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The Bengal Famine

To the Editors:

Amartya Sen, in his reply to my letter [“The Truth About the Bengal Famine, NYR, March 24], wrote:

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.

This statement misrepresents the facts I presented. As I wrote in my letter, my sources “showed that the strain of brown spot that afflicted the rice crop of late 1942 was exceptionally virulent” with none of the common rice varieties possessing any resistance, and “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.” Sen either failed to read what I wrote or chose to misrepresent it.

In fact I did name a distinguished and prolific “plant biologist,” S.Y. Padmanabhan, whose key article, “The Great Bengal Famine” (Annual Review of Phytopathology, Vol. 11 (1973), cited twenty-five articles in scientific journals (not “musings”) by Padmanabhan, N.K. Chakrabarti, S.B. Chattopadhyay, T. Hemmi, T. Nojima, and several other Indian and Japanese scientists. In addition to this and many other articles, Padmanabhan also published Rice Research in India, co-edited with P.L. Jaiswal (New Delhi: Indian Council for Agricultural Research [ICAR], 1985), Breeding for Disease Resistance in Rice, coauthored with S. Gangopadhyay (New Delhi: Oxford University Press and IHB, 1987), Rice Production Technology (Bombay, 1980), Fungal Diseases of Rice in India: A Critical Review (New Delhi: ICAR, 1974), and other publications on related topics.

Both the International Rice Research Institute and the Indian Central Rice Research Institute (click on “Overviews,” “Background and Location”) attribute the Bengal famine to the plant disease that sharply reduced the 1942 harvest.

Sen further wrote that

the remark from the Famine Inquiry Commission’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).

In fact, as the following table shows, in his book Poverty and Famines (Table 6.2, p. 61), Sen explicitly uses the data from “Statement I.” The following table excerpts the columns indicating years and the aman harvests from Sen’s table on “Foodgrains Availability in Bengal” in Poverty and Famines and the Statement I table in the Report on Bengal. (Bengali farmers usually harvested three crops: the aman, usually two thirds of production, in December, the aus, another quarter of production, in August, and boro, a small crop, in early spring.)

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Sen wrote that “evidently, in his rush to criticize me, Tauger did not have time to read what I had said,” but his denial that he used these data suggests that he himself did not read what he had said.

The rice crop data in Statement III are identical to those in Statement I except for the estimate of cropland and harvest for the aman harvest. As the Report explained, the compilers of the tables produced their harvest data by multiplying the crop land with the yield-per-acre data, which was the same forecast data in both tables. The other data that Sen mentions were so small a fraction of the total harvest that they do not change the basic character of the data. My description of his data as “in the main” derived from forecasts and not final results remains correct. In some thirty-five years of publishing on the Bengal famine, Sen has never identified these data accurately as forecasts, and his letter to The New York Review perpetuates this misidentification.

The last section of his letter, on shortages, demand, and the “boom” in wartime Bengal, is more complicated than this space allows. I will simply refer readers to my article “The Indian Famine Crisis of World War II” (available on my website), which shows that hundreds of thousands of people fled Calcutta in 1942–1943 to avoid Japanese bomb attacks, apparently many more than were employed in wartime construction. Consequently it is difficult to conclude that demand increased significantly in Calcutta during the war. Rice prices rose sharply in 1943 because of the serious crop failures in 1942.

Sen refers to “the disastrous confusion behind imperial policies based on the assumption that if food supply had not fallen much, there ‘could not be a famine.’” Yet the real confusion, shared by Sen and the British authorities of the time, was the one he introduced by treating forecasts as harvest data and ignoring the scientific evidence of a catastrophic crop failure.

Mark B. Tauger
Associate Professor
Department of History
West Virginia University
Morgantown, West Virginia

Amartya Sen replies:

I cannot, I fear, hide a sense of exasperation as I enter this third-round exchange on a work of mine published more than a quarter of a century ago (Poverty and Famines, Oxford University Press, 1981), with which Mark Tauger has had some disagreement over many years now. While he has already written extensively on this subject, attacking my analysis of the Bengal famine (Chapter 6 in my book), those rebukes have not generated as much interest as perhaps Tauger would have liked. His old grumbles have now been majestically revived in a large-circulation leading journal, occasioned by a letter to the editor of The New York Review by Madhusree Mukerjee [“The Bengal Famine,” NYR, February 24], who cited Tauger’s work, in responding to Joseph Lelyveld’s critique of her book, Churchill’s Secret War [“Did Churchill Let Them Starve?, NYR, December 23, 2010]. As a result of the revival of Tauger’s work, led by Mukerjee and Tauger, we have now had three rounds of exchange. We have seen, in the first round (February 24), the search for great significance in a simple typo in my book that had no bearing whatsoever on my analysis of the Bengal famine. In the second round (March 24) as well as the first, we have seen the parading of a blatantly false statement to the effect that all my food production data for the Bengal famine were based on “crop forecasts.” Now comes the third round. I reply here to each of Tauger’s complaints in some detail.

In my March 24 letter, I had pointed out that the food production data used in my analysis did not depend only on crop forecasts, and that Tauger’s quotation from the Famine Inquiry Commission’s Report on Bengal applied only to Statement I of the commission, whereas I had relied on its Statement III (along with data from other sources), which made systematic corrections of the forecasts in Statement I. I suggested that Tauger evidently “did not have the time to read what I had said.” In this round, Tauger protests against my remark, and attempts to rebut this charge of incomplete reading by citing column 3 of my Table 6.2 in Poverty and Famines (p. 61). What he does not mention, astonishingly, is that in the same table (that is, Table 6.2), of which he cites only column 3, there are five subsequent columns (columns 4–8), taking us well beyond crop forecasts. In fact, column 5 there corresponds exactly to Statement III of the Famine Inquiry Commission (“Adjusted Current Supply of Rice”). I reproduce below the full Table 6.2 from my book, from which only column 3 was selectively quoted by Tauger to try to justify his mistaken attribution.

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Column 3 of Table 6.2 presents the “official estimates” on which the government relied, and those estimates, corresponding to Statement I of the commission, are indeed based on crop forecasts. This, however, is only the starting point from which departures come in columns 4–8, using a sequence of corrections, explained in detail in the text of my book, beginning with “Correction 1: Adjustment of Official Production Estimates” (pp. 58–63). The Famine Inquiry Commission’s Statement III, to which I referred in my book, and also in my March 24 letter, is quite central here (column 5 of my table), along with my use of other information about food supply in Bengal in 1943. Tauger’s selective pointing only to column 3, totally omitting to mention the other columns, is altogether amazing.

There are two other issues in Tauger’s new rejoinder. First, he points out, quite rightly, that there were plant biologists, among others, who were worried about the possible impact on food production of bad weather conditions and the crop diseases that followed. But none of these contributions presents—or estimates—the actual size of total food production in Bengal, with data from all the districts. Some of them present selective crop data in a few regions (and in particular from two rice research stations in two of the districts, out of twenty-seven districts in Bengal), coupled with grand generalizations—without any data for aggregate food production—for all of Bengal about the likely impact on food output of weather conditions and crop diseases (including “brown spot”). But simple generalizations, even by plant biologists, without any backing from the statistics of aggregate food data for Bengal, cannot serve Tauger’s purpose of showing that the Bengal famine was generated by food supply decline (unrelated to demand conditions in the uneven boom economy of Bengal). To arrive at any such conclusion we would minimally need “actual food data from all the districts of Bengal,” as I discussed in my March 24 letter.

There are, as it happens, much data on the subject and several actual food output estimates for all of Bengal. Even the so-called “crop forecasts” were attempts to provide such estimates (the weather conditions influenced the acreage so that these forecasts based on acreage were not entirely isolated from the weather conditions); and these were the “official estimates” at the time, in 1943, on which the government relied. But of course, these estimates needed correction, and the actual food data from the commission’s Report on Bengal (1945) on which I focused (I repeat this again, given Tauger’s persistent attempt to ignore or sidestep this fact) came from Statement III, which reflected necessary corrections to the estimates in Statement I that had to be made—and were made. Column 5 in my Table 6.2 showed the effect of the corrections that were made by the Famine Commission, which it presented in its Statement III.

Was the Famine Commission ignorant of the weather conditions and their impact on food production? The commission, which was appointed in 1944 (the year after the famine), began its serious work around July of that year, and its Report on Bengal was completed when the actual impact of the weather conditions in the fall of 1942 could be fully assessed, publishing its report in 1945. The commission talked about the cyclone and diseases that followed, and used all the information it could by then obtain, which included among other information the actual impact of the much-feared storms and parasitic diseases in late 1942.

