. It was a manmade calamity thanks to the war-time policies of the colonial British in India.

An Illustration Portraying the 1943 Bengal Famine
An Illustration Portraying the 1943 Bengal Famine

Britain, under Prime Minister Winston Churchill, was caught up in World War II and was focused on feeding its army. Food grains from India were diverted to feed British troops, leading to crippling shortages in India. Churchill couldn’t have cared less.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill

Further, wartime inflation, speculative buying, panic hoarding and preferential distribution made matters worse for the starving millions in India.

The transportation of rice took a blow as the British ordered the destruction of rural boats in anticipation of a Japanese invasion via the Eastern Bengal border. Then, In March 1942, the occupation of Rangoon by Japan cut off the import of Burmese rice into India.

Burmese_refugees_flee_along_the_Prome_Road_into_India,_January_1942
Burmese Refugees flee into India, January, 1942

Next, a severe cyclonic storm in October 1942 destroyed croplands in India. Fungal spores dispersed across the region, resulting in the spread of crop disease.

Cochliobolus_miyabeanus
Disease On Rice Crops

Churchill was severely criticised for his handling of the catastrophe. He was so callous that he said: "If food is so scarce, why hasn't Gandhi died yet?"

The famine destroyed the social fabric of Bengal and its impact was felt for decades. Families were torn apart, many sold their small holdings, and millions of homeless migrants headed to cities in search of relief and work.

The Bengal famine is remembered as one of the most shameful chapters in the history of the British Empire in India.


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