The main thrust of Sen's argument is that the overriding cause of the famine was the approach of the Bengal Government. He claims that they adopted the FAD approach, acting on the belief that the famine was caused by a sudden sharp decline in food availability. As a result, they failed to anticipate the famine; they failed to recognize it when it came; and there were disastrous policy failures in dealing with it.

" The failure of the government to anticipate the famine and even to recognize it when it revealed itself, seems to have been the result largely of erroneous theories of famine causation, rather than mistakes about facts dealing with food availability" (Sen 1977 p55)

This is untrue in all respects, as is shown in Appendix II which gives a detailed description of the Bengal Governments actions. The sources are agreed that the Bengal Government made much the same assessment as Sen of food availability (until, in July or August, when the famine was reaching its peak, they started to realize that there was a major shortage). They believed that there was only a first-degree shortage. Surprisingly,i n support of his claim that the Bengal Government was obsessed by the FAD approach, Sen gives two pages of evidence showing just the opposite: that the Bengal Government was firmly convinced that there was adequate food available, and that the hunger was due to changes in distribution (1977 00 53,54; 1981 pp 80-82). They also had the same theory of famine causation, and of the appropriate way of dealing with the famine. They believed that lack of purchasing power rather than lack of food caused starvation. They believed that price control was necessary under wartime inflation to prevent certain groups getting more than their fair share. They believed in public relief schemes. They believed that a large supply of food had to be distributed through the public distribution system. They believed that some degree of rationing was desirable. They believed that speculation and hoarding were major causes of the famine. They attempted therefore to provide the population, and particularly the population of Calcutta, with the purchasing power necessary to obtain the food. They instituted public relief measures. They intervened on the market. Had they been right in their assessment of food supplies, and on the cause of the famine they might have been successful. However, they held the same views as Sen, and they acted accordingly. Three million people died.

If they had held the FAD view, as Sen states, their logic would have been as follows: "There is widespread hunger and even starvation. Under the FAD approach, the only possible reason is a shortage of food. Ergo, we must import one and a half million tons immediately." Whether their analysis was right or wrong, their response would have saved three million lives.


7.1 Monitoring the Shortage

Sen is indignant that the government should have spent any time at all on monitoring available supply, once it had been decided that the famine was due to maldistribution:

"The government's thinking on the nature of the food problem, while encompassing a variety of factors, seems to have been persistently influenced by attempts to estimate the size of the real shortage' on the basis of requirements' and availability'; it was a search in a dark room for a black cat which was not there." (Sen 1977 p53).

I must disagree in the strongest possible terms. The effects of treating a serious food shortage as merely a change in distribution are horrendous. It would be criminal negligence bordering on the genocidal to treat any famine as merely a first-degree shortage without constantly reconsidering the possibility that either initial estimates were wrong or the degree of shortage had changed. This at least the Bengal Government was not guilty of.

Previous | Return to main | Next