Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation

By Amartya Sen | Go to book overview

Appendix D
Famine Mortality: A Case Study

In this Appendix1 the size and pattern of mortality in the great Bengal famine of 1943 are studied. Mortality in the Bengal famine was a hotly debated issue during and just after the famine, and has, in fact, remained so. The pattern of mortality is worth studying also for the light it throws on the nature of the famine. The general features of the famine and its possible causation were studied in Chapter 6.


D.1.
HOW MANY PER WEEK: 1,000, 2,000, 26,000, 38,000?

'The Secretary of State for India', wrote The Statesman, the Calcutta newspaper, on 16 October 1943,

seems to be a strangely misinformed man. Unless the cables are unfair to him, he told Parliament on Thursday that he understood that the weekly death-roll (presumably from starvation) in Bengal including Calcutta was about 1000, but that 'it might be higher'. All the publicly available data indicate that it is very much higher; and his great office ought to afford him ample means of discovery.2

Sir T. Rutherford, the Governor of Bengal, wrote to the Secretary of State for India on 18 October 1943, two days after The Statesman editorial:

Your statement in the House about the number of deaths, which was presumably based on my communications to the Viceroy, has been severely criticised in some of the papers. My information was based on what information the Secretariat could then give me after allowing for the fact that the death-roll in Calcutta would be higher owing to the kind of people trekking into the city and exposure to inclement weather. . . . The full effects of the shortage are now being felt, and I would put the death-roll now at no less than 2000 a week.3

Was this higher figure of 2,000 close to the mark?

The Famine Inquiry Commission ( 1945a) noted that 'from July to December 1943, 1,304,323 deaths were recorded as against an average of 626,048 in the previous quinquennium', and the difference attributed

____________________
1
This Appendix draws heavily on Sen ( 1980b), written in memory of Daniel Thorner.
2
"The Death-Roll", editorial, The Statesman, 16 October 1943. See also Stephens ( 1966). Ian Stephens was the editor of The Statesman, a British-owned paper, which distinguished itself in its extensive reporting of the famine and its crusading editorials.
3
Letter to Mr. L. S. Amery, no. L/E/8/3311; document no. 180 in Mansergh, ( 1973), vol. IV, pp. 397-8. The earlier communication referred to by Rutherford is document no. 158 in the same volume.

-195-

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