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Indian Famines and Peasant Victims: the Case of Bengal in 1943–44

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 November 2008

Paul R. Greenough
University of Iowa


What, in detail, do Indian peasants do when famine looms? How do they defend themselves, who succumbs and who survives? Recently several talented economic historians have given these questions a vigorous airing. Morris D. Morris in particular set off the discussion by suggesting that South Asian peasants are well prepared for periodic drought famines. He argues (I compress him almost to parody) that long experience with the monsoon's periodic failures has taught the Indian cultivator prudence: when crops begin to fail the cultivator draws upon previously stored substances—his wife's jewelry, grain, cattle, etc.—and sells them or barters them to keep up his usual level of food consumption. Thus, while his assets are cyclically depleted and replenished, he can usually stave off the most feared effect of drought, which is starvation. N. S. Jodha, however, has partially contradicted Morris by adducing evidence from Rajasthan and elsewhere which shows the peasant cultivator to be more likely to cut back his current food intake rather than risk a loss of future production by depleting his capital assets. Like Morris, Jodha sees that farmers are rational and plan for the future, the disagreement being whether they plan for crop failures in the midst of good harvests or plan for good harvests in the midst of crop failures In fact these two views, suitably softened, are not incompatible, and one can imagine both operating at different phases of a worsening episode of drought.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1980

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1 Morris, Morris D., ‘What is a Famine?’ Economic and Political Weekly (Bombay), IX (1974): 18551864;Google ScholarMorris, Morris D., ‘Needed: a New Famine Policy,’ Economic and Political Weekly, X (Annual Number 1975): 283–94;Google ScholarJodha, N. S., ‘Famine and Famine Policies: Some Empirical Evidence,’ Economic and Political Weekly, X (1975): 1609–23.Google Scholar

2 See Table 1 in text.

3 Sen, Amartya, ‘Starvation and Exchange Entitlements: a General Approach and Its Application to the Great Bengal Famine,’ Cambridge Journal of Economics, I (1977): 3359.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Also see Sen, Amartya, ‘Famines as Failures of Exchange Entitlements,’ Economic and Political Weekly, Special Number (08 1976): 1273–80.Google Scholar

4 ‘With an initial endowment x of commodities (including labour), the exchange entitlements offered by a particular set of market configurations (in addition to direct production possibilities) can be seen as the set S(x) of all commodity bundles that can be acquired starting from x. (Formally, therefore, the set of exchange entitlements can be seen as a mapping S(.) from a given person's endowment vectors to availability sets of commodity vectors.) If S(x) for the relevant x does not include any combination of goods that would give th-is person (or the family) enough food, starvation will occur,’ etc. Sen, ‘Starvation and Exchange,’ p. 34.Google Scholar

5 Sen, , ‘Starvation and Exchange,’ p. 35. The impact of price upon Indian peasants' consumption, quite apart from the total supply of food available, was a notion familiar to British famine administrators; it provided a standard discussion in nineteenth-century famine commission reports, and the rise of food prices was one of the diagnostics of a famine. Thus ‘price famine’ as opposed to food shortage will be found in the older analyses, and the attempt to relieve famine by bringing down prices was a central aim of British famine policy.Google Scholar

6 Scott, James C. summarizes much of the literature and has a useful bibliography in his The Moral Economy of the Peasant, Subsistence and Rebellion in Southeast Asia (New Haven: Yale University, 1976).Google Scholar By ‘moral economy’ I mean the cluster of relations of exchange between social groups, and between persons, in which the welfare and the merit of both parties to the exchange takes precedence over other considerations such as the profit of the one or the other. The moral economy does not exclude market exchanges but shapes them in a particular way, as for instance, when a favored customer is given credit or first crack at a seller's wares, not because long-term profit is maximized (it may or may not) but because of other non-market exchanges— such as those appropriate to caste-mates, co-villagers or co-religionists—which also prevail between the two. Exchanges within the family are usually very much within the moral rather than the market economy, but not always: see Rebel's, Herman account of inter-generational household exploitation in Social Science History Review, 2 (1978).Google Scholar

7 The extent of the Bengalis' dependence upon Burma rice, or the date from which dependence became a fact, cannot be precisely stated. The famine commissioners thought that Bengal became a net importer of rice in the 1930s. The net quantity being imported between 1934 and 1942 was, on the average, less than 300,000 tons annually, which was less than 4 per cent of the average annual consumption of rice in Bengal of about 8.5 million tons. Famine Inquiry Commission, Report on Bengal (New Delhi: Manager of Publications, 1945), Appendix 2, Statement 1, p. 213.Google Scholar See, for slightly different estimates, SirKnight, Henry, Food Administration in India, 1939–47 (Stanford: Stanford University, 1954), p. 26, and India, Office of the Agricultural Marketing Adviser, Report No. 27,Google ScholarReport on the Marketing of Rice in India and Burma (Delhi: Manager of Publications, 1941), Appendix 36.Google Scholar

