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Sen says that in 1943 additional food consumption by war workers in Bengal was so great that there was not enough food left for everyone else. Millions starved. Elsewhere he talks of additional food consumption by all industrial workers. The question is, "How much extra would they have had to eat to cause the famine? Is it possible for anyone to eat that much?"

Population of Bengal was 60 million

Population of Calcutta was 6 million

Number of war workers plus dependents was 350,000 in 1943. (Note that rearmament started in 1938. We are more concerned with the marginal number, the increase from 1941 or 1942 to 1943.)

Nobody suggests that the rural population increased their consumption. They were the ones that went hungry.

Two thirds of the population of Bengal went hungry. (Mahalanobis et al.) (Department of Anthropology, Calcutta University, quoted by Rajan, N.S.R. “‘Famine in Retrospect’”, Pamda Publications Bombay, India, 1944.)

Per capita consumption of cereals in rice equivalent is given below. Assume 100 calories per ounce.

A population can stay healthy in the long term at 1550 calories per adult, as shown below.

A plump adult will lose perhaps half a pound a day on 500 calories. Ask your colleagues how much they lose on 1200 calories per day. Many of those who starved were previously relatively well off. (Mahalanobis.)

Average consumption in a normally bad year would have been about 2200 calories per adult in Bengal.

Manual workers doing hard work need 3000 calories. Coal miners needed 5000.

Few populations would have had a consumption as high as 3000 calories until recent years. The 3800 calories of modern USA requires high technology to pump sugar and fats into food. 3800 calories of a rice based diet is a very difficult to consume - try cooking and eating 25 to 30 ounces of rice.

Calculate how many ounces of rice would have to be eaten by 50,000 war workers to bring the consumption of 40 million people down from 2200 calories down to 1600 calories, and to bring the consumption of 5 million people to below 1000 calories. Measure it out. Cook it. Eat it. If you manage to eat it all, report your achievement to the Guinness Book of Records.

Repeat the calculation for a) all war workers and their dependents b) one million industrial workers in Calcutta c) 3 million people in Calcutta (i.e. excluding public sector, the very poor, and others not benefiting from armament production.  Measure it out, cook it, eat it.

Do the same calculations with calories if you wish.

Because of the tight wartime food controls, controls of food transport, and rationing of urban industrial workers, we do have statistics on how much rice was actually eaten in Calcutta. This is given in Amartya Sen's primary source, the Report of the Famine Inquiry Commission, in several places notably pp219-33 . The figures are discussed in depth in HTML How Sen's Theory causes famines and in the Word document How Sen’s Theory Can Cause Famines.


Sen states “In a poor community take the poorest section, say, the bottom 20% of the population and double the income of half that group, keeping the money income of the rest unchanged. In the short run prices of food will now rise sharply, since the lucky half of the poorest group will now fill their part-filled bellies. While this might affect the food consumption of other groups as well, the group that will be pushed towards starvation will be the remaining half of the poorest community which will face higher prices with unchanged money income. Something of this nature happened in the economy of Bengal in 1943.

Note that he is talking here of 15 million people in Bengal, 43 times as many as the 350,000 war workers and dependents he mentions elsewhere. And he is stating that only the poorest people had changed incomes, which is not true of Bengal. And he is stating that the war workers were recruited from the poorest part of the population which is not true. The rest of the statement is equally unrepresentative of what happened in Bengal.

However, let us assume, contrary to fact, that this is not a fairy tale. Using the consumption figures below, calculate how much more rice would have been demanded.

Estimates of per capita consumption of all cereals.

