Bengal famine of 1943

Bengal famine of 1943

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The Bengal famine of 1943 struck the Bengal
Bengal is a historical and geographical region in the northeast region of the Indian Subcontinent at the apex of the Bay of Bengal. Today, it is mainly divided between the sovereign land of People's Republic of Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal, although some regions of the previous...

. Province of pre-partition India. Estimates are that between 1.5 and 4 million people died of starvation
Starvation is a severe deficiency in caloric energy, nutrient and vitamin intake. It is the most extreme form of malnutrition. In humans, prolonged starvation can cause permanent organ damage and eventually, death...

, malnutrition
Malnutrition is the condition that results from taking an unbalanced diet in which certain nutrients are lacking, in excess , or in the wrong proportions....

 and disease, out of Bengal’s 60.3 million population, half of them dying from disease after food became available in December 1943 As in previous Bengal famines, the highest mortality was not in previously very poor groups, but among artisans and small traders whose income vanished when people spent all they had on food and did not employ cobblers, carpenters, etc.

Background and possible causes

The food situation in India was tight from the beginning of the Second World War with a series of crop failures and localized famines which were dealt with successfully under the Indian Famine Codes
Indian Famine Codes
The Indian Famine Codes, developed by the colonial British in the 1880s, were one of the earliest famine scales. The Famine Codes defined three levels of food insecurity: near-scarcity, scarcity, and famine. "Scarcity" was defined as three successive years of crop failure, crop yields of one-third...

. In Bengal
Bengal is a historical and geographical region in the northeast region of the Indian Subcontinent at the apex of the Bay of Bengal. Today, it is mainly divided between the sovereign land of People's Republic of Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal, although some regions of the previous...

 in 1940-41 there was a small scale famine although quick action by the authorities prevented widespread loss of life. Food prices increased throughout India, and the Central Government was forced to undertaking meetings with local government officials and release regulations of price controls

The proximate cause of the famine was a reduction in supply, with some increase in demand. The winter 1942 ‘aman’ rice crop which was already expected to be poor or indifferent was hit by a cyclone and three tidal waves in October. 450 square miles were swept by tidal waves, 400 square miles affected by floods and 3200 square miles damaged by wind and torrential rain. Reserve stocks in the hands of cultivators, consumers and dealers were destroyed. This killed 14,500 people and 190,000 cattle. A fungus hit the weakened crop and this was reported to have had an even greater effect on yield than the cyclone.The fungus, Helminthosporium oryzae, destroyed 50% to 90% of some rice varieties.

It was argued that the normal carry over stocks did not exist in Bengal because 1941 was a short year and people started eating the December 1941 crop immediately it was harvested (as they certainly did when the December 1943 crop was harvested). As a result, the good December 1941 crop did not mean the normal surplus stocks were carried over into 1943. In other years and in other provinces there had been several good or average crops between bad years and stocks had built up.

Bengal had been a food importer for the last decade. Calcutta was normally supplied by Burma. The British Empire
British Empire
The British Empire comprised the dominions, colonies, protectorates, mandates and other territories ruled or administered by the United Kingdom. It originated with the overseas colonies and trading posts established by England in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. At its height, it was the...

 had suffered a disastrous defeat at Singapore
Battle of Singapore
The Battle of Singapore was fought in the South-East Asian theatre of the Second World War when the Empire of Japan invaded the Allied stronghold of Singapore. Singapore was the major British military base in Southeast Asia and nicknamed the "Gibraltar of the East"...

 in 1942 against the Japanese military
Imperial Japanese Army
-Foundation:During the Meiji Restoration, the military forces loyal to the Emperor were samurai drawn primarily from the loyalist feudal domains of Satsuma and Chōshū...

