Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Great Bengal Famines(Caused by the British)

Famine a state of extreme starvation suffered by the POPULATION of an area due to scarce food supply. It appears in times when crops fail or food cannot be supplied where it is required. Crop failures stemming from adverse climatic or topographic imbalances like DROUGHTs, FLOODs, tidal surges, excessive RAINFALL etc as well as animal or plant diseases, plagues of locusts and other insects and rodents normally get the blame for famines. In many instances, famines were caused by poor transport and communication and absence of well established channels of trade system.
Modern achievements in science and technology and their subsequent impact on industry, agriculture, trade and transport brought a radical change both in the meaning and nature of famines. At present, it is accepted that famines originate mainly from 'entitlement failures'. As Nobel laureate Professor A Sen said, 'access to food is not only a function of food supply but it is influenced by a variety of factors that affect the capacity of particular households and social groups to establish entitlement over food'. In a free market economy access to food is subject to direct and indirect entitlements.
Direct entitlement implies access of peasants to the food they produce. Indirect entitlement mainly indicates the trade entitlement generating from the capacity of the households to exchange what they have to sell in the market to buy necessary goods and services. Several non-market factors such as socio-political status, role of the state, the legal system, and the role of media also aid to these indirect entitlements. Famines may visit even when there is no decline in food output and availability per head. Thus, distribution failures, and not production failures, come in the forefront in the causation theory of famines.
The earliest famine in Bengal region is recorded in a stone inscription found at MAHASTHANGARH near BOGRA in the third century BC, wherein the higher authority instructed subordinate officials to supply paddy to distressed places and to reimburse the same through coins during heydays. But, no further evidence of famines is available for the next few centuries. It may, however, be said that during this time, though the commodities of the country used to be sold at a very cheap rate, ordinary people lived in abject POVERTY at the subsistence level, almost always facing the threat of famine. A number of intense famines have visited the land now known as Bangladesh in the last three hundred years.
The famine of 1770(Chiattorer Monnontor) occurred in 1769 and 1770. It is popularly known as Chhiyattarer Manvantar (The Great Famine of 1176 Bangla Year). It was the worst famine in Bengal in the 18th century. The excessive rainfall in 1770 did not relieve the people from the sufferings of DROUGHT of the year before; on the contrary, it caused overflowing of RIVERs and damaged standing crops. The existing revenue system of land and activities of middlemen in the FOODGRAIN market further deteriorated the situation.
The company administration of British Raj put the whole blame for the famine on the vagary of nature. But a quite different picture is also evident from some other facts. The revenue collection in 1768, the year preceding the famine, was Rs 15.21 million and in 1771, immediately after the famine, the EAST INDIA COMPANY did not allow a shortfall in revenue collection. Instead, its revenue collections were higher by about Rs 52,200. Thus, people's suffering was intensified by the company's motive of greater collection of revenue and its indulgence in allowing profiteering in the foodgrain market. The immediate effect of the famine was the depopulation of severely affected areas. About one-third of the population, ie, about 10 million people perished in this famine. Agricultural production and revenue collection declined substantially.
By early 1770 there was starvation, and by mid-1770 deaths from starvation were occurring on a large scale. There were also reports of the living feeding on the bodies of the dead in the middle of that year. Various diseases brought by the British people further took their toll of the population. At that time they destroyed the indigenous healing system. Later in 1770 good rainfall resulted in a good harvest and the famine abated. However, other shortfalls occurred in the following years, raising the total death toll.
As a trading body, the first remit of the company was to maximise its profits and with taxation rights the profits to be obtained from Bengal came from land tax as well as trade tariffs. As lands came under company control, the land tax was typically raised fivefold what it had been – from 10% to up to 50% of the value of the agricultural produce.
As a result of the famine large areas were depopulated and returned to jungle for decades to come, as the survivors migrated in mass in a search for food. Many cultivated lands were abandoned—much of Birbhum, for instance, returned to jungle and was virtually impassable for decades afterwards. From 1772 on, bands of bandits(this bandit term bandit was coined by the British and their Indian middleclass and upper middleclass creamy lairs counterparts who are the direct beneficiaries of Raj emperor and helped British to established their hegemony. The so called bandits are the large traditional labour force – evicted artisans of Bengal who are evicted from their age old professions for the profiteering and looting of the British Raj.) and thugs became an established feature of Bengal, and were only brought under control by punitive actions in the 1780s.
After the Palasy war the British Raj and the East India Company developing a new administration and altered the existing production system to collect more and more revenue and creating monopoly in bisiness. They ravished bengal’s weaving, salt making, metallurgy and every industrial production process and opened the fold gate for European (mainly British) goods to destroy the economy of Bengal. The collection(looting?) from the Bengal suba was about 42% of Indian collection.
Several famines visited British India during 1783 - 1886. Fortunately, Bengal was spared in this period. Bombay, Madras, Mysore, Punjab and some other northeastern areas of British India were badly affected by these famines.
The famine of 1866 Although Orissa was the main disaster zone, part of Bengal was also affected. Famine affected areas experienced a sharp decline in real wages of agricultural labourers. For the first time, an official body with extensive power of inquiry named the 'Famine Commission' was formed to investigate the causes of this famine and to suggest remedial measures.
The famine of 1896-98 affected Bengal along with provinces such as Bihar, Bombay, Oudh, Central Provinces and Punjab. In Bengal the failure of rainfall was the triggering factor. Foodgrains were available in market, but these were beyond the reach of the majority who had virtually no purchasing power. No market intervention by the government was in evidence to control prices. A famine commission, headed by Sir J B Lyall, was formed in December 1897. The commission observed that the wages of labourers and artisans had not increased in the last twenty years in proportion to the rise in prices of the daily necessities of life.
The Great Bengal Famine of 1943 was one of the worst famines to have struck this region. A series of crop failures beginning from 1938 and other disruptive events accompanying the Second World War precipitated this famine. Interruption of normal imports of foodgrains from Burma(Burma was the world's largest exporter of rice in the inter-war period) due to its fall to the Japanese, dislocation of trade, irregular movement of foodgrains due to the war in the East, and building up of provincial and district barriers (cordons) against the movement of grains and other essential supplies, increased demand for food to meet the want of the army, and inflow of REFUGEEs were some important factors leading to the famine of 1943. And the failure on the part of the administration to foresee these crises at the beginning of the war added further fuel to the fire.
Food deliveries from other parts of the country to Bengal were refused by the government in order to make food artificially scarce. This was an especially cruel policy introduced in 1942 under the title "Rice Denial Scheme." The purpose of it was, as mentioned earlier, to deny an efficient food supply to the Japanese after a possible invasion. Simultaneously, the government authorized free merchants to purchase rice at any price and to sell it to the government for delivery into governmental food storage. So, on one hand government was buying every grain of rice that was around and on the other hand, it was blocking grain from coming into Bengal from other regions of the country
A heavy toll of life was claimed by the famine. The total number of deaths was estimated at 3.5 million. Almost the whole of Bengal was more or less affected by the famine and suffered loss of lives. But it is noteworthy that though a large number of people died from starvation on the pavements of CALCUTTA, not a single person among the dead belonged to the city and its suburbs. People migrated to the city from outside in search of food, which most of them often did not find, and many among them died implying that people from rural areas were more vulnerable to the disaster.
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