Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation

By Amartya Sen | Go to book overview

Chapter 6
The Great Bengal Famine

6.1
A BRIEF OUTLINE

The official Famine Inquiry Commission reporting on the Bengal famine of 1943 put its death toll at 'about 1.5 million'.1 W.R. Aykroyd, who as a member of the Commission was primarily responsible for the estimation, has said recently: 'I now think it was an under-estimate, especially in that it took little account of roadside deaths, but not as gross an under-estimate as some critics of the Commission's report, who preferred three to four million, declared it to be' ( Aykroyd, 1974, p. 77). In fact, it can be shown that the Commission's own method of calculation does lead to a figure around three million deaths, and there will be an occasion to go into this demographic issue in Appendix D. But for the present purpose it does not really matter which of the estimates we accept. Our chief concern here is with the causation of the Bengal famine, and in particular with the role of food supply and that of exchange entitlements in the genesis of the famine.2

First, a bit of background. There are three rice crops in Bengal: (1) aman, sown in May and June, harvested in November and December (the winter crop); (2) aus, sown around April and harvested in August and September (the autumn crop); and (3) boro, planted in November and harvested in February and March (the spring crop). The winter crop is by far the most important, and the respective shares of the three crops during the five years 1939-43 were: 73, 24, and 3 per cent. In 1942 the autumn crop was a little less than normal (97 per cent of the preceding four years), and the winter crop quite a bit less (83 per cent of the average preceding four years). This was largely the result of a cyclone in October, followed by torrential rain in some parts of Bengal and a subsequent fungus disease. Further, the Japanese occupation of Burma in 1942 -- Rangoon fell on 10 March 1942 -- cut off rice imports from there, which affected the

____________________
1
Famine Inquiry Commission, India ( 1945a), pp. 109-10.
2
This chapter relies heavily on an earlier paper, viz. Sen ( 1977b).

-52-

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