In this section Professor Sen's explanations for the Bengal Famine will be compared with those of the Famine Commission. In assessing the explanations it will be borne in mind that it is always possible to support a hypothesis or "explain" a single phenomenon with two or three pieces of selected evidence and a minimum of theory. Accordingly, the competing explanations will be examined to see if they are in accord with all the facts in the sources, not just a select few. The different explanations given will be examined to see if they are compatible with each other, with the facts, and with economic theory.

6.1 Inflation

Sen's first causal hypothesis is that the famine was set off by factors related to wartime inflation, though the fullest and clearest statement I have been able to find in his works on the subject is

"The increase in the rice price in Phase I [January 1942 to March 1943] was essentially related to demand factors. . . The price increase in the phase I period, while not confined to Bengal, was much more acute in Bengal than elsewhere (see Singh, 1965, pp 95-99;Palekar, 1962). This was, to a great extent, the result of general inflationary pressure in a war economy. The fall of Burma had brought Bengal to the war front and Bengal saw military and civil construction at a totally unprecedented scale. The war expenditures were financed to a great extent by printing notes" (1977 p50)

However the facts as presented in his sources give very little support for this. First, from the beginning of the war until the cyclone hit Bengal, the Working Class Cost of Living Index in Calcutta (which was very heavily weighted by the price of grain) rose slightly less than that in Madras and Bombay. (Singh, 1965 pp 95-99). From October 1942, when the cyclone struck, it rose much faster (See Figure 3). Sen does not explain why this inflationary pattern should suddenly change and affect Bengal so much more seriously.Nor does he explain why the change should happen to coincide with the cyclone.

Again, up to the cyclone, the rice price rise was not more acute in Bengal than elsewhere in India. Rice prices were higher elsewhere in India and there was a thriving export trade from Bengal (FIC pp 17, 18, 21, 22, 23, 28, 29). The United Provinces and the Central Provinces had crops that were poorer than even the crops of the previous year (FIC p17).This, together with the loss of Burma imports caused prices to rise, and would go some way to explain the price rises in Kanpur, which started before the cyclone (Figure 3).

To some extent inflation caused rice prices to rise. However, it must be questioned how far the price rises even before the famine were caused by inflation, rather than by the shortages. The Government of India was, of course, obsessed by wartime inflation, but was particularly concerned with grain prices as being a cause of inflation rather than a result. The Famine Commission gave a detailed and convincing account of the factors causing the rise in the rice price during 1942. They included panic hoarding by farmers and consumers following the outbreak of war with Japan; a shortfall of rice in India as a whole (but not in Bengal) as a result of the loss of the Burma rice; the loss of rice stocks in the cyclone; changed expectations after the cyclone; and the reduction in wheat imports by Calcutta. Their explanation of how grain prices started to rise after the cyclone had destroyed 30 % of the crop and after inter provincial trade had been banned is completely convincing. It also explains why the famine was confined to Bengal and to those parts of Orissa hit by the cyclone.

Sen himself quotes figures showing that the price of rice rose much faster than the price of fish, umbrellas, milk, haircuts etc. in spite of the fact that the supply of fish was much lower than usual. (1977 pp45, 46). Yet these goods were presumably equally hit by inflation.

Sen makes no attempt to explain why the inflation should have affected Bengal alone.Nor does he provide any market mechanism to explain how the inflation was transmitted to the price of grain - one would have expected the impact to have been concentrated on scarce consumer goods. He does not explain how paying a good wage to a few hundred thousand factory workers would result in an inflationary price rise in the grain bought by 50 million people. He himself quotes evidence that this extra demand in the industrial sector was offset by a falling demand in the agricultural sector.

"While in September 1942 the [agricultural] wage rate stood where it was in December 1941 and the price of rice stood only a little higher, a sudden upsurge of the rice price subsequently occurred, without a matching movement of the wage rate. In fact, while the price index of rice rose to 221 by November the wage rate actually fell in absolute terms- against the usual seasonal pattern" (1977 p43)

On page 51, again, he quotes the Famine Commission as saying that generally the agricultural labourers were not affected. He then talks of a decline in employment in the sector (p44). It is not clear from this how the inflationary pressure would be put onto food prices, with so few people affected. Finally, he does not explain why the inflationary effect should cease to apply on the harvesting of the December 1943 crop.

