The causes of the Bengal famine

The 1943 Bengal famine has been cited by Amartya Sen and others as a classic example of market failure.  But in his new (and excellent) book Eating Dead People is Wrong, and Other Essays on Famine, Its Past, and Its Future, Cormac Ó Gráda devotes an entire chapter to that episode and comes away with a different impression.  Here is a summary sentence:

The 1943-44 famine has become paradigmatic as an “entitlements famine,” whereby speculation born of greed and panic produced an “artificial” shortage of rice, the staple food.  Here I have argued that the lack of political will to divert foodstuffs from the war effort rather than speculation in the sense outlined was mainly responsible for the famine.

I will add to that price controls were imposed once the famine was underway, and campaigns were conducted against hoarders.

In the book I also very much enjoyed the discussion of the 1946-47 famine in Moldova, which apparently involved a good deal of cannibalism.


Britain was in danger of famine in March 1943 due to German U-boats sinking so many food transports in the Battle of the Atlantic. That was Nazi strategy for defeating Britain: to starve Britain into submission.

Where was the food for Bengal supposed to come from in 1943 and how was it supposed to get there?

Either it was supposed to come from other parts of India, or it was supposed to come from overseas by ship. But Britain was running out of food in early 1943 because the Germans were sinking more freighters in the Atlantic than the Allies could build. So diverting shipping to Bengal in 1943 would have greatly increased the risk of Hitler winning the war. Somebody should ask Dr. Sen just how high a risk of the Nazis winning World War II does he think Churchill and Roosevelt should have agreed to.

From Wikipedia on The Battle of the Atlantic:

As an island nation, the United Kingdom was highly dependent on imported goods. Britain required more than a million tons of imported material per week in order to be able to survive and fight. In essence, the Battle of the Atlantic was a tonnage war: the Allied struggle to supply Britain and the Axis attempt to stem the flow of merchant shipping that enabled Britain to keep fighting. From 1942 onwards, the Germans also sought to prevent the build-up of Allied supplies and equipment in the British Isles in preparation for the invasion of occupied Europe. The defeat of the U-boat threat was a pre-requisite for pushing back the Germans, Winston Churchill later wrote,

"The Battle of the Atlantic was the dominating factor all through the war. Never for one moment could we forget that everything happening elsewhere, on land, at sea or in the air depended ultimately on its outcome.[7]"
— Winston Churchill

The outcome of the battle was a strategic victory for the Allies—the German blockade failed—but at great cost: 3,500 merchant ships and 175 warships were sunk for the loss of 783 U-boats. ...

Climax of the campaign (March 1943 – May 1943, "Black May")

... Also, in March the Germans added a refinement to the U-boat Enigma key, which blinded the Allied codebreakers for 10 days. That month saw the battles of convoys UGS 6, HX 228, SC 121, SC 122 and HX 229. One hundred twenty ships were sunk worldwide, 82 ships of 476,000 tons in the Atlantic, while 12 U-boats were destroyed.

The supply situation in Britain was such there was talk of being unable to continue the war, with supplies of fuel being particularly low. It appeared Dönitz was winning. The situation was so bad, the British considered abandoning convoys entirely.[48] The next two months saw a complete reversal of fortunes.

In April, losses of U-boats increased while their kills fell significantly. Only 39 ships of 235,000 tons were sunk in the Atlantic, and 15 U-boats were destroyed.

By May, wolf packs no longer had the advantage and that month became known as Black May in the U-Boat Arm (U-Boot Waffe). The turning point was the battle centred on slow convoy ONS 5 (April–May 1943). Made up of 43 merchantmen escorted by 16 warships, it was attacked by a pack of 30 U-boats. Although 13 merchant ships were lost, six U-boats were sunk by the escorts or Allied aircraft. Despite a storm which scattered the convoy, the merchantmen reached the protection of land-based air cover, causing Dönitz to call off the attack. Two weeks later, SC 130 saw five U-boats destroyed for no losses. Faced with disaster, Dönitz called off operations in the North Atlantic, saying, "We had lost the Battle of the Atlantic".[49]

So given the choice between Bengalis starving to death and Britain having to suffer (and in a remote case, surrender), the former is preferable? Only if you consider Bengali lives worthless.

According to Madhusree Mukherjee's book, food from India was being sent to Britain while the famine was going on. Also, it seems Roosevelt was willing to ship food to India (he wouldn't have made such an offer in the first place if that would have meant reducing stock meant for the British). But Churchill was adamant that no famine relief be given to Bengal.

"Britain having to suffer (and in a remote case, surrender), the former is preferable?"

Kinda depends the value you put on Hitler not winning the war. Dr. Sen puts a lower value on keeping the Nazis from winning than Churchill, which is fine, but he and his fans ought to mention that fact.

Dr. Sen has opened my eyes to the real problem having been Churchill's excessive Naziphobia.

Somebody should ask Dr. Sen just how high a risk of the Nazis winning World War II does he think Churchill and Roosevelt should have agreed to.

Dr. Sen in fact covered up the role of British in the Bengal famine. He believed that richer Bengalis ate so much food so there was none left for the poor. His data says rich Bengalis increased food consumption 20 times in 1943 but returned to baseline the next year. You should champion him more.

"speculation born of greed and panic" What is meant by greed?

Price controls to stymie the greedy and create more shortage?

Were the hoarders killed and eaten?

the real question is "any good Moldovan restaurants in greater DC?"

Bengal was a rice importing region. The japanese invaded southeast asia and took all the rice they used to export to Bengal. But clearly, the speculators were the ones at fault......

Also, the cyclone that hit the east coast of Bengal and Orissa in October of 1942 destroyed domestic rice as well.

The British had created elected assemblies in many parts of India. The Indian politicians in other parts of India refused to allow their food to be exported to Bengal. It wasn't just the Congress's friends in Japan that were cutting off food supplies.

Can you provide links or references?