8 Bengal, , Bengal Legislative Assembly Proceedings, 64: 3, 03 15, 1943, pp. 212–13; 65:1, July 12, 1943, pp. 251–3; 66:2, September 22, 1943, pp. 116–18.Google Scholar

9 Sen, , ‘Starvation and Exchange,’ pp. 3842.Google Scholar

10 ‘Instead of sending for the [rice] mill-owners and seeking their cooperation… Government sent round a large number of police staff who descended on the mills without warning and sealed the godowns of a large number of mill-owners. The action destroyed all the faith the mills still had in Government's good dealings.’ Memo from the Bengal Rice Mills Association to the Famine Inquiry Commission, Nanavati Papers, National Archives of India [NAI], vol. I, p. 184.Google Scholar

11 Famine Inquiry Commission, Report on Bengal (New Delhi, 1945), pp. 30–1, 59–60, 63–5.Google Scholar

12 On the March and May 1943 moves toward increasingly unrestrained trafficking in rice in the province, see Ibid., pp. 50–1, 92–4.

13 A low estimate of 82,000 destitute immigrants in Calcutta is given by Niyogi, Gopal Candra, Banglar Durbhikhsa, 1350 (Kalikata: Silpa-sampad prakasani, 1351 B.S.), p. 67;Google Scholar a high estimate of 150,000 was made officially and reported by Narayan, T. G., Famine over Bengal (Calcutta: Book Company Ltd, 1944), p. 116.Google Scholar

14 On disease during and after the famine, see second half of the Famine Inquiry Commission, Report on Bengal and the medical testimony before the Commission in Nanavati Papers, NAI.Google Scholar

15 Urban primacy during famines was a fact during both Sultanate and Mughal rule. See Curley, David L., ‘Fair Grain Markets and Mughal Famine Policy in Late 18th Century Bengal,’ Calcutta Historical Journal, 2 (0712 1977): 126,Google Scholar and Moreland, William H., The Agrarian System of Moslem India (1929) (Allahabad: Oriental Book Reprints, 1968), pp. 37, 50–1.Google Scholar

16 See references note 12.Google Scholar

17 Report on Bengal, p. 50.Google Scholar

18 Ibid., pp. 60–1, 99–102; Appendix V, pp. 223–5. Also see Narayan, Famine over Bengal, pp. 136–46.

19 Ibid., pp. 945;Brown, Michael, India Need Not Starve (Bombay: Longmans, 1944), pp. 125–33;Google ScholarMansergh, Nicholas and Lumby, E. W. R. (eds), The Transfer of Power, IV, ‘The Bengal Famine and the New Vice-Royalty’ (London: HMSO, 1973), no. 200, p. 243; no. 213, pp. 456–7.Google Scholar

20 These explanations were offered by both capitalists and communists. E.g., ‘the traders offered the peasants a little more than the control rate—an undreamt of price for the peasant—and collared the whole crop,’ memo from the People's Relief Committee (CPI) to the Famine Inquiry Commission, Nanavati Papers, NAI, vol. 1, p. 2; and ‘the persons acting ‘as rice purchasing agents’ on behalf of Government do not always act tactfully or fairly and the Association got the information that in many cases undue pressure was used on the growers and sellers to compel them to sell…. It was reported that considerable pressure amounting in some cases to oppression was used on many people for obtaining stocks….’ Memo from the Bengal Rice Mills Association, Ibid., vol. 1, p. 180.

21 The Report on Bengal summarizes the series of errors and wrong assumptions made by the Bengal government and its advisers.Google Scholar

22 Mahalanobis, P. C., Mukherjea, Ramkrishna, Ghosh, Ambika, A Sample Survey of the After-Effects of the Bengal Famine of 1943 (Calcutta: Statistical Publishing Society, 1946).Google Scholar The study was also published in Sankhya, Indian Journal of Statistics, 7, Pt 4 (1946).Google Scholar

23 Ibid., p. 16.

24 The index table appears Ibid., p. 17. These 12 occupational categories are not further defined.

25 Ibid., pp. 32–5.

26 Ibid., pp. 42–3.

27 Ibid., pp. 21 and 26.

28 Beidelman, Thomas O., A Comparative Analysis of the Jajmani System (New York: Association for Asian Studies, 1959), pp. 67;Google ScholarPocock, David F., ‘Notes on Jajmani Relationships,’ Contributions to Indian Sociology, 4 (12 1962): 85.Google Scholar

29 The quotation is from Epstein, Scarlett, ‘Productive Efficiency and Customary Systems of Reward in Rural South India,’ in Firth, Raymond (ed.), Themes in Economic Anthropology (London: Tavistock for the ASA, 1967), p. 233.Google Scholar

30 Hiebert, Paul G., Konduru, Structure and Integration in a South Indian Village (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1971), p. 89.Google Scholar

31 Epstein, , ‘Productive efficiency,’ p. 246.Google Scholar

32 Mukhopadhyay, Tarasish, ‘The Jajmani Relationship in Rural West Bengal,’ in Lipski, Alexander (ed.), Bengal East and West, Asian Studies Center, South Asia Series, Occasional Paper no. 13 (East Lansing: Michigan State University, 1969), pp. 139149.Google Scholar

33 Epstein, , ‘Productive efficiency,’ pp. 246–7.Google Scholar

34 Jodha, , ‘Famine and Famine Policies,’ pp. 1609–23. Jodha indicates that during droughts cultivators delay and then halt payments to their retainers (kamins). See p. 1613, and Table 3, part B (p. 1614) where the lapsed annual dues owed carpenters, blacksmiths and potters are noted. The data refer to a two-year drought in Rajasthan in 19631964. In a yet unpublished paper entitled ‘Effectiveness of Farmers’ Adjustment to Risk,’, prepared for the Workshop on the Effects of Risk and Uncertainty on Economic and Social Processes in South Asia (Philadelphia, 1977), Jodha describes the increasing collapse of all forms of ‘benevolent’ conduct during drought episodes.Google Scholar

35 Rural occupational categories are not, of course, perfectly discrete or convertible directly into modes of clientage with land-controllers. There is a tendency for these to correlate, however, and in the absence of better data this is sufficient to establish my argument.

36 Report on Bengal, p. 26.Google Scholar

37 Mahalanobis, et al. , Sample Survey, Table 5.3, p. 30.Google Scholar

38 Sen, has provided some new and useful data with which to analyze wage trends for unskilled agricultural labor in 1943; Sen, ‘Starvation and Exchange,’ pp. 42–4.Google Scholar

39 Sen, Bhowani, Rural Bengal in Ruins, trans. Chakravarty, N. (Bombay: People's Publishing House, 1945), p. 14.Google Scholar

40 Narayan, , Famine over Bengal, pp. 199200.Google Scholar

41 Inden, Ronald B. and Nicholas, Ralph W., Kinship in Bengali Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), pp. 58.Google Scholar

42 On the korta see Ibid., pp. 6, 29–30, 64 and Sarma, Jyotirmoyee, ‘Formal and Informal Relations in the Hindu Joint Household of Bengal,’ Man in India, 31 (0406 1951): 52–3.Google Scholar

43 Narayan, , Famine over Bengal, p. 134.Google Scholar

44 Ibid., pp. 198–9.

45 Bose, J. K., ‘A Survey of the Calcutta Destitutes,’ Modern Review (Calcutta), 75 (06 1944): 428–9.Google Scholar

46 Das, Tarakcandra, Bengal Famine (1943) (Calcutta: University of Calcutta, 1949).Google Scholar

47 Ibid., pp. 38, 46–51 and table 5, p. 48.

48 Ibid., calculated from table 3. See pp. 84–7.

49 Bose, , ‘Calcutta Destitutes,’ p. 430.Google Scholar

50 Bedi, Freda, Bengal Lamenting (Lahore: Lion Press, 1945), p. 87.Google Scholar

51 Sen, , Bengal in Ruins, p. 29.Google Scholar

52 Ghosh, Kali Chara., Famines is Bengal, 1770–1943, (Calcutta: Indian Associated Publishing Co., 1944), pp. 79, 82.Google Scholar

53 Biplabi (weekly underground news-letter of the rebel Tamluk ‘National Government’), July 14, 1943; August 5, 1943.Google Scholar

54 Gt Britain, Parliament, Parliamentary Debates (Commons), 397 (1944): 333–4.Google Scholar

55 Biplabi, August 5, 1943.Google Scholar

56 Cited in Bedi, , Bengal Lamenting, pp. 86–7.Google Scholar

57 Inden, and Nicholas, , Bengali Kinship, pp. 48, 17–18. In a strict sense it is the vamsa par excellence or ‘the continuing succession of males (purusa-parampara) in a kula’ rather than the kula (lineage) which famine abandonment helps to maintain.Google Scholar

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