In April 1942, the city faced an unprecedented scarcity. While the government opened up cooperative shops , residents reeled under the impact of a commodities shortage, spiking prices and rumours of a military take-over. The third part of an ongoing series, by A. Srivathsan, delves into the archives of The Hindu, offering readers a glimpse of those turbulent times
As early as April 6, 1942, in the midst of World War II, Madras police commissioner L.B. Gasson issued a press release ordering those employed in essential services such as water supply and transport to stay behind in the city. He made it clear that they could not leave without obtaining his written permission. This in a way, much to the discomfort of those who were compelled to stay back, prevented the total evacuation of Madras.
For those who remained behind, the only consolation was that their families had moved to safer places; otherwise life in an almost empty city was arduous.
There were two major problems: food supply and safety. The Hindu, in its editorial then, complained that the government did not sufficiently tackle the issue of food supply. Councillor T. Prakasam raised the problem of shortage of milk with the Mayor. The newspaper frequently discussed the issue of the closure of restaurants and hotels, and the food scarcity it created.
To its credit, the government opened 52 cooperative shops across the city to distribute provisions and vegetables. It regularly advertised in papers about the shops and their timings. When private shop owners greedily hiked up the prices of commodities, it intervened to regulate.
For instance, when Dooraiswami Nadar a firewood trader on Eldams Road tried to sell a gundu (5.6 lbs) of wood for 10 annas when the regulated price was seven and half annas, the police promptly fined him.
However, the government could not do much in the case of food sold in restaurants. Since hotels did not come under the list of essential services, it could not prevent them from closing. Instead, the government tried to offer incentives. It proposed a 10 per cent subsidy on rents of hotel premises and free tickets to employees to move to camps on the outskirts of the city during emergencies. This did not work.
Hotel owners of Madras who met F.W.A Morris, the Commissioner of Civil Defence and the Collector of the city, at his office on First Line Beach, told him that they would close down their business because of shortage of provisions, milk supplies, lack of small change, transport and shortage of servers. Only a few kept their restaurants open. Long queues in front of them were a normal sight and the price of a meal rose from 4 anas to Rs. 7 anas.
The only way the Corporation and the government could keep their employees from leaving, was by supplying cooked food. The government tried to help private companies by offering to supply one meal a day at a controlled price.
There were two kinds of food packets available: the first-class packet included sambar rice with curry and curd rice with pickles priced at 3 anas. The second-class packet containing only sambar rice with pickles was priced at an anna and a half.
Locked houses worried residents a great deal. Newspapers published on April 20 reported that brass or iron locks fastened to front doors of many untenanted houses in George Town, Triplicane and Royapettah were found removed. The police deputed a special team and soon arrested a man and recovered more than half a dozen locks from him.
Restrictions on cremating dead bodies were also in place. The health department ordered that cremations must take place by afternoon, so that the flares of the pyre did not attract ‘enemies.’
Alert residents kept bringing up concerns as they emerged. R. Ramachandran, one of the traders in city, was worried about electricity bills. He appealed to the government that since the houses were locked and not in use he must not be compelled to pay minimum electricity charges. Another reader pointed out that house rents, which had fallen from Rs. 100 to Rs. 50 in the previous months, had come down to zero after the air-raid alert, had come to zero and still had no takers. The income tax department has to factor this in when finalising tax returns, he wrote.
Rumours and the panic they created were the most difficult of issues to deal with. Unconfirmed news reports about the military taking over the city floated around. Many believed that the army would take away their buildings, bicycles and cars. Hospitals, they heard, had evacuated and refused to admit new patients.
The government tried to explain. It admitted that a dozen bicycles were “commandeered by military men” and some of them created a ruckus “in a prominent non-vegetarian hotel” on Mount Road, but the city itself had not been handed over to the military and things remained under control, they said.
This story has been corrected on October 8, 2012 for factual error