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PUBLIC POLICY, KEYNES AND THE GREAT FAMINE OF BENGAL, 1934-44 I UTSA PATNAIK


SPEAKER:

Utsa Patnaik is Professor Emeritus, Jawaharlal Nehru University and has authored several books over the last four decades. Her recent books (co-authored with P. Patnaik) are A Theory of Imperialism and Capital and Imperialism.

Her main areas of research interest are the problems of transition from agriculture and peasant-predominant societies to an industrial society, both in a historical context and at present in relation to India; and questions relating to food security and poverty.


She has authored several books, including Peasant Class Differentiation – A Study in Method (1987), The Long Transition (1999), and The Republic of Hunger and Other Essays (2007).


SYNOPSIS:

Bengal Famine is one of the darkest episodes of Indian history, when some three million people died of starvation and disease within the span of a single year. The magnitude of the tragedy has sometimes drawn comparisons with the contemporaneous holocaust in Europe, which received much greater global attention.


Dismissing such comparisons, the British regime attributed the famine to a range of factors beyond their control - from wartime conditions and Japanese invasion of Burma to natural disasters such as cyclone, flooding and rice crop disease. To divert attention from their own role in its making, they laid the blame on speculation and hoarding by local businesses and the alleged incompetence of the provincial government in Bengal.


But they failed to convince everyone. In 1944 Pandit Nehru called the famine ‘the culmination and fulfilment of British rule in India’. In ‘Discovery of India’ he wrote that “It was no calamity of nature or play of the elements that brought this famine, nor was it caused by actual war operations and enemy blockade. Every competent observer is agreed that it was a man-made famine which could have been foreseen and avoided.”


With time much of the world has come to see this enormous tragedy as largely man-made and entirely avoidable. Scholarship has focused on British government’s failure to prevent the famine and subsequently its unwillingness to help the millions of famine-struck poor peasants until it was too late. Scholars differ however on whether this was due to the negligence of wartime government in London or a reflection of the British apathy towards starving Indians.


This all changed in 2017, when eminent economist Utsa Patnaik published her research challenging all conventional wisdom. She shook the academic world by arguing that the British policy was designed precisely to create the inflation that ultimately killed the millions of poor. And hence the famine should not be seen as the result of British policy failure but of the immense success of their policy.


But why was such a policy devised that wrought havoc on Bengal? What could be the British motivation behind it? And what was the role of the famous economist John Maynard Keynes in all of this?


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