The Truth About the Bengal Famine

In response to:

The Bengal Famine from the February 24, 2011 issue

To the Editors:

In a discussion about the book Churchill’s Secret War [Letters, NYR, February 24], Amartya Sen misrepresented both his and my work on the Bengal famine of 1943. Sen was responding to Madhusree Mukerjee’s statement that my studies had “seriously challenged” his assertion that the crop shortage in Bengal was too small to cause famine.

Sen dismissed my data on the grounds that they came from only two rice research stations, and that “weather variations have regionally diverse effects.” I cited data from an article by S.Y. Padmanabhan, director of the Central Rice Research Institute in Cuttack, India, which showed that the strain of brown spot that afflicted the rice crop of late 1942 was exceptionally virulent: none of the fifteen winter varieties grown in these two stations, which were hundreds of miles apart, demonstrated any capacity to resist the disease. Yields fell often to one tenth of the previous year’s (more or less normal) level. The article also presented meteorological evidence showing that weather conditions in 1942 were unusually uniform and favorable for the spread of the disease all over Bengal, as well as scientific tests indicating that weather conditions disseminated spores of the disease widely in Bengal in late 1942. As a result, plant biologists hold that there was indeed a significant shortage of rice in 1943.

Sen also stated that Madhusree Mukerjee “misdescribes my estimates as being based only ‘on projections.'” But Sen’s data derive in the main from the Famine Commission’s report, which notes that these figures “are based on crop forecasts prepared over a series of years by the Director of Agriculture, Bengal.” Indeed they are projections, a point also noted by economist Peter Bowbrick, and cannot be regarded as definitive.

Mark B. Tauger
Associate Professor

West Virginia University

Morgantown, West Virginia

Amartya Sen replies:

First, the remark from the Famine Inquiry Commision’s Report on Bengal that Mark Tauger quotes to claim that this source of my data was based only on “crop forecasts” relates to the Commission’s “Statement I”: “Unadjusted Current Supply” (pages 205, 213). In contrast, the data that I used from the Report came from its “Statement III.” This is a different table of “Adjusted Current Supply,” with corrections including those of “estimates of yield” (pages 206–207, 215). Evidently, in his rush to criticize me, Tauger did not have the time to read what I had said (see Poverty and Famines, 1981, pages 59, 61). Nor does he note the fact that I also used sources of information other than the Famine Commission (pages 58–59).

Second, Tauger seems to think he can get an adequate picture of total food supply in Bengal from the data from just two rice research stations in two districts in undivided Bengal (which had twenty-seven districts) by quoting the generalizations made by the author of an article that presented those very data, supplemented by the musings of some unnamed “plant biologists.” To construct a comprehensive picture of total food supply in Bengal, we do, however, need actual food data from all the districts of Bengal.

Finally, Tauger says that I made the “assertion that the crop shortage in Bengal was too small to cause famine.” I did not. What I actually showed was that while the decline in rice supply was small, there was a substantial shortfall compared with demand, since the rise in aggregate demand was very large in the war economy of Bengal, leading to a sharp rise in the price of rice and the starvation of those left behind in the boom economy. I discussed all this in Poverty and Famines, including the distinction between a decline in food availability and a shortfall of supply with respect to demand, in investigating the disastrous confusion behind imperial policies based on the assumption that if food supply had not fallen much, there “could not be a famine.”

I had to discuss that critical distinction again in my response to Madhusree Mukerjee in the last exchange. I am sad that I have to explain the same distinction one more time—now for Mark Tauger. The imperial confusion, tying the causation of famines entirely to supply conditions (and in particular to the decline of food availability), ignoring the influence of demand and of the distribution of purchasing power, which led to the death of millions, seems hard to eradicate.