Apropos, here is Adam Smith on "this liberal system":

"Were all nations to follow THE LIBERAL SYSTEM [Caps added, DK] of free exportation and free importation, the different states into which a great continent was divided would so far resemble the different provinces of a great empire. As among the different provinces of a great empire the freedom of the inland trade appears, both from reason and experience, not only the best palliative of a dearth, but the most effectual preventative of a famine; so would the freedom of the exportation and importation trade be among the different states into which a great continent was divided. The larger the continent, the easier the communication through all the different parts of it, both by land and by water, the less would any one particular part of it ever be exposed to either of these calamities, the scarcity of any one country being more likely to be relieved by the plenty of some other. But very few countries have entirely adopted THIS LIBERAL SYSTEM..."

Hmm, the spiciest bit of the Amazon blurb was:

The book also addresses the role played by traders and speculators ...... overturning Adam Smith’s claim that government attempts to solve food shortages always cause famines.

This gem of vagueness appears at the end of the blurb. I can't tell if it is honest or just a feeble attempt to sell the book to lefties. It's a pity TC hasn't commented on the general thrust of the book.

I know this is sick, but I just had an image of a post from you asking readers where are the best places to eat people in Moldova.

Would this modify the recommendation not to eat at places where the beautiful people congregate?

Beauty is only skin deep.

In Moldova, *all* the women are beautiful...and there are no really good places to eat. Q.E.D.

In the book I also very much enjoyed the discussion of the 1946-47 famine in Moldova, which apparently involved a good deal of cannibalism.

Would you like to reconsider this sentence?

See, and I was going to say, will we get a recursion problem if I write:

Sentenced to Ponder: "In the book I also very much enjoyed the discussion of the 1946-47 famine in Moldova, which apparently involved a good deal of cannibalism. - See more at:"

I can't remember my Sen exactly, but I thought his general theory of famines repudiated medieval hoarder-bashing. He believes famines are caused because some people are so poor that even in an emergency they cannot buy food when prices rise. Sen advocates direct subsidies to the victims.

If it had happened in German, Japanese, or Soviet occupied lands it would be called a genocide.

If it had happened in the Soviet Union 1. we would never have heard of it (see the Moldovan famine also referred) and 2. the people who condemn Britain the loudest and longest would viciously attack anyone who dared to smear their idol Stalin.

It is not called genocide because it was not genocide. The British had created a large and usually well functioning system for detecting and dealing with famine in India. Since the 1880s, it had worked very well. But the war threw up new problems they had not consider - as did democracy once Indian politicians refused to allow food to be moved from surplus areas to places like Bengal. They did what they could.

Independent India, with massive aid from the West, has done about as good as the British. Not much worse but not much better.

There have been, count them, ZERO famines since Indian independence. "Not much better"? Laughable.

There have been zero world wars since Indian independence, too.

Ultimately, the Bengal famine was Hitler's fault.

Are you being deliberately obtuse? No one argues that the British wilfully engineered famines in India, just that their tax and trade policies had that effect now and then. And when famine occurred, they refused to provide relief because....FREE TRADE. Also, many Indian elites were in bed with them and they maintained a large standing army (after 1857) with the express purpose of quelling internal rebellion. They had no need to provide aid to Indians because their rule did not depend on the assent of the masses. However imperfect Indian democracy has been since 1947, the rules are responsible to the public to a large extent. There is no way a famine can be allowed or a famine-struck region left to fend for itself. That is why independent India has had no famines, which were quite frequent during British rule.

But then, in one of your older blog posts, you cited Katherine Mayo's Mother India approvingly. If that piece of dreck is your primary source of information about India, you have no business stating opinions on this topic.

We're discussing the 1943 famine, which was tied into other events taking place in 1943.

There have been zero Hitlers since Indian independence, too, although no thanks to Dr. Sen.

There were widespread famines in German, Japanese, and Soviet occupied lands during WW2. The Germans destroyed what they couldn't take while moving east and the Russians did the same moving west and American submarines cut off most food imports into Japan. There wasn't cannibalism of the sort seen in Bengal but the death toll was in the millions.

There was famine in the Netherlands in 1945, for example.

"He told his private secretary that ‘the Hindus were a foul race “protected by their mere pullation from the doom that is their due”‘ “He wished that Air Chief Marshall Arthur Harris, the head of British bomber command, could “send some of his surplus bombers to destroy them.””

“I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”

"Sir Churchill believed that once the war (the Second World War) had been won, there was “no obligation to honour promises made” to India and her leaders...As the tide of the Second World War began to turn in favor of the Allied powers, Sir Churchill believed that it “was not the time to crawl before a miserable little old man” – the “miserable little old man” being Mahatma Gandhi...the Mahatma “ought to be lain bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi, and then trampled on by an enormous elephant with the new Viceroy seated on its back.”"

"Apart from supplying her soldiers “for some of the toughest combat in countries and the Mediterranean Sea, India was designated to provide the bulk of supplies for those theaters. Starting in May [1942], Amery oversaw the effort to ship from India around 40,000 tons of grain per month, a tenth of its railway engines and carriages, and even railway tracks were uprooted from less important train lines. The colony’s entire commercial production of timber, woolen textiles and leather goods, and three-quarters of its steel and cement production, would be required for the war. . . Apart from the United Kingdom itself, India would become the largest contributor to the empire’s war – providing goods and services worth more than £2 billion.” Sir Churchill would record this fact somewhat differently in his semi-fictional, romanticized retelling of the War – “They [India] were carried through the struggle on the shoulders of our small Island. … No great portion of the world population was so effectively protected from the horrors and perils of the World War as were the peoples of Hindustan.” The truth is the refuge of the weak. No such bindings for the great."

OTOH, Japan was considered a civilizational ally and a fellow proud pagan/heathen country. Indian National Army under the command of Subhash Chandra Bose fought alongside Japan in the struggle to free the people of India from barbaric white imperialism. INA had mass support in India- greatest in Bengal. A mutiny/revolt would have been inevitable had Japan being successful in reaching Bengal. As in rest of Asia, Japan would have helped roll up colonialism in India as well.

