Sen’s Approach to the Bengali Famine of 1943

Often, the phenomenon of famine is treated as a problem of food production.[1] The Bengali famine of the 1940s saw three million dead, as natural disasters and the context of war damaged food supply in the region.[2] As such, people starved from the lack of food. But Amartya Sen rejects this. This essay will be presenting Sen’s theory of famine, applying it to Bengal and then comparing it to other explanations. This essay will ultimately find that Sen’s theory is compelling and highly useful to understanding the importance of access to food rather than just production, although some flaws with his data do damage its accuracy.

Sen shifts the understanding of famine from production of food to access.[3] He purports that famines often happen when the supply of food is fine. What matters is that people must have ‘command’ over food.[4] He calls this the Entitlement Approach – a method of examining people’s legal and structural rights and ability to access what they need.[5] Devereux describes entitlements as akin to legal rights.[6] It is not so much a natural right to acquiring material food, but rather a legal right to work in society and use the entitlement one attains from working to acquire food.

Sen argues that supply, while of course being important, doesn’t matter if the people cannot access the food. Famine occurs when there is an Entitlement failure.[7] This arises when people no longer have sufficient access to acquiring food or the right to food, and thus face death and destitution.

The nuances of Entitlement theory and failure is best dealt with in context. The next part of this essay will be dealing with Sen’s analysis of the Bengali famine and how this supports his notion of famine.

Sen argues that, despite the orthodox view that the Bengali famine was because of Food Availability Decline (FAD), it was in fact because of much of the population becoming unable to acquire food that was present.

By 1942, Bengali crops had been put under strain by a cyclone, fungal infection and a war economy.[8] But, Sen argues, with the use of data and recalculation, that supply was not actually that heavily affected.[9] Data shows adequate crop outputs, above the fact that in 1943, Bengal had imported 100 thousand tonnes of rise, opposed to the average 55 thousand.[10]

Rather than FAD, the cause of the famine must be examined in the rising price of rice and other food, which rose rapidly from the period of 1942 onwards.[11] Crop prices rose  as a result of the war economy, as public expenditure and consumption drove up the price of food.[12] This was exacerbated by uneven purchasing power, as the army and civil servants were able to cope with rising costs.[13] As a perception of famine arose, there was panicked purchasing of rice stocks, which further caused a rise in price and hoarding.[14] This inflation far outpaced the wages of labourers and many other rural dwellers, restricting their access to food.[15]

A FAD famine would have been more equally felt, as money cannot buy food if there is no food, but Bengal’s famine was confined to rural areas.[16] Calcutta, as an industrial and strategic city, was insulated from famine by subsidized food rations for the civil service.[17] In addition, civil servants and the army benefitted from war-based expansion, while others suffered due to heightened costs.[18]

In summary, there was an adequate supply of food, but war and market panic led to rising food costs that rural Bengal could not afford. Thus, it was not the supply or production of food that caused the famine, but an inability to access said food.

Many have challenged Sen’s conception of famine, and especially its application in Bengal. Much of this is along lines of his data recalculations, which have been challenged by many as not being accurate or being misread.[19]

Bhatia, expands upon FAD by arguing that the famine was caused and exacerbated by British colonial government’s neglect and failure to attain imports to feed the population.[20] While the original investigation by the Famine Inquiry Commission cited natural and external disasters as causing the famine, Bhatia emphasises the human element as exacerbating it.[21] He argues, similarly to Sen, that there was an almost sufficient supply of food – but that it was a failure to bring up the shortfall that caused the famine.[22] Similarly to Sen, Bhatia also cites unequal distribution as a problem.[23] This is most probably more due to the zero-sum game of a limited food supply, however, rather than Sen’s notion of the unequal distribution contributing to rising costs. Where they depart is that Sen argues that food supply was sufficient.

