Prosperity and Misery in Modern Bengal: The Bengal Famine of 1943-44

Author: 
Greenough, Paul R.
Year: 
1977

     The present study has two aims": first, "I describe and try to explain one of the more remarkable transformations in modern Indian history, the decline of Bengal from its pre-eminent prosperity and healthfulness in earlier centuries to its present condition of poverty, disease and stagnation." Next, "I describe and analyze a great calamity in modern Bengal's history, the 1943-44 famine. I pay particular attention to its origins, to its distinctive processes of victimization, and to the mortality it exacted. In addition, I try to establish the significance of this and earlier famines in the political and moral tradition of Bengal. Famines, as outstanding examples of a collapse of the material economy and the social order, are taken here as illustrating some of the more general problems the Bengalis have had in the last several centuries; they can, thus, serve as a kind of diagnostic device for the state of the economy and of social order, while being remarkable and important historical events in their own right."
     The study first "examines the material and moral components of prosperity in Bengal. After noting the fortunate conjunction of natural circumstances which favor cultivation in the Bengal Delta, I sketch the practices of settlement and agriculture which have provided an abundance of rice for all Bengalis down to the 20th century. . . . The importance of kingship and caste organization is emphasized: these were the principle moral components of the traditional model of prosperity." The study then "re-examines the material and moral bases of prosperity, noting the vulnerability of the productive and moral systems." The following chapter "introduces directly the problem of famines. After first examining the privileged place of Bengal in the famine history of India, I then take up the characteristic features of famines in the 18th and 19th centuries and the context of disorder and deprivation in which these famines developed. The role of the petty king as the patron of his subjects is explored, and specific instances where this patronage was offered or denied during the course of famines are noted."
     Next the study "analyzes the onset of the 1943-44 famine from three different perspectives. In the long run it was a decline in the per capita availability of rice after 1880, with attendant changes in the quantity and quality of the Bengali diet, which set the stage for an eventual food crisis. Seen from a medium-range viewpoint, one can point to economic and political disorders dating from the depression in the 1930s as causes for rural distress . . . . A devastating cyclone in Midnapur district in October 1942, however, actually initiated the period of rural scarcity. Finally, in the short run, it appears to have been the unrestrained operations of the Calcutta rice market, which stripped most rural areas of rice supplies in late 1942 and early 1943, that inaugurated famine conditions throughout most of Bengal."
     The next chapter "draws together eye-witness statements about the famine to indicate the distressing events which occurred in 1943-44 all over the province"; it is followed by an analysis of "the complex phenomena of famine victimization, that is, the processes and stages by which particular persons were deprived of their customary or expected benefits during the course of the famine. These stages included economic decline, loss of employment, abandonment, beggary and starvation. Numerical data are introduced to put these matters on a demonstrable foundation." The next chapter "presents a detailed examination of the available mortality data," while the conclusion discusses the post-famine period, the study of Indian famines, and the textual basis of famine perception.

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