"Leopold Amery, Secretary of State for India during the War, once told Sir Churchill that he saw little difference “between his outlook and Hitler’s” and that he recorded in his diary that he was “by no means sure whether on this subject of India he [Churchill] is really quite sane.” Amery also believed that Sir Churchill saw the “Bengali babus through the same lens as anti-Semites might perceive Jews.” But there can be no comparison of Sir Churchill with Adolf Hitler.

And, in closing, let us not even get into Sir Winston’s role in preventing foodgrains and supplies from reaching a starving population of Bengal, where an estimated 5.7 million people died on account of the famine – a number only a shade less than what were murdered by Hitler’s butchers in concentration camps. It would be only in 1949 that the Geneva Convention guidelines would be extended to “include a prohibition against starving civilians in occupied territories.” Could Sir Winston Churchill have been tried as a war criminal along with other Nazi criminals at the Nuremberg Trials? Certainly not."

....had Japan *been* successful in reaching Bengal.

TheNewGuys says:

"But there can be no comparison of Sir Churchill with Adolf Hitler."

In the future, I suspect, Churchill and Hitler will both be classified as Evil White Male Gentiles. And what more will you need to know about them?

Churchill is on record referring to Indians as a "beastly people with a beastly religion". He fought tooth and nail against Indian independence. His callousness resulted in lots of Bengalis dying of starvation. Anyone who thinks Churchill is as bad as Hitler is an idiot, but you can hardly fault Indians for not having a soft spot for him.

So, Dr. Sen's fans should be upfront about their "Hitler not being all that a bad guy when you compare him to Churchill" stance when they talk about British shipping policy in 1943.

I could buy political will as a fundamental cause of the Bengal Famine. Let us not forget that Bengal had been an extremely troublesome location for the British in the decade or so leading up to the 1942 famine, with nationalist insurgents regularly bombing trains and attacking other signs of colonial domination through the '30s, and rebels outright seizing control of major Bengali cities during the 1942 insurrection. So I would not at all be surprised that Churchill and other imperialist-minded leaders in Britain at the time were quite cheerful about "lacking political will" to divert food to an area that had been a leader in anti-colonial resistance to the British Empire in South Asia.

One issue I've seen mentioned is that the British initially diverted wheat from the Punjab. Famished people used to eating rice could not digest wheat and died anyway.

Sounds like propaganda to absolve the perpetrators genocide.... "Famished people" would have been eating mud and weeds at that point.

Sounds like there were two solutions-- don't get conquered or if you do get conquered don't bomb passenger trains and collaborate with the rival imperial power. Too bad for India it didn't pick one of those.

@ Jim Price you blame the victims of terrorism in every case or just when your favorite terrorists are involved?
How about the million white British children raped by Pakistani-British perps? You on the side of the rapists there too?

Did you know, concentration camp survivors died of over-eating upon rescue. The last member of the Donner Party died from eating as well (he binge-ate, threw it up, and binged again). The British began diverting wheat to Calcutta, announced the problem fixed, after which people were still dying at three times the normal rate.

@PD Shaw

Poor people across India used to eat coarse grains like sorghum (jowar), bajra, maize, ragi, psyllium husk and so on as the staple. Rice was in fact a rich man's food. Even today these are often the cheapest cereals available in India. However, increased demand in the West and among well-off within India as a healthy alternative to wheat and rice have made them costlier than before. Impossible that people used to eating and digesting such difficult food stuff would have any trouble with digesting wheat.

And for the well-off in Bengal in the colonial era, wheat was hardly an entirely strange food. Parathas, Rotis, Chappathis, sweets like Pitha made of wheat were all familiar.

So the Bengalis didn't get enough wheat or rice.

As a life-long keen as mustard curry-and-rice muncher, I think I'd just to register that chapati is great stuff. I'd eat it even if I wasn't hungry. Digest too.

That is the British way. Just look at black 47 for comparison.

Calling the 1942 Quit India Movement an insurrection is stretching the facts, to put it mildly. There were a few protests (ostensibly non-violent), but the British authorities quickly arrested not just the top Congress leaders (Gandhi and Nehru included) but also most of the youthful protesters, and the troubles fizzed out almost as quickly as they began.

I am also genuinely puzzled by your assertion that "nationalist insurgents regularly bombed trains". What are you talking about? I have only heard of a handful such bombings throughout the half-century of the independence movement. but maybe I missed something. Do you have any links and statistics about such bombings?

I'm not sure where you're getting your facts about the Quit India Movement; all accounts portray it as an explosion of popular anger. But if all your information is coming from Wikipedia, I suppose you can be forgiven, since the article about the movement there is pretty crap.

You can check out the statistics here:

My summary: 63 British and 763 Indians were killed, and 2012 British and 1941 Indians injured. 208 police stations, 945 post offices, and 749 government buildings were destroyed; there were 664 bomb attacks; 332 railway stations were destroyed, and sabotage to train tracks caused 66 derailments. And this is an incomplete survey, considering that rural insurgents continued operations well past 1943 in places like Bengal and Karnataka.

I didn't mean to suggest that the Quit India Movement was a walk in the park, but keep in mind that the numbers you quote are not very big for a country of India's size. The word "insurrection" suggests a rebellion involving all strata of society, as happened in 1857 throughout the Gangetic plain. In 1942, by comparison, the "troubles" seem to be caused by a bunch of disorganized youth. I grant you that it spread throughout the country, but that was thanks to the all-India nature of the Congress organization and its affiliates.

When you said "train bombings", I thought of bombs being planted and detonated in running trains, not the blowing of railway tracks (though that could cause a similar loss of human life.) Thanks for providing those numbers though; I didn't know the amount of destruction caused during the Movement. It still does not rise to the level of an insurrection though IMO.

Crap, I was looking for information on my dissertation about the lack of super bowls in Cincinnati. My google-fu failed me. Good article, though.

Cincinnati is too cold and too boring for the Super Bowl.

"This article argues that Sen's theory of famine will lead to the wrong diagnosis and the wrong remedies
for famine and will therefore worsen the situation. His analysis of the Bengal famine is a case in point. It is,
based on unreliable and inaccurate statistics. Even the statistics he does use contradict his thesis. His
explanatory hypotheses are shown to be theoretically and factually wrong. The actions of the Bengal
government of 1943 are looked at in the light of Sen's recommendations. "
Peter Bowbrick, The causes of famine - A refutation of Professor Sen's theory.