, which then proceeded to invade Burma in the same year. Burma was the world's largest exporter of rice in the inter-war period. By 1940 15% of India's rice overall came from Burma, while in Bengal the proportion was slightly higher given the province's proximity to Burma. After the Japanese occupation of Burma in March 1942, Bengal and the other parts of India and Ceylon normally supplied by Burma had to find food elsewhere. However, there were poor crops and famine situations in Cochin, Trivandrum and Bombay on the West coast and Madras, Orissa and Bengal in the East. It fell on the few surplus Provinces, mainly the Punjab, to supply the rest of India and Ceylon.

India as a whole probably had a deficit, but exported small quantities to meet the urgent needs of the British-Indian Army abroad, and those of Ceylon.

Bengal’s food needs rose at the same time from the influx of refugees from Burma. The enormous expansion of the Indian Army probably did not increase total food demand in India, but it did mean significantly more local demand in Bengal (up to 200,000 tons grain imported, as well as an unknown quantity of grain and a lot of fresh food bought in Bengal). However the effects of army consumption in causing the famine was clearly limited, as 'the army, mainly wheat-eaters, consumed very little extra in relation to India’s supplies, and the army in Bengal was supplied externally'

Lack of Statistics

Lack of statistics was an important cause of the failure to recognize and tackle the famine. It was known by administrators and statisticians well before the famine that India’s agricultural production statistics were ‘not merely guesses, “but frequently demonstrably absurd guesses”', ‘entirely untrustworthy’ ‘useless for any purpose’ that ‘no dependable statistics existed in Bengal’and that what statistics existed ‘were disbelieved by the very Government which issued them’ and that there were ‘no meaningful production statistics’ The raw data were guesses or were ‘invented’. and the averaging procedure increased the error. Senior officers then changed the calculated figures according to their whim: about half the estimates were adjusted and adjustments of 30-40 per cent were common; changes of 60-70 per cent were not unknown. Bengal’s agricultural statistics were particularly bad because of its land tax system. In 1942 a revenue officer would guess at the area planted and the probable yield for a 750,000 acre [310,000 ha] area to give a crop forecast for that area. These forecasts were aggregated and ‘adjusted’ by successive levels of Department of Agriculture officials. It is not known if the forecasts were adjusted after the cyclone, or on what basis this could be done. There were no measures of actual yields or area. The official First Crop Forecast on 5th October, before the cyclone, was reduced by 6% for the Second Crop Forecast in December, at harvest time, and by a further 6% for the final Third Crop Forecast in February, making it 1.2m tons lower than the ten year average of 6.2m tons.It is not known if these adjustments were meant to allow for the cyclone. However, the Director of Agriculture had believed before the cyclone that his department’s official forecast overstated actual expected production by a quarter. The officials responsible for food, such as Pinell and Braund, used a wide range of other estimates, cross checking them against observable facts. They were able to make use of information revealed in mail censorship such as letters from farmers, landlords and traders on crop yields, as well reports from Special Branch (the secret police), reports from other departments etc. Traders acted on their belief of a serious shortage and made a lot of money. They warned the Bengal Government of a famine situation. These sources all indicated that a famine was imminent, and that the Crop Forecasts were wrong.
Subsequent research done by the Indian Statistical Institute using statistically valid samples and crop cutting showed large errors, with survey estimates being between 47% and 153% of the official estimate. The discrepancies also vary from year to year, with the sample estimate of the jute crop being 2.6 % above the official estimate in 1941 and 52.6% above it in 1946. This rules out analysis based on the level of the production forecast and, in particular, on year to year differences in production forecasts.

There are some figures on shipping and rail deliveries of rice to Calcutta, but none on imports by Bengal as a whole – most trade being informal, by river boat. There are no statistics on public or private stocks, until some commercial stock figures were kept in 1943.

The number of people to be fed was not known. The Census of Population was known to be unreliable at best, and the 1941 Census was particularly badly conducted.. There are no statistics on the number of refugees from Burma, nor the refugees from Bengal, escaping war, bombing and famine. Details of military requirements and procurement have not been published. There is no indication of how much food the military provided to Bengali soldiers and war workers.

India did not provide food

Whatever the cause of the famine, deaths could only be prevented by supplies of food from elsewhere in India. This was not forthcoming.

