Sen is emphatic that the shortage in food supply was not a cause of the famine. He says that there was at least 11 % more food available than in 1941 when there was no famine,and he ends by saying "It seems safe to conclude that the disastrous Bengal famine was not the reflection of a remarkable overall shortage of food grains in Bengal. (1977 p42)The view of the Famine Commission, on the other hand, was that the food shortage was the major precipitating cause of the, famine, and other people, such as Professor Husain,himself a member of the Commission, thought that the Commission had underestimated the shortage.

In this section it will be shown that the data available were so bad that the Bengal Government were criminally negligent to base their decisions on it. Evidence will be presented which suggests that official estimates understated the degree of the shortage.Sen's refusal to believe in reduced carry-over stocks will be examined. It will be concluded that the figures available cannot be used as meaningful evidence in favour of Sen's hypothesis. It will be shown that Sen can be read as overstating the reliability of his data, and so, in effect, overstating the probable amount of grain available in 1943. It will be shown that Sen misrepresents the facts in his sources.


8.1 The Size of the Harvest

In view of the catastrophic effects of underestimating the degree of shortage, decisions should not be based on the assumption that best guesses at production, stocks,consumption, etc. are correct. They should take into account the effects if these figures happen to be optimistic. It would be appalling irresponsibility rely on best guesses when deciding how much to import or what rations to issue. Accordingly I shall be examining here the reliability of the data on which the Bengal Government acted, and the data on which Sen bases his calculations.

The key information for dealing with the famine was the estimate of the December 1942 crop. This was based on the crop forecast, not on a post-harvest estimate. It was based on subjective estimate of how a) yield, and b) area deviated from the norm. As the estimates were based on area planted it is not clear to what extent the forecast would have allowed for damage from disease, flooding and cyclone. There would have been a much bigger discrepancy than usual between planted acreage and harvested acreage, and both reporting error and failure to modify the estimates right up to harvest are probable.

Sen got his figures from the Famine Commission, which is at pains to state how unreliable they are:

"For instance the following is the method followed in the province of Bengal. Each Circle Officer (a gazetted revenue officer with jurisdiction over three or four than as'[i.e. 400 sq. miles (FIC 1945a p7)]) ascertains from personal inspection and by questioning other local officers and cultivators, the relation which the area under the crop bears to the normal acreage of that crop in that area, this normal acreage being determined in accordance with certain instructions. The Circle Officers send their estimates to the Sub divisional Officer who, after making such corrections as he considers necessary, either from his own knowledge, experience and observations or by enquiry,sends a consolidated estimate for the subdivision to the District Officer. The latter, in his turn, makes such modifications as he thinks necessary on the basis of his own experience and information obtained from the District Agricultural Officers and other sources, and forwards the district estimate to the Director of Agriculture. Clearly,acreage estimates prepared in this manner cannot be accurate." (FIC 1945b pp 44, 45)

No attempt ever appears to have been made to check these results against anything else,or to amend them in the light of experience, so nobody knew if they even indicated the direction of change. It would in any case have been difficult, as only a proportion of the crop was marketed, and as the marketing system was not monitored. The cyclones, tidal waves and disease outbreaks which caused so much damage in 1942 had never occurred before, previous famines being due to drought in other areas of Bengal. As a result there was no experience on which to base estimates of their effect. It is just conceivable that the system might have given a rough indication of the percentage change in total production - but only if all areas of Bengal were equally affected by low rainfall etc. In 1942, however, areas were differentially affected, so there would have been major aggregation errors, if, for example the worst affected areas were high-yielding areas,densely populated areas or areas where the acreage was accurately known.

The collectors of statistics did not know the normal acreage or yield, only people's estimates of the deviation from the norm, so there was a substantial error in the estimate of total production, as well as an unknown aggregation bias. At the time parts of Bengal,notably those hit by the cyclone, were simmering on the verge of an insurrection, and the army was active, burning villages etc. Under these circumstances, it is doubtful whether the collection procedure was reliable.

