This paper attempts to understand how the interaction of natural disasters and human behaviour during wartime led to famines in three regions under imperial control around the Indian Ocean. The socio-economic structure of these regions had been increasingly differentiated over the period of imperial rule, with large proportions of their populations relying on agricultural labour for their subsistence.
Before the war, food crises in each of the regions had been met by the private importation of grain from national or overseas surplus regions: the grain had been made available through a range of systems, the most complex of which was the Bengal Famine Code in which the able-bodied had to work before receiving money to buy food in the market.
During the Second World War, the loss of control of normal sources of imported grain, the destruction of shipping in the Indian Ocean (by both sides) and the military demands on internal transport systems prevented the use of traditional famine responses when natural events affected grain supply in each of the regions. These circumstances drew the governments into attempts to control their own grain markets.
The food crises raised complex ethical and practical issues for the governments charged with their solution. The most significant of these was that the British Government could have attempted to ship wheat to Bengal but, having lost naval control of the Indian Ocean in 1942 and needing warships in the Atlantic and Mediterranean in 1943 chose to ignore the needs of the people of Bengal, focussing instead on winning the war.
In each of the regions governments allowed/encouraged the balkanisation of the grain supply – at times down to the sub-district level – which at times served to produce waste and corruption, and opened the way for black markets as various groups (inside and outside government ranks) manipulated the local supply.
People were affected in different ways by the changes brought about by the war: some benefitted if their role was important to the war-effort; others suffered. The effect of this was multiplied by the way each government ‘solved’ its financial problems by – in essence – printing money.
Because of the natural events of the period, there would have been food crises in these regions without World War II, but decisions made in the light of wartime exigencies and opportunities turned crises into famines, causing the loss of millions of lives.
Brennan, L., Heathcote, L. and Lucas, A. (2017), "War and Famine Around the Indian Ocean During the Second World War", Ethics in the Global South (Research in Ethical Issues in Organizations, Vol. 18), Emerald Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 5-70. https://doi.org/10.1108/S1529-209620170000018002
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