In normal regional famines the Indian Government had provided the starving with money, and let the trade bring in grain which worked for regional famines, though this had been disastrous in Orissa in 1888 when, as in 1943, the shortage was not regional but national. In 1942, with the permission of the central government, trade barriers were introduced by the democratically elected Provincial governments. The politicians and civil servants of surplus provinces like the Punjab introduced regulations to prevent grain leaving their provinces for the famine areas of Bengal, Madras and Cochin. There was the desire to see that, first, local populations and, second, the populations of neighbouring provinces were well fed, partly to prevent civil unrest. Politicians and officials got power and patronage, and the ability to extract bribes for shipping permits. Marketing and transaction costs rose sharply. The market could not get grain to Bengal, however profitable it might be. The main trading route, established for hundreds of years was up the river system and this ceased to operate, leaving the railway as the only way of getting food into Bengal. Grain arrivals stopped and in March 1943, Calcutta, the second biggest city in the world, had only two weeks food supply in stock.

The Government of India realized a mistake had been made and decreed a return to free trade. The Provinces refused ‘In this, again, the Government of India misjudged both its own influence and the temper of its constituents, which had by this time gone too far to pay much heed to the Centre.’ The |Government of India Act 1935| had removed most of the Government of India’s authority over the Provinces, so they had to rely on negotiation.
Thus, even when the Government of India decreed that there should be free trade in grain, politicians, civil servants, local government officers and police obstructed the movement of grain to famine areas. In some cases Provinces seized grain in transit from other Provinces to Bengal. ‘But men like Bhai Permanand say that though many traders want to export food [to Bengal] the Punjab Government would not give them permits. He testified to large quantities of undisposed-of rice being in the Punjab’

Eventually there was a clear threat by the Government of India to force the elected governments to provide grain, when the new Viceroy, Wavell, who was a successful general, was about to take office. For the first time substantial quantities of grain started to move to Bengal.

Contemporary commentators believed that there was substantial hoarding by those consumers who could afford it, by firms and by those farmers who produced surpluses. This started in July 1941 when war with Japan was inevitable, increased when Burma was attacked in December 1941 and when Ceylon, then Calcutta were bombed in 1942. India would have entered the famine year with substantial surplus private stocks. These stocks do not appear to have been released and there was no political drive to get people to give or sell the surpluses. An official ‘Food Drive’ in Bengal did not result in release of hoarded stocks. It was believed that fear of the famine actually increased hoarding.

Why Bengal was refused food

The democratically elected Provincial governments, their public servants and some key people in the Indian civil service believed, or said they believed, that Bengal had plenty of food, which could be made available with good administration. There were no meaningful production statistics which could support this, and those ‘hopelessly defective’ production statistics that did exist indicated a serious shortage.

There were claims that hoarding was the cause of the famine, and this should be dealt with administratively, not by providing starving people in Bengal with food. ‘And at the Third Food Conference in Delhi on the 5th to the 8th July, … the suggestion that “the only reason why people are starving in Bengal is that there is hoarding” was greeted at the Conference by the other Provinces with applause.’ Similarly, some officials in the Government of India refused to accept the evidence on the ground, preferring their own idiosyncratic interpretations of the market: as late as November 1943, ‘The Government of India would admit no intrinsic shortage in Bengal in the Spring of 1943 and, even in November, at the height of the famine, the Director-General of Food in the Council of State said that “the major trouble in Bengal has been not so much an intrinsic shortage of essential foodgrains as a breakdown of public confidence.’ On 19 October 1943, when the famine was at its peak, Wavell noted in his journal “On the food situation Linlithgow [The outgoing Viceroy] says chief factor morale.[i.e. panic hoarding]” For hoarding to have created the amount of hunger and death recorded if there had, indeed, been adequate supplies, it would have been necessary that the richest 10% of Bengal's population, the only ones who could afford it, to lay in two years' rice supply for themselves, in addition to the stocks accumulated in the previous two years, and to keep it in stock until the end of the war, while their neighbours starved. There was never any suggestion that anything of the sort happened, which is strong evidence against the hoarding explanation.