Was the Famine Commission, then, callous or devious by not making proper use of the data that became available between 1942 and 1945? There is little evidence of that. Indeed, the commission tried to make its best effort in explaining the famine (as I discussed in Poverty and Famines), but was restrained by its mistaken focus (like Tauger’s) on the supply side only, missing out on the demand side altogether. Mark Tauger states dismissively in his new letter that the commission’s “rice crop data in Statement III are identical to those in Statement I except for the estimate of crop land and harvest for the aman harvest.” How serious is this “except for”? Not only was the aman harvest—sown in May–June and harvested in November–December—by far the largest crop during the year in those days (the aman contributed 73 percent of the total rice harvest of Bengal, on an average, during 1939–1943), but it was also the aman that took the brunt of the cyclone that came in October, causing destruction and crop diseases (to the extent that they occurred). Tauger seems to miss altogether the significance of the Famine Commission’s corrections of the aman harvest to come to grips with the impact of the October cyclone.

The Famine Commission corrected the acreage figures for rice after noting some systematic errors that the official estimates had, which had been discussed earlier by Professor P.C. Mahalanobis, among others (these corrections resulted in raising the crop acreage estimates for the entire series, but of course we have to look at the relative ups and downs over the years within the series). Regarding yields, the commission noted:

After the acreage is estimated, the yield is estimated by a procedure involving two factors, viz. (a) the assumption of a “normal” rate of yield per acre, and (b) the estimation of the actual rate of yield of the year as a proportion of the “normal.”
(Report on Bengal, p. 207)

These assessments of actual rice production, supplemented by imports and exports, yielded the “current supply” in Statement III in the commission’s report, which is reflected in column 5 in my Table 6.2 (“Adjusted Current Supply of Rice”). I had three more columns, to supplement the rice supply figure by taking note both of wheat availability in addition to rice, and of population growth over time, to obtain per capita food grains availability (column 8). The result of all this indicated that the actual food supply per capita in Bengal in 1943 (the famine year) was significantly higher than in 1941 (when there was no famine).

The Famine Commission’s own observation, based on Statement III, was similar, even after it noted the impact of adverse weather conditions in the fall of 1942 on the aman crop of 1942–1943—the main crop that was affected by the cyclone and parasitic diseases—and on food availability in Bengal in 1943:

In the course of the 15 years preceding 1943, there were 3 years (1928, 1936 and 1941) in which the supply obtained from the aman crop reaped in the previous year, was seriously short because of the partial failure of that crop from natural causes…. In 1943, the shortage in the previously reaped aman crop was comparable to that which occurred in the 3 years referred to above. Actually it was less serious than in 1941. A phenomenal rise in the price of rice, however, occurred which was of a very different order from the small rise which took place in the earlier years of shortage. This suggests at first sight that the famine of 1943 was due to a breakdown in distribution rather than to insufficiency of supplies. (p. 13)

While the Famine Commission too—like Tauger—says little about demand conditions in explaining the sharp rise in the price of rice (Chapter 6 of my book was aimed at, among other things, correcting this persistent neglect of the demand side of price determination—and the neglect also of the consequences of huge inequalities in purchasing power, central to the causation of the famine), the commission made the unambiguous assessment that the impact of the natural calamity of the October cyclone had not reduced the crop harvest for rice availability in 1943 as much as natural calamities had for 1941, when there was no famine. This point seems to be missed altogether by Tauger.

In trying to stick to the old “supply side” explanation of the Bengal famine (without looking adequately at the demand side), the commission resorted to a presumption that the “carry-over” (by which it referred to the stocks of food grains carried from one year to the next) must have been far less in 1943 than in 1941. This was just an assumption since no data on carry-overs exist. I have discussed this entire range of empirical information in Poverty and Famines, Chapter 6, and the only issue to which I am drawing attention here is that the commission’s own assessment of crop loss as a result of the cyclone and crop diseases in 1942–1943 (on which Tauger concentrates), based on all the information available by 1945, was that it was far less severe than what had happened in 1940–1941 (which directly contradicts Tauger’s claims).

