Famine in India-V. K. Krishna Menon (1943)

“127 people have been found in a state of collapse, in the streets of Calcutta. All were removed to hospital, where 12 died. The cause of collapse is said to be starvation sickness.” – The Times August 19, 1943.

Measures have been taken for the quick removal of corpses from the streets, and for the prompt treatment in hospital of men found in a state of collapse through starvation or sickness. Reuter Message from Calcutta, August 22, 1943.

The resolution on India passed by the Trades Union Congress at Southport voices the grave and growing concern of the British labour movement about the disastrous political and economic situation in India. The ending of the deadlock, steps to relieve the famine, the release of the prisoners, a national government now – these are the demands set forth in the decision of the Trade Unions.

These same demands have been made by Indian leaders, Liberals, Communists, non-party men, and by Hindu, Moslem and Christian associations. They see India heavily endangered by political conflict and dreadful famine conditions. The restoration of national leadership to the people is proclaimed by them as a necessity for India’s survival, and for the reinforcement of her strength and for the cause of the United Nations.

The famine in India is inadequately recognised abroad – it is the worst in her history. Early this year, when great parts of India had become famine-stricken, Mr. Amery stated that there was no famine in India. The situation was allowed to drift from bad to worse.

This grave situation is at its worst in the provinces of Bengal, Orissa, Bihar and Assam, nearest to the India-Japan front.

The British-owned Statesman (of Calcutta) characterises the situation as “an all-India disgrace” and says: –

Thoughtful Britons in India realise that as long as the British Parliament and Secretary of State retain responsibility for India’s welfare the blame unavoidably rests on them

Food prices in India have risen by 300 to 1,200 percent. At controlled prices, which are between three and seven times above the pre-war level, food is unobtainable for the common people. Rice, the cheapest grain, is available to the bulk of the people in Malabar or Bengal only to the extent often of one-tenth or even one-twentieth of pre-war quantities. Food queues are a normal feature in many parts of India.

What are the causes?

The muddle and callousness of transport policy to some extent prevents the mobility of food stocks, but the pure factor is the inefficiency of the administration and the incapacity of the Central Government to function as an All-India Government. Nowhere more than here is the necessity of a truly National Government proclaimed so forcefully by grim economic conditions. The only time that the Linlithgow government functioned as an All-India power, acted with earnestness and a sense of urgency, swept away red tape and, disregarded provincialism and punctilio, was when it rounded up its political opponents and forged the present deadlock. It continues to use these powers for maintaining the deadlock. When it comes to feeding the people, it is, in fact, incapable of action. Its provincial agents (British) do not respond. Here is the plaintive cry of an Indian member of the Viceroy’s Council, Sir Aziz Huq, who recently had to hand over his Food portfolio to Sir J. Strivasta, a big landlord and millowner from the United Provinces. Reporting the Central Legislative Assembly, the Observer correspondent cabled (August 21) from Kalimpong:-

The Indian problem is rapidly assuming a concentrated form expressible in the four letters F O O D. Debates in the Central legislature are considered to have revealed a breakdown of authority and initiative.

He goes on to say that Sir Aziz “explained to the Assembly how governments of provinces successfully sabotage arrangements for their surpluses to the starving provinces in Eastern India.” These provinces, as the same correspondent points out, are, in the main administered by British Governors, all of whom are supposed to be actively promoting the war effort in harmony with the Central Government. The correspondent adds that public opinion in the provinces, including European opinion expressed by European groups in the legislatures and the Statesman, blames the Central Government, which is “accused of lack of foresight followed by weakness.” These critics say that “constitutional propriety” towards the Provinces is made the excuse for failure to exercise control and do no more than “denounce hoarders and call incessantly for public support, which it has not got; and that conscious of its action against Congress having strained its popularity,” the Central Government is “anxious to show itself conciliatory in other directions.” These “directions” happen to be those of vested interests, reactionaries, sycophants, and other anti-social elements.

Food is exported from India even to-day. The demand for its stoppage is now more than a year old. At the same time, not only is there little increase in production, but the offer and prospects of large imports is disregarded.

It is ridiculous to argue that there is plenty of food, and there is too much money in the hands of the people (as the Government does) and that this is the reason for the famine! Yet Bengal, it is now officially admitted, has a deficiency of one and a half million tons of rice. If there is a slight All-India increase in food production to-day over the previous decade there is an increase of population by fifty millions, vast distress through flood and cyclone, and inroads into the national granary by war needs.

Hoarding cannot be checked by shooting a few “looters” at sight, as the magistrate of Nasik was authorised to do. “Looters” are, at any rate, not the hoarders. Nor are the hoarders that really cause panic and famine the small petty shopkeepers, nor the small peasant or householder. The Government refuses to operate against the combines and the landlords.

Hoarding by consumers can only stopped when there is national leadership in the Government. The most potent check on hoarding is public confidence. If provincial governments, as indicated by the Observer’s correspondents, are themselves parochial and capable of “sabotage,” it is not surprising that small men should think of the next meal, or even of making some profit. The unity committees, set up largely under the inspiration of the Communists, Trade Unionists and Congressmen, who are free, have broken down all political barriers and pointed out the way to a National Government.

The latest performance of the Government is the announcement that the present rise in prices is due to lack of saving, to too much money, that conditions will be worse if the peasants do not save. So it proposes to launch through its officials and non-official supporters a campaign to collect in savings alone some 200 crores of rupees from the Indian peasant out of his augmented income for war savings. This is just an exaction and will be accompanied by the usual cruelty and corruption of officials in India. It is a cruel remedy to pose before a starving population.

These and other causes have created a condition where people in some parts, as a Daily Express correspondent pointed out, are eating locusts and leaves, and there is a total of 125 million starving people in India. In Malabar, in some areas people are reduced to eating young grass. A Conservative member of Parliament, Mr. Nicholson told Mr. Amery (August 15) in the House of Commons that in Bengal thousands of people were eating off garbage heaps. There are tens of thousands of destitutes in every city, homeless, foodless and almost unclothed. Against them the Government is increasingly operating the vagrancy laws.

This situation must end. There must be a stoppage of Indian exports, control of stocks, and vigorous action against hoarders, British or Indian. More shipping must be made available for India’s food supplies at once and there must be State purchases internally and externally. The policy of imposing greater burdens on the peasantry by forced loans and exactions must stop. War expenditure and supplies must be augmented and reinforced, not by the present policy of plunder and loot, but by the national organisation and popular support. This, and not grandiose schemes on paper, which can hardly become, operative, is the way to remedy famine in India.

The deadlock is thus not only a political issue; its ending is an urgent necessity to rescue the people of India from hunger and death, to build up Indian resistance, to counter the decay of morale and defeatism. The restoration to the Indian people of their leaders by the release of the political prisoners, the reversal of the present policy by opening of negotiations, the abandonment once and for all of plunder policies in India’s economy and the honest pursuit of ways and means to establish national co-operation must be demanded by the people of Britain.

The T.U.C. resolution makes these demands. They must become effective immediately. For they are urgent and imperative necessities.

Source: Labour Monthly, October 1943, pp. 316-318


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