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Institutions and Famine in Communist China and Postcolonial India


Historically, famine was thought to be a disaster of nature, damaging human creation. All we could do was weather the storm. Famine was seen as a dramatic decline in food supply. This conception is called Food Availability Decline (henceforth: FAD).[1] In the last century, this conception has changed. With the examination of communist China and postcolonial India, many theorists have determined that not only is famine often man-made, but that we can do more than just wait for it to end. This essay will be examining the man-made aspect of famine, and how institutions and policies play a role in preventing famine. This will be done with reference to communist China and postcolonial India. This essay will show that institutions and policy are integral to preventing famine, by illustrating how institutions can exacerbate famine and then showing how institutions historically have prevented, or minimised, the damage, of famine. This essay will ultimately find that institutions and policy are integral to understanding how we can prevent famine.

Firstly, it is important to define institutions within this framework. Douglas North argues that “institutions are the rules of the game in a society”.[2] They are the man-made incentives, rules and structures that govern our behaviour in society. Institutions take many forms. Mao’s communism is a form of institution, as the liberal market system also is. As such, in interacting with the question of preventing famine, the essence of the question is if human structures can prevent famine. State policy, seen as a formal institution, has a profound influence on informal institutions and influences the behaviour of people. As this essay will argue, with regards to communist China, institutions can cause and exacerbate famine. Conversely, they can also minimise the damages and even prevent famine. The task of this essay is to identify which institutions cause and which prevent famine

In examining how institutions can exacerbate and cause famine, we can conversely see how it can be prevented. China’s famine left 30-33 million dead (by some estimates) and was covered up for over two decades.[3] There were natural disasters that preceded the famine, but these were minor and actually man-made in many aspects. One such was how new dam constructions damaged the water table, leading to drought.[4] Natural disasters could not be the cause, however, as there was adequate food supply.[5] Scholars have identified, among many others factors, four primary man-made institutional factors that led to and aggravated the famine.

The first is the communal dining system, which Chang and Wen argue led to ‘consumption irrationality’ that caused a drop-in production and an unstable rise in consumption.[6] The policy of forcing peasants to eat and work together damaged incentives to work hard and led to food wastage, as a result of the delusion that communes had unlimited food.[7] Commune officials reported record production outputs, which proved to be lies, as there was not enough food for many to eat in 1959.[8] Mao had established the commune system as a response to his distaste about the Soviet-style central command economy, and the market system, but the system proved ineffective.[9]

Secondly, procurement directly led to a drop-in food stocks, leaving the rural dwellers starving.[10] Dikötter argues that procurement officials knew that the procurement would lead to famine, but believed that the needs of the state outweighed the wellness of the people.[11] This shows how a formal institution of state before people encouraged a lack of response to famine. It was more important to feed the urban areas and meet trade quotas than to let people eat.

Thirdly, the collectivist economy, as a whole, damaged farming incentives, leading to a drop in production.[12] While collectivisation did aid in the adoption of new tech, this was no consolation.[13] Rather than leading to rural industrialisation, Shapiro argues that the Great Leap Forward resulted in ecological problems, such as damaging of the water table through dams and mass deforestation.[14] Over and above this, collectivisation damaged incentives, causing many workers to become apathetic.[15]

Fourthly, and most encompassing of the institutions: the totalitarian state’s attack on free information flow. There was no room in Mao’s China for debate. Intellectuals were purged.[16] Even the defence minister was eliminated after criticising the communal dining system.[17] Mao rejected the truth of the famine, refusing to even acknowledge the disaster.[18] Experts were seen as enemies of the state with scientists, who warned Mao against his dangerous land transformation policies, being purged.[19] The problem inherent in this system is that Mao and the regime refused to allow the free flow of information which could be used to avert and control the famine. Without the ability to take criticism, the system was unable to improve itself. A country progresses on human memory and, as Jisheng argues, China’s totalitarian system restricted and censored this collective memory, disabling its benefits.[20] Due to this prohibition on bad news, an informal institution of exaggerating production output emerged.[21] Riskin identifies Mao’s Great Leap Forward as ‘rapid institutional change’, shifting a mainly smallholding-based agricultural system to one dominated by state-controlled collectives.[22] The problem with such rapid shifts is that they are often unable to deal with problems, frequently that they caused, due to the fragility of their position. The absolutist system of public distribution was precarious. All food distribution relied upon the good working of the public system. Due to lack of communication among state entities, along with corruption and incompetence, this public distribution system collapsed and left those who relied upon it destitute.[23] The rapidity of the adoption of these collectivist policies, combined with Mao’s sensitivity to criticism, resulted in a few minor natural disasters turning into a major man-made disaster.[24]

