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Food Situation

Volume 395: debated on Thursday 2 December 1943

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asked the Secretary of State for India whether he has any further statement to make respecting the Indian famine; the number of deaths from famine in Bengal to the latest date; how many persons are now being fed by public authorities and voluntary bodies; to what extent cholera has spread; and what is the present position of the food shortage in other parts of India?

The most important development in the Indian food situation in the last few weeks is that the main rice crop, which is just coming to harvest, is reported to be excellent, particularly in Bengal. Military assistance in Bengal is getting into its stride, and the outlying centres, as well as Calcutta, are now receiving adequate supplies, though distribution from those centres to the more remote villages still presents a problem. Plans for rationing in urban areas are proceeding and should be in operation in Calcutta by the middle of this month. Deaths in Calcutta for the fortnight ending 28th October totalled 3,132. I cannot give figures for Bengal as a whole. It is reported that 2,233,000 people are being fed daily from free food kitchens.

I regret to say that a serious outbreak of cholera in Bengal has followed upon the famine. During October deaths in the Province from this disease averaged 5,349 per week. In the first week of November they were 4,464. Assistance in the provision of doctors and medical equipment is being provided by the Army and a mass inoculation campaign is being planned. Some drugs are being flown from this country.

As regards the other difficult areas, Bombay is improving its position, and the crops in Bijapur, where they failed last year, are reported good. The Malabar and Cochin area is still very short of foodgrains, but equitable distribution is being maintained, and supplies have been arranged from Sind. In Madras it has been found possible to close all famine camps with the exception of a few in Anantapur and labourers are employed on normal agricultural work. Elsewhere the position gives no particular ground for anxiety.

Can we take it that although there is a slight improvement throughout the greater part of Bengal, famine still rages severely? Is the Minis- ter satisfied that everything that can be done is being done? Further, is he aware that some weeks ago I asked about the spread of cholera and the provision of medicines and drugs, which, at that time, the right hon. Gentleman said was unnecessary? Does he realise now that it would have been much better to have take action then regarding cholera?

If I may answer the last part of the hon. Member's Supplementary Question first, when I replied to him on 17th October I had no information from India giving ground for anxiety. I suggested that there was no undue spread of cholera—although I did mention that there was some—or any special deficiency in drugs. I undertook to inquire from the Government of India, and I subsequently heard in November that cholera was very much on the increase and that there was a deficiency in certain drugs. As I pointed out in my answer, vigorous measures are being taken, and drugs are being sent from this country, some of them by air. As regards the general situation, there are still elements of disquiet owing to the difficulty of getting food to the more outlying villages. Broadly speaking, there is sufficient food in the Province to meet all its requirements. The Government of India have undertaken to look after Calcutta itself for the next 13 months leaving all the crops available in Bengal for country districts.

Has the hon. Member for West Leyton (Mr. Sorensen), who asks so many Questions about India, ever been there? If not, is it not about time that we sent him?


asked the Secretary of State for India whether any special steps have been taken in Bengal to ensure that adequate relief measures are brought to the families of Indian seamen?

Village food committees in Bengal have been instructed by the Bengal Government to give particular attention to the families of seamen serving overseas and district magistrates have been asked to take special measures to ensure adequate relief for them wherever necessary. In Calcutta cheap grain shops have been opened for serving seamen and their families exclusively. The prospects of this year's crop in the districts from which most seamen come are above; average.

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind the very natural apprehension of these Indian seamen, who are serving both in the Royal Navy and the Merchant Service and who are bound to be away from home by reason of their service?

Yes, Sir, that is why the Government of India are taking the measures to which I have referred.