Famine Decimates Bengal Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Famine hit the region of Bengal, India, and took the lives of an estimated three million people. Bengalis died from starvation, malnutrition, and other illnesses caused by food shortages, crop failure, and other factors.

Summary of Event

A combination of circumstances led to one of the worst famines in modern world history. First, the British, having long occupied and ruled the region, British Empire;World War II fed their troops in the Middle East (fighting in battles of World War II) by exporting food from India; rice was a major food source not only for the troops but also for the region’s populations. To meet demands, the government of India bought the crops as they were harvested, leading to limited supplies of rice for the general population. Famine;Bengal Hunger;Bengali famine Bengali famine (1943-1944) [kw]Famine Decimates Bengal (1943-1944) [kw]Bengal, Famine Decimates (1943-1944) Famine;Bengal Hunger;Bengali famine Bengali famine (1943-1944) [g]South Asia;1943-1944: Famine Decimates Bengal[00720] [g]India;1943-1944: Famine Decimates Bengal[00720] [c]Disasters;1943-1944: Famine Decimates Bengal[00720] [c]Health and medicine;1943-1944: Famine Decimates Bengal[00720] [c]Agriculture;1943-1944: Famine Decimates Bengal[00720] [c]Environmental issues;1943-1944: Famine Decimates Bengal[00720] Herbert, John Suhrawardy, Huseyn Shaheed Wavell, Archibald (first Earl Wavell)

Significantly, Japan joined the war when it bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7, 1941. The Japanese then invaded Southeast Asia and captured Singapore and then Malaysia and Burma, which were all part of the British Empire. Burma (now Myanmar) was especially critical for the British, who had developed the Irrawaddy delta and Arakan (now Rakhine) after 1885 as great rice-producing areas. More than 20 percent of the rice consumed in Bengal had been imported from Burma. With the Japanese capture of Burma came the end of all imports of rice from that area, causing rice shortages in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Ceylon imported large amounts of rice from Burma; it also was the headquarters of the British army’s southeast Asia command. Rice was exported from India to Ceylon, causing a further tightening of supplies in India.

Second, on October 16, 1942, northeast India was hit by a cyclone Cyclones Floods;India that devastated Bengal and neighboring Orissa. The land was flooded for some 40 miles between the coast and prime rice-growing areas inland, leading to the failure of the entire fall rice crop and to farmers having to eat their surplus rice and seed to survive. As of May, 1943, no rice seed had been planted. The situation for peasants in Bengal became critical. Food prices skyrocketed, making the purchase of food beyond the means of many people.

A third factor involved in the famine was the epidemic Epidemics of helminthosporium oryzae, Helminthosporium oryzae or brown spot disease Brown spot disease , that broke out during the ideal conditions that followed the cyclone and flooding. In two areas of Bengal, Bankura and Chinsurah (now Hooghly-Chinsura), only 10 percent of the crop survived. As a result of the disease, the rice yield in 1942 was exceptionally low. The disease, and the resultant shortage of rice, has been blamed for causing the famine, although this claim has been disputed, especially by Indian nationalist historians who wish to put the blame completely on British administration.

The final ingredient in the famine was the human factor, which took several forms. The first was the hoarding of supplies by black marketers Profiteering and others to drive the price of rice to exorbitant levels and then to sell the higher-priced food for enormous profits. By December, 1942, the price of rice had doubled from its 1939 level. The shop windows of bakeries in Calcutta (now Kolkata) were filled with high-priced cakes and pastries, which the starving could not afford. The Bengali government under Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, who was widely criticized in the Hindu and the Western press for the famine, went on a “food drive” to search for stocked rice and force its sale. Suhrawardy, however, had been slow to introduce rationing in Calcutta and to ship rice to the rural areas. On his food drive, he found a considerable amount of rice, but the stock had little impact on the destitute. Another “human” factor in the famine was that Bengalis were not used to eating wheat, which could have been imported, at great price, from other provinces of India. Bengalis would slowly adopt the custom of eating bread, but bread consumption had little positive impact on the hungry in 1943 and 1944.

Suhrawardy, who was a Muslim, appointed a Muslim businessman to be the agent responsible for importing rice into Bengal. This aroused the animosity of the Hindus. Muslim-Hindu relations[Muslim Hindu relations] When Suhrawardy traveled to Delhi to persuade the government of India to demand that the other rice-producing provinces of India export rice to Bengal, the Hindu premiers of those provinces resisted on communal grounds. To clear accusations of bias against him, Suhrawardy hoped to appoint Hindu agents but was roundly criticized by his Muslim colleagues. He worked indefatigably to ameliorate the crisis but received only criticism for his efforts, both from the Hindu press and from the British. The governor of the province, John Herbert, proved to be an ineffective administrator. He became ill and was replaced by an acting governor on September 6, 1943.

The human factor was also manifested politically. Calcutta, the largest city of India, had a high priority to receive supplies of all kinds to prevent the city’s influential intellectual classes from becoming disaffected. The government channeled all commodities, including food, to the city at the expense of the hinterlands. Of the eighty-six subdivisions of Bengal, fifteen (located in the south and east) were severely affected by the famine. The people of these divisions, mostly older men and women and children, began to migrate to Calcutta in July to search for food. By October, more than 150,000 people were destitute and begging for food in Calcutta. The British system of administration made the situation worse because it did not allow the free flow of food among the provinces of India, leading to even more of a food shortage. The government would not allow food from the other provinces of India to be sent to Bengal.

The famine continued to ravage Bengal into the early months of 1944 and ended only with the recovery of the rice crop in 1944. The viceroy of India, Archibald Wavell, traveled to Bengal and began a vigorous effort to mitigate the effects of the famine. He did so within a week of assuming the viceroyalty. He called a meeting of provincial governors and asked for their cooperation and support, persuaded the Bengali government to move the destitute out of Calcutta and into camps so that the army could feed them, supplied rural areas with food grains, ordered rationing in Calcutta, and badgered an indifferent British government in London to supply India with food.


The famine caused untold hardship and misery to the poor people of Bengal, killing as many as three million but affecting millions of others through malnutrition and lower resistance to disease. The number of people whose lives were shortened because of the famine is impossible to know.

Politically, the Bengal famine damaged British prestige in India incalculably and was one of the factors that led to deepening opposition Anticolonial movements;India to British rule in India. Four years after the onset of the famine, British rule in India ended. Famine;Bengal Hunger;Bengali famine Bengali famine (1943-1944)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Greenough, Paul. Prosperity and Misery in Modern Bengal: The Famine of 1943-44. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. Greenough, a renowned historian of India, offers a balanced study of the famine by looking at the many factors involved, from the effects of the war to the political and the human elements. A comprehensive and reliable guide.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mansergh, Nicholas, ed. Constitutional Relations Between Britain and India: The Transfer of Power, 1942-7. Vol. 4 in The Bengal Famine and the New Viceroyalty, 15 June 1943-31 to August 1944. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1973. Chapter 4 of this official British compilation of documents, correspondence, and memoranda covers the Bengal famine. Shows clearly its urgency and discusses Viceroy Wavell’s efforts to end the famine. Examines the dismissive response of the British government.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Uppal, J. N. Bengal Famine of 1943: A Man-Made Tragedy. Delhi, India: Atma Ram & Sons, 1984. Uppal blames the famine on an “administration breakdown.” His study is an Indian nationalist one. Thirteen chapters explore the Bengal famine.

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