HC Deb 23 September 1943 vol 392 cc394-400
105. Sir A. Knox

asked the Secretary of State for India whether he will make a statement on the present food situation in India especially in Bengal, Cochin, Travancore and Bombay; and whether he is aware that the present situation has been aggravated by delay of the Central Government in introducing remedial measures and their lack of firmness in dealing with hoarders and the failure of Provincial Governments to co-operate?

108. Mr. Sorensen

asked the Secretary of State for India whether he will make a statement respecting the food shortage in India; in what areas or provinces this prevails; to what extent deaths are occurring or are expected through hunger; what steps have been and are being taken to deal with the situation; and what is the price of rice and grain in the districts most affected and in comparison with prewar prices?

110. Sir Stanley Reed

asked the Secretary of State for India whether his attention has been drawn to the existence of a considerable measure of destitution in Calcutta; and whether he has any statement to make on the food situation in Bengal and in the Bijapur district of the Bombay Deccan?

113. Mr. Silverman

asked the Secretary of State for India whether he will now take the initiative and obtain for the transit of food to India shipping facilities, so that wheat from Australia and maize from South Africa may be made available there?

114. Mr. John Dugdale

asked the Secretary of State for India whether he has received a full report of the Bengal food conference; whether any concrete demands or requests were made at this conference; whether it was representative of the people of Bengal; and what action is proposed to be taken?

117. Mr. Sloan

asked the Secretary of State for India whether he will make a full statement on the famine situation in India, particularly in Bengal, Malabar, Behar and Assam; and whether any large shipments of grain and other food are on their way to India from this country or America or will be sent shortly?

The Secretary of State for India (Mr. Amery)

I will reply to these Questions by a short statement, with the permission of the House.

My earlier statements as to the nature and causes of the failure of food supplies in certain parts of India hold good. Amongst those causes have been poor rice crops in Bengal, loss of the Burma imports, withholding of some portion of their crops from sale by 50 million peasant producers and doubtless some merchant hoarding, coupled with some clashes of provincial and national interests and some local failures of administration. The areas mainly affected are parts of Bombay and Madras where crops are always precarious, Cochin and Travancore, areas mainly dependent on imports by sea, and above all, Bengal, with the vast city of Calcutta as its core. In all these areas there is the menace of famine but Bombay at least, by establishing a rationing system in the city last May and by co-operating with the Central Government, has held its own so far.

Elsewhere the position generally is not so serious, but heavy concentrations of population such as those in the coalfields and Jamshedpur in Bihar, and Indore, Mysore and Bangalore, are all a constant source of anxiety.

A new and growing source of difficulty is that heavy calls on the main granaries of Punjab and Sind to replace rice in Bengal and the South have left shortages of wheat for other areas normally dependent on them. Moreover, high food prices have created difficulties elsewhere for salaried people and those who earn cash wages—a much smaller proportion of the population than in England but many millions of the people nevertheless.

Bengal, including Calcutta, is unquestionably the centre of trouble at this moment. Reports have been received of distressing scenes both in the city and in the districts, the death rate in Calcutta in the last seven months has been 30 per cent. above normal, and there is real ground for anxiety. The problem which faces the Government of Bengal, which, I would remind the House, is a Government of Indian Ministers responsible to the local Legislature, and which is statutorily responsible for food administration, is to obtain sufficient supplies from sources in Bengal and elsewhere and to distribute them adequately. Statutory powers exist for the extraction of excessive merchant stocks, but it is taking time for them to be put into full effect, and the province is compelled to rely upon the grains brought by the Central Government from the Punjab and elsewhere in order to make up for the deficiencies of home grown rice. Measures of control have brought the price of rice in Calcutta down to Rs.24 per maund (about 5½d. per pound) after being as high as Rs.37. The pre-war figure was approximately Rs.4 per maund. Elsewhere wholesale prices are lower and range from Rs.18 in the Punjab to as low as Rs.8 in Madras.

One thousand seven hundred tons of wheat per day are being brought into Calcutta by the Central Government. Provided effective distribution can be arranged, this is more than enough to feed the city itself on a tolerable ration basis, but supplies have to cover some of the country districts also. As regards distribution, rationing is being organised on the Bombay plan. The Central Food Department are giving their assistance in the organisation of these plans, but it is expected that it will be a month before rationing in Calcutta is working. Meanwhile the Provincial authorities have organised free relief on a considerable scale and are seeking to deal with the problem of destitute persons who find their way to the city. It is fortunate that jute factories and other organised industries here and elsewhere have been able to keep their employees supplied and have eased the general problem by so doing.

His Majesty's Government are giving such assistance as they can by way of facilitating import of foodstuffs into India, but the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Silverman) will recognise that considerations of security make it undesirable to give detailed information as to sources of supply. Hon. Members will realise, too, in the light of the passage in the Prime Minister's recent statement which dealt with the shipping position, that the extent to which such assistance can be given without serious repercussions in other directions is not unlimited.

