Sen says that in 1943 additional
food consumption by war workers in Bengal was so great that there was not
enough food left for everyone else. Millions starved. Elsewhere he talks
of additional food consumption by all industrial workers. The question is,
"How much extra would they have had to eat to cause the famine? Is it
possible for anyone to eat that much?"
Population of Bengal was 60 million
Population of Calcutta was 6 million
Number of war workers plus dependents was 350,000 in 1943. (Note that rearmament
started in 1938. We are more concerned with the marginal number, the
increase from 1941 or 1942 to 1943.)
Nobody suggests that the rural population increased their consumption.
They were the ones that went hungry.
Two thirds of the population of Bengal went hungry. (Mahalanobis et al.)
Per capita consumption of cereals in rice equivalent is given below.
Assume 100 calories per ounce.
A population can stay healthy in the long term at 1550 calories per
adult, as shown below.
A plump adult will lose perhaps half a pound a day on 500 calories. Ask
your colleagues how much they lose on 1200 calories per day. Many of those
who starved were previously relatively well off. (Mahalanobis.)
Average consumption in a normally bad year would have been about 2200
calories per adult in Bengal.
Manual workers doing hard work need 3000 calories. Coal miners needed
Few populations would have had a consumption as high as 3000 calories
until recent years. The 3800 calories of modern USA requires high
technology to pump sugar and fats into food. 3800 calories of a rice based
diet is a very difficult to consume - try cooking and eating 25 to 30
ounces of rice.
Calculate how many ounces of rice would have to be eaten by 50,000
war workers to bring the consumption of 40 million people down from 2200
calories down to 1600 calories, and to bring the consumption of 5 million
people to below 1000 calories. Measure it out. Cook it. Eat it. If you
manage to eat it all, report
your achievement to the Guinness Book of Records.
Repeat the calculation for a) all war workers and their dependents
b) one million industrial workers in Calcutta c) 3 million people in
Calcutta (i.e. excluding public sector, the very poor, and others not
benefiting from armament production. Measure it out, cook it, eat
Do the same calculations with calories if you wish.
Because of the tight wartime food controls, controls of food
transport, and rationing of urban industrial workers, we do have
statistics on how much rice was actually eaten in Calcutta. This is given
in Amartya Sen's primary source, the
Report of the Famine
Inquiry Commission, in several places notably pp219-33 . The figures
are discussed in depth in HTML How
Sen's Theory causes famines and in the Word document
How Senís Theory Can
Sen states ďIn 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.Ē
Note that he is talking here of
15 million people in Bengal, 43 times as many as the 350,000 war workers
and dependents he mentions elsewhere. And he is stating that only the
poorest people had changed incomes, which is not true of Bengal. And he is stating that the war workers were
recruited from the poorest part of the population which is not true. The rest of the statement is equally
unrepresentative of what happened in Bengal.
us assume, contrary to fact, that this is not a fairy tale. Using the
consumption figures below, calculate how much more rice would have been
Estimates of per capita consumption of all cereals.
||Ounces per day
|General average rate for Bengal
Calcutta middle classes
Mofussil urban middle classes
Industrial working classes
Families whose monthly expenditure is Rs 10 or less
SOURCE; Famine Inquiry Commission [Amartya Sen's primary source], 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.
Again, a little
work with a calculator shows that even if the income change had taken
place (it did not), the lucky half would have eaten very little more,
only 1.8% of total more (according to consumption surveys of the time).
This would have had no noticeable effect, if, as Sen says, there was
plenty of food available.
How much food do people need to avoid death by starvation?
The only reliable figures on famine I have come
across were those of postwar Germany, where an extremely impressive
British rationing authority was monitoring an extremely impressive
German authority. There as elsewhere there were leakages and black
markets. However, during the Berlin airlift, June 1948 to May
1949, there was total control of
imports, exercised by a hostile Soviet regime. All the food was flown in
by the RAF and USAAF who kept accurate figures. The health of the
inhabitants was constantly monitored. On 1550 calories in Berlin, the
health and weight seemed to remain constant over the whole period.
The original data is readily accessible in the National Archives at Kew.
It looks as though sedentary adults can drop to
1200 calories for long periods and to 1000 calories for some months
without a very large increase in deaths. Your body closes down and you
sleep a lot. Ask around your office and ask who actually loses weight on
a 1200 calorie diet.
Note that in the Bengal Famine, as in previous
famines, the people who starved were not those that had been poorest,
and thinnest, previously but people in occupations that became
redundant, like tailors and shoemakers. (See
Mahalanobis, Bartle Frere.)
The requirements of teenagers are much higher. So
too are the requirements of manual workers. In Germany, they had to
feed the miners 3500 calories, and it should have been more, 5000 plus. In parts
of India the normal for a working farmer is 2800 calories. Note that the
industrial workers who Sen said were eating so much more, were recruited
from the healthy well-fed part of the population. Note too that in most
countries when miners etc were given extra food because of the hard
manual work they did, they got this food at the works canteen so they
could not give it to their families. Be careful: calories per adult OR calories per
I suspect that to move from Bengalís 2200 calories
plus per adult to rapid starvation would mean a drop of 1400 calories per day.
Even this is an understatement, because the rice started to run out
immediately after the harvest. For the more general hunger which
affected two thirds of the population, we are talking of 1200 to 1600
calories per day. Uncomfortable, but not fatal.
1798 Marshal Massena was besieged in Northern Italy for six months plus, feeding
his men on half a pound of hair powder per day (this was the flour used
for powdering wigs. This gives 800 calories per day.) (AG Macdonald
Napoleon and his Marshals.)
See also two models of rice economies very like those he describes:
Are Boom Famines Possible?
Can Speculation cause Famines?