It must be concluded that the Famine Commission provides by far the most satisfactory explanation of price rises both before and after the cyclone. No doubt inflation had some effect, but it was minuscule by comparison with the rises when the shortages began to bite (see Figures l, 2 and 3).

A major reason for the rise in prices in 1943, which is not mentioned by Sen, is the purchasing of grain by the Bengal Government. They bought grain for relief, for public works and for "breaking the Calcutta market". For part of the period they were bidding against the trade without much limit on price. The danger of this practice was recognized explicitly by Malthus (1800) and by the Bengal Famine Code. It would not matter if there was no real shortage or a first degree shortage - everyone would get food, though prices would rise. However, if there is a more serious shortage, it would lead to a never-ending price spiral, because there is just not enough food to go round, however much money is paid. This happens both if the money is given to the poor to buy grain, or if the government buys grain on their behalf. If the Famine Commission's belief that there was a shortage of grain is accepted, then this must certainly have happened. This another major disaster brought about by misdiagnosis of the cause of the famine.

Again and again Sen's explanation is contradicted by the facts in his sources.


6.2 Speculation

Sen places speculation after inflation as one of the most important causes of the famine.He talks of "speculative withdrawal" especially between December 1942 and March 1943, but also up to November. There was also "vigorous speculation" from March to November 1943 (1977 p50; 1981 p76). There is an enormous literature on speculation,hoarding and storage dating back to Adam Smith at least. It is agreed on one thing: that the uninformed layman's criticisms of speculation are unfounded. Yet Sen does not provide a model to show why the uninformed layman's criticisms should be correct in this instance. Instead, he quotes the Famine Commission in his support, though in fact the Famine Commission describes a speculation which happened at another time, and which, moreover, was a form of speculation which could not have caused the famine.

The type of speculation that could have caused a famine is where traders buy up grain and withhold it from the market to push up the price. They reduce the total supply, and the surplus is exported, destroyed or carried over to the next season. There has been no suggestion in the sources that this happened, and nor has Sen argued that this happened.On the contrary, they imported all they could as soon as they saw that the December 1942 crop had failed. They imported all they could for the three months when there was free trade between Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. They smuggled in whatever they could throughout the period. In addition, from September 1942 to October 1943 the trade was trying to get the Bengal Government to import more. Since there was no suggestion that speculators reduced the amount of grain on the market during the famine year, one cannot argue that speculation caused the famine.

It is agreed by the sources that there was the other type of speculation based on normal storage, where merchants buy and store grain and then release it through the season. If the selling price is greater than the purchase price plus the storage cost, they make a profit (and my own observations in Africa and Asia confirms the theoretical prediction that they often make a loss). The Famine Commission was concerned with this kind of speculation.As civil servants in wartime, they were concerned about speculation and profiteering and its effects on price levels generally. As human beings, they were concerned that Government's failure to introduce famine relief on a sufficiently large scale had condemned to death those people who could not afford to pay the high prices. They paya great deal of attention to the fact that traders and large farmers bought up the crop at the beginning of the season and made enormous profits out of selling it, bit by bit, at famine prices (and, of course, the fact that they liquidated their stocks and prices still continued to rise confirms that there was a shortage). It meant that the people who starved were the poorest classes, such as landless labourers and very small farmers, as well as those whose ability to purchase grain was altered by the famine, like small traders, suppliers of services and employees. Those who had goods to sell impoverished themselves to survive, and as a result there was a further concentration in land ownership (and Bengalis still suffering the after effects of this transfer of resources).

However, the fact that there was this enormous transfer of resources does not mean that speculation increased the death rate. If we accept the Famine Commission's view thatthere was at least a second-degree shortage, we accept that some people were certain to die, in the absence of large-scale imports. The high prices determined that it was the poor who died rather than the rich. Had the same quantity of food been sold at a price only50% above the normal price, the same people would have died. There would not have been the same enormous transfer of property, though.

In fact, given that the Bengal Government was doing nothing which could relieve a second or third degree shortage, this speculation saved a lot of lives. If traders had not held on to stocks for a higher price, there would have been a worse catastrophe. If, at the beginning of the year, they had released the amount of grain the Bengal Government wanted released, the country would have completely run out of grain well before the harvest. In the absence of any effective government intervention, high prices are beneficial. They get everybody to reduce consumption, and to ration supplies through the season - and during the Bengal famine prices rose so high that virtually everyone had to restrict consumption.

