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Fourth International, October 1944


The Famine in India


S. Krishna Menon

The Food Crisis


From Fourth International, vol.5 No.10, October 1944, pp.314-316.
Transcribed, marked up & formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for ETOL.


Six millions died in Bengal alone in the famine of 1943 perhaps a larger number than have been killed in all theaters of war during these last four and a half grim years. But in the grand total of this imperialist holocaust they are no less the casualties of this war than those who fell on the approaches to Stalingrad or on the beaches of Dunkirk.

In his ritual performances before an uninterested Parliament Mr. Amery attempted to explain away the food crisis as a minor shortage caused by the failure of imports resulting from the Japanese conquest of Burma. But when the death-roll began to mount into millions even he was unable to deny the existence of famine conditions. The blame was therefore cast on the broad shoulders of Providence and provincial autonomy. The Stalinist stooges equally interested in diverting the masses away from imperialism and the imperialist war (the causes of this famine) found their scapegoats in the hoarder and a well intentioned yet, nevertheless, blundering “bureaucracy.” Hoarding and profiteering from the highest official, the governor of Bengal, the late John Herbert and the Government Contractor Isaphani to the lowest peasant hanging to his seed paddy in the face of soaring prices were merely attendant circumstances. They may account for the acuteness of the famine but not for its incidence.

The blundering of the “bureaucracy” was, on the other hand, no accidental phenomenon. Every regime doomed by history to extinction has a large quota of stupidity to its credit. In this respect the Government of India was not found wanting. But stupidity in history does not play an independent role. Caught in the vise of an insoluble contradiction every attempted solution only served to deepen the crisis. The abrupt changes of policy assumed an epileptic character. It was merely a reflection of the impossibility of reconciling the necessities of imperialist war and the welfare of the Indian masses. Despite a policy of controlling food prices, the exigencies of the war compelled the government to permit the military authorities and the UKCC to purchase grain at black market rates for export to the Middle East. Faced with the revolt of the Indian masses in August 1942 the government leaned more heavily on the support of the Zamindari and rich landlords. By manipulating the Defense Regulations, it maneuvered into office in the provinces of Sind, NWF, Assam and Bengal Coalition, Muslim League-Mahasabha ministries, the representatives of Indian feudal interests. The price it paid for this support was the total abandonment of any centralized policy of food control. There followed a hectic period during which money was minted from the blood and bones of the destitute. Profiteering was indulges in by all – not excluding the Central Government itself. An instance of such flagrant profiteering comes from Sind where the Muslim League-Mahasabha ministry, not unmindful of the fact that such situations are rare, seized the opportunity to purchase grain in its province at Rs. 7/− a maund to sell it to the poverty-stricken areas at Rs. 15/− a maund which was resold by the Nazimuddin ministry at Rs. 35/−. This reliance on the free play of economic forces had only the effect of accelerating the death rate and threatened to lead to an unimaginable intensification of famine conditions. The government was again jerked back into a policy of centralized control and distribution.

Famine – The Off-Spring of the Imperialist War

To explain away the famine of 1942 as shortage caused by the fall of Burma may satisfy the morons of the conservative party but no one else. If it were true the distress would have been acutest after the British retreat from Mandalay. But an important feature to note is the inexorable deepening of the crisis which reaches its climax one and a half years after that “strategic” withdrawal. This can be explained not by the blunders of the bureaucracy but by the policies dictated by the necessities of an imperialist war. To airily dismiss the shortage as a mere 7 percent of total production may be good conservative politics but not sound economics. The shortage has to be balanced not against total production but against marketable surplus. Despite this serious deficit, immense quantities of grain were exported to the Middle East. The quota for civilian consumption was further reduced by the authorities building up huge stocks of supplies for the army of two millions. The shortage not being spread evenly throughout India is explained by the government’s denial of transport facilities. Priority was given to the transport of troops and war supplies. Ships in Indian waters were commandeered for the carriage of supplies to Britain. It is no wonder, then, that wheat rotted in the Punjab, while Bengal starved. Finally, the order for the seizure of river craft was for millions the equivalent of a death sentence. To the dislocation of the market was added the headlong pauperization of the poor and landless peasantry caused by the government system of financing the war. The issuing of notes for several hundred scores of rupees, while there was an actual shrinkage of commodities sent prices rocketing and set the poor and landless peasants on the road to the towns in search of food.

What of the future? To expect a solution at a time when every effort is being made to transform India into a base of the reconquest of Burma, Malaya and the Dutch East Indies is naive optimism. The Gregory report will be pigeon-holed since the keystone of its recommendation, the building of a reserve stock of one and a half million tons of grain, will be found utopian, as shipping will not be spared. The extent of the starvation, destitution and death may be hidden by the destitutes being banished from the towns. But so long as the burdens of the war increase, so long as inflation continues, there can be no deceleration of the death rate. In the face of rising prices of industrial goods any rigid control of food prices will inevitably tend to reduce total production. It will pauperize the middle peasant as well, who from the beginning of 1943, has escaped the terrors of the famine. The middle peasant joining the ranks of the poor and landless will transform the prevalent food riots into a mighty peasant war.

Part II – J.K.L.: War and the Food Crisis

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