There was a widespread claim, unevidenced, that there was no shortage really, that there was plenty of rice available but traders were stockpiling it to make speculative profits. In fact, there was strong evidence that this was not so: extensive investigations by police, special branch and officials, backed up by rewards for information, found no examples; raids on traders found that they had significantly smaller trading stocks than they had in normal years. This was confirmed when there was no release of surplus stocks when the famine ended. Only if speculators had stored more than usual, and not released it during the famine year, would they have increased the number of deaths: there is ample evidence that they did not.. Such claims of speculation causing famine have been ridiculed by economists since Adam Smith.

Similarly, it was claimed, without evidence or calculation, that the 1% to 2% of the Bengal population whose purchasing power increased because of the wartime inflation and war expenditure ate so much more than usual that two thirds of the population went hungry – 10 % very hungry indeed, with half of this 10% dying of starvation and disease. A quick calculation would have shown that this explanation requires that on 1st November 1942 the small group with increased purchasing power started eating 12 to 46 times more than usual per head and that they reverted to normal consumption in December 1943.

Most contemporary sources refer to massive corruption by public servants, politicians and trading companies.

Most contemporary commentators thought the Hindu-Muslim conflict a serious factor. It was even claimed by a leading politician that ‘Bengal had been deliberately starved out by other provinces’ which refused to permit the export of grain.

It was believed that some British-born Indian Civil Service officers, as well as some British politicians and civil servants, were disposed to accept uncritically any story which would show that a democratically elected Indian government could, by incompetence and corruption, create a famine where there was plenty.

Supplies from other countries

Any imports would have had to come from Australia, North America or South America. Some supplies from Australia entered the region. The main constraint was shipping. |The Battle of the Atlantic (1939–1945)| was at its peak from mid 1942 to mid 1943, with submarine wolf packs sinking so many ships that the Allies were on the verge of defeat, so shipping could not be spared for India.

By August 1943 it was clear that the Allies had won the battle and there was plenty of shipping available. Mukkerjee (2011) analyses why Churchill still failed to send food to India. In response to an urgent request by the Secretary of State for India, Leo Amery, and Viceroy of India
Governor-General of India
The Governor-General of India was the head of the British administration in India, and later, after Indian independence, the representative of the monarch and de facto head of state. The office was created in 1773, with the title of Governor-General of the Presidency of Fort William...

 Archibald Wavell
Archibald Wavell, 1st Earl Wavell
Field Marshal Archibald Percival Wavell, 1st Earl Wavell GCB, GCSI, GCIE, CMG, MC, PC was a British field marshal and the commander of British Army forces in the Middle East during the Second World War. He led British forces to victory over the Italians, only to be defeated by the German army...

, to release food stocks for India, Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill
Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, was a predominantly Conservative British politician and statesman known for his leadership of the United Kingdom during the Second World War. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest wartime leaders of the century and served as Prime Minister twice...

 the Prime Minister of that time responded with a telegram to Wavell asking, if food was so scarce, "why Gandhi
Mahatma Gandhi
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi , pronounced . 2 October 1869 – 30 January 1948) was the pre-eminent political and ideological leader of India during the Indian independence movement...

 hadn’t died yet." Initially during the famine he was more concerned with the civilians of Greece (who were also suffering from a famine) compared with the Bengalis.

Any aid from abroad would have arrived too late to prevent most deaths: apart from the usual delays in assembling and shipping, and the long shipping route, it would have had to be delivered at west coast ports – the Allied navies did not operate east of Ceylon, and the Bay of Bengal was covered by Japanese naval and air power. The railways were overstretched, with men and equipment sent to war zones, most of the capacity devoted to supplying the Burma front, sabotage by Congress, major flood damage to the main routes etc. And they were not geared to shipping large quantities of bulk goods. Distributing the food to the famine areas was extremely difficult and time consuming, even with Army help.

