India is experiencing the world’s fastest covid outbreak. Over 400,000 people were diagnosed with the virus on Saturday, placing the total number at over 22 million.
The Biden administration plans to send 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to India. Yet, the emergency use guidelines, which have enabled all of the coronavirus vaccines to reach the American public, ban the export of active vaccines. While the White House plans to work around this regulation, it’s an open question of whether they can do so quickly enough to stem the tide. As President Biden weighs how to address this crisis, he can learn from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s actions — and inactions — during India’s last public health crisis of this magnitude: the 1943 Bengal Famine.
Halfway through World War II, when Britain still ruled India, U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill banned all food shipments into the province of Bengal to dissuade Japan from invading India. Bengalis had just enough rice to live off, but when two typhoons and a tsunami ravaged the region’s rice supply, millions starved. The British report on the famine counted 400,000 dead. Economist Amartya Sen has estimated that it actually claimed over 3 million lives.
The Bengal Famine imperiled the free world. As one of the only nations fighting in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters, India was the pivot point of the global conflict. Indian troops also composed much of the Allied personnel in North Africa, the Middle East and East Asia. If India starved, the Allies could lose the war.
Roosevelt had the ability to relieve India. In 1943, he assumed de facto leadership of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). Formed by the Allies to address agricultural, industrial and refugee crises created by the war — and preceding the U.N. and World Health Organization — UNRRA was the first truly international institution designed to solve global crises.
Roosevelt saw India as a perfect recipient for UNRRA aid. But Churchill strongly disagreed. Viewing Indians as unfit for global support, the prime minister rejected the idea of relieving India with UNRRA funds. No international organization, he argued, should enter the Raj, signal waning U.K. authority in the region and sully the dignity of the British Empire.
Churchill’s decision was unsurprising: he often prioritized British authority in India over the Allied war effort. A year prior, when Roosevelt and Churchill met in Washington to discuss strategy, the prime minister had admonished the president for encouraging concessions to the Indian independence movement as a means of rallying Indian war support. Churchill boasted about the conversation in his memoir: “I reacted so strongly and at such length that [Roosevelt] never raised [India] verbally again.”
Since that conversation, the president had obliged Churchill on all matters related to India. Roosevelt had opposed imperialism for decades, for instance, but he rebuffed Mahatma Gandhi’s requests for the U.S. to support Indian nationalism.
For the president, the calculation was simple: Anglo-American unity was crucial to winning the war. He and Churchill needed to be in lockstep.
As a result, Roosevelt accepted Churchill’s position on the famine and refrained from directing UNRRA aid to India. Roosevelt’s decision also stemmed from a provision in the UNRRA charter, which stipulated that the organization needed the recipient nation’s permission before administering relief. Without Churchill’s consent, helping India would violate UNRRA policy.
And yet, several bureaucrats inside UNRRA understood both the desperate need for food in India and the ramifications of failing to act. One was G.S. Bajpai, a British-Indian civil servant who tried to amend UNRRA’s charter to send aid to India over Churchill’s objections.
Another bureaucrat was R.V. Gogate, an Indian-American agricultural expert — and an unsung hero of U.S.-India history. Serving as an UNRRA policy analyst, Gogate wrote memos arguing that the organization needed to aid India not just for its sake but also to win the war. He especially focused on bolstering India’s agricultural prowess. He wrote that “subsidizing India’s cottage industries and investing in her … farm concerns by furnishing machinery, improved seeds, and technical experts” would readily transform India’s weakness into the capacity to support other allied nations.
The advice of these experts went unheeded. They didn’t have the power to circumvent Roosevelt and his sense of the geopolitical priorities at play. As a result, Bengali farmers continued to perish into 1944 and 1945.
Yet, Gogate found another way to help Bengal near the end of the war, when UNRRA and Churchill decided that India should donate agricultural resources to other ailing Allies like China and Greece to rebuild the global economy. This decision threatened to exacerbate the famine even further: exporting Indian crops could starve millions more Bengalis. Recognizing the stakes, Gogate used the administrative levers at his disposal to rescue Bengal.
He moved from the U.S. to New Delhi to serve as an UNRRA Liaison Officer. With his new power, he steered the UNRRA procurement process in such a way as to preserve India’s rice supply. Speaking on behalf of India’s farmers, a close adviser to Gogate told the organization’s directors, “we will take the attitude of a starving man helping another starving man, but we will certainly do our best.”
Without these maneuvers, the famine could have been a greater global catastrophe. Gogate’s impact was small, but his vision was clear: without creative action and use of every bureaucratic mechanism, India — and the world — would be in danger.
Imagine if Roosevelt had possessed Gogate’s understanding of the situation’s stakes and his relentless willingness to use every geopolitical avenue to rescue Bengal. Or imagine if Gogate had Roosevelt’s authority. With both political power and a willingness to cut through red tape and the prime minister’s anti-Indian prejudices, a leader could have rescued India — with salutary effects for the war effort and the world.
Biden has a chance to do both. His domestic agenda has generated countless comparisons to Roosevelt, but in the case of India and covid-19, it is low-level bureaucrats like Gogate — the people who defied Roosevelt — who provide the best model for Biden.
Gogate understood the desperation — and potential deadly ramifications of making the wrong move. By contrast, Roosevelt’s focus on legal niceties and traditional diplomacy with high-level leaders placed the people of India, and the world, in danger. Weighing the humanitarian need to aid millions against the geopolitical need to stand with his country’s closest ally, Roosevelt took an absolute position by siding with Churchill. A nearly uncountable number of people died as a result.
Once again, the health of Indians is in dire jeopardy, and if the situation worsens, it has the potential to create serious consequences far beyond India’s borders. Biden, like Roosevelt before him, confronts legal barriers and complications to acting boldly and quickly enough to try to mitigate the suffering in India. His administration can learn from Gogate, who demonstrated that when a situation is sufficiently dire and the stakes are sufficiently high, finding a solution to complex crises is possible — and paramount.