Digital relief map of Bengal region of India

Bengal is the region of modern Bangladesh and northeast India centered on the delta of the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers. Its major cities in 1941 were Dacca, Chittagong, and the great port of Calcutta, which was the principal rear base for Commonwealth forces facing the Japanese in Burma. Bengal is one of the most densely populated areas on Earth: Its population in 1942 was about 60 million, giving a population density of almost 670 persons per square mile.

The region has historically been vulnerable both to occasional tropical cyclones from the Bay of Bengal and to famine. This led to catastrophe in 1943. Much of the rice consumed in Bengal came from Burma, which was lost to the Japanese in 1942. The British government had given each province of India individual responsibility for food administration, and the provinces responded to rising food prices with "insane provincial protectionism" (quoted in Collingham 2011). A tropical cyclone hit Bengal in October 1942, producing favorable conditions for a fungus blight to destroy much of the winter rice crop, and by the time the government realized it had a food crisis on its hands, famine was already taking hold. A plea from the Viceroy to divert scarce shipping to bring grain to India was turned down by Churchill, whose contempt for Indian nationalism was reinforced by poor advice from his science advisor, Lord Cherwell, who believed quite incorrectly that "India's yearly production of seventy million tons of cereals made it self-sufficient in grains" (quoted in Collingham 2011).  It was not until Wavell took over as Viceroy in September 1943 that any effective action was taken. A system was implemented to better redistribute grain throughout the subcontinent, and 25 cargo ships were diverted from military cargoes to bring in 200,000 tons of grain. By the time the famine lifted, at least a million and a half Bengalis had died of starvation, and the epidemics of smallpox, cholera and malaria that followed pushed the death toll past three million. It was one of the worst cases of botched administration by the Allies during the war, creating lasting bitterness in India against the British in general and Churchill in particular.


Collingham (2011)

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