"Amartya Sen has produced a theory that nearly all famines are not due to a decline in food availability, but rather to an increase in consumption by one group of the population which means that less is available to other groups, who starve. In Poverty and Famines he attacked a straw man of a Food Availability Decline (FAD) theory to justify his own entitlement theory. He produced a large amount of evidence, mainly from the Bengal famine of 1943 to support this. His Nobel Prize was granted mainly for this theory and theory built on it.

It takes a few minutes with a calculator to show that Sen’s theory cannot be correct: it is just not physically possible for one group to eat so much that most of the population goes hungry and millions of people starve. The figures on population, food consumption etc that you need to do the calculation yourself with are to be found here Statistics for you to check with

This means that there must be something wrong with the large amount of evidence that he produced to support his theory. And it is simple enough to check all his evidence against his sources and find that he systematically misstated the facts to support his theory. If his theory is wrong and has been applied, millions of people have starved unnecessarily.

The misstatements are meticulously documented in my papers which are on this web site. Neither Amartya Sen nor anybody else has challenged me on these, though they have had ample opportunity. The documents which Sen cited are extremely difficult to obtain - the Government of India at the time had reason to limit circulation to the minimum. This would explain why nobody checked his citations.

It should not take two hours to confirm that my citations are correct: I have put the key document Amartya Sen relies on on this web site. It should not take more than two days to check all the misstatements I have identified, and confirm that he has systematically misstated his facts to support an untenable theory. Source documents on Bengal Famine

Sen has always had a reputation for misstating his facts. There are several papers by other people who showed that he misstated the facts on the Bengal famine - people who were not aware of my refutation. Academics contest Amartya Sen's "facts" on famine"

It is possible to get a Nobel Prize when your work is strongly criticized for misstating all key facts and for being theoretically incorrect. Amartya Sen, Master of Trinity College Cambridge, was awarded his prize largely for his work on famines though its factual and theoretical basis has been challenged in the academic press.

In his book Poverty and Famines, and in many other books and papers, he claimed that most famines are not caused by sudden declines in food availability due to droughts, floods etc. He claims that, on the contrary, they happen when there is plenty of food available, but one part of the population suddenly eats a lot more than normal, because of a wartime boom or inflation for instance. As a result, there is less food available for the rest of the population, so the poor starve.

If this is the cause of a famine, the famine can be stopped by reversing the change in distribution; by seizing traders' stocks, by rationing to stop over-consumption by some groups, and by handouts to those who cannot afford to buy food. Some imports are desirable, but they are not strictly necessary. If Sen is right, and most famines are caused in this way, then organizations like Oxfam are largely redundant, if not actually harmful.

His approach is a revival of the demand-side-only approach of the English Classical Economists, which was responsible for the high death rate of the Irish famine and a string of English famines. Until he revived it, it was considered totally discredited, and it had been replaced by a more orthodox approach which considered both supply and demand. There never has been a supply-only approach.

Sen's explanation was widely accepted mainly because he presented a lot of evidence to show that this is what happened in the Bengal famine of 1943. A re-examination of the facts in his sources shows a somewhat different story.

He says that there was plenty of food available in Bengal in 1943, more than in previous years, and that the famine was caused by the war boom. There were 100,000 new war workers, who were well paid, which meant that they and their families ate more food, so much more that there was not enough to go around and there was a famine. These people were one quarter to one half per cent of Bengal's 61 million population. Their extra consumption is supposed to have caused a famine in which 41 million people went hungry. More than 10 million of these were very badly affected and two to four million died. A few minutes work with a calculator shows that in order to cause this famine, the workers and family members would have had to eat 60 to 120 times as much as in normal years!

Elsewhere Sen presents the argument somewhat differently, saying that the population of Calcutta, six million of them, benefited from the wartime boom. They ate so much extra rice in 1943 - but not in 1942 or 1944 - that rice was shipped from country areas to feed them. As a result, there was a major famine in the country areas. Again, a few minutes work with a calculator will disprove this. They would have had to eat more than three times the normal amount of food to create this shortage.

Needless to say, they did not eat this much food. There are very accurate figures on Calcutta's food consumption because of the wartime controls, and these show that the people of Calcutta ate significantly less than usual in the famine year, not three times as much.

Nor is Sen correct in saying that food moved from the country areas into Calcutta. As in previous years, Calcutta got all its grain from outside Bengal. True, there were small imports from the country immediately after harvest, but this never amounted to more than two and a half days' supply for the districts. By the time the famine was in full flow, this and more had been shipped back to the districts. If Sen was right about the cause of the famine, this extra supply shipped to country areas would have stopped the famine there. It did not.

Sen states "In 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." This has been a hugely influential statement.

A little work with a calculator shows that even if it had happened, it would have been trivial. The "lucky half" would have eaten a little more, 1.8% of total consumption (according to consumption surveys of the time). If, as Sen says, there was plenty of food available at the time, it would not have caused any hunger, much less a major famine affecting 40% of the population.

But it did not happen. Sen states that 10% of 61 million people, or six million people, doubled their income. Since a maximum of one million of the population of Calcutta were classified as very poor, the rest must have come from the rural areas. This implies that Calcutta nearly doubled its population in a few months, to become the biggest city in the world. His model implies that they were not there in 1942 or 1945 - they vanished as soon as the next main harvest came. Wartime rationing and food controls mean that we have accurate figures for Calcutta's population. The population appears to have risen by up to 500,000 from 1939, not by six million in a matter of months.

We also know that it was not just the poorest 10% that went hungry, as Sen states. The famine hit the population as a whole, and 66% went hungry.

Sen's statement that 1943 food availability was "at least 11% higher than in 1941 when there was nothing remotely like a famine" gained a lot of credibility for his argument. However, several economists have used exactly the same data to show that, on the contrary, food availability was the lowest in at least 15 years, and probably 11% lower than in 1941, when only emergency Government action prevented widespread starvation. The latest analysis, by Dr Goswami of the Indian Statistical Institute, dissects Sen's analysis in great detail and confirms that Sen was wrong.

