This post has been self-published on Youth Ki Awaaz by World Vision India. Just like them, anyone can publish on Youth Ki Awaaz.

Recounting The Horrors Of 1943 Bengal Famine, And Why I Am Reminded Of It Today

More from World Vision India

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.

Photo Credit
Photo Credit

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.

Photo Credit
Photo Credit

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.

<a href=

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.

You must be to comment.
  1. Anish Rao

    As I made my way though the piece, I felt as if I could see those hungry faces and vultures and dogs feeding off the already dead and the about-to-be dead. Its a horrifying scene to imagine. Reading the piece has firmed in me the feeling that I had that no one goes to sleep hungry. Thanks for sharing a story not usually known to people.

  2. Devant

    Thanks BSK, the article is really an appreciable piece of work.
    The Government is considered to be responsible for the minimum securities, amenities and access to almost every other thing, which has always been neglected, compromised and not catered to, by the authorities themselves. Sixty+ years of independence, Fifty years of establishment of Food Corporation, and still we are hoping for food securities.. demanding the security of life is a threat itself.

More from World Vision India

Similar Posts

By Prachi Kothari

By Vanshika Bhatt

By Mushin No Shin

Wondering what to write about?

Here are some topics to get you started

Share your details to download the report.









We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

Share your details to download the report.









We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

Share your details to download the report.









We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

Sign up for the Youth Ki Awaaz Prime Ministerial Brief below