Greenough provides another perspective, accepting Sen’s data that there was adequate food, but expanding to an idea of cultural rather than market deficiency.[24] Greenough argues that it is important to examine poverty as a ‘lived experience’ and uses qualitative studies to come up with his theory of famine.[25] Greenough discusses a similar notion to Sen, in that the Civil Supplies Department in mid-1942 used policy to support an urban elite, at the expense of the rural – this led to hoarding and disrupted the market (Sen’s access).[26] Where Greenough is particularly unique is in his examination of the breakdown of social relations during the famine, and how this exacerbated the damage.[27] Ultimately, Greenough blames fatalism and a breakdown of social relations as making the famine as bad as it was.[28]

Sen has presented a compelling theory that accurately argues that production doesn’t matter if access is limited. Distribution, not supply, matters. While this may ignore that production does matter, and that local production negates the need for foreign distribution, it does provide a persuasive explanation for the Bengali famine. But there are limitations with his theory, such as questionable data, ignoring the social fabric of the society and an almost complete rejection of the supply-side, which is still highly important – as without production, access is irrelevant.


Sen, Amartya. “Ingredients of famine analysis: Availability and entitlements.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 96, no. 3 (1981): 433-447.

Bhatia, BM. “Bengal Famine of 1943.” Famines in India: a study in some aspects of the economic history of India (1860-1965). Second edition, 309-339. Bombay: Asia Publishing House, 1967.

Greenough, Paul. “Conclusion.” Prosperity and Misery in Modern Bengal: the famine of 1943-1944. 261-275. New York: OUP, 1982.

Greenough, Paul. ‘Rural Bengal in Ruins’ in Prosperity and Misery in Modern Bengal: the famine of 1943-1944, 139-182. New York: OUP, 1982.

Sen, Amartya. “The Great Bengal Famine” in Poverty and famines: An essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, 52-83. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981.

Devereux, Stephen. “Sen’s Entitlement Approach: Critiques and Counter-critiques.” Oxford Development Studies 29, no. 3 (2001): 245-263.


[1] Amartya Sen, “The Great Bengal Famine,” in Poverty and famines: An essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 57.

[2] Ibid., 52.

[3] Stephen Devereux, “Sen’s Entitlement Approach: Critiques and Counter-critiques,” Oxford Development Studies 29 no. 3 (2001): 246.

[4] Amartya Sen, “Ingredients of famine analysis: Availability and entitlements,” in The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 96, no. 3 (1981), 433. Command refers to the ability to acquire food, either through trade, cultivation or welfare.

[5] Ibid., 434.

[6] Devereux, “Sen’s Entitlement Approach: Critiques and Counter-critiques,” 246.

[7] Sen, “Ingredients of famine analysis: Availability and entitlements,” 437.

[8] Sen, “The Great Bengal Famine,” 52.

[9] Ibid., 58.

[10] Ibid., 60

[11] Ibid., 54.

[12] Ibid., 75.

[13] Ibid., 77.

[14] Ibid., 76.

[15] Ibid.,” 64.

[16] Sen, “Ingredients of famine analysis: Availability and entitlements,”442.

[17] Ibid., 445.

[18] Sen, “The Great Bengal Famine,” 77.

[19] Devereux, “Sen’s Entitlement Approach: Critiques and Counter-critiques,” 247. Some have argued that Sen’s food production reports are, in fact, projections, and not actual outputs.

[20] B M. Bhatia, “Bengal Famine of 1943” in Famines in India: a study in some aspects of the economic history of India (1860-1965) Second edition, (Bombay: Asia Publishing House, 1967), 309.

[21] Ibid., 321.

[22] Ibid., 319

[23] Ibid., 315

[24] Paul Greenough, “Conclusion,” in Prosperity and Misery in Modern Bengal: the famine of 1943-1944 (New York: OUP, 1982) 261.

[25] Paul Greenough, “Rural Bengal in Ruins,” in Prosperity and Misery in Modern Bengal: the famine of 1943-1944 (New York: OUP, 1982) 139.

[26] Greenough, “Conclusion,” 262.

[27] Greenough, “Rural Bengal in Ruins,” 180.

[28] Greenough, “Conclusion,” 260-271.