By Bala Sai:
1943. A dark and bloody year, hidden away into the annals of history, unacknowledged and shrouded in denial. It was the year India had its last major famine, one that gripped the Bengal province (which currently includes West Bengal, Odisha, Bihar and Bangladesh). It was a crime so violent that the UK, till date refuses to acknowledge the participation of the erstwhile British Raj in effecting the ruthless carnage. Experts over time have labelled it as nothing short of genocide, and the blood on the hands of the British Empire was too horrific for their conscience.
The famine was a partly man-made disaster that claimed the lives of 3 million people, who were hunted down across the province by hunger and poverty. The Japanese invasion of Burma had effectively ceased rice imports into the province, and a cyclone early in the year followed by the outbreak of a fungal infection drastically cut short domestic production. It was a food shortage that could have been tided over, but was converted consciously into a scathing famine, a raging epidemic that swept across the province like a dark, breathing shadow of death, pushing people to the brink of poverty and a fiery, burning hunger.
Prices of food-grains shot up phenomenally, with the government hoarding them to provide for their military purposes. With migrants streaming in from across the Burmese border, the increased demand for food stretched the already ailing supplies thin, further driving up prices. The spiralling food prices charted a four-fold increase, and the rural population slowly watched in horror as their food supplies dwindled and there was nothing to save them from starvation. The villages stank of death as starving families either succumbed to their fate huddled up inside their homes or abandoned their villages and made their way into the towns and cities, in search of the bare minimum that they could scrape off somewhere, to feed their aching stomachs a little more hope.
There are horrific accounts of dogs and vultures gnawing at human bodies either dead or dying, left unattended on the roads. It was a common sight to find entire destitute families stranded on Calcutta’s road-sides, weak, skeletal, and barely alive. The crippling hunger pushed women to prostitution, which was especially rampant in Bengal’s Military Labour Camps, where they were subjected to abuse and suffering from venereal diseases.
Persistent malnutrition led to mounting deaths of young children, who were the most vulnerable to the piercing hunger. There are heart wrenching accounts of children sold into slavery and in extreme cases, infants being murdered by their own destitute, suffering, widowed mothers, wishing for their children not to experience the agonizing pain of hunger.
Diseases like Cholera and Malaria were rabid and added to mounting death tolls. The relief provided by the government was grossly insufficient. Where a minimum of 90 Kg rice per year was necessary for survival, the relief diet amounted to a meagre 30 Kg of grain per person per year. The British administration notoriously refused relief packages offered by the US and Canada specifically for Bengal, while food-grain export from the country continued unabated.
The destitute poor crowding the city of Calcutta were mercilessly rounded up by British officials and sent away to its lush country-sides, to helplessly suffer and die of hunger, without burdening the city. The appalling horrors of 1943 can’t be articulated more graphically than by the fact that population in the province from 1941-1951 grew by a paltry 3 million, as opposed to 11 million from 1931-1941. In other words, it took ten years for the population to recover from the ruthless damage of the one year-long famine.
1943 stands a dark chapter in India’s history, showing the world the pain and suffering that hunger and poverty could bring. Even though the events of that terrible year are shrouded in darkness and denial, omitted from history books and eliminated from the pages of British Imperial History, the stories survive, passed down generations, through extensive research and existing accounts. It was a shocking violation of human spirit, a mass-murder using the most terrible weapon ever known to mankind: Hunger.
It is our responsibility, 70 years later, as a sovereign democratic republic, to learn our lessons from the horrors of history and prevent them from being repeated. However, the current hunger situation is nothing to be proud of. One in four people in our country still languishes in hunger. The number grows each year, with spiralling food prices and grinding poverty pushing more and more people into the quagmire. India is ranked 66th out of 88 countries in the Global Hunger Index, with the highest number of undernourished people in the world- 230 million- and 1.5 million children facing the risk of malnourishment because of rising food prices. Already, 50% of child deaths in India are caused by malnourishment.
Today, as we look back at our history and cringe in disgust, we also need to look ahead at the future. With the hunger situation deteriorating, we are looking at a potential return to that ghastly nightmare. It is in the best interest of our government and our people, to arrest the slide quickly, with proactive policies and initiatives, to make sure our country keeps the highest promise of democracy to her people- that any citizen of this country shall never go hungry.