HC Deb 12 October 1943 vol 392 cc712-6

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper:

120. Mr. Mack

—To ask the Secretary of State for India, whether he has considered the recent communication addressed to him from the mayor and corporation of Calcutta concerning the grave famine situation; whether the communication contains any specific requests or demands; and what action is proposed to be taken in regard to it?

The Secretary of State for India (Mr. Amery)

With the permission of the House, I should like with reference to this Question to make a further short statement on the food position in India, especially in Bengal. The House will naturally be concerned, first and foremost, with our own responsibilities in this anxious situation.

At the beginning of the year His Majesty's Government provided the necessary shipping for substantial imports of grain to India in order to meet prospects of serious shortage which were subsequently relieved by an excellent spring harvest in Northern India. Since the recrudescence of the shortage in an acute form we have made every effort to provide shipping, and considerable quantities of food grains are now arriving or are due to arrive before the end of the year. We have also been able to help in the supply of milk food for children. The problem so far as help from here is concerned is entirely one of shipping, and has to be judged in the light of all the other urgent needs of the United Nations.

The Central Government of India have been actively concerned from the first signs of possible dangers to the food situation. As far back as April, 1942, it inaugurated a "Grow More Food" campaign, which brought 8,000,000 new acres under food crops last year and will bring 12,000,000 this year.

In a situation in which the difficulty was mainly, though not entirely, one of distribution, their efforts have been primarily directed to securing grain from surplus areas to meet the needs of the areas in deficit. In the six months since last April—against a normal annual net intake of 330,000 tonsa total of 375,000 tons of rice or other food grain has thus been delivered on Government account to Bengal by rail or coastal shipping from other Provinces. During September deliveries were 72,000 tons.

Using their special war-time powers, the Central Government, without invading the primary responsibility of the Provincial Governments, have established in all the areas most affected their own Regional Food Commissioners, who report, advise and convey instructions. It is largely thanks to their exertions that what might have been a situation of widespread serious distress has been confined to Bengal, Cochin, Travancore and parts of the Deccan.

In dealing with the situation the Central Government have been faced with the reluctance of producing Provinces to part with supplies and, in particular, with the necessity of persuading them that they need no longer harbour doubts as to the manner in which supplies sent to Bengal would be utilised.

The Centre has also afforded direct financial help to the Bengal Government in meeting the heavy costs of relief, amounting to not far off £2,000,000, and of grain purchase.

The Bengal Government are responsible to the Bengal Legislature for the administration of the Province, including the feeding of the people. Faced with a poor harvest in 194–3, the Ministry then in office apparently judged that they could get, population and that there is now a re-through without outside assistance. Earlier [...]serve of one month's supply. But prices soared beyond the reach of the poorest elements, whose numbers have been swelled by many thousands of refugees from hard hit districts outside. Under the stimulus of Sir Thomas Rutherford's long experience of Provincial and District administration, the Ministry have since tackled the problem of distribution in the other areas of the Province. They are distributing food from 2,600 free kitchens established by the Government and many others subsidised by them. 1,300,000 persons are being fed daily in this way. The problem of the destitutes in Calcutta and elsewhere is being tackled by the opening of relief camps. The Government of Bengal are also, with the aid of the Government of India's Adviser, working out a system of individual rationing for Calcutta which is to come into operation before the end of next month.

The efforts of the Bengal Ministry to deal with the crisis have not been rendered easier by the vehemence of local party and communal feeling, and it can only be hoped that a realisation of the gravity of the situation will lead to a greater measure of co-operation by all concerned. While His Majesty's Government will not hesitate to take, or to authorise the Government of India to take, whatever measures may be essential to restore the situation, it would only be in accordance with our principles, even in such a crisis as the present, to give to the Government and Legislature to which the primary and immediate responsibility in this matter has been entrusted, a reasonable chance of fulfilling that responsibility with such aid as both the Government of India and His Majesty's Government here can afford them.

Earl Winterton

In view of the conflicting statements which have been made on this most poignant and terrible problem—about people dying in the streets—and the injury which may be done to our war effort by misleading and mischievous statements which assume a responsibility which we do not possess, will the right hon. Gentleman earnestly consider giving the House an opportunity of discussing the matter, so that he may make a fuller statement, explaining where the responsibility really lies?

Mr. Amery

That is a matter which can be arranged through the usual channels.

Earl Winterton

But will the right hon. Gentleman express himself in favour of such a Debate on a matter which must surely concern this House in some respects?

Mr. Atnery

It is for the House to express an opinion.

Mr. Graham White

Can the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that whatever the difficulties may be which he mentioned in the course of his statement, the absence of a sufficient quantity of food shall not be a source of prolonging the present state of affairs?

Mr. Amery

We shall do everything in our power to put an end to the present state of affairs.

Sir J. Wardlaw-Milne

When this crisis is over and food prices are back at something like normal, will His Majesty's Government consider asking the Government of India to set up an inquiry into the cause of this? In view of the widespread reports that there has been no hoarding of foodstuffs by the cultivators but that hoarding has been entirely by people of other classes, including even action taken by Government officials—in view of that kind of statement, would my right hon. Friend consider the desirability of asking the Government of India to consider setting up an inquiry when this crisis is over?

Mr. Amery

I will consider the matter, but I would not be disposed to accept the statements to which my hon. Friend has referred.

Mr. Vernon Bartlett

Would it not be possible and advisable to draw on military food supplies for the time being, on the understanding that these will be at once replenished as soon as these food ships arrive, as it does seem so essential to tide over the situation in the next few weeks?

Mr. Amery

The military have already been most helpful, both in respect of milk and food and in other ways.

Mr. Boothby

What steps have been taken to get rice into the Province of Bengal; and can the right hon. Gentleman say what truth there is in the statements in the Press that rice is being deliberately held up in other Provinces by speculators?

Mr. Amery

Every effort is being made to get rice into Bengal from the other Provinces, and the figures I have mentioned include considerable quantities of rice.

Mr. Shinwell

Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that the measures he has outlined are adequate for the purpose, and, as regards the provision of food ships, have we not been informed that there is plenty of shipping available, and could not some be provided for this purpose?

Mr. Amery

I shall certainly not be satisfied until the situation is retrieved. As regards shipping, I think the House is well aware of all the difficulties of the problem in connection with military operations.

Sir A. Knox

If it is true, as the right hon. Gentleman stated, that one of the causes of the famine in Bengal is a lack of foresight shown by the Government of Bengal, is it not a fact that the ultimate responsibility for this state of things rests on those Members of Parliament who supported the passing of the Government of India Act, 1935, which handed over powers to a Government which has been unable to carry them out?

Mr. John Duģdale

Will the right hon. Gentleman guarantee that shipping will be diverted as drastically as it would be if there were a similar famine in this country?

Mr. Amery

There can be no absolute guarantee, but we shall certainly do our best.

Mr. Gallather

Is the right hon. Gentleman not aware that a planned distribution of food in India instead of leaving the food in the hands of private profiteers would have mitigated a great deal of the sufferings? Is he aware that the poor people who cannot buy food and who would be the "State stooges," according to what a junior Minister says, are now capitalism's corpses?

Mr. Amery

We have all the planned distribution that circumstances have allowed.