There was a sample survey of the commercially valuable Bengal jute crop, but not of the rice crop. "Although by that time, owing to Japan's entry into the war, the food situation in Bengal had already become difficult, I failed completely to persuade the Government to extend the sample survey to cover the paddy crop in Bengal. The Bengal famine occurred in 1943. Since that year we have had the opportunity of carrying out a sample survey of both jute and rice crops throughout the province." (Mahalanobis, 1946 p333)

The Governor of Bengal, in a document cited by Sen (no. 158 in Mansergh, 1973), talks of "the dubiety of all available statistics and therefore lack of accurate knowledge of what the real shortage is".

The Famine Commission changed the official Bengal Government acreage figures by 20% and adjusted the yield figures, because Mahalanobis's sample survey, conducted after the famine, produced very different figures to the official figures, figures which may well have been more accurate. Of course this did nothing to correct the aggregation bias.

Desai (1953 p8) gives a useful review of the agricultural and other statistics of this period, and his rigorous use of them is an exemplary. He compares the official estimates and those obtained by scientific sample surveys carried out by Mahalanobis. He shows that the discrepancies are large, with survey estimates being between 47% and 153% of the official estimate. The discrepancies also vary from year to year, with the sample estimate of the jute crop being 2.6 % above the official estimate in 1941 and 52.6% above it in 1946. Since there was no sample survey of rice carried out in Bengal until after the famine, we have no real idea of the accuracy of the 1942 Department of Agriculture estimates, except the belief that the error was greater than 20%. There is no way of correcting it with hindsight. Desai's assessment may be compared with Sen's statement that "the Raj was, in fact, more or less right in its estimate of overall food availability."(Sen 1977 p53; 1981b p80)

As well as this error in area and aggregation procedure, an upward bias in subjective eye estimates of prospective yield of a growing crop may be expected. Mahalanobis (1946)talks of an upward bias even with controlled sampling methods on a mature crop, because enumerators tend to select the best fields and the best areas of damaged fields. Again, the bias would have been very different in a year of cyclone, tidal wave and disease damage like 1942.

We must also be concerned with the quality of the data entering the system. This was bad even in the better organised studies:-

" . . . the apathy of the administrators and the peculiar difficulties in which statistical work has to be carried out in India has to be experienced in order to be properly appreciated.

"I may perhaps quote one concrete example. In 1939 the Government of Bengal decided to prepare a complete record, plot by plot, of the land sown with jute. After these records were prepared the Government arranged to have certain portions checked by permanent Government officers. The primary records, when checked, were found so unreliable that the Bengal Government ordered all the records to be destroyed." (Mahalanobis, 1946)

There is also a more serious form of bias: the scale of incompetence and corruption was so vast that virtually every politician and administrator had cause to want evidence suppressed or altered. There is some indication that pressure was brought on statisticians to do this:-

". . . the political pressure resulting in an inaccurate census, the hint of the virtual suppression of an unpalatable report" (Elphinstone commenting on Mahalanobis 1946p 374)

"The average administrator in India expects the scientific or statistical technician to supply evidence or proof in favour of what the administrator thinks to be right, rather than to give independent advice on objective grounds. Intellectual dishonesty, to which Major Elphinstone has referred, would in such circumstances be an actual advantage in securing promotion in official posts. This is why I have never favoured the idea of the Statistical Institute being run as a Government department or under predominating Government control." (Mahalanobis 1946)

It was also strongly rumoured at the time that the Indian Government had deliberately printed only a few copies of the Famine Commission report, to limit the circulation of its criticisms (Aykroyd, 1974).

It must be concluded that the statistical basis of estimates of production is so bad that the Bengal Government was not in a position to say with any confidence whether the December 1942 crop was 11 o/ above the December 1940 crop or 20 % below it. By treating these best guesses as though they were perfectly accurate, they made famine inevitable.


