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Explained: How researchers used science to show Bengal famine was man-made


Mains Paper 1: Indian History| All syllabus

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: Bengal Famine

Mains level: Bengal Famine: causes and consequences


  • The Bengal famine of 1943-44 was not caused by an agricultural drought but was man-made.
  • Researchers have proved this using old weather data and modern simulation methods to reach a conclusion long acknowledged by historians.

Soil moisture & famine

  • The research reconstructed agricultural droughts and established a link between famines and agricultural droughts in India in the half-century between 1870-2016.
  • Precipitation data from 1901 onwards was available from the IMD.
  • They estimated a measure called soil moisture percentile, or SMP. When the SMP was less than 20, it was categorised as drought.

British Policy Failure

  • The Bengal famine was completely due to the failure of policy during the British era.
  • The simulations showed that a majority of famines were caused by large-scale and severe soil moisture droughts that hampered food production.
  • Out of six major famines during the period (1873-74, 1876, 1877, 1896-97, 1899, 1943), the researchers concluded that the first five were linked to soil moisture.
  • All but two of the famines were found consistent with the drought periods identified by the analysis.
  • The exceptions were 1873-1874 and 1943-1944.

Immediate cause of such Famines

  • During World War II, market supplies and transport systems were disrupted. This is attributed to British policies, and prioritization of distribution of supplies to the military and other select groups.
  • Occupation of Burma by Japan in 1942 resulted in restriction on rice imports from Burma.
  • Restriction on inter-state trade of rice and other food grains at the time further aggravated the issue.
  • Hoarding of rice stocks by traders and farmers in anticipation of speculative rise in rice prices in future as rice shortage was becoming evident.
  • In early 1943, military and political events adversely affected Bengal’s economy, which was exacerbated by refugees from Burma.
  • Additionally, wartime grain import restrictions imposed by the British government played a major role in the famine.
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