In sequence, the collectivist policies of communes stimulated unsustainable consumption, procurement siphoned out food stocks and collectivist policies damaged incentives, leading to a drop in production. None of these could be averted as Mao prohibited the free flow of information and actively eliminated experts who warned against his policies. In summary, institutions that damage incentives and prohibit the free flow of information, among other things, exacerbate and even cause famine. Even with ‘food availability decline’ conceptions of famine, institutions that lead to drops in production (through damaging incentives), over consumption (communal dining) and the removal of food (procurement) are still relevant. The Chinese case shows how human beings can cause the decline of food.

Institutions that destructively try to reshape human behaviour, causing negative behaviours, may cause famine. Conversely, institutions that positively adapt and meld with human behaviour can be used to prevent famine. Post-Maoist China and postcolonial India are good examples of this.

Post-Maoist China saw a rise in life expectancy due to a reversal of his hardcore policies and a more reasonable food distribution system. After the famine, communes were eliminated, increasing incentives to work and earn.[25] In 1978, the commune system was replaced with the ‘household responsibility system’, which permitted households to own land and be allowed to keep their produce, excluding that which was taxed.[26] This return to the original smallholding institutions saw incentives return as farmers knew they would keep the fruit of their labours. In 1985, the communist system waned as China became mixed between a market and command economy.[27] Farmers were allowed to now sell their produce on the open market.[28] This not only increased production, as farmers knew they could profit from harder work, but also decentralised the food distribution system. No longer did the Chinese peasant have to rely upon the precarious public distribution system. If that was to fail, they could now purchase food on the open market. This illustrates how the institution of open markets can act as a damage control mechanism, so to account for failures in other structures. Public distribution didn’t stop, but did lose its monopoly. Instead of being the only source of food, a nationwide rationing system provided a safety net that averted starvation across the country.[29] Since their great famine, China has not faced any major famines, due to their abandoning of the man-made institutions that caused that famine and their adoption of a multitude of institutions that avert famine through ensuring incentive and preventing a monopoly over food access, thus doing damage control.

Postcolonial India has faced a multitude of minor famines, but has not faced a major famine post-independence.[30] Before independence, the Great Bengal Famine was identified by Amartya Sen as being caused by ‘entitlement failure’.[31] Succinctly, food prices rose faster and higher than wages.[32] Relief during this period was seen in failed price controls, urban rationing and some relief work for cash.[33] These policies were not sufficient. Urban rationing and the war-time economy gave civil servants and soldiers disproportionate purchasing power, which drove up prices.[34] Relief work failed, as the wages were not sufficient for rising prices.[35]