It is surprising though that Sen should have placed so much reliance on one set of statistics, crop forecasts, which must have been among the worst ever produced. Contemporary economists and statisticians, including Professor Mahalanobis, one of the founding fathers of agricultural statistics, damned them as totally unreliable, being based on wild guesses by people who had not seen the crop, guesses which were later adjusted by government officials for bureaucratic convenience. Sen's results are totally invalidated because he gives strong weight to such bad statistics, and little weight to more reliable evidence.

The main thrust of Sen's work is that if the Bengal Government had had his diagnosis of the cause of famine, they would have controlled it or prevented it entirely. He says that the main reason that the famine was not recognized and not dealt with properly was Athe result largely of erroneous theories of famine causation [held by the Bengal Government], rather than mistakes about facts dealing with food availability@ He says that they were obsessed with the view that the famine was caused by major shortages, not by a war boom.

Sen's main source, the report of the Famine Inquiry Commission, gives a different story. The Bengal Government had exactly the same diagnosis of the causes of the famine as Sen. They carried out a programme of seizing trading stocks, of supply control (partly to reduce consumption by Calcutta), of distribution to the affected areas and of handouts to the poor. They also imported some grain, more than enough to feed Calcutta. If the Government - and Sen - had been correct in their diagnosis, the famine would have stopped.

In fact, their actions had virtually no effect. Bengal was desperately short of food and only major imports would have stopped the famine. The amount imported for the 55 million people living in the districts was only six days' supply - enough for propaganda photographs, but not much else.

The Government's preoccupation with these superficially attractive theories prevented them from identifying the real problems and tackling them. This is not the only case of a government letting a famine occur because they were preoccupied with the theories that Sen propounds.

Economists working on food supply and famine in the real world know that a small mistake can kill a million people. We try to be totally rigorous in our economic analysis, and we are obsessively interested in the accuracy and reliability of our data. The standards that are adequate for academic journals are not high enough for us. If a theory of famine is based on manufactured evidence it should be stamped out completely.

Say what you want about it but at least prior approval keeps his laments about personal shortcomings and score settling brief.

are there rules regarding post length? Not trying to be snarky; genuinely curious.

p_a only seems brief in the golden glow of hindsight.

Certainly not rules per se, but cultural expectations that comments will be succinct and to-the-point.

Violating these expectations will result in few people bothering to read what you've written.

However, several economists have used exactly the same data to show that, on the contrary, food availability was the lowest in at least 15 years, and probably 11% lower than in 1941, when only emergency Government action prevented widespread starvation.

The problem with long posts is that no one reads them. Not even the good bits. The upside is that they often have good bits.

Like this.

So the British Indian government took action in 1941 to ward of starvation but they didn't in 1943? That is perhaps the most interesting fact in this discussion so far.


The longer gist is that they treated the issue as simply a matter of re-allocating existing food supplies. I frankly thought the key bit was in this un-excerpted quote:

"Japan entered the war in 1941, and by March 1942 had occupied Rangoon. This cut off Burma's rice exports to India, where there was a 'deficit, and caused shortages which lasted throughout the war. Rice prices rose through the year. On 16 October 1942, a cyclone accompanied by tidal waves and torrential rains hit West Bengal, destroying 30% of the winter rice crop, destroying food stores and killing 14,500 people and 190,000 cattle. There was immediate destitution in the area, and famine relief was begun. Prices rose doubling within a month when this poor crop was harvested. By March 1943, there was hunger throughout Bengal, and from July to November the famine was in full swing. Relief was totally inadequate. In November the new Viceroy, Wavell, increased imports and sent in the army to improve distribution. Hunger was reduced, but epidemics hit the hunger-weakened population. Three million people died."

I've also read that in 1943, the local rice crop was bumper, but the farmers were too weakened to harvest it.

PD Shaw February 17, 2015 at 8:15 pm

The longer gist is that they treated the issue as simply a matter of re-allocating existing food supplies.

Which was reasonable given their harvest forecasts did not show a lack of food. Those figures may have been wrong but it was all they had.

I frankly thought the key bit was in this un-excerpted quote:

The key bit is probably the unreliability of the figures. We assume these are an exact science and they are not. Although why we should believe one set and not another I don't know.

But 1941 proves no malice by the British government. They were not indifferent much less trying to starve Indians.

Could be because in 1943, Bengal was partially controlled by nationalist anti-colonial rebels who seized control of several cities during the 1942 insurrection. See: Quit India Movement and Midnapur.

Reminds me a lot of how Stalin created the famine in Ukraine in order to break the power of rebellious peasants there.

Arjun February 17, 2015 at 11:47 pm

There is no evidence that the Indians seized control of any cities. Nor is there the slightest bit of evidence the British would have even considered such a response - although it does say a lot about you.

Stalin did not create a famine in Ukraine for that reason either. As the peasants in the Ukraine were not rebellious.

I also notice that while you are happy to construct absurd blood libels about the British, everyone here continues to ignore the culpability of Indian officials - not British Indian officials, but Indian politicians:

In 1942, with the permission of the central government, trade barriers were introduced by the democratically elected Provincial governments. The politicians and civil servants of surplus provinces like the Punjab introduced regulations to prevent grain leaving their provinces for the famine areas of Bengal, Madras and Cochin. There was the desire to see that, first, local populations and, second, the populations of neighbouring provinces were well fed, partly to prevent civil unrest. Politicians and officials got power and patronage, and the ability to extract bribes for shipping permits. Marketing and transaction costs rose sharply. The market could not get grain to Bengal, however profitable it might be. The main trading route, established for hundreds of years was up the river system and this ceased to operate, leaving the railway as the only way of getting food into Bengal. Grain arrivals stopped and in March 1943, Calcutta, the second biggest city in the world, had only two weeks food supply in stock.[41]

The Government of India realized a mistake had been made and decreed a return to free trade. The Provinces refused ‘In this, again, the Government of India misjudged both its own influence and the temper of its constituents, which had by this time gone too far to pay much heed to the Centre.’[42] The Government of India Act 1935 had removed most of the Government of India’s authority over the Provinces, so they had to rely on negotiation.

