The problem of famines and food shortages is one of the most acute facing agricultural economists. Today, 15 countries have famines and 30 million people face starvation. In the past ten years, Professor Amartya Sen's approach to the economics of famine has become influential. He has argued at some length that a major cause of famine is not a sudden decline in food availability, but a sudden redistribution of what food is available. It will be argued here that there are major weaknesses in his theory, which mean that it is more likely to cause famines than to cure them. It will also be reasoned that his theory and analysis are wrong and that there are inconsistencies between the arguments he presents. The implications of his theory, and many of the facts he gives, are contradicted by the facts in the sources he cites. For several reasons this paper will consider only Sen's analysis of the Bengal Famine of 1943 - it is the one he gives most attention to, it is the best documented one, and it is the one for which his theory is most plausible. To be absolutely fair to him, the analysis will rely entirely on the sources he quotes, and no new evidence will be presented. This analysis is presented purely as a refutation of Sen. It is not a complete analysis of the Bengal Famine - only a book could do justice to so important and so complex a subject, and the book would not overlap with Sen's analysis to any degree. It is not presented as a supply-side analysis in contrast to Sen's demand-side analysis. On the contrary, it was the weaknesses and contradictions in his demand analysis that showed that his supply figures could not be accurate. The practical problems of administration, physical distribution or rationing will not be considered here, though they were important in the Bengal famine; nor will the failures of long-term agrarian and food policy which made the situation so critical and so difficult to deal with. However, the points that are discussed are not trivial: the failure of the authorities to understand them caused three million deaths in 1943. The language of normal economic theory will be used, rather than that of Sen's entitlement theory. There are several reasons for this. First, Sen himself used this language when dealing with the Bengal famine, with his occasional mentions of entitlement declines, etc, being external to his analysis. Second, we are concerned with what actually happened, rather than with the labels put on the effects. Third, the use of the value-loaded vocabulary of entitlement would confuse people who are not familiar with it, or who do not agree with it. Finally, discussions have made it clear that different people interpret his entitlement theory in quite different ways.

It is always possible to provide a few facts in favour of the flat earth hypothesis or any other. Accordingly, this paper will examine each of Sen's hypotheses to see if they are supported by all the facts, including those he does not quote. It is also possible to present a series of minor hypotheses, none of which is falsified hy the evidence, but none of which receives much corroboration from it. The only satisfactory way of testing these is to see whether they are compatible with each other, and whether they fit into a general model of the market being examined.

Sen's theory is set out in Amartya Sen, Famines as failures of exchange entitlements', Economic and Political Weekly, Special No, August 1976; A. Sen, Starvation and exchange entitlements: a general approach and its application to the Great Bengal Famine', Cambridge Journal of Economics, No 1, pp 33-59, 1977; and A. Sen, Famine Mortality: a study of the Bengal Famine of 1943', in Hobsbawm et al, Peasants in History: Essays in Memory of Daniel Thorner, Calcutta, Oxford University Press, 1980. Also A. Sen, Famines', World Development, Vol 8, No 9, pp 613-21, September 1980b; A. Sen, Poverty and Famines, Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK, 1981; A. Sen, Ingredients of famine analysis: availability and entitlements', Quarterly Journal of Economics, August 1981 b, pp 433-464; and A. Sen, Resources, values and development, Blackwell, Oxford, UK, 1984.

Previous | Return to main | Next