Post-independence, the prevention of famine was initially approached through steady improvement in food production.[36] But this is an inadequate explanation, as food production per capita has not actually improved since 1947.[37] Rather, India’s prevention of famines can be seen in its adoption of institutions to respond to famine. The Famine Code is one such policy. While imperfect, according to Dreze, the Famine Code did put down guidelines for preventing famine. This helped avert a lot of starvation.[38] Institutions are meant to provide a sense of stability and coherence. A guideline helps in this and helps avert chaos, that can lead to famine. Post-colonial India is still under threat of famine, as agricultural improvements are disparate across the country.[39] Incorporation into a nationwide food distribution system insulates these precarious regions from starvation.[40] These networks provide unconditional food relief to those who need it.[41] When natural disasters, such as the droughts in Maharashtra, did threaten the area with famine, a relief work system provided 5 million people with work, so they could earn cash to pay for publicly provided food relief.[42] Oddly, however, the state prohibited private food distribution, rather monopolising inter-state food distribution.[43] But, an informal institution of grain smuggling was tolerated by the state.[44] While there was an official policy of prohibiting private food sales, government officials doubtless knew that a reliance on public distribution would leave many starving. Relief work was paid in cash so that delays in public distribution would not mean starvation, as people could then rely on the grey market.[45] The fundamental institution that aids in India’s famine prevention, however, is an independent press. While communist China’s famine was exacerbated due to an inability to spread information or criticise policies, India’s vibrant press provided the necessary criticism and influence to hold leaders to account and spread information about starvation and famine.[46] India’s democratic system, coupled with an independent press to hold leaders to account, necessitated responses to famine to maintain the political careers of policy makers.[47] While communist China’s leaders could rule with impunity, the free flow of information and the democratic institution demanded and enforced accountability in India, leading to a political need to address famine.

Both these cases illustrate a number of key principles in what type of institutions are needed to prevent or mitigate famine. First, there needs to be a free flow of information. Communist China suffered because information was either restricted or deceptive, disallowing stakeholders from even knowing that a famine was taking place. In India, an independent press ensured that famines were known about and that leaders were held to account. Second, there needs to be open access to food. In Maoist China, food was monopolised by the state. It could be procured and distributed at their whim. Due to their control, autocracy and corruption led to an ineffective distribution system that failed to adequately distribute food. In India, while the state had a legal monopoly on food distribution, they tolerated private sales, understanding that it was needed to provide damage control in the case that the public channel fell apart. Finally, institutions need to allow for incentives in production. The communist China’s communes incentivised consumption but not production. After reforms eliminated collective food production, farmers were incentivised to control their consumption and produce more. Fundamentally, a society needs to be able and willing to act in the face of famine. The Chinese case, and the pre-independence Bengali famine, show how apathy can be the biggest exacerbator of famine. Thus, the role of institutions in preventing famine is to respond coherently and effectively. Fundamentally, famine prevention is a choice. Information flow and a democratic system makes this a more likely choice for democratically elected officials, as otherwise, they would lose their jobs.

This essay has examined the role of institutions and policies in causing and preventing famine. Communist China and postcolonial India were used as the cases for this study. The essay began by examining the nature of institutions as the broad policies and rules that structure our behaviour. As our understanding of institutions is broad, the aim of this essay was to identify which institutions cause famine and which prevent it. Communist China was used to examine the causes of famine. These were identified as, fundamentally, removing incentive from production, overly stimulating consumption and disrupting and restricting the free flow of information that is necessary to learn of the famine and thus address it. Post-Maoist China was scrutinised to show how China has prevented subsequent famines, through eliminating the commune system that eliminated incentive and overly stimulated consumption, and incentivising production through the introduction of a form of a free market. A more reasonable rationing system was also introduced that averts starvation while avoiding the precarious monopoly position that the state used to have over food. Postcolonial India was also identified as a good case study of averting famine. The country faced many famines after independent but was able to prevent any of them from becoming major due to a system of nationwide relief that insulates threatened areas from famine, provides rations and relief work, tolerates alternatives to public food distribution and, importantly, possesses a strong independent media and democratic system that holds policy makers to account, encouraging them to effectively respond to famine. In summary, the institutions that have a positive impact on preventing famine are those that enhance incentives, allow and encourage free flow of information, require response to famine and, most importantly, allow open access to food.


