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The Bengal Famine of 1943 and Aftermath

Updated on October 4, 2016

What Happened in Bengal in 1943?

India was still under British rule and the fight for Independence was at its peak. The state of Bengal, which was later divided into West Bengal and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), had for a long time almost single-handedly led the struggle for freedom.

From Womesh Chandra Banerjee, the first president of the Indian National Congress and Swami Vivekanand to Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, the state produced some of the greatest warriors for India's struggle against an oppressive rule.

Just when things looked like they were going in the right direction, the state was hit by the most unfortunate and devastating famine in the history of India. After the Japanese invasion of Burma during World War II, things became disastrous for the locals.

Although food production had been more than the previous years, the decision by the British Empire to take away 60% of the harvest to feed its soldiers to fight against the Japanese army proved to be catastrophic. According to an article published in the Revolvy1, about 3 million people lost their lives due to starvation, malnutrition and diseases.

The Havoc that Followed

Due to the lack of sources back then, the actual number of casualties couldn't be reported and that made the matters worse. Even today, the exact figures are not available and it is estimated that the death toll was between 1.5 million to 4 million.

Given that the total population of the state back then was about 60 million, these are some serious numbers. Further casualties were reported because of food borne diseases, when it actually became available for the people in December 1943. The highest mortality rates were not seen in the very poor groups but among the artisans and small traders, as people started spending all their money on food, while they remained unemployed.

Urban Development in India: Global Indians in the Remaking of Kolkata2, by Pablo Shiladitya Bose, explains how the crisis of 1943 shook the economy of the state, as it led to the increase in the number of refugees, causing a decline both in social and political terms. Before it could have recovered from this incident, the partition of the state that took place four years later made matters even worse.

How Poor Management Acted as a Catalyst

In those days, concepts like term insurance plans and financial security didn't exist. According to an article published in Globalsecurity.org3, one half of the families, i.e., about 7,500,000 households were dependent solely on agriculture for income. The reduction in supply against the increasing demand led to the crisis.

Rice, which is the most common food of the region, saw a poor or indifferent crop in the preceding year of 1942, and the cyclone in the month of October in the same year destroyed the reserve stocks of the cultivators and dealers. About 50% to 90% of the rice varieties were damaged by the fungus, Cochliobolus miyabeanus.

Despite being aware of all these facts, the ruling government took a majority of the stock away from the citizens. Everyone was aware that the shortage of food could only be met by providing more resources, yet the people were given money to buy food at higher prices. The impact was felt in the other states too and soon it turned into a national problem.

Calcutta, the second largest city in the country had only two weeks' worth of food stock left in March 1943 and it only speaks for the tenacity of the people that the state was able to overcome the adversity and stand firm today. In the present day, you have some of the best term insurance and life insurance plans that are seeing people through adversity. In fact, the floods in Chennai in 2015 saw insurance claims worth Rs. 4,800 crores being paid out by insurance companies, according to experts at Life Insurance Company.


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