"If by not raising the price high enough he discourages the consumption so little that the supply of the season is likely to fall short of the consumption of the season, he not only loses a part of the profit which he might otherwise have made, but he exposes the people to suffer before the end of the season, instead of the hardships of a dearth, the dreadful horrors of a famine" (Adam Smith, 1776"

I shall take hoarding to mean increased retentions by farmers and increased stockholding by consumers. It is possible for both to occur without altering the supply of grain throughout the year: farmers rather than merchants hold the stocks and consumers try to buy early in the year rather than stagger their purchases over the year. Some market disruption will, of course, be observed. This hoarding would not cause famine.

It is possible, though, that farmers and consumers would hoard by increasing their stocks until they had a substantial surplus at the end of the year. This change in distribution would mean that there was less available for other people, so it could be taken as a causeof famine. This would only be so if the hoarding happened during the famine year; if it happened the year before it would reduce the problem. Sen states that it did in fact happen during 1943.

Sen's chronology conflicts with that of the Famine Commission. They point out that the entry of Japan into the war, and the fall of Singapore and Burma took place in 1941 and at the beginning of 1942. As early as May 1942, it was reported that "cultivators on the one hand were becoming very cautious and unwilling sellers, and speculators on the other hand were operating on a larger scale than in normal times and circumstances, with only one consequence, a steady rise in prices" (FIC p28). The bulk of the hoarding took place then.

It is difficult to accept Sen's statement that there were panic purchases between December 1942 and March 1943 and that there was panic hoarding from March to November 1943. Prices were then too high for any but the very wealthy to buy in excess of their own needs. Supplies on the market were low, well below normal levels (FICp11). For example, imports by Calcutta in the first quarter of 1943 were half the normal level, and in the second quarter were still below normal (Table 1) - the figures are readily available in the Famine Commission report - so the purchases by consumers for hoarding were not higher than normal in Calcutta at any rate. There may have been increased retentions by farmers out of the December 1942 crop. It is unlikely though that people who had built up an emergency reserve in 1942 would have added to it in 1943.

All in all, it is likely that increased hoarding, in the sense of purchasing or retaining more than one's needs until the next crop, was largely confined to 1942. It was then that there was a threat of invasion, it was then that the grain was available at a price that made hoarding possible. If this were so, it would largely explain the price rise during 1942,when there was a good crop. It cannot, however, explain the famine; on the contrary, it means that Bengal would have gone into 1943 with a higher than usual reserve supply in private hands.

How important was hoarding? Who was in a position to hoard for personal consumption? Wage and salary earners, small traders and craftsmen lived from hand to mouth and would not be in a position to buy more than perhaps a week or two's extra grain. If they had accumulated it bit by bit over 1942, buying a little extra each month, they might have accumulated a month's supply - which would have been consumed early in the famine year. In 1943 high prices made any such accumulation impossible. Wealthy traders, professionals and large farmers could well have hoarded enough grain to last them to the end of the year, with a couple of bags over. Some medium-sized farmers could have done the same, but most farmers did not produce enough grain to live on, and relied on paid work to fill the gap. Many were so seriously indebted that the bulk of their crop went to moneyl enders, traders or landlords immediately it was harvested, so they had to borrow money through the season to buy food. They were in no position to accumulate reserve stocks.

From the fact that only 20 % of the population was well-nourished in normal times, and that only perhaps 1 million out of 7.5 million farming families had enough land for subsistence (FIC p10), we can conclude that not many people were in a position to hold stocks of the order of a year's supplies, or to hold substantial emergency reserves. Very few can have been in a position to buy eleven months' supplies in December, enough to see them through to the autumn crop, with a bit in hand. If they had bought three or four months' supply at the beginning of the year - a major investment - it would have been exhausted well before the next crop was harvested. This is confirmed by the fact that two-thirds of the population was hit by the famine.

Table 1. Imports of grain to Calcutta 1943, compared with normal consumption and consumption under rationing.