Thus, even when the Government of India decreed that there should be free trade in grain, politicians, civil servants, local government officers and police obstructed the movement of grain to famine areas.[43] In some cases Provinces seized grain in transit from other Provinces to Bengal.[44] ‘But men like Bhai Permanand say that though many traders want to export food [to Bengal] the Punjab Government would not give them permits. He testified to large quantities of undisposed-of rice being in the Punjab’[45]

Eventually there was a clear threat by the Government of India to force the elected governments to provide grain, when the new Viceroy, Wavell, who was a successful general, was about to take office. For the first time substantial quantities of grain started to move to Bengal.[46]

The main cause of famine was other Indians. The only people working to do anything about it were British colonial officials.

In your comment further below in this thread, you add a number of un-hyperlinked citation numbers (41-46), but can you provide maybe a link or a reference to an original document that I can read? This business about other Indian provincial governments refusing to send food to Bengal is news to me, and I would like to examine the facts for myself.

@So Much for Subtlety

I notice that you are completely ignoring the vast amounts of evidence available for the direct role of British administration in letting Indians starve to death- repeatedly.

" Mukerjee delves into official documents and oral accounts of survivors to paint a horrifying portrait of how Churchill, as part of the Western war effort, ordered the diversion of food from starving Indians to already well-supplied British soldiers and stockpiles in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, including Greece and Yugoslavia. And he did so with a churlishness that cannot be excused on grounds of policy: Churchill's only response to a telegram from the government in Delhi about people perishing in the famine was to ask why Gandhi hadn't died yet."

"As Mukerjee's accounts demonstrate, some of India's grain was also exported to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to meet needs there, even though the island wasn't experiencing the same hardship; Australian wheat sailed past Indian cities (where the bodies of those who had died of starvation littered the streets) to depots in the Mediterranean and the Balkans; and offers of American and Canadian food aid were turned down. India was not permitted to use its own sterling reserves, or indeed its own ships, to import food. And because the British government paid inflated prices in the open market to ensure supplies, grain became unaffordable for ordinary Indians. Lord Wavell, appointed Viceroy of India that fateful year, considered the Churchill government's attitude to India "negligent, hostile and contemptuous.""

"The way in which Britain's wartime financial arrangements and requisitioning of Indian supplies laid the ground for famine; the exchanges between the essentially decent Amery and the bumptious Churchill; the racism of Churchill's odious aide, paymaster general Lord Cherwell, who denied India famine relief and recommended most of the logistical decisions that were to cost so many lives...",9171,2031992,00.html

"It is 1943, the peak of the Second World War. The place is London. The British War Cabinet is holding meetings on a famine sweeping its troubled colony, India. Millions of natives mainly in eastern Bengal, are starving. Leopold Amery, secretary of state for India, and Field Marshal Sir Archibald Wavell, soon to be appointed the new viceroy of India, are deliberating how to ship more food to the colony. But the irascible Prime Minister Winston Churchill is coming in their way.

"Apparently it is more important to save the Greeks and liberated countries than the Indians and there is reluctance either to provide shipping or to reduce stocks in this country," writes Sir Wavell in his account of the meetings. Mr Amery is more direct. "Winston may be right in saying that the starvation of anyhow under-fed Bengalis is less serious than sturdy Greeks, but he makes no sufficient allowance for the sense of Empire responsibility in this country," he writes."

"The scarcity, Mukherjee writes, was caused by large-scale exports of food from India for use in the war theatres and consumption in Britain - India exported more than 70,000 tonnes of rice between January and July 1943, even as the famine set in. This would have kept nearly 400,000 people alive for a full year. Mr Churchill turned down fervent pleas to export food to India citing a shortage of ships - this when shiploads of Australian wheat, for example, would pass by India to be stored for future consumption in Europe. As imports dropped, prices shot up and hoarders made a killing. Mr Churchill also pushed a scorched earth policy - which went by the sinister name of Denial Policy - in coastal Bengal where the colonisers feared the Japanese would land. So authorities removed boats (the lifeline of the region) and the police destroyed and seized rice stocks."

Of course the Bengal famine of 1943 was hardly the first famine engineered by the colonial administration.

"The first of these famines was in 1770 and was ghastly brutal. The first signs indicating the coming of such a huge famine manifested in 1769 and the famine itself went on till 1773. It killed approximately 10 million people, millions more than the Jews incarcerated during the Second World War. It wiped out one third the population of Bengal. John Fiske, in his book “The Unseen World”, wrote that the famine of 1770 in Bengal was far deadlier than the Black Plague that terrorized Europe in the fourteenth century. Under the Mughal rule, peasants were required to pay a tribute of 10-15 per cent of their cash harvest. This ensured a comfortable treasury for the rulers and a wide net of safety for the peasants in case the weather did not hold for future harvests. In 1765 the Treaty of Allahabad was signed and East India Company took over the task of collecting the tributes from the then Mughal emperor Shah Alam II. Overnight the tributes, the British insisted on calling them tributes and not taxes for reasons of suppressing rebellion, increased to 50 percent."

"Prior to this, whenever the possibility of a famine had emerged, the Indian rulers would waive their taxes and see compensatory measures, such as irrigation, instituted to provide as much relief as possible to the stricken farmers. The colonial rulers continued to ignore any warnings that came their way regarding the famine, although starvation had set in from early 1770. Then the deaths started in 1771. That year, the company raised the land tax to 60 per cent in order to recompense themselves for the lost lives of so many peasants. Fewer peasants resulted in less crops that in turn meant less revenue. Hence the ones who did not yet succumb to the famine had to pay double the tax so as to ensure that the British treasury did not suffer any losses during this travesty.

