Academics contest Amartya Sen's "facts" on famine

Sen's "facts" on the Bengal Famine and other famines shown to be wrong.




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Academics challenge Sen's facts
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Academics have always said that Amartya Sen was "unreliable" with his facts. These citations refer to the famine studies on which his reputation is based. 

S.Y.  Padmanabhan shows that the Bengal famine of 1943 was caused by a helminthosporium fungus epidemic on the rice crop (which confirms the view of the Famine Inquiry Commission, but directly opposes all Sen's explanations). "Nothing as devastating as the Bengal epiphototic of 1942 has been recorded in plant pathological literature. The only other instance that bears comparison in loss sustained by a food crop and the human calamity that followed in its wake is the Irish potato famine of 1845. He gives evidence that the losses for some varieties of rice were 90%. He was there. This is the only evidence based on what was harvested. The statistics everyone else uses are based on highly suspect crop forecasts, mostly made before the cyclone and the fungus epidemic.

S.Y.  Padmanabhan, "The Great Bengal Famine", Annual Review of Phytopathology vol II 1973 p11-24. (Professor Mark Tauger found this paper and recognized its importance.) The Great Bengal Famine

The following references would, independently, refute Sen's statements on frequency of non-FAD famines:

      O. Goswami 'The Bengal Famine of 1943: Re-examining the Data' in, The Indian Economic and Social History Review, Vol 27, No. 4, 1990.

This paper by a statistician in the Indian Statistical Institute takes the data in Sen's paper and other sources and, after a lot of calculations comes to the same conclusion as I did on the size of the Bengal crop in 1943 compared to 1941. This, by itself, is enough to invalidate Sen's causal model. Some of the data used is different to mine, and to this extent it provides an independent test rather than just a confirmation. Sen did see a draft of the paper, presumably in 1988. Clearly this confirms that Sen misstated the facts originally, and the misstatement is repeated each time his book is sold.

Some papers examine Sen's estimate of the mortality during the famine.

T. Dyson and A. Maharatna 'Excess mortality during the Great Bengal Famine: A Re-evaluation' in, The Indian Economic and Social History Review, Vol 28, No. 3, 1991.

      T. Dyson 'On the Demography of South Asian Famines, Part II' in Population Studies, Vol 45, No. 2, July 1991.

The first is highly critical of Sen's data and the way he dealt with the data but not his broad methodology, and suggest that he made a 50% overstatement of the true figures. The second shows that other aspects of Sen's demographic analysis of 43-44 are wrong too. For the purposes of my analysis I stated that the deaths appeared to be between 2 million and 4 million, but I used Sen's estimate, as I did not want to get sidetracked into this complex statistical area.

Basu concludes that for the Bangladesh crisis 'the argument of Sen that the total availability of food in the year of the famine was not far from normal cannot be true'.

Dipak Basu, (1984 p295) "Food Policy and the analysis of famine" Indian Journal of Economics 64 254: 289-301

Dipak Basu "Sen's analysis of famine: a critique" The Journal of Development Studies 22:3 April 1986.

Kumar (1990, p184) writes of Wollo that 'Insofar as a binding transport limitation accentuated the chronic food shortages caused by the drought in the province, then food availability decline has to figure as the major explanatory factor in the famine.'

Kumar, B.G. (1990) 'Ethiopian Famines 1973-1985; a case study' in J Dreze and A. Sen (eds) The Political Economy of Hunger 2 Oxford, Clarendon Press.

Dyson concludes '. . while they are far from being complete explanations, FADS were probably involved in all five of Sen's famines.'

Dyson, T. (1996) Population and food: global trends and future prospects, Routledge, London and New York. This destroys the basis of all Sen's work on famine.

I confined myself to the sources Sen cites, showing that he systematically misquotes the evidence and produces false analysis. I made it clear that if I had had been mainly concerned with analysing the causes of the famine the famine, I would have started elsewhere, using the full toolbox of agricultural economics, and my analysis would not have overlapped with Sen's. Mark Tauger has analysed the famine in the wider context of India and South Asia, and has, again, shown that Sen was wrong and misquoted his evidence.

Entitlement, Shortage, and The 1943 Bengal Famine
Eric Wolf Prize for best article of the year.
Journal of Peasant Studies, 2006

The Indian Crisis of World War II
Published in British Scholar, March 2009.


Other documents, such as the critique of the statistics by that great statistician Professor Mahalanobis, his figures on the death rates of different occupations, and the key document, the report of the Famine Inquiry Commission are to be found on another page.

Sir Bartle Frere On the Forthcoming Famine in Bengal produced 100 years before Sen most of the insights Sen is credited with.

I should be delighted to help anyone who has difficulty in obtaining these papers, or mine. Just e-mail me at