Second quarter Third
Net imports of paddy and rice (a,b) tons 31,912 88,568 61,038 91,8242 73,342
Imports of wheat (a) tons 26,000 38,000 99,000 176,000 339,000
Less: wheat sent to country (c) tons -20,000 -100,000


Total grain available tons 57,912 126,568 140,038 167,824 492,342
Grain required at 1944 ration level (Greater Calcutta) (d) tons 118,193 118,193 118,193 118,193 472,772
Net imports as % of ration level % 48 107 118 141 104
Normal consumption (High estimate) (e) tons 181,835 181,835 181,835 181,835 727,342
Net imports as % of normal consumption % 43 94 104 174 91
Normal consumption (low estimate) (e) tons 134,310 134,310 134,310 134,310


Net imports as % of normal consumption % 43 94 104 124 91
Grain required at 1944 ration level (CalcuttaTrade Area) (d) tons 92,191 92,191 92,191 92,191 368,762
Net imports as % of ration level % 62 137 151 182 133
Normal consumption (high estimate) (e) tons 141,832 141,832 141,832 141,832 567,326
Net imports as % of high estimate % 40 89 98 118 86
Normal consumption (low estimate) (e) tons 104,762 104,762 104,762 104,762 419,048
Net imports as % of low estimate % 55 120 133 160 117
Supplied through employers' organizations tons 12,487 36,063 17,902 20,164 86,616
Supplied through controlled shops and approved markets tons 6,988 18,262 14,344 10,868 50,482
Total special distribution tons 19,475 54,345 32,246 31,032 137,098
Controlled supply as % of total supply % 33 42 23 18 27
Controlled supply as % of 1944 ration level (Greater Calcutta) % 16 45 27 26 28

Notes: a) FIC, see text, op cit, Ref 2, pp 219-33. Based on trade statistics and figures supplied by the Civil Supplies Department of the Government of Bengal. b) Stocks at the beginning of the year were very low because of reduced imports in 1942 (FIC, see text,op cit, Ref 2, p 219). Paddy has been converted to rice equivalent. Bengal government figures suggest that net imports were lower by 22 000 tons. c) The 120 000 tons sent to country areas are assumed, quite arbitrarily, to have been exported in the last two quarters. d) Initially, it is assumed that grain imports were spread through the Greater Calcutta area. This would not have appeared in the statistics because road traffic,personal baggage and illegal shipments were ignored. Later the assumption that all grain was consumed in the Calcutta Trade Area is considered. This area was assumed to consume 78 % of the Greater Calcutta total (FIC, see text, Ref 2, op cit, p 219). e) The per capita consumption under rationing was between 65% and 88% of the normal level,depending on assumptions about the total population (FIC, see text, Ref 2, op cit, p 219).f) The records for the third and fourth quarters do not include arrivals by country boat,as no records were maintained for two months, and as the amounts were small for other months.

The order of magnitude we are considering is that perhaps 10% of the population may have stored 10 % extra in 1942 - an increase in total demand of 1 %. In 1943 perhaps 5% did, an increase in demand of ´ %. A case could be made for a much lower figure.

This gives no support at all for Sen's hypothesis that hoarding substantially reallocated food supplies in any of the periods, January to March 1943, March to June 1943 or June to December 1943. If anything, it suggests that grain hoarded in previous periods would have been consumed in these periods, reducing demand.

Hoarding, like speculation, is a bogeyman invoked by politicians in time of scarcity.Because they believe that there are large private hoards, and that there is plenty of food really, they take no effective action. The result is famine.


6.4 Uneven Expansion of Purchasing Power

Closely linked to the above hypotheses is Sen's causal hypothesis that the famine was caused by an uneven expansion of incomes and purchasing powers (Sen 1977 p 51; 1981 p77). It is set out most clearly as follows

"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" (Sen 1980b p618)

This change in incomes did not in fact take place. However, it would be instructive to look at the implications of the model. If 10 % of the population increased their consumption from 14 oz. per day to 17 oz. per day, there would be 1.8 % more consumed in total (See FIC p204 for the consumption figures in five surveys in the years preceding the famine). Sen states that this 1.8 % would all come from one group, presumably those who died. This supply and demand response is quite unlike that normally assumed in economics, where the increased demand would affect the prices paid and the amount consumed by everybody. The effect described could arise from armed robbery, but not from the workings of the market. Sen's market mechanism is not explained, nor is it explained why two-thirds of the population should have been hit by famine as a result of a 1.8% increase in demand.

Elsewhere, he states a somewhat more credible hypothesis, that the army, industries and commercial firms got preferential supplies of food. As a result, their employees ate more,leaving insufficient food for the rest of the population. As far as the army is concerned,he is clearly wrong: the army, mainly wheat-eaters, consumed very little extra in relation to India's supplies, and the army in Bengal was supplied externally (FIC p18).Furthermore, the soldiers would have eaten even if they were not in the army. Indeed,elsewhere Sen himself accepts this (1976 p1279).