After taking over from the Mughal rulers, the British had issued widespread orders for cash crops to be cultivated. These were intended to be exported. Thus farmers who were used to growing paddy and vegetables were now being forced to cultivate indigo, poppy and other such items that yielded a high market value for them but could be of no relief to a population starved of food. There was no backup of edible crops in case of a famine. The natural causes that had contributed to the draught were commonplace. It was the single minded motive for profit that wrought about the devastating consequences. No relief measure was provided for those affected. Rather, as mentioned above, taxation was increased to make up for any shortfall in revenue. What is more ironic is that the East India Company generated a profited higher in 1771 than they did in 1768."

Kris February 18, 2015 at 8:13 am

In your comment further below in this thread, you add a number of un-hyperlinked citation numbers (41-46), but can you provide maybe a link or a reference to an original document that I can read?

It is from the politically correct Wikipedia's page on the famine. I thought I provided the link.

TheNewGuy February 18, 2015 at 8:29 am

I notice that you are completely ignoring the vast amounts of evidence available for the direct role of British administration in letting Indians starve to death- repeatedly.

Because there is none. I don't need to ignore it. It simply does not exist.

” Mukerjee delves into official documents and oral accounts of survivors to paint a horrifying portrait of how Churchill, as part of the Western war effort, ordered the diversion of food from starving Indians to already well-supplied British soldiers and stockpiles in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, including Greece and Yugoslavia.

So we have a single Indian radical who relies on oral history. Great. Indian Communists interviewing other Indian Communists proves nothing.

Of course the Bengal famine of 1943 was hardly the first famine engineered by the colonial administration.

Language like this shows why it is not even worth responding to this. The British did not engineer a single famine.

“The first of these famines was in 1770 and was ghastly brutal.

That the 1770 famine was brutal is true. It also existed. And it is even possible that the new Indian Company administration had something to do with it. The British always felt so. But there is no link between the two except race - you simply want to blame White people for everything. That would normally be called racism.

Under the Mughal rule, peasants were required to pay a tribute of 10-15 per cent of their cash harvest. This ensured a comfortable treasury for the rulers and a wide net of safety for the peasants in case the weather did not hold for future harvests.

So ..... you are claiming there were no famines under Mughal rule?

British rule was the best thing to ever happen to India. India's peasants were incomparably better off for it.

@So Much for Subtlety

Because there is none. I don’t need to ignore it. It simply does not exist.

There is just too much of it to ignore and from a wide variety of sources.

So we have a single Indian radical who relies on oral history. Great. Indian Communists interviewing other Indian Communists proves nothing.

Madhusree Mukerjee is a physicist and a former editor at Scientific American who lives in Germany. Your extreme lack of knowledge about Indian history is also quite apparent in you dragging Indian Communists into the picture. A smarter or more knowledgeable apologist for colonialism would have accused her of being a Hindutva fanatic or some such thing. Indian Communists were well known collaborators of the Imperial British government. When the Congress decided in August 1942 to launch the Quit India Movement, Indian Communists opposed the Quit India resolution in the AICC Session at Bombay. They advocated the position that the imperialist war had been transformed into a people's war because the Soviet Union had been invaded by an enemy of Britain. For this reason, during the War, the British Government patronized, financed and fraternized with the Communist Party of India and helped it attain the stature of an independent political party.

The oral testimony of survivors of any genocide constitute an important part of documenting history. Official documents from the period prove the culpability of British in perpetrating it.

Glaring blunders such as this shows why it isn't worth engaging with you seriously.

The British did not engineer a single famine.

How to engineer a famine (1943):

1. Order the diversion of food from starving Indians to already well-supplied British soldiers and stockpiles in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, including Greece and Yugoslavia.
2. Export India’s grain to Ceylon even though the island isn't experiencing the same hardship.
3. Allow Australian wheat to sail past Indian cities to depots in the Mediterranean and the Balkans.
4. Turn down offers of American and Canadian food aid.
5. Prevent India from using its own sterling reserves, or indeed its own ships, to import food.
6. Make the imperial government pay inflated prices in the open market to ensure supplies so that grains become too expensive for ordinary Indians.
7. Have an attitude towards India that is “negligent, hostile and contemptuous.” (Lord Wavell, Viceroy of India on the Churchill government)
8. Follow a scorched earth policy (call it Denial Policy) of seizing and destroying rice stocks. Remove boats to prevent any trade.

How to engineer a famine (1770):

1. Increase taxes on farmers 4-5 times than before.
2. Forbid the development of a wide net of safety for the peasants in case the weather did not hold for future harvests.
3. Ignore any warnings of famine. Refuse to implement any relief for farmers in the form of tax breaks or compensatory irrigation measures.
4. When deaths start and famine worsens increase the tax further (now up to 6-fold) to recompense for the lost lives of many peasants.
5. Force farmers to cultivate cash crops intended for export so that farmers who were used to growing paddy and vegetables are now forced to cultivate indigo, poppy and other such items that yielded a high market value for them but could be of no relief to a population starved of food.
6. Do not provide any relief measures. Rather, increase taxation to make up for any shortfall in revenue so that the East India Company generate a higher profit in a year of famine than the years before.

But there is no link between the two except race – you simply want to blame White people for everything. That would normally be called racism.

You simply want to excuse the colonial administration for all its excesses. Continuing to show your ignorance about Indian history, you are oblivious to the narrative of the imperialists themselves who saw the natives as dark barbarians who have to be civilized by white masters.

So ….. you are claiming there were no famines under Mughal rule?

This is a straw man that is not worth responding.

British rule was the best thing to ever happen to India. India’s peasants were incomparably better off for it.

Seeing as you are clueless about even the basics of Indian history, I would be very surprised if you even know by name what 'The Great Hedge of India' was. It covered a distance of more than 2,500 miles (4,000 km) with a height of 12 feet (3.7 m) and was compared to the Great Wall of China.

Churchill, unlike Sen, was focused on defeating Hitler.


Do Sen's fans not grasp the significance of "1943?" Has lack of historical knowledge gotten that bad?


I'm guessing that overseas sources of food couldn't make up for the Bengal shortfall because of the terrifying lack of shipping in 1943 due to submarine warfare that was threatening much of the world with famine. The British, for example, needed all the ships they could get their hands on to bring food to Britain to keep it in the war because so many were being sunk in the Battle of the Atlantic.

