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Academics challenge Sen's facts
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Peter Bowbrick     0777 274 6759

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 Until he revived it, it was considered totally discredited, and it had been replaced by a more orthodox approach which considered both supply and demand.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.

For a full and detailed analysis of Sen's publications on this, showing that he was incorrect on all matters of fact see

"How Sen's Theory can Cause Famines", Nottingham 1999. Click here

 or in less detail"A refutation of Sen's theory of famine", Food Policy. 11(2) 105-124. 1986.

For a formal proof that famine cannot be caused by a boom, Are Boom Famines Possible?

For a formal proof that famine cannot be caused by speculation,

Can Speculation cause famines?

Sen's sources

The sources Sen used for his books and papers are almost impossible to obtain in any university except, perhaps, one or two in India. When Pergamon wanted to republish his main source, Sen persuaded them not to. This has meant that his work has escaped careful scrutiny. Copies of the documents can be obtained from Peter Bowbrick

Sen's reply

For copyright reasons, I cannot publish Sen's reply here. Suffice it to say, he has not even attempted to show that any of these accusations were wrong. In the twelve years that followed he has had ample opportunity to admit that he got some or all his facts wrong and withdraw his papers, but he has not done so. He has continued to publish false information. At this stage it is not possible to plead carelessness or ignorance of the fact that the information was incorrect. For a full rejoinder, see


Other academics challenge his facts More mistatements


Some other papers

Peter Bowbrick, "Five Famine Fallacies" in Julian Morris and Roger Bate, Fearing Food: risk, health and the environment Butterworth Heineman, Oxford 1999 ISBN 0-7506-4222-x

 Peter Bowbrick, "Are famines caused deliberately?: the politics and micro-politics influencing decisions" Development Studies Association Conference, Dublin 1995.

Peter Bowbrick, "Rejoinder: an untenable hypothesis on the causes of famine", Food Policy. 12(1) 5-9, February. 1987. See also George Allen "Famines: the Bowbrick-Sen dispute and some related issues," Food Policy, 11(3) 259-263, 1986, Amartya Sen "Reply: famine and Mr Bowbrick", Food Policy 12(1) 10-14, and Amartya Sen "The causes of famine: a reply", Food Policy 11(2) 125-132, 1986.

Peter Bowbrick, A refutation of Professor Sen's theory of famines. Institute of Agricultural Economics, Oxford. 1986b.

Peter Bowbrick, "How Professor Sen's theory can cause famines", Agricultural Economics Society Conference. March. 1985.

Peter Bowbrick "Why Professor Sen's theory is wrong", Development Studies Association Conference. September. 1985.