There was another detailed estimate of actual food production that was produced by George Blyn in his widely researched book, Agricultural Trends in India 1891–1947: Output, Availability, and Productivity (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1966). In that work it emerged that not only was the acreage cultivated in Bengal in 1942–1943 much larger than in 1940–1941, even the yield per acre for Bengal as a whole was larger in 1942–1943 than in 1940–1941, confirming that the food availability during the Bengal famine was very substantially larger—not smaller—than in 1941, when there was no famine. I noted Blyn’s results in my book (p. 58).

The subject received close scrutiny also from M.M. Islam in his Bengal Agriculture 1920–1946: A Quantitative Study (Cambridge University Press, 1977), and from Sugata Bose in his “Starvation Amidst Plenty: The Making of Famine in Bengal, Honan and Tonkin, 19421945,” in Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 24, No. 4 (October 1990). Bose has also discussed the causation of the Bengal famine in his authoritative study, Agrarian Bengal: Economy, Social Structure, and Politics, 1919–1947 (Cambridge University Press, 1986) and in Peasant Labour and Colonial Capital: Rural Bengal Since 1770 (Cambridge University Press, 1993).

All these studies confirm that the Bengal famine was not caused by aggregate food availability decline in the province. With all due respect to what the plant biologists feared, we have no good reason to rely on some generalized expectations of biologists (without any aggregate food output data for Bengal) and to reject the actual food output data for all the districts of Bengal that we get from these extensive statistical sources.

The remaining point in Tauger’s letter concerns a very odd argument about why demand for food could not have risen significantly, because of some outmigration from Calcutta, and this slender piece of reasoning is presented without taking any kind of note of the enormous governmental expenditure on war efforts, backed by a huge addition to the money supply and a fourfold rise of food prices. Tauger is evidently comfortable with his single-minded conclusion that “rice prices rose sharply in 1943 because of the serious crop failures in 1942.” It would perhaps be rude to disturb his comfort by bringing in any intervention of economic reasoning here (particularly the rather obvious, though neglected, role of demand conditions on prices), but for those who are interested in the economic causation of the Bengal famine, Chapter 6 of my Poverty and Famines discusses the different economic influences that fueled the boom economy of Bengal, with a sharp rise in the demand for commodities, particularly demand for food, but which also left some people, especially rural wage earners (whose wages had lagged seriously behind food prices), without the means to obtain much food.

The upward pressure on food prices was enhanced by the government’s drive to procure rice from rural Bengal to feed the Calcutta population through making food available in urban ration shops at heavily subsidized prices (mainly for helping the successful conduct of the war, for which “peace in Calcutta” was taken by the Raj to be extremely important), as well as by the speculative withdrawal of food stocks from the market by professional traders and also by the panic-stricken public. The sharp increase in food prices had devastating effects on the rural poor, especially on rural wage earners.

Without bringing in the demand side of the story and the distribution of purchasing power (including the relationship of prices to wages), it would be extremely hard to understand the causation of the Bengal famine. There have, of course, been many famines in which supply declines have played a very big part in the “entitlement failure” of the famine victims, and as I have discussed in Poverty and Famines, good entitlement analysis must take note of both demand and supply conditions.

In some famines, for example those in Ethiopia and in the Sahel countries in the 1970s, which I investigated in Poverty and Famines (see Chapters 7 and 8), the supply declines were indeed extremely important. While famines, in general, cannot be adequately understood only by looking at total food supply (which is especially problematic in explaining why some segments of the society starve, while others do just fine), nevertheless fall in food supply could be a critically important variable in some famines. These cases tend to belong generally to what I called, in my book, “slump famines,” and these do indeed occur. (Those commentators who see entitlement analysis as being, in general, hostile to paying attention to food availability miss the comprehensive nature and many-sided demands of the entitlement approach.)

However, the “boom famine” in Bengal in 1943 was clearly not caused by any sharp fall in food availability, as the food supply data from different sources bring out. The causation of starvation in that famine can be understood only by bringing in the impact of an increase in demand in the war economy, coupled with a very unequal distribution of purchasing power that left a large group of people unable to get enough food. The idea that the “supply side” is adequate in explaining—or anticipating—famines is not merely a serious epistemic error, it can actually extract a very heavy price in human death, as indeed it did in the disastrous Bengal famine of 1943.

This correspondence is closed.

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