9 SEN'S USE OF THE STATISTICS
The Famine Commission recognised many of the weaknesses of the statistics, and strongly criticised the Bengal Government for basing their estimate of import requirements on them. The Famine Commission itself, writing after the event, could place rather more emphasis on the best guesses, and give somewhat less to what would happen if these were wrong. One would expect that Sen would be equally circumspect in using such unreliable statistics when he is advising people on tackling future famines.However, he bases his arguments on these guesses, which he uses as if they were perfectly accurate, drawing major conclusions from a few percentage points difference.In particular, he bases most of his argument not on an unreliable production forecast, but on the difference between two unreliable forecasts. This is quite unacceptable: the data do not support the conclusions.
Table 3. Stocks of rice in Bengal, 1939-1943
Source: Based on figures in the Famine Inquiry Commission (FIC), see text, op cit, Ref 2, p 215.
Notes: Opening stock is an arbitrary assumption. Consumption per head is the mean current supply less seed for the years 1928-42. This is below the mean for the first half of the century. A population growth rate of 1 % has been assumed(Sen,1977, p 40). The remaining 64 000 tons of 1943 imports are assumed to have come in November and December. No allowance is made for the unrecorded exports by road and country boat in 1942. These would have increased the deficit substantially.
Sen also appears to be claiming much greater reliability for his statistics than is justified,to be giving conservative figures rather than best guesses - and with such inaccurate statistics this amounts to a mis-statement of 30% or more. He bases his calculations, he says, on "a careful tally of food availability in Bengal". He talks of presenting "the results of a food supply calculation, taking into account local production and trade, choosing -wherever the data permit - an assumption as unfavourable to 1943 as possible". He concludes that "Current availability of food was at least 11 per cent higher than in 1941,when there was nothing remotely like a famine" (Sen 1984 p461). Elsewhere (1977 p40),he says "This is most certainly an over-estimate for 1941 vis a vis 1943, but this is an acceptable bias as it favours the thesis we are rejecting", "To bias the figures as much as possible against 1943 . . ." He may also be interpreted as claiming a much greater accuracy for them than is justified, because he frequently quotes different secondary sources as giving much the same estimate of total production or import needs (see for example Sen 1977 pp53-4). Since these secondary sources are all based on the same primary source, official production estimates, no added confidence is given. His scathing comments on those who consider that the famine was caused by shortages emphasise the impression that he is totally confident of his figures.
Sen (1977) quotes Document no 265 p357 in Mansergh (1971) as stating that"the rice crop in Bengal was recognised to be indifferent rather than exceptionally bad".In fact, the document stated, as early as 9th December 1942, that there was both cyclone damage in certain areas and an indifferent crop in Bengal generally. The combined effect was seen as being exceptionally serious.This is a particularly clear example of Sen's misrepresentation of the facts in his sources.
In fact, the figures he gives are not in any sense conservative. The output figures are, as shown above, wildly unreliable. The import figures are no more reliable than such figures usually are, and in addition they fail to cover trade by road and country-boat. For these figures he uses the Famine Commission guesses, and not a conservative figure. (Note that the Famine Commission assumes, and Sen accepts, an identical unrecorded net import in 1941, a year of shortages and recorded net imports, and 1942, a year when Bengal had a surplus and the rest of India a shortage and when Bengal had substantial recorded net exports.) His conservative adjustments consist of making a slight adjustment to allow for unrecorded wheat imports, an alteration of a fraction of one per cent of the total. Again,he makes much of choosing a 1 % population growth rate instead of 0.46 %, which makes a difference of 1 % when he uses it for comparing 1941 with 1943. These conservative adjustments do not make any noticeable improvement to the accuracy of the aggregate figures he uses.