Dealing with a famine

The mainstream view, as well as the view of the most hardened believers in FAD, is that all famines should be dealt with by issuing free food to the poor, by relief works with payments in food, and by loans to prevent the impoverishment of farmers and artisans (See, for example, Bengal Administration, Bengal Famine Code, (Revised edition of December 1895) Calcutta,1897.) Market intervention (ie price control, control of stocks, seizure of stocks, prohibition of exports. etc) is also normal. In addition to this, rationing is taken to be a possible complete solution for a first or a second degree shortage, although the practical problems arc such that it would be unsafe to rely on it. There are problems arising from poor administration, corruption, political in- terference or difficulties with physical distribution. There may not be sufficient maldistribution for fair shares' to make things better. In Bengal in 1933 for example, only 22% of the population were well nourished, and since these people, the middle classes, ate considerably less rice (though more protective foods) than the average, equal rations of rice would actually worsen the situation.(Famine Commission, op cit, Ref 2, p 6, p 204.) Rationing is more likely to be effective as a method of reducing total consumption than of producing optimum allocation. Imports are seen as essential for dealing with third degree shortages and, in practice, for most second degree shortages. Sen disagrees. He states that it is wrong to concentrate attention on degree of shortage when determining how to tackle a famine, and indeed that it is wrong to consider the degree of shortage at all. The remedies he proposes are:

No matter how a famine is caused, methods of breaking it call for a large supply of food in the public distribution system. This applies not only to organizing rationing and control, but also to undertaking work programmes and other methods of increasing purchasing power for those hit by shifts in exchange entitlements in a general inflationary situation. . . A large food stock would have also helped in breaking the speculative spiral that ushered in the Phase II of the famine. Thus there is no reason to revise the criticisms made of the official failure to obtain more food in the public distribution system through greater procurement and larger imports from outside Bengal.'(Sen, op cit, Ref 2, 1981, p 79.)

At first sight this appears to be similar to the mainstream view; indeed, in his reply to my paper at the Development Studies Association Conference 1985, Professor Sen stated that his prescriptions are the same as mine. This is disingenuous: he would not have written so many books and papers on the subject merely to confirm the orthodoxy he attacks so violently. Some of the differences are as follows:

The difference between the two approaches in practice will be seen in the analysis of the Bengal Famine of 1943.

The Bengal Famine In 1943, Bengal suffered from a famine that resulted in perhaps 1.5 million deaths by starvation and the same number of deaths in the epidemics that hit a population weakened by hunger. Sen's major source of information on this was the excellent report of the Famine Inquiry Commission which was highly critical of the Imperial government, the Indian government, the Bengal government and the grain traders, whose incompetence, callousness and greed exacerbated the famine and prevented any effective action being taken to cure it. (Famine Commission, op cit, Ref 2, 1945.) There are also some contemporary, highly political books by Hindu and Muslim nationalists which reached similar conclusions.(For example, T.K. Dutt, Hungry Bengal, Indian Printing Works, Lahore, Pakistan, 1944; K.C. Ghosh, Famines in Bengal, 1170-1943, Indian Associated Publishing, Calcutta, India, 1944; T.K. Ghosh, The Bengal Tragedy, Hero Publications, Lahore, Pakistan,1944)

Rice was the staple food of Bengal, accounting for 80-90'% of the calories consumed. There were three crops; the December aman' crop which accounted for 74% of output; the upland aus' crop harvested in August and September, accounting for 24'%; and the boro' crop harvested in February or March, providing 3%. Japan entered the war in 1941, and by March 1942 had occupied Rangoon. This cut off Burma's rice exports to India, where there was a deficit, and caused shortages which lasted throughout the war. (W.R. Aykroyd, The conquest of famine, Chatto and Windus, London, UK, 1974.) Rice prices rose through the year (see Figure 1). On 16 October 1942, a cyclone accompanied by tidal waves and torrential rains hit West Bengal, destroying 30% of the winter rice crop, destroying food stores and killing 14 500 people and 190 000 cattle. There was immediate destitution in the area, and famine relief was begun.(Famine Commission, op cit, Ref 2, pp 32, 65, 66, 236.) Prices rose - doubling within a month when this poor crop was harvested. (Ibid, p 33.)


In interpreting price statistics it is necessary to remember that:

1) News of the cyclone was censored as a military secret for two weeks. It was mid- to late November before the press realized the extent of the damage, and even then the implications on the food supply of other areas was not appreciated.

2) Most damage was not directly caused by the tidal wave, but by fungus and root rot after flooding, and so was observed some time after the cyclone (Famine Commission, op cit, Ref 2, p 32).

3) Harvesting seasons for the December' crop varied from November to January, depending on area.

4) Prices rose more rapidly in some areas and, as predicted by margin theory, the rise was faster and a greater percentage in production areas.

5) Nearly all agricultural price statistics, and particularly prices in such markets, are subject to enormous errors (see, for example, P. Bowbrick, Market margin investigations and price control of fruit and vegetables', Irish Journal of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology, Vol 6, p 9-20,1976). In rural or urban Bengal in 1943, in wartime and with the threat of famine, such figures can be indicative at best. Calcutta market reports, for example, show exactly the same price month after month at a time when Sen and his sources are agreed that prices were rising - suggesting that the price was asked by a uniformed official rather than a plain-clothed man buying a sample which would later be weighed.

By March 1943, there was hunger throughout Bengal, and from July to November the famine was in full swing. Relief was totally inadequate. In November the new Viceroy, Wavell, increased imports and sent in the army to improve distribution. Hunger was reduced, but epidemics hit the hunger-weakened population. Three million people died. Two-thirds of the population was affected, going hungry or selling their possessions to buy food.

Sen (op cit, Ref 2,1977, p 33) calls this famine possibly the biggest famine in the last hundred years'. Again, he misquotes his sources. However, in GB Masefield, Famine: Its Prevention and Relief, OUP, Oxford, UK, 1963 (who he quotes on the history of famine), there are six mentioned where the death toll was higher than the official figures, nearly ten times greater in one case: India, 1876/7, 5 million; China, 1876/7, 9-13 million; Russia, 1924-1, Millions'; Human China, 1929, 2 million; and Russia, 1932/3, 3-10 million. The Sahel famine of the 1970s also had a greater death toll.

The Famine Commission provided a complex analysis of a complex situation, but said that the basic cause of the famine was a sudden decline in food availability (FAD), because of a 30% fall in the rice crop, aggravated by the loss of the Burma rice imports and the fact that there was an unusually small stock at the beginning of the year. Gross mismanagement of the crisis, particularly by the Bengal and Indian governments, meant that there was no effective action to alleviate it. They took only the action appropriate to a first degree shortage or a Sen-type famine. 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 for Calcutta at least; the government should have seized all grain stocks and taken over the whole grain trade; and there should have been grain distribution and relief works. Sen is scathing about this explanation. He claims that this famine and many others were not caused by FAD, and that a FAD approach to the analysis is wrong. He says that the famine arose and was inadequately handled largely because the Bengal government had the wrong theory, the FAD approach. (Sen, op cit, Ref 2,1984, p 477.) His own causal hypotheses are examined below, and are compared with the alternative explanation based on a sharp fall in food supply.

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