While these measures are being taken to deal with the short-term problem, the All-India Committee appointed by the Central Government in July to consider long-term measures has made its report. This was presented yesterday, and I await the Government of India's statement of the findings and their recommendations upon it. I trust that it will be possible to find, in the light of its recommendations, a basis on which the Bengal Government, the Centre and His Majesty's Government can successfully co-operate to meet the threat to Bengal and elsewhere.

Mr. Sorensen

Is it not true that until recently an impression was given to the general public that the shortage in India was not so severe as has obviously been the case, and that it was largely, if not entirely, due to hoarding; and may I further ask why the measures now being taken by the Central Government in India were not taken months ago?

Mr. Amery

The Central Government in India began taking the matter in hand a great many months ago, and I can assure the hon. Member it has been engaging the watchful attention of the Government of India for something like a year past.

Mr. Sorensen

What action have they taken?

Earl Winterton

Can my right hon. Friend give the House an assurance that the powers which the Government of India possess under the Defence of India Act to intervene in any case where a Provincial Government is not doing its duty for the defence of India are being properly exercised; and can he at some future date supplement the information he has given to us and tell us whether a great deal of this shortage is not due to the most shameless profiteering and hoarding on the part of certain people in India?

Mr. Amery

Yes, Sir, the Government of India would certainly not hesitate to use their powers to the full, if necessary, and have already done so to a very considerable extent. There has undoubtedly been a great deal of profiteering in India, but my right hon. Friend knows well how difficult it is to deal with these matters through the various organisations, the Governmental organisations responsible, and above all how difficult it is to deal with hoarding on the smaller scale including the keeping back of small fractions by the peasant on his own holding.

Mr. Graham White

Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that there is within India, or in sight through the arrangements he has taken a sufficient supply of the basic foodstuffs to put an end to the terrible state of need he has described in Bengal, and can he say whether, if other measures fail to break the hoarding, he will try the method of importation and distribution where hoarding is most prevalent? It would possibly be the best way.

Mr. Amery

The problem is undoubtedly; in the main, one of distribution. Measures have already been taken during the past year for considerable importations, and I understand that the Committee to which I have just referred has recommended that the situation will require to be dealt with by considerable importations.

Mr. Mack

In view of the fact that apart from the loss of supplies through enemy action in Burma the problem appears to be one of selfish and shameful hoarding by elements in India, will not the Government take serious and immediate steps, if necessary, to requisition what supplies are available, in view of the terrible scourge of famine? This appears to be one of the most vital matters.

Mr. Amery

The Bengal Government have already requisitioned on a considerable scale.

Viscountess Astor

Will the right hon. Gentleman make it clear to the world that this awful situation is not the fault of the British Government? I would ask him to bear in mind the anti-English propaganda that is going throughout the world about India.

Mr. Amery

The primary and statutory responsibility in this matter has been that of the Provincial Governments where those Governments have enjoyed self-governing administration.

Mr. Silverman

Is it not the case that the weight of anti-British propaganda comes from the existence of these conditions, and does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that the quickest way to bring it to an end is to end the present situation? May I further ask whether an important element in the maldistribution of food has not been the failure of the Central Government to take adequate measures for price control?

Mr. Shinwell

Could there be anything worse than disclaiming responsibility? Is it not possible to say that we accept responsibility, in spite of the constitutional position in India, and that we shall do everything possible? Ought we not to tell the world that, having accepted our responsibility, we shall do everything practicable in order to relieve this situation?

Mr. Amery

It must be obvious to hon. Members that this House has, after long discussion, assigned great responsibilities to self-governing institutions and that we should not be unduly hasty in revoking or over-riding them, but at the same time I can assure my hon. Friend that the Government of India will not hesitate to take whatever measures are necessary.

Mr. Stephen

Will the right hon. Gentleman not consider releasing Gandhi and his friends?

Mr. Sorensen

May I ask for an answer to the first part of my supplementary question, in which I asked whether it is not now quite clear that whatever hoarding may have taken place, the basic cause of the shortage is quite other than that; and may I also ask whether the right hon. Gentleman will arrange for a Debate on this subject at the earliest possible date?

Sir W. Davison

Who are the persons who have been hoarding?

Mr. Amery

I could not gather the question of the hon. Member for West Leyton (Mr. Sorensen).

Mr. Sorensen

I asked whether it is not now obvious that the cause of the shortage of food in India is other than hoarding, and whether under the circumstances the right hon. Gentleman would arrange for a Debate at the earliest possible date?

Mr. Amery

That is not a matter for me.

Mr. Sorensen

Could not the Secretary of State for India reply to the first part of my supplementary question, and if he was ready to do so, could he be given the opportunity?

Mr. Amery

I am afraid that even at the second time of asking I did not really hear the question.