Sen says that "almost the entire normal population of Calcutta [was] covered by distribution arrangements at subsidised prices" (Sen 1981 b p77). This is untrue. There were indeed preferential supply schemes for the employees of industrial and commercial firms, but these never covered more than a million people out of six million in Greater Calcutta (FIC p30). These schemes, plus the controlled shops and approved markets, got 32% of the grain available in Calcutta in the first quarter of 1943, 43 % in the second quarter, 23 % in the third quarter and 18 % in the fourth (See Table 1. The figures are set out at length in the FIC pp219-233). In no sense can it be said that almost the whole population was covered.

Nor can it be said that those who were covered were fully insulated against the famine:

"There were also many occasions when, owing to the shortage of atta and rice, reduced issues had to be made to the Chamber, to the participating employers' shops, and by the latter to their employees with consequent discontent and hardship" (FIC p63)

It will be noted too that the issue given (3.58 seers per employee per week) was totally inadequate for an employee with a family.

It is difficult to square these facts with Sen's statement that one million employees ate so much extra because of the special issues of food that a famine hit the remaining 59 million people of Bengal. This would imply that each and every one of them ate six times as much rice as in normal years.

Sen can be interpreted as presenting a third possibility, that the people of Greater Calcutta, 6 million of them, ate so much more that there was not enough food to go round for the rest of the population. This is an all-embracing hypothesis. It includes the hypotheses above, that half of the very poor got a higher income and ate more, and that industrial workers ate more. It is the end result of all the other hypotheses, that inflation and high prices meant that one class ate more, leaving less for the rest. It includes the hypotheses that the preferential distribution of grain plus the disposal of public purchases and seizures on the Calcutta market meant that an unduly large proportion of total supplies ended up in Calcutta.

Again, Sen appears to be asserting that six million people ate so much more in excess of their normal consumption that most of the remaining 54 million suffered from acute food shortages, and three million people died. This implies that each and every one of them ate twice their normal amount of food. Indeed, since many people in Calcutta had little or no increase in income, and had no access to the special schemes, it implies that the others would have increased their consumption far more than this.

However he is not just asserting that people were eating twice their usual ration, he is asserting that they were willing to pay from four to twenty times the normal price in order to get this extra food - only a fraction of normal consumption was available at special rates: the rest would have had to be bought at famine prices. The prices reported rose to Rs.60 to 80 per maund of rice containing 20% stones and 20 % dirt, according to the Statesman and a price as high as Rs.120 a maund was reached at the height of the famine.It will be noted too that industrial wages did not rise with inflation - the subsidised food was a substitute for wage rises.

He implies further that people suddenly switched back to their normal demand functions as soon as the December 1943 crop was harvested, with wartime inflation no longer having the same effect.

These hypotheses are ridiculous, and it might seem to be unnecessary to disprove them with figures. However, the figures are given in some detail by the Famine Commission,Sen's primary source. They are presented and analysed in Table l. They give no support whatsoever for Sen's doubling of the grain consumption by Calcutta. They suggest a fall in consumption of 12% to 45%, depending on population estimates, to approximately the level of the 1944 ration (rationing was not introduced until 1944). Even if one makes the unlikely assumption that there was no transfer of grain from the Calcutta Trade Area to Greater Calcutta, if one ignores the unrecorded road traffic, and if one ignores the influx of soldiers, refugees and starving people from the countryside, one gets a picture of sharply reduced consumption, though at a level above that of rationing.

Table 2, again from his sources, gives further reason to doubt that a change in distribution of incomes of the type he describes would cause the swing in consumption he states happens. It suggests that the increase in incomes of the industrial working classes, as a result of war industries, would actually have led to a decrease in their rice consumption.

Table 2. 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




Notes: a) FIC, see text, op cit, 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.


6.5 Inequalities in Distribution

Sen argues that the famine was caused solely by changes in distribution. In order to demonstrate that this is so, he quotes evidence to show that

This evidence does not prove his point. All famines, however caused, will have these effects, so the phenomena may just as well have been the result of a change in demand.I cannot accept Sen's statement that a famine can occur without such changes in distribution (1977 p35). A substantial fall in supply will inevitably change the relative amounts received by the different classes, even if it is only the change brought about by rationing.

Some of the changes in distribution that may arise from a shortage and that were cited by the Famine Commission, with its FAD view, are as follows. Most farmers in Bengal had a high yield and a high price because of the famine and so were better off. Even those with a reduced yield may have got a higher total revenue than usual. However, rural indebtedness meant that often the crop went to a moneylender or landlord who made all the profits. The indebted farmers had to buy back the food they had produced at the inflated price, and had to borrow money to do so. Those families who could not or did not buy their rice at the beginning of the season were unable to buy rice at the new price with the money they had. Consumers spent most of their income on food and could not afford other goods or services, so traders and suppliers of goods and services were impoverished. Many died.

The introduction of famine relief schemes in rural areas and of rationing for some employees in urban areas meant a change in distribution not linked to market forces. At the same time, the collapse of traditional village charity during the famine because of the high price of foods altered other non-market distribution (as in the Irish famine where landlords reneged on their social and legal responsibilities for poor law relief once the need became abnormal. Rights vanished under the pressure of scarcity).

All these examples are compatible with the Food Availability Decline (FAD) hypothesis which Sen so dislikes, so his argument falls down. Since the theoretical basis of his argument is wrong, the accuracy of his data on changes in distribution is irrelevant.However, his data are wrong. They are calculated from Table 4.2 and 7(A5) of Mahalanobis, Mukerjee and Ghosh (1946). Unfortunately Sen used tables of raw,unweighted data derived from a heavily stratified sample, rather than from the adjacent tables giving weighted results.


6.6 Selective Impact on Certain Groups

Sen gives as a cause of the famine the fact that from March to November, the demand for crafts, services and "superior" foods fell, so that the people supplying them were plunged into destitution. As shown above, the Famine Commission showed how this effect would arise as a result of shortages. Their FAD analysis shows quite clearly why one group of people rather than another should have starved. There is however another question that should be answered - Why should anybody at all have starved? The Famine Commission explains this quite simply with the fall in aggregate food supply. As Sen does not accept that there was a shortfall in supply, he is stating that the redistribution caused shortages,not just that it aggravated the effects of shortages. The logic is not explained.


6.7 Failure to Import

Sen states that a contributory cause of the famine was the failure of the Bengal Government, the Indian Government and the Imperial Government to increase Bengal's imports. As this was a failure to increase supply rather than a reduction in supply, it cannot logically be called a cause of the famine.

The Famine Commission was highly critical of government for failing to take the only action that could have relieved the serious shortage. As Sen does not accept that there was a serious shortage, he cannot logically take this view either. The most he can say is that, in failing to import, government failed to take one of the many courses of action which would have produced the desired effect.

One argument was put to the Famine Commission which suggested that the famine was caused by provincial governments preventing free trade in grain. Before the restrictions on exports the economic unit was the whole of India, afterwards each province was separate. Instead of the whole of India having a first-degree shortage, Bengal had a third-degree shortage. This argument is, of course, at variance with Sen's on most points. The Famine Commission is doubtful of such a sweeping assertion, and considers that it would have been politically unacceptable not to intervene in the grain trade.


6.8 Borderline between Two Price Regimes

Sen presents the following as a causal explanation of the famine. There is no further elaboration of his argument.

"Finally, it is perhaps significant that the Bengal famine stood exactly at the borderline of two historical price regimes. Prices been more or less stationary for decades (the 1941 rice price was comparable to that in 1914), and the price rises that began in 1942 were to become a part of life from then on. Institutional arrangements, including wage systems were slow to adjust to the new reality ." (1971b p51)

Why was it that Bengal alone should have been devastated by famine when the same applied to virtually every country in the world during the Second World War?


6.9 Boat Denial Policy

Sen considers the boat denial policy to have been a cause of the famine (1984 p4611;1980b p619). (See, however Sen (1976 p1279) where he expresses the opposite view.)In May 1942 orders were issued for the removal of boats capable of carrying more than 10 passengers from the coastal areas of Bengal in order to deny them to the Japanese if they invaded. The Famine Commission was very critical of the Bengal Government for their operation of the scheme (FIC pp26, 27), as it reduced fish catches and made transport difficult, hampering relief measures. Both the Indian Government and the Bengal Government considered that physical distribution was a serious constraint on relief measures. Indeed, the main effect of Wavell's intervention with the army was that four times as much per week was distributed (See FIC, Aykroyd, Wavell (in Moon 1973),and Mansergh 1973 p361) It slightly reduced the quantity of food available, and to this extent it was a cause of famine. The appalling mortality among fishermen must be putdown to the fact that the compensation paid to them, while possibly adequate when given to them, was grossly inadequate once the prices rose.

Sen accepts the general view that the boat denial policy was of little importance in reducing total supply. However, since Sen believes that transport problems were overstated, and since he believes that anything hampering transport from the starving country areas to the overfed towns was a good thing, it is difficult to see why he considers it to have been harmful.


6.10 Rice Denial Policy

Among the "factors working negatively on the supply of rice" Sen talks of

"a cunning British policy of rice denial' to the oncoming Japanese [which] led to the removal of rice stocks from three coastal districts in Bengal in 1942 (without causing much anxiety to the Japanese, since they failed, for other reasons, to show up)." (Sen 1984 p 461)

"The exchange entitlement mappings took deep plunges, forcing these occupation groups into starvation. The story is made grimmer by. . . the removal of rice stocks from three districts . . . These added to the entitlement decline. . . . but this was an added impetus in a movement that was leading to a famine anyway." (Sen 1980b p619)

Curiously enough, elsewhere (e.g. Sen 1977 p45; 1981 p 67) he quotes some of the facts directly from the Famine Commission, and concludes merely that "it did contribute to local scarcities". Elsewhere, too, (1976 pl279) he states that it did not contribute to the famine (though stating that it did result in a loss of food).

However, if one refers to the original source, one gets a very different story, that a very small quantity of rice was moved from a surplus area to a deficit area, in a year with a record crop, and that this was done in May and June 1942, well before the cyclone. The rice denial policy implied

"the removal from the coastal districts of Midnapore, Bakarganj, and Khulna of the rice and paddy estimated to be in excess of local requirements until the end of the crop year.. . The quantity bought was not large - it did not exceed 40,000 tons - and even allowing for errors in the estimated surplus, formed a relatively small proportion of the surplus supplies available in the districts concerned.

It is difficult to estimate the effect of these purchases on prices, but in view of the relatively small amount bought it was probably not great. But the purchases synchronised with a sharp upward movement in the price level and a general disturbance in market conditions which was occurring at about the same time in other parts of India.We shall refer to this rise in prices later. There is no evidence to show that the purchases led anywhere to physical scarcity. But, on the other hand, they brought home to the people, in the most emphatic manner, the danger of invasion: they increased local nervousness and probably encouraged cultivators to hold on to their grain as an insurance against invasion and isolation" (Famine Commission 1945a pp 25, 26)

"At this point [July 1942] the stocks of denial' rice proved most useful. A portion of these stocks was moved into Calcutta and distributed, partly through controlled shops to the general public, partly through issues to employers of industrial labour who had organised their own purchasing schemes, and partly through the Calcutta Corporation.To some extent this eased the situation." (Famine Commission 1945a p29)

Clearly, there are major factual discrepencies here between Sen and the source he cites.Furthermore, it will be noted that the policy carried out was exactly that which Sen recommends - public authorities buying surplus rice and distributing it to deficit areas.

The denial rice was taken from the area which was later hit by the cyclone, which caused extensive damage to food stores. If it had not been removed, some at least would have been destroyed. To this, very small, extent the denial policy actually increased food supplies in Bengal.


6.11 Evaluation of Sen's Causal Hypotheses

Nowhere does Sen present a cohesive model designed to explain all the phenomena.There is no economic model in the normal sense. He does not have any model of the market or marketing system or the institutions involved. He presents instead isolated points, each intended to explain only a limited range of phenomena.

These points are not developed in any way. There is no attempt to show how inflation could have caused a rise in prices to famine level or how speculation could have caused starvation and high prices through the year. The moment any attempt is made to develop them, they run foul of demand theory - for example supply remains constant, demand plummets and prices rocket.

In addition, the moment any attempt is made to check these hypotheses against the facts,they are shown to be incorrect. It is necessary to show that the defence workers ate six times as much as usual or that the citizens of Calcutta ate twice as much as usual - and paid up to twenty times as much as the usual price for their food. The statistics in Sen's sources show a substantial fall in consumption instead. Time after time, it is seen that the facts in Sen's sources do not support the implications of his hypotheses. Time after time there is no mention of those facts in the source documents which do not support his hypotheses. Time after time the facts in the source documents conflict with those that Sen gives. On occasion there is a conflict between the facts as cited by Sen, and the facts as given in the document he gives as a source for those facts.

For this reason, in the next section I shall examine the factual accuracy of the two statements which are basic to his whole argument


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