  1. Ashton, Basil, Kenneth Hill, Alan Piazza, and Robin Zeitz. “Famine in China 1958-61.” Population and Development Review 10, no. 4 (1984): 613-645.
  2. Chang, Gene Hsin and Wen, Guanzhong James. “Communal dining and the Chinese famine of 1958-1961.” Economic Development and Cultural Change 46, no. 1 (1997): 1-34.
  3. Dikötter, Frank. Mao’s Great Famine. London: Bloomsbury, 2011.
  4. Drèze, Jean and Amartya Sen. “China and India.” In Hunger and Public Action, 204-225. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.
  5. Drèze, Jean. “Famine Prevention in India.” In The Political Economy of Hunger: Volume 2: Famine Prevention, edited by Jean Drèze, 69-168. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.
  6. Greenough, Paul. “Conclusion,” in Prosperity and Misery in Modern Bengal: the famine of 1943-1944. 261-275. New York: OUP, 1982.
  7. Jisheng, Yang. “The Fatal Politics of the PRC’s Great Leap Famine: the Preface to Tombstone.” Journal of Contemporary China 19, no. 66 (2011): 755-776.
  8. Ram, Narasimhan. “An Independent Press and Anti-Hunger Strategies: The Indian Experience.” In The Political Economy of Hunger: Volume 2: Famine Prevention, edited by Jean Drèze, 179-222. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.
  9. Reynolds, Larry. Boundless.com. Accessed June 17, 2017. https://www.boundless.com/users/233414/textbooks/basic-microeconomics/individual-and-community-4/institutions-33/institutions-83-14742/.
  10. Riskin, Carl. “Feeding China: The Experience since 1949.” In The Political Economy of Hunger: Volume 3: Endemic Hunger, edited by Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen, 401-444. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.
  11. Riskin, Carl. “Food, Poverty and Development Strategy in the People’s Republic of China.” In Food Shortage, Poverty & Deprivation, edited by Robert Kates and Lucile Newman, 331-352. New York: Blackwell, 1990.
  12. Sen, Amartya. “Ingredients of famine analysis: Availability and entitlements.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 96, 3 (August 1981): 433-447.
  13. Sen, Amartya. “The Great Bengal Famine.” In Poverty and famines: An essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, 52-83. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981.
  14. Shapiro, Judith. Mao’s War Against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.


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

[2]Larry Reynolds, Institutions, Boundless.com, accessed June 17, 2017. https://www.boundless.com/users/233414/textbooks/basic-microeconomics/individual-and-community-4/institutions-33/institutions-83-14742/.

[3] Gene Hsin Chang, and Guanzhong James Wen, “Communal dining and the Chinese famine of 1958-1961,” Economic Development and Cultural Change 46, no. 1 (1997): 1.

[4] Carl Riskin, “Food, Poverty and Development Strategy in the People’s Republic of China,” In Food Shortage, Poverty & Deprivation, ed. by Robert Kates and Lucile Newman (New York: Blackwell, 1990), 337.

[5] Chang and Wen, “Communal dining and the Chinese famine of 1958-1961,” 1.

[6] Ibid., 2.

[7] Ibid., 4.

[8] Ibid., 5.

[9] Riskin, “Food, Poverty and Development Strategy in the People’s Republic of China,” 336-337.

[10] Frank Dikötter, Mao’s Great Famine (London: Bloomsbury, 2011), 132.

[11] Ibid., 134.

[12] Carl Riskin, “Feeding China: The Experience since 1949,” In The Political Economy of Hunger: Volume 3: Endemic Hunger, ed. by Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 420.

[13] Riskin, “Food, Poverty and Development Strategy in the People’s Republic of China,” 336.

[14] Judith Shapiro, Mao’s War Against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 2.

[15] Dikötter, Mao’s Great Famine, 209.

[16] Chang and Wen, “Communal dining and the Chinese famine of 1958-1961,” 3.

[17] Ibid., 7.

[18] Jisheng 755

[19] Shapiro 3.

[20] Yang Jisheng, “The Fatal Politics of the PRC’s Great Leap Famine: the Preface to Tombstone,” Journal of Contemporary China 19, no. 66 (2011):  756.

[21] Chang and Wen, “Communal dining and the Chinese famine of 1958-1961,” 3.

[22] Riskin, “Feeding China: The Experience since 1949,” 404.

[23] Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen, “China and India,” In Hunger and Public Action (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 212.

[24] Riskin, “Feeding China: The Experience since 1949,” 415.

[25] Ibid., 423.

[26] Ibid., 406.

[27] Ibid., 407.

[28] Ibid., 407.

[29] Ibid., 424.

[30] Drèze and Sen, “China and India,” 205.

[31] Amartya Sen, “Ingredients of famine analysis: