ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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An Appraisal of the Famine Inquiry Commission

Bengal Famine of 1943

Comparing the secret transcripts of the hearings of the Famine Commission that went into the reasons for Bengal's 1943 famine with its published report reveals serious omissions and obfuscations. These call into question scholars' reliance on the commission's published figures of the availability of rice in the famine year.

In October 1943, when Field Marshal Archibald Wavell arrived in India to assume the post of viceroy from Linlithgow, he faced a vociferous demand from Indian politicians for an inquiry into the ongoing famine in Bengal. Leopold Amery, the secretary of state for India, advised against yielding to such a demand, however – “My own view was and is that enquiry now would be disastrous and that enquiry at future date is undesirable” (Mansergh IV: 463). When it turned out that these voices would not be quieted, Amery suggested deflecting the inquiry into a Malthusian direction – a broad study that would “do no harm even if pursued now, prospect of investigation by one or two experts into relation between growth of population and available supplies of foodgrains” (ibid: 468). That is, Amery suggested linking the famine with food supply, not because he believed that was the real story, but as a purely political exercise designed to lead the discussion away from inflammatory matters such as inflationary financing of India’s war effort. Privately, Amery opined that the famine occurred because India had been forced to provide excessive resources toward the Allied prosecution of the second world war (ibid: 445).

Using Thomas Robert Malthus, and by extension food shortages, to explain away famines was routine in colonial India. The inquiry commissions instituted after major late-Victorian famines invariably blamed natural calamity, along with the propensity of Indians to breed excessively. Rangasami has shown, however, that district administrators evinced a comprehensive view of how famines came about. They knew, for instance, that tax collection could itself precipitate famine, and that “crop failure alone could not be expected to develop into a famine unless speculative forces became active”. If they worried about short harvests, it was because of possible revenue shortfalls rather than concerns about famine. Altogether, she notes, administrators were far from being in thrall to the food availability decline (FAD) hypothesis described by Amartya Sen – the concept that famines are caused by a FAD (Rangasami 1985).

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