  Ounces per day
General average rate for Bengal

Sectional average rates:

Rural population
Calcutta middle classes
Mofussil urban middle classes
Industrial working classes
Families whose monthly expenditure is Rs 10 or less





SOURCE; Famine Inquiry Commission [Amartya Sen's primary source],  Ref. 2, p 204. The estimates were furnished by Professor Mahalanobis, Honorary Secretary, Indian Statistical Institute, Calcutta. Professor Mahalanobis analysed the results of five different surveys conducted at different times between 1936 and 1942. Some of these were made at the instance of the Bengal government and others were undertaken by the Indian Statistical Institute or the Viswabharati Institute of Rural Reconstruction. b) The number of families whose monthly expenditure was RS 10 or less, was 3212 as against a total of 15 409 families in the sample; and the number of persons included in such families was 11 788, as against a total of 81 554 in the sample. c) Other studies reviewed by the Food Grains Procurement Committee suggests a lower limit to average per capita consumption of 15 ounces per day and an upper limit of 17 ounces.

Again, a little work with a calculator shows that even if the income change had taken place (it did not), the lucky half would have eaten very little more, only 1.8% of total more (according to consumption surveys of the time).  This would have had no noticeable effect, if, as Sen says, there was plenty of food available.

How much food do people need to avoid death by starvation?

The only reliable figures on famine I have come across were those of postwar Germany, where an extremely impressive British rationing authority was monitoring an extremely impressive German authority.  There as elsewhere there were leakages and black markets.  However, during the Berlin airlift, June 1948 to May 1949, there was total control of imports, exercised by a hostile Soviet regime. All the food was flown in by the RAF and USAAF who kept accurate figures.  The health of the inhabitants was constantly monitored. On 1550 calories in Berlin, the health and weight seemed to remain constant over the whole period.  The original data is readily accessible in the National Archives at Kew.

 It looks as though sedentary adults can drop to 1200 calories for long periods and to 1000 calories for some months without a very large increase in deaths. Your body closes down and you sleep a lot. Ask around your office and ask who actually loses weight on a 1200 calorie diet. 

Note that in the Bengal Famine, as in previous famines, the people who starved were not those that had been poorest, and thinnest, previously but people in occupations that became redundant, like tailors and shoemakers. (See Mahalanobis, Bartle Frere.)

The requirements of teenagers are much higher.  So too are the requirements of manual workers.  In Germany, they had to feed the miners 3500 calories, and it should have been more, 5000 plus.  In parts of India the normal for a working farmer is 2800 calories. Note that the industrial workers who Sen said were eating so much more, were recruited from the healthy well-fed part of the population. Note too that in most countries when miners etc were given extra food because of the hard manual work they did, they got this food at the works canteen so they could not give it to their families.  Be careful: calories per adult OR calories per head.      

I suspect that to move from Bengal’s 2200 calories plus per adult to rapid starvation would mean a drop of 1400 calories per day. Even this is an understatement, because the rice started to run out immediately after the harvest. For the more general hunger which affected two thirds of the population, we are talking of 1200 to 1600 calories per day.  Uncomfortable, but not fatal.

 In 1798 Marshal Massena was besieged in Northern Italy for six months plus, feeding his men on half a pound of hair powder per day (this was the flour used for powdering wigs.  This gives 800 calories per day.) (AG Macdonald Napoleon and his Marshals.)

See also two models of rice economies very like those he describes:

Are Boom Famines Possible?

Can Speculation cause Famines?

My calculations reach the following conclusion: Sen claims that, because of inflation, the group of people whose purchasing power increased because of the inflation (1% - 2% of the population) ate so much more than usual that two thirds of the population went hungry – 10 % very hungry indeed , with half of this 10% dying of starvation and disease. This requires that on 1st November 1942 the small group with increased purchasing power started eating 12 to 36  times more than usual and that they reverted to normal consumption in September 1943. Here is one possible scenario.

How much more war workers would have to eat under inflation hypothesis  
  % of population Normal consumption cal/head/day Consumption 1943 cal/head Proportion of normal consumption  
Died in 1943* 1.50 2800 1000 0.36  
General population who went hungry 65.00 2800 1800 0.64  
Other General population  33.00 2800 2800 1.00  
War workers 0.50 3000 138400 46.13  
Total 100.00 2801 2801 1.00  
Note: This is a high estimate of the average number of calories consumed, over the year 1943.
For some of the year they would have been dead and consumed nothing.