Administrative and Policy Failures

The Famine Inquiry Commission (1945) documents a large number of administrative, civil policy and military policy failures. Significantly, no other famine-struck country has published such criticisms of its own government’s actions. The failure to set up a food administration in 1939 and prepare for rationing was the key failure. The failure to enforce an India-wide food policy with an equality of sacrifice was another. Without this, the administrative controls must prevent any meaningful intervention. Political and administrative failures to set up a system for seizing surplus food in surplus areas also contributed (it was acceptable in deficit areas). There were many others which added to local shortages or otherwise increased the death rate, (e.g. Boat Denial Policy, Rice Denial Policy, various purchasing policies) but were not causes of the famine. During the Famine Inquiry Commission's investigation, one official stated that 'We felt difficulty about one thing. That was lack of one co-ordinating authority at the time of famine'

In the middle of 1942, British authorities feared that the Japanese would follow up their conquest of Burma with an invasion of British India proper by way of Bengal (see British Raj
British Raj
British Raj was the British rule in the Indian subcontinent between 1858 and 1947; The term can also refer to the period of dominion...

). A scorched earth
Scorched earth
A scorched earth policy is a military strategy or operational method which involves destroying anything that might be useful to the enemy while advancing through or withdrawing from an area...

 policy was hastily implemented in the Chittagong
Chittagong ) is a city in southeastern Bangladesh and the capital of an eponymous district and division. Built on the banks of the Karnaphuli River, the city is home to Bangladesh's busiest seaport and has a population of over 4.5 million, making it the second largest city in the country.A trading...

 region, nearest the Burmese border, to prevent access to supplies by the Japanese in case of an invasion. In particular, the Army confiscated many boats (and motor vehicles, carts and even elephants), fearing that the Japanese would commandeer them to speed an advance into India. The inhabitants used the boats for fishing and to take goods to market, and the Army failed to distribute rations to replace the fish and the food lost through the stoppage of commerce. The dislocation in the area forced many of the male inhabitants into the Military Labour Corps, where at least they received rations, but the break-up of families left many children and dependents to beg or to starve.

In December 1942 there was a shortage in Calcutta itself. Therefore government focused on getting supplies to Calcutta. by trying to buy surplus stocks in the region. The quantities that District Officers were able to locate and purchase were considered too small to end the famine, so the Government introduced free trade in rice in Eastern India, hoping that traders would sell their stocks to Bengal, however this measure also failed to move large stocks to Bengal. In April and May there was a propaganda drive to convince the population that the high prices were not justified by the supply of food, the goal being that the propaganda would induce hoarders . to sell their stocks. When these propaganda drives failed, there was a drive to locate hoarded stocks. When these drives continually failed to locate large stocks it convinced the government that the scale of the loss in supply was larger than they initially believed.

The Indian Army and allied troops acted only after Wavell became Viceroy and got permission from the Bengal Government. They had vehicles, fuel, men and administrators, which the civil authority did not, so were much more effective than the civil authority in getting food to the starving outside Calcutta. The distribution was difficult and continued for five months after the November/December 1943 crop was harvested. They did not have much food to distribute though.

During the course of the famine, 264 thousand tons of rice, 258 thousand tons of wheat and wheat products and 55 thousand tons of millets were sent to Bengal for the purposes of famine relief from the rest of India and overseas. One ton feeds 5.75 people for a year at normal consumption, perhaps 8.2 at emergency survival rates. Various guesses were that the rice production in Bengal was 1.2m to 2.5 million tons below the ten year average.

Food Prices

Food prices were high in mid-1942, reflecting the belief that India was in deficit. They rose sharply when the cyclone destroyed a quarter of Bengal’s rice crop, and evidence of shortage elsewhere in India and elsewhere in the region emerged, and they continued to rise sharply as the famine bit. Repeated efforts to ‘break the Calcutta market’ and reduce prices by dumping grain on the market failed: the quantities of grain available for intervention were miniscule in relation to the shortage.. There was the normal seasonal speculation which puts up prices, forcing the population to reduce consumption and so spread what is available throughout the year (as economists from Adam Smith have pointed out). The high prices determine who is to die, the poor, rather than increase the number of deaths.