Famine in Moldova in 46-47 was not caused by a crop failure per se, but was more the result of collectivization which was performed in Moldova those years by Soviet Union and also redistribution failure like in Bengal. The same thing caused Ukrainian famine in 32-33

"I also very much enjoyed the discussion of the 1946-47 famine in Moldova, which apparently involved a good deal of cannibalism"

Once a foodie, always a foodie.

Has no one here read Madhusree Mukherjee's Churchill's Secret War?

She argues (quite convincingly) that it was primarily Churchill, going against his fellow War Cabinet members and the Indian Viceroy, who was responsible for diverting grain from India into Europe, building stockpiles for Britain and other liberated European countries. He stopped the Australians from sending their surplus into India as well, even when news of the famine broke out. His language indicates that he thought of Indians as vermin who were breeding uncontrollably, and that the deaths of many would do a service to mankind.

You know, Churchill was worried about Hitler winning the war by starving Britain into submission by sinking shipping in the Battle of the Atlantic.

Apparently, Dr. Sen doesn't care much whether Hitler or Churchill won, but he should make clear his indifference to the public, who might, on the whole, have a different opinion.

So the Bengalis were supposed to die happily with the knowledge that their lives were sacrificed to prevent the British from surrendering to Hitler?

Look, no one is arguing that the British should have starved in place of the Bengalis. But the book I cited above claims that there was enough food for both the embattled British and the starving Bengalis, but official British policies prevented food aid from reaching the latter. If you have facts countering that assertion, state them by all means.

The Wikipedia article on the subject is pretty fair and comprehensive:

I went to Wikipedia to confirm what had been my impression, that the new viceroy, Archibald Wavell, "solved" the famine by ordering the army to distribute food. Wavell had been a general, unlike his predecessors who tended to be bureaucrats. I'm not sure which side of the argument this support. Accounts of the war agree that Wavell and Churchill did not get along well.

Alan Turing and Co. helped solve the threat of Britain starving in 1943.

So many examples ... British leaders thanking Providence for the Irish famine or wishing that "an Irishman in Ireland would be as rare as a red Indian in Manhattan"; American leaders hoping to exterminate native Americans; Leopold in Congo; Mussolini in Libya ... While white Europeans have no monopoly on it, they are reigning world champions of mass murder.

The imperial apologists have already been robustly answered here. A few additional points:
(a) A must-read is Janam Mukherjee’s “Hungry Bengal”, his Ph.D. thesis at Univ of Michigan in 2011. Janam Mukherjee is an American, whose father migrated from India and his mother is Hungarian-American. He has uncovered many crucial aspects previously omitted, and clarifies some aspects even beyond Madhushree Mukherjee’s fine exposition in “Churchill’s Secret war”.
(b) Churchill is personally accountable for the following:
(1) On 4th august 1943, at the war cabinet meeting in London, permission was not granted for the American offer to supply wheat to Bengal in their ships. (Churchill all along said “there are no ships to provide relief in Bengal”),. An additional half-million died at this point of time because of this one decision.Churchill wanted to conceal his atrocities from the world’s eyes , above all, from the determinedly pro-Indian Roosevelt’s.
(2) The Brits had seized all Indian-registered ships at war’s beginning, in 1939, for “strategic purposes”. That done, Churchill always rebuffed pleas for relief supplies for Bengal with the claim of “not enough ships”. Meanwhile ships were used to carry wheat from Argentina to UK where war’s end saw a stockpile of 18 million tons, built up to “avoid social strife post-war in UK”. Much of that was left later to rot. Such perverse priorities demand that we nail the accountability.
(3) Subhash Bose , a nationalist Indian had joined the Japanese in mid-war . He offered to get rice for Bengal from Jap-occuppied Thailand and Burma. Churchill refused to countenance this and even censored the news of the Bose offer in India. And before Steve Sailer jumps up with “oh ! that was wartime and Japs were enemies”, let me point out that even Adolf Hitler consented to the allies in wartime supplying relief to German-occuppied Greece with only the condition that it would be through the Red Cross. Churchill could out-Hitler Hitler when he really tried.
(4) In December 1943, the war cabinet again considered the Viceroy’s plea for food for Bengal. There was a simultaneous need for relief in Greece, newly liberated. Churchill remarked that it was preferable to feed “sturdy Greeks rather than anyway underfed Bengalis”. This moment was the moral demise of the British Empire; Churchill had a responsibility for Bengal which he ruled , something that did not apply to Greece which fell outside the British Empire.
(5) The policy of rice denial and boat denial was forcibly pushed by Governor of Bengal, Sir John Herbert, at Churchill’s instance. Supposedly a scorched earth policy to thwart Japanese advance in case they landed. This was not genuine, as even elementary precautions like anti-aircraft guns were not provided in India. Herbert did this , brushing aside any views of the elected Premier of Bengal, Fazlul Haque. On 10th july 1942, Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress passed a resolution on guidelines to the people of Bengal, saying , inter alia, that any seizures of boats should be after giving due compensation and “if a village is surrounded entirely by water, no boat will be surrendered” . It was a clarion call, comparable to martin luther’s “I take my stand, I can no other”. Gandhi , soon enough, was arrested along with the rest of the Congress leadership, and Brits went ahead and seized 40000 out of 60000 boats . Starving people could not even fish. Churchill sought to tell Bengal, “ I can seize your rice and boats and your leaders can do nothing”. This definitely eroded the credibility of Congress in Bengal.
(c) Most of this information is from recent revelations, following partial declassification in UK. (Much still remains blacked out at the National Archives at Kew). In the West, the sense of being “good people” is tied up with the WW2 and Churchill’s role in it. I would give the West a generation-long time to revise their view of Churchill. Aneurin Bevan had called him “this bloated bladder of lies” in the House of Commons in 1948.We can now simply call him the Butcher of Bengal descended from Marlborough, the Butcher of Ireland, in an earlier century.
(d) Certainly, the statue of Churchill outside Westmister is an obscenity in the light of what we now know.

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