In November 1943, as Bengal was still reeling under the effects of the famine, anthropologists from the University of Calcutta realized that little was being done to capture the impact of the starvation on the lives of Bengal’s villages. These were the communities that bore the brunt of the famine, as millions died and hundreds of thousands of families migrated in search of food. Yet, even as colonial authorities at various levels of government dealt with the problem at the “aggregate" level, no one had thought of going into these villages and taking stock of life before and after the famine. The anthropologists perhaps reckoned that very soon the window of opportunity to capture reliable data would close.

Some small-scale surveys later, they realized that the job at hand was complex enough to rope in some bigger guns. In March 1944, Prof. K.P. Chattopadhyay, head of the department of anthropology at the University of Calcutta, met with P.C. Mahalanobis, then honorary secretary of the Indian Statistical Institute. Both men instantly agreed on the need to carry out a large-scale sample survey of Bengal’s famine-ravaged villages. Plans were quickly drawn up, and surveyors were signed up for training programmes even before funds had been secured for the expenses.

When they later published a report on the survey for the Sankhyā journal in 1946, Mahalanobis and his co-authors, Ramkrishna Mukherjea and Ambika Ghosh, briefly talked about the challenges involved in carrying out the exercise. Funding delays meant that the surveying could only start in July 1944, instead of May, as scheduled. Which meant that instead of student volunteers, the surveying work had to be carried out by almost 100 volunteers, mostly from the Bengal Provincial Kisan Sabha.

Also, by June, it had started raining and the farming season had commenced. This complicated the data gathering. Through August, 80 field workers were beset by malaria; half of them later dropped out from the project. Eventually, the survey was only completed in February 1945. By the end, field workers had spoken to 15,769 families chosen, in somewhat random fashion, from 386 villages. Care was taken to make sure that the villages surveyed provided a complete picture of the famine. Thus, they surveyed 15 villages from the “most severely affected" Diamond Harbour area, but also five villages from “very slightly or not affected" Meherpur.

Investigators were told to not only be conscientious in their work but also to be aware of their own biases. Somewhat remarkably, given the circumstances, field workers were even told to account for the fact that some respondents might exaggerate their sufferings. Survey forms were then carefully checked by a team of anthropologists with experience in fieldwork. Less than 1% of the completed forms, we are told, were rejected.

And then Mahalanobis and his team of statisticians began their work.

Why do I recount this somewhat obscure story in this fortnight’s column? The reasons are two seemingly unrelated incidents of the last few days.

Earlier this week, thousands of farmers marched on Mumbai. Articles in this paper have not only looked at the possible political ramifications of the long march, but also the long history of India’s “agriculture problem" and related policy conundrums.

Also earlier this week, Shashi Tharoor lamented in The Washington Post that the Oscars had rewarded the Winston Churchill biopic Darkest Hour—“yet another hagiography of this odious man". “Thanks to Churchill", Tharoor wrote, “some 4 million Bengalis starved to death in a 1943 famine. Churchill ordered the diversion of food from starving Indian civilians to well-supplied British soldiers and even to top up European stockpiles in Greece and elsewhere."

But the Bengal Famine is a tragedy that raises many questions with more than one answer. Why did Bengal run out of food? Why were replacement stocks not forthcoming? Why didn’t the administration do more to help the starving? Churchill is not the answer to all these questions. Indeed, there is a seemingly continuous output of scholarship on the causes of the Bengal Famine, much of it following Amartya Sen’s igniting of the issue in the late 1970s and early 1980s. A recent addition to this scholarship is Janam Mukherjee’s 2015 book Hungry Bengal: War, Famine And The End Of Empire.

Yet, as far back as 1946, Mahalanobis, Mukherjea and Ghosh, through their survey, realized something very fundamental about the Bengal Famine. That while there may have been any number of immediate reasons for the famine, there was one long-standing problem that helped to massively exacerbate the impact of the hunger: the precarious state of agriculture in Bengal. Far too many families owned little to no land, they discovered. Leading up to the famine, they found, three-fourths of all families owned less than two acres of paddy—a level barely above subsistence. When famine struck, the smallest landowners were the ones most immediately pushed into destitution, many of them forced to sell their landholdings. And as more recent researchers are beginning to work out, the famine has had long-lasting repercussions on the societies and economies of these provinces.

The famine of 1943, Mahalanobis et al concluded, “was thus not an accident like an earthquake but the culmination of economic changes which were going on even in normal times". The long march and Churchill’s odiousness serve to remind us that agriculture remains a precarious livelihood in India. Far too many people are involved in a livelihood that is far too volatile. The next time an earthquake strikes, there won’t be a Churchill to blame.

Déjà View is a fortnightly conversation on history. Read Sidin Vadukut’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/dejaview

Comments are welcome at views@livemint.com

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