8.1.1 Non-statistical evidence

Even if we had reason to trust the statistics, we should not ignore the non-statistical evidence. A lot of people gave warnings of the famine, warnings which conflicted with the official production estimates. As early as December 1942, after the cyclone and before the aman' crop had been harvested, the trade was talking of the worst crop in twenty years (FIC p33). Traders bought up any stocks they could in Bengal and they went into the neighbouring provinces of Orissa and Bihar to buy grain and standing crops.They were prepared to smuggle the rice into Bengal if trade restrictions prevented them from doing it legally. The trade had its own way of estimating supplies (including stocks)and did not rely on official estimates. In this case, they were so certain of their estimates that they invested all they could borrow, and of course they made a lot of money as a result. The Bengal Government ignored their warnings.

Bhatia (1967 p35), quoting from the unpublished evidence to the Famine Commission,states that public men and organisations had warned the government. Rajan (1944 p15)quotes a European member of the provincial assembly as saying

"as far back as September 1942, the European Group in the central Assembly had warned the Government of the trouble that lay ahead and had demanded that strong action be taken."

Sen himself quotes pressure from "a businessman much involved in rice trading" to increase imports by one million tons, as late as October 1943 (Sen 1977 p54, quoting from Document 174 in Mansergh, 1973 p390). This would of course have been against the businessman's interests if he had large speculative stocks.

During the famine it became increasingly apparent that the shortage was much more serious than the production statistics suggested. The total failure of all the government's intervention measures to bring down the price is particularly significant. The government's attempts to "break the Calcutta market" by dumping large quantities on the market failed, both because it proved impossible to buy or seize any large quantities and because what was put on the market vanished without a ripple. During the period of free trade with Bihar and Orissa, 91,000 tons was imported and dumped on the market (and some was bought illegally and smuggled in). The effect was to push up prices sharply in Bihar and Orissa, but there was no noticeable effect on prices in Calcutta (FIC p52). This suggests that 91,000 tons was a very large proportion of any surplus in Bihar and Orissa,but was a very small amount in relation to the Bengal deficit. Calcutta would consume only 21-24,000 tons of rice and 15,000 tons of wheat a month (FIC p203) The house-to-house search for stocks (see page 14) showed only that the stocks were much lower than expected.


8.1.2 Why the information was ignored

Why, one may ask, did the Bengal Government ignore the evidence that there was a serious shortage? At this stage one can but guess.

First, there is a type of official mind that will believe statistics in preference to any other evidence. They believed that the crop was adequate because the production statistics said so. They ignored the warnings of the trade and the failures of their intervention policy because there were no statistics on them. (This has happened elsewhere. For example vander Laan (1975), mentions the Sierra Leone Government in 1919 ignoring the traders' warnings of a shortage for six months until food riots broke out, apparently believing that price control was a substitute for imports.) They refused to consider carry-over because there were no statistics on it. When the famine persisted they did not question their statistics, but tried to find other explanations compatible with their statistics, producing the old bogeymen of speculators and hoarders.

Second, the officials were very pleased with their success in preventing famines in 1928,1936, 1941 and 1942, (though, as will be shown in the section on carry-over, the achievement was not as big as they thought - carry-over stocks were consumed to makeup for the fall in production, so consumption did not fall dramatically). They were,perhaps, psychologically predisposed to see this as another task they could handle easily.

Third, they were very keen to blame the famine on a conspiracy by hoarders and speculators, rather than on their own inadequacies, or on forces they did not understand,as politicians and officials always are - I have seen the same reaction in Europe, Africa and Asia.

Fourth, the officials were certainly understaffed and overworked before the famine,because of the war. The famine stretched the administrative system past breaking point(Aykroyd, 1974).

