There are several different versions of the causes of the famine. I will set them out here and examine them at length later.


5.1 The Famine Commission Version

The Famine Commission argues that the basic cause of the famine was a reduction in the food supply. This was due to the poor December 1942 crop, and to the fact that there was a reduced carry-over of supplies from previous years, resulting in at least a second-degree shortage, with insufficient rice available to keep the population healthy, no matter how it was distributed.

Gross mismanagement of the crisis, particularly by the Bengal and Indian Governments,meant that nothing effective was done to alleviate it. They took only the action appropriate to a first-degree shortage. The relief measures were totally inadequate for a problem of this scale. There should have been massive imports. A rationing system should have been introduced in Calcutta at least. The government should have seized all grain stocks and should have taken over the whole grain trade.

This brief summary does the Famine Commission an injustice. Their report is rich and closely argued and by no means as simplistic as I have suggested.

5.2 Professor Husain's Version

Professor Husain, a member of the Famine Commission, argued that the shortage was even worse than the rest of the Famine Commission believed. He argued that the carry-over of old stocks from 1942 to 1943 was very low indeed, so there was a third degree shortage, and serious famine was inevitable in the absence of major imports.

The grain trade generally made the same assessment, both because of their knowledge of stock levels, and because they thought that the Department of Agriculture had over-estimated the December 1942 crop. They invested accordingly, and made a lot of money.


5.3 Professor Sen's Version

Professor Sen presents his version in support of his claim that this famine and many others were not caused by a decline in food availability, and that the Food Availability Decline approach to famine analysis is inappropriate. He states that there was plenty of food available in Bengal in 1943, at least 9% more per capita than there had been in 1941, when there had been no famine, so the famine did not arise because of a decline in the availability of food. In particular he doubts that there was a reduced carry-over at the beginning of 1943, as the Famine Commission says. Instead, the famine occurred because of a change in the distribution of existing food supplies, arising from wartime conditions, particularly inflation. This meant that some groups of the population got higher incomes and ate more, leaving little for the rest of the population. At the same time others did not have sufficient money to buy food. He provides the following causal hypotheses (Sen 1977 pp 50, 51; 1981a pp 75-78), which will be considered in a later section:

  1. Demand factors related to inflation increased the price of rice in 1942.
  2. An uneven expansion of income and purchasing power.
  3. Impoverishment of occupational groups not directly affected (from March 1943 on).
  4. The change from the stable prices of 1914 to 1939 to an era of more rapidly rising prices.
  5. Speculative withdrawal and panic purchases were encouraged by administrative chaos (especially between December 1942 and March 1943, but also up to November).
  6. ". . . demand forces were reinforced by an indifferent' winter crop and by vigorous speculation and panic hoarding" from March to November 1943. [Here and elsewhere his quotation marks appear to have purely rhetorical significance.]
  7. The prohibition of export of cereals from other provinces.
  8. The policy of removing boats from areas threatened with Japanese invasion(1980b p619).
  9. The policy of removing excess grain stocks from areas threatened with Japanese invasion (1984 p461; 1980b p619; 1981b p441)

The first six of these explanations are all seen as having the same result, concentrating purchasing power and food consumption on a small section of the population, so that there was insufficient food available for everyone else.

Sen's whole argument tends towards his conclusion that "the failure to anticipate the Bengal famine . . . and indeed the inability even to recognise it when it came, can be traced largely to the government's overriding concern with aggregate food availability statistics." (1984 p477) He suggests that if the problem had been analysed using his approach, the famine would not have occurred.

It will be shown in some detail in this monograph that all Sen's explanations were discussed in the source documents, notably the FIC. They were part of the popular explanation at the time. Furthermore much of the policy of the Bengal Government at the time was based on them, with disastrous consequences. It will also be pointed out that they were popular during the 1888 Orissa famine and as far back as Adam Smith at least. The inflation explanation for famines was very popular after the Central European hyper inflations of the 1930s, where they did appear to cause deaths. It was this very popularity that encouraged the Bengal Government to adopt it. The explanation appeared in economics textbooks in the 1950s. It even appeared in chess books of the time: a challenger to Lasker for the world championship later died of hunger in Austria during hyper inflation. I do not know of anyone who would deny the possibility that this could cause a famine.

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