From the late nineteenth century through the Great Depression , social and economic forces exerted a harmful effect on the structure of Bengal's income distribution and the ability of its agricultural sector to sustain the populace. These included a rapidly growing population, increasing household debt, stagnant agricultural productivity, increased social stratification, and alienation of the peasant class from their landholdings. These processes left social and economic groups mired in poverty and indebtedness, unable to cope with the economic shocks they faced in and , in the context of the Second World War.
There are three seasonal rice crops in Bengal. By far the most important is the winter crop of aman rice. Decades of declining rice production coupled with a rising population was a leading factor in the famine.
Prior to about , the food demands of Bengal's growing population could be met in part by cultivating undeveloped lands. Structural changes in the credit market and land transfer rights pushed Bengal into recurring danger of famine, and dictated which economic groups would suffer greatest hardship. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the power and influence of the landowners fell and that of the jotedars rose. Particularly in less developed regions, jotedars gained power as grain or jute traders and, more importantly, by making loans to sharecroppers, agricultural labourers and ryots.
Land-grabbing usually took place via informal credit markets. Many financial entities had disappeared during the Great Depression; peasants with small landholdings generally had to resort to informal local lenders  to purchase basic necessities during lean months between harvests.
Small landholders and sharecroppers acquired debts swollen by usurious rates of interest. It was then relatively easy for the jotedars to use litigation to force debtors to sell all or part of their landholdings at a low price or forfeit them at auction. Debtors then became landless or land-poor sharecroppers and labourers, usually working the same fields they had once owned. In this way, the jotedars effectively dominated and impoverished the lowest tier of economic classes in several districts of Bengal. Such exploitation, exacerbated by Muslim inheritance practices that divided land among multiple siblings,  widened inequalities in land ownership.
Water provided the main source of transport during rainy seasons, and throughout the year in areas such as the vast delta of the coastal southeastern Sundarbans. River transport was integral to Bengal's economy and irreplaceable to the production and distribution of rice. The development of railways in Bengal in the s disrupted natural drainage and divided the region into innumerable poorly drained "compartments". The soil profile in Bengal differs between east and west. The sandy soil of the east, and the lighter sedimentary earth of the Sundarbans, tended to drain more rapidly after the monsoon season than the laterite or heavy clay regions of western Bengal.
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The annual flooding of these fallow fields created a breeding place for malaria-carrying mosquitoes;  malaria epidemics lasted a month longer in the central and western areas with slower drainage. Rural areas lacked access to safe water supplies. Water came primarily from large earthen tanks, rivers and tube wells.
In the dry season, partially drained tanks became a further breeding area for malaria- vector mosquitoes. Throughout and early , military and political events combined with natural disasters and plant disease to place widespread stress on Bengal's economy.
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The Japanese campaign for Burma set off an immediate exodus of more than half of the one million Indians from Burma for India. By April , Japanese warships and aircraft had sunk approximately , tons of merchant shipping in the Bay of Bengal. Across India and particularly in Bengal, this caused a "derangement" of the rice markets. The fall of Burma brought Bengal close to the war front; its impact fell more strongly on Bengal than elsewhere in India. Unskilled labourers from Bengal and nearby provinces were employed by military contractors, particularly for the construction of American and British airfields.
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Hundreds of thousands of American, English, Indian, and Chinese troops arrived into the province,  straining domestic supplies and leading to scarcities across wide ranges of daily necessities. The rise in prices of essential goods and services was "not disturbing" until , when it became more alarming. Nearly the full output of India's cloth, wool, leather and silk industries were sold to the military. Firms were required to sell goods to the military on credit and at fixed, low prices. In the case of the textiles industries that supplied cloth for the uniforms of the British military, for example, they charged a very high price in domestic markets.
The method of credit financing was tailored to UK wartime needs. England agreed to pay for defence expenditures above the amount that India had paid in peacetime adjusted for inflation. However, their purchases were made entirely on credit accumulated in the Bank of England and not redeemable until after the war. At the same time, the Bank of India was permitted to treat those credits as assets against which it could print currency up to two and a half times more than the total debt incurred.
India's money printing presses then began running overtime, printing the currency that paid for all these massive expenditures. The tremendous rise in nominal money supply coupled with a scarcity of consumption goods spurred monetary inflation , reaching its peak in — Finally, military buildup caused massive displacement of Bengalis from their homes.
Farmland purchased for airstrip and camp construction is "estimated to have driven between 30, and 36, families about , to , persons off their land", according to Paul Greenough. They were paid for the land, but they had lost their employment. Military barracks were scattered around Calcutta. They launched a preemptive, two-pronged scorched-earth initiative in eastern and coastal Bengal to deny the expected invaders access to food supplies, transport and other resources.
John Herbert , governor of Bengal, issued an urgent  directive in late March immediately requiring stocks of paddy unmilled rice deemed surplus, and other food items, to be removed or destroyed in these districts. The second prong, a "boat denial" policy, was designed to deny Bengali transport to any invading Japanese army. It applied to districts readily accessible via the Bay of Bengal and the larger rivers that flow into it. Pinnell, a British civil servant who headed the Bengal government's Department of Civil Supplies, told the Famine Commission that the policy "completely broke the economy of the fishing class".
These policies had important political ramifications. The Indian National Congress , among other groups, staged protests denouncing the denial policies for placing draconian burdens on Bengali peasants; these were part of a nationalist sentiment and outpouring that later peaked in the "Quit India" movement. Many Indian provinces and princely states imposed inter-provincial trade barriers from mid, preventing trade in domestic rice. Anxiety and soaring rice prices, triggered by the fall of Burma,  were one underlying reason for the trade barriers.
Trade imbalances brought on by price controls were another. These barriers reflected a desire to see that local populations were well fed, thus forestalling civil unrest. In January , Punjab banned exports of wheat;  [X] this increased the perception of food insecurity and led the enclave of wheat-eaters in Greater Calcutta to increase their demand for rice precisely when an impending rice shortage was feared. The Famine Inquiry Commission of characterised this "critical and potentially most dangerous stage" as a key policy failure: "Every province, every district, every [administrative division] in the east of India had become a food republic unto itself.
The trade machinery for the distribution of food [between provinces] throughout the east of India was slowly strangled, and by the spring of was dead. Protecting their interests was a major concern of both private and public relief efforts. As food prices rose and the signs of famine became apparent from July ,  the Government of Bengal and the Chamber of Commerce devised a Foodstuffs Scheme to provide preferential distribution of goods and services to workers in essential war industries, to prevent them from leaving their positions.
Essential workers received subsidised food,  and were frequently paid in part in weekly allotments of rice sufficient to feed their immediate families, further protecting them from inflation. Public and private medical staff at all levels were transferred to military duty, while medical supplies were monopolised.
Rural labourers and civilians not members of these groups received severely reduced access to food and medical care, generally available only to those who migrated to selected population centres. The war grew resentment and fear of the Raj among rural agriculturalists and business and industrial leaders in Greater Calcutta. British prime minister Winston Churchill responded to the new pressure through the Cripps' mission , broaching the post-war possibility of an autonomous political status for India in exchange for its full military support, but negotiations collapsed in early April On 8 August , the Indian National Congress launched the Quit India movement as a nationwide display of nonviolent resistance.
The violence of the "Quit India" movement was internationally condemned, and hardened some sectors of British opinion against India;  Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper speculate that this reduced the British War Cabinet's willingness to provide famine aid at a time when supplies were also needed for the war effort. Throughout April , British and Indian refugees fled Burma, many through Bengal, as the cessation of Burmese imports continued to drive up rice prices. In June, the Bengal government established price controls for rice, and on 1 July fixed prices at a level considerably lower than the prevailing market price.
The principal result of the fixed low price was to make sellers reluctant to sell; stocks disappeared, either into the black market or into storage. On 11 March , the provincial government rescinded its price controls,  resulting in dramatic rises in the price of rice, due in part to soaring levels of speculation. When inter-provincial trade barriers were abolished on 18 May, prices temporarily fell in Calcutta, but soared in the neighbouring provinces of Bihar and Orissa when traders rushed to purchase stocks.
Prices remained high, and the black market was not brought under control. Bengal was affected by a series of natural disasters late in The winter rice crop was afflicted by a severe outbreak of fungal brown spot disease , while, on 16—17 October a cyclone and three storm surges ravaged croplands, destroyed houses and killing thousands, at the same time dispersing high levels of fungal spores across the region and increasing the spread of the crop disease.
Padmanabhan, the outbreak compared to the potato blight of the Irish Great Famine , and was so destructive that "nothing as devastating For nearly 2. Corpses lay scattered over several thousand square miles of devastated land. Cholera, dysentery and other water-borne diseases flourished. Over square miles of the most fertile paddy land in the province was entirely destroyed, and the standing crop over an additional square miles was damaged.
Following these events, official forecasts of crop yields predicted a significant shortfall. Crop statistics of the time were scant and unreliable. First, administrators and statisticians had known for decades that India's agricultural production statistics were completely inadequate  and "not merely guesses, but frequently demonstrably absurd guesses".
The [food security] crisis had begun. Whether the famine resulted from crop shortfall or failure of land distribution has been much debated. In any circumstances, this was a significant shortfall requiring a considerable amount of food relief, but not a deficit large enough to create widespread deaths by starvation. Several contemporary experts cite evidence of a much larger shortfall. Rather than meeting this request, the UK promised a relatively small amount of wheat that was specifically intended for western India that is, not for Bengal in exchange for an increase in rice exports from Bengal to Ceylon.
The cabinet again offered only a relatively small amount, explicitly referring to it as a token shipment.
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Expert's disagreement over political issues can be found in differing explanations of the War Cabinet's refusal to allocate funds to import grain. Lizzie Collingham holds the massive global dislocations of supplies caused by World War II virtually guaranteed that hunger would occur somewhere in the world, yet Churchill's animosity and perhaps racism toward Indians decided the exact location where famine would fall.
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Those assignments show a will to punish. British hesitation to allocate shipping concerned not only potential diversion of shipping from other war-related needs but also the prospect of losing the shipping to attacks without actually [bringing help to] India at all. However, contemporary mortality statistics were to some degree under-recorded, particularly for the rural areas, where data collecting and reporting was rudimentary even in normal times.
Thus, many of those who died or migrated were unreported. Early on, conditions drifted towards famine at different rates in different Bengal districts.
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