Finally, in 1985 we can perhaps discuss two points that the Famine Commission considered to be too hot to handle in 1945. First, corruption was rife. Everyone writing at the time commented that nearly every public servant who handled any famine relief managed to make a personal profit out of it, and the trading firms who were appointed government agents defrauded the government and cheated the people. The Indians writing at the time did not hesitate to accuse the politicians, both Hindu and Muslim, of being involved. It would follow that most of the people who handled information and made decisions had a strong financial interest in the continuation of the famine. Secondly,Rajan (1944 p44) gives quotations which suggest that both right-wing British officials in the Government of India, and right-wing politicians in Britain were predisposed to accept any evidence that suggested that an elected Indian government, be it only a provincial government, with Indian administrators, was so corrupt and incompetent, and that the Indian businessmen were so greedy, that they could create a famine in the midst of plenty. As a result, they observed the constitutional niceties, and did not check the facts on the ground or overrule the Bengal Government. (Even when Wavell did intervene, he first had to persuade the local politicians to let him give them the extra resources). It is forty years too late to confirm these hypotheses, but experience elsewhere shows that they are only too likely to be true.


8.2 Carry-Over

Professor Sen rests his argument that there was sufficient food to go round in 1943 on his belief that there was at least 9 % more food per head available than there had been in 1941. To reach this conclusion he rejects all the arguments of the Famine Commission on carry-over, though they were put at considerable length. Indeed, he makes the very serious allegation that

"Later the facts were squared with theory by revising' the facts, by introducing mythical variations in the unobserved item called the carry-over from previous years"' (1977 p75).

He provides no evidence to support his contention.

The Famine Commission argued that, both because of the need for normal stocks and because the rice is not palatable for some months after harvest, it was not normal to start eating the December crop until February or March. Some varieties of rice were kept for a year or two before consumption. (See Professor Husain's minority report (FIC pp 179-199) and the Report on Rice Marketing (Government of India 1942)). In addition there would have been the normal commercial stocks. They argue that normally there was a three month carry-over of grain at the end of the year.

I cannot accept Sen's suggestion that we should ignore the carryover on the grounds that we have no statistical data on the stock position (1977 pp42, 55). Still less can I accept his assertion that variations in carry-over were mythical. I would find it difficult to believe that there is any country that does not aim at least a two-month carry-over of grain. I find it very difficult indeed to believe that exactly the same amount is carried over after a famine year as after a series of bumper harvests.

It might be mentioned that all the explanations Sen gives for the famine are equally unquantified (mythical?) variations in equally unobserved (non-existent?) items. The difference is that where the Famine Commission gives ten pages of argument and facts in support of their carry-over explanation, Sen gives only a sentence or two in support of his explanations.

The very poor crop of December 1940 meant that the people ran out of rice earlier than usual and started eating the crop of December 1941 as soon as it was harvested. It is difficult not to accept that there was a reduced carry-over from such a short crop. This means that the consumption of rice in 1941 was well above the "adjusted current supply of rice" quoted by Sen, while the consumption in the next year was well below it. (The"adjusted current supply" is the addition to stocks, not the supply available to the consumer.) This means that while "adjusted current supply" might have been 13 % higher in 1943 than in 1942, it does not follow that supply to the consumer or consumption were.

Sen says that even if this were so, which he denies, the December 1941 crop was so big that the trade would have restored their stocks to the normal carry-over levels by the beginning of 1943.

I shall not recapitulate the arguments put forward by the Famine Commission and Professor Husain to show that there was a much reduced carry-over into 1943. Instead,I shall show that Sen's own figures destroy his case. Table 3 is based on exactly the same figures that Sen uses (FIC p215), except that I have arbitrarily chosen a carry-over of two million tons at the beginning of 1941. The table shows that this large surplus changes into a deficit of nearly a third of a million tons by November 1943 - enough to explain the famine. All that has been necessary is to assume a level of consumption per head equal to the mean for the years 1928 to 1942. This figure is well below the mean for the first half of the century. A low population growth rate of 0.46% has been assumed: a higher deficit would have been noted with 1 %, the figure Sen used.

The deficit shown in Table 3 would have been much greater if allowance had been made for the unrecorded exports of rice by road and country-boat, during 1942, when rice prices were much higher elsewhere in India.

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