Woodhead Committee: Failure to control prices, cause of Bengal famine (5-2-45)

The Indian Express (May 5, 1945)

Woodhead Committee: Failure to control prices, cause of Bengal famine

Need for more coordinated action emphasized

NEW DELHI (May 2) – “A feature of the Bengal famine was that the rise in price of rice was one of the principal causes of famine. The Government of India failed to recognise at a sufficiently early date the need for a system of planned movement of food grains, including rice as well as wheat, from surplus to deficit provinces and States.”

Such is the finding of the Woodhead Famine Enquiry Committee in its report to the Government of India on the famine situation in Bengal.

It has been reckoned, adds the report, that the unusual profits made on buying and selling of rice in Bengal during 1943 was Rs. 150 crores. Thus, every death was balanced by roughly Rs. 1,000 of excess profit. Corruption was widespread throughout the province, and in many classes of society. Society, with its organs, failed to protect its weaker members, and there was moral and social breakdown, as well as administrative breakdown.

The Committee, one of whose members was Mr. S. V. Ramamurthi, Adviser to the Governor of Madras, was appointed by the Government of India to inquire into the food situation generally and the famine in Bengal in particular, and their first part of their report, just issued, might well be called “Verdict on Bengal.” The report, which has a separate minute by Main Afsal Hussain, records its general conclusion as follows:

We have criticised the Government of Bengal for their failure to control the famine. It is the responsibility of a Government to lead the people, and to take effective steps to prevent an avoidable catastrophe. But the public in Bengal – or at least certain sections of it – have also their share of the blame. We have referred to the atmosphere of fear and greed, which, in the absence of control, was one of the causes for the rapid rise in the price level.

It has been for us a sad task, to inquire into the course and causes of the Bengal Famine. We have been haunted by a deep sense of tragedy. A million and half of the poor of Bengal, fell victims to the circumstances for which they themselves were not responsible. Society, with its organs, failed to protect its weaker members. Indeed, there was moral and social breakdown, as well as administrative breakdown.

The period which was covered by the report, could be divided into two – pre-Wavell and the post-Wavell. The pre-Wavell period was marked by a vacillating policy, both by the Centre and the Government of Bengal. The post-Wavell period, which incidentally coincides with the stewardship of the Food Department by Sir J. P. Srivastava, is marked by a policy of grimness and determination. The report says:

It was not until Lord Wavell visited Bengal at the end of October 1943, as his first duty on taking office, that adequate arrangements were made to ensure that food supplies were properly distributed. After his visit, the whole situation took immediate turn for better, and by December 1943, conditions in Calcutta returned to normal.

Referring to the “greed element” in the tragedy, the report says:

Traders bought, held and sold with the object of obtaining maximum profits; and consumers, who could afford it, bought as much as they could, and not as much as they needed. The results were, on one hand, unprecedented profiteering and enrichment of those on the right side of fence; on the other side, rise of prices to fantastic heights and death of, perhaps, one-and-a-half million people.

In the face of this tragedy, there was lack of cooperation between the Government in office, and the various political parties; and in the early part of the year, between the Governor and his Ministry, and the administrative organisation of the Government and the public. This lack of cooperation stood in the way of an united and vigorous effort, to prevent and relieve famine. The change in the Ministry in April 1943 failed to bring out political unity. An all-party Government would have created better confidence, and would have led to more effective action: but no such thing came into being. We have been informed of a series of changes of Ministry in April 1943, but they all failed. We understand that the main reasons for the failure were, firstly, the refusal of the Muslim League Party, in, accordance with its All-India policy, to join a Government which included any Muslim who did not belong to the Party: and secondly, the refusal of other principal parties, either to join or support the Government from which Muslim leaders, who did not belong to the Muslim League Party, were excluded.

Denial policy

The report gives due weight to the great difficulties, with which the Bengal Government were faced. It says that the impact of war was more severe in Bengal than in the rest of India.

The “denial policy” had its effects on local trade and transport, and, in particular effected certain classes of population, for instance, fishermen in coastal areas. There was a shortage of suitable workers available, for recruitment into the Government “organisation concerned with food administration and famine relief. The cyclone and the failure of the aman crop was a serious and unavoidable natural calamity. The military demands on transports were large.

The Committee adds:

But after considering all the circumstances we cannot avoid the conclusion that it lay in the power of the Government of Bengal, by bold. resolute and well-planned measures at the right time. to have largely prevented the tragedy of famine, as it actually took place. While other Governments in India were admittedly faced with a much less serious situation than the Government of Bengal, their generally successful handling of the food problem, and the spirit in which those problems were approached. and the extent to which public cooperation was secured, stand in contrast to the failure in Bengal.

The measures taken by the Government of Bengal to achieve control of supplies and prices, in 1943, were inadequate, and in some instances, wrong in principle. Better success would have been achieved, if procurement had been undertaken by official agencies, instead of by agents chosen from trade, and if the Government had made it clear that they would not hesitate to requisition stock from large producers as well as from traders, in case supplies were held back. The decision in favour of decontrol in March 1943 was mistaken. It could not save Bengal, and was bound to lead to severe distress and possibly starvation in the neighbouring areas of the region. Supplies received during the height of famine, were not distributed to the needy in the districts where such food was most required. Better arrangement for despatch and distribution, would have saved many lives. It was not until January 31, 1944, that rationing was introduced in Calcutta.

In regard to famine relief, the Committee understands, that expenditure was limited on financial grounds. It says that there is no justification whatsoever for cutting down relief in times of famine, on the plea of lack of funds. If necessary, funds should be provided by borrowing in consultation with the Government of India or the Reserve Bank.

Medical relief provided during 1943 was also inadequate. Some mortality, which occurred, could have been prevented by more efficient medical and public health measures.

The Government of India must share, with the Government of Bengal, the responsibility for the decision to decontrol in 1943. That decision was taken in agreement with the Government of India, and was in accordance with their policy at the time. By March, the position had so deteriorated that some measure of external assistance was indispensable, if disaster was to be avoided. The Government of India erred in deciding to introduce “unrestricted free trade” in the Eastern region in 1943, in preference to “modified free trade.” Subsequent proposals by the Government of India to introduce free trade throughout the greater part of India were quite unjustified and should not have been put forward.

Its application, successfully resisted by many Provinces and States, particularly by the Governments of Bombay and Madras, might have led to a serious catastrophe in various parts of India.

By August 1943, it was clear that the Provincial administration in Bengal, was failing to control the famine. Deaths and mass migrations, on large scale, were occurring. In such circumstances, whatever the constitutional position, the Government of India must share with the Provincial Government the responsibility to save lives.

In conclusion, the report pays a tribute to the assistance rendered by the Army for wresting the grave situation and successfully bringing it to the normal level. There are chapters devoted to “food administration,” and “supplementary foods.” The Committee is not satisfied with the progress hitherto made towards rehabilitation, and emphasises the need for more energetic and coordinated action. The Committee is of opinion that a Rehabilitation Commissioner, generally responsible for rehabilitation work, should be appointed, without delay. It says that efforts should be made in the Province to increase the consumption of wheat, particularly, in the urban areas.

Mian Afzal Hussain, in his minute, is astonished at the unpreparedness of India to meet the situation during an emergency. In contrast to the unity of purpose and action among members of the United Nations, India, he says, was fighting starvation and famine.

The Government of India used persuasion and made demands for food grains in the name of unity of India, and quality of sacrifice. These failed. The last effort was free trade. Power of money to get out grain, which had not been produced, was employed. But free trade was resisted and it failed. Unity of effort was not achieved. Till July nothing effective was done. Free trade failed, but led to the working of the basic plan. Grain was produced from within the country, but it was too late to save thousands who had marched too far on the path of starvation. Deaths continued during 1943, and during part of 1944.

Control measures inadequate

Mian Afzal Hussain pays a tribute to the present Food Member’s policy. He says:

October 1943, in the 5th year of war, witnessed a sudden change in the attitude of the Government of India. At the 4th Food Conference, held in October 1943, the Food Member, Sir J. P. Srivastava, said that, we must think of each other and not of ourselves. In the mobilisation of India’s resources, the Government of India will have to take, and implement, decisions which may, at times, conflict with what appear to be local or sectional interests. Whenever possible, and to the greatest extent possible, the Government of India will proceed after consultation with you, and with your consent; but, if circumstances compel us to proceed otherwise, I took to you to accept and implement, those decisions which we, and we alone, can take on behalf of all. We can no longer afford, either failure, or a prospect of failure. I, in the discharge of the duty, which is mine, shall not hesitate to exercise whatever degree of superintendence and control at every stage, that may be necessary, or to invoke the use of whatever powers that are essential to ensure success. This is what was urged from the beginning of 1940. Early decision on these lines, would have saved Bengal. This decision, one is constrained to say, was arrived at, when the famine had almost spent itself.

So… in short… the Indians screwed up.

Yes… out of 11 provinces, they had not resigned.

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