The Bengal Famine may be placed in the context of previous famines in Mughal
Mughal Empire
The Mughal Empire ,‎ or Mogul Empire in traditional English usage, was an imperial power from the Indian Subcontinent. The Mughal emperors were descendants of the Timurids...

 and British India. Deccan Famine of 1630-32
Deccan Famine of 1630-32
The Deccan Famine of 1630–1632 occurred in the Deccan region of Central India. By 1632, some 2,000,000 Indians died. The famine was the result of three consecutive staple crop failures, leading to intense hunger, disease, and displacement in the region. This remains one of the most devastating...

 killed 2,000,000 (there was a corresponding famine in northwestern China, eventually causing the Ming dynasty
Ming Dynasty
The Ming Dynasty, also Empire of the Great Ming, was the ruling dynasty of China from 1368 to 1644, following the collapse of the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty. The Ming, "one of the greatest eras of orderly government and social stability in human history", was the last dynasty in China ruled by ethnic...

 to collapse in 1644). During the British rule in India there were approximately 25 major famines spread through states such as Tamil Nadu
Tamil Nadu
Tamil Nadu is one of the 28 states of India. Its capital and largest city is Chennai. Tamil Nadu lies in the southernmost part of the Indian Peninsula and is bordered by the union territory of Pondicherry, and the states of Kerala, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh...

 in South India
South India
South India is the area encompassing India's states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu as well as the union territories of Lakshadweep and Pondicherry, occupying 19.31% of India's area...

, Bihar
Bihar is a state in eastern India. It is the 12th largest state in terms of geographical size at and 3rd largest by population. Almost 58% of Biharis are below the age of 25, which is the highest proportion in India....

in the north, and Bengal in the east; altogether, between 30 and 40 million Indians were the victims of famines in the latter half of the 19th century (Bhatia 1985).


Amartya Sen (1976) revived the claim that there was no shortage of food in Bengal and that the famine was caused by inflation, with those benefiting from inflation eating more and leaving less for the rest of the population, a claim which had been widely used at the time as a justification for not sending food to Bengal. Sen claimed that there was in fact a greater supply in 1943 than in 1941, when there was no famine. He rejected, without reasons, the calculations of The Famine Inquiry Commission, Afzal Husain, Mahalanobis, Pinnell (1945) and Braund (1945), each of whom had addressed all the evidence available, and concluded that there was significantly less food available in Bengal in 1943 than in previous years. Sen based his calculations purely on the crop forecast, assuming away the variations in carryover which were considered an important aspect of the rice market by contemporaries, and assuming that the only inter-provincial trade was by rail or by steamer, ignoring country boats which were the main transport other than to Calcutta. He also ignored all other sources of evidence. The crop forecasts which Sen uses as his sole source of evidence were generally considered to be meaningless, and the difference between one year’s forecasts and another was not just meaningless, but grossly misleading. Sen’s use of the data has been criticized in some detail by Goswami (1990 who says that even with the data Sen uses, calculations show that supply was substantially lower in 1943 than 1941. Bowbrick points out that if the famine was indeed caused by inflation, those who benefited from it would have had to eat many times more food per head than any population ever has. He also identifies more than 30 discrepancies between the evidence Sen presents and the facts in the sources he cites for it. Tauger (2006) (2009) makes similar criticisms.

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  • Trevaskis, H. K. (1931) The Punjab of Today, 2 vols, Lahore, Dewey, C., (1978) ‘Patwari and Chaukidar: subordinate officials and the reliability of India’s agricultural statistics.’ Pp 280-314, cited in Dewey, C. and Hopkins, A.G. (1978), The Imperial Impact: Studies in the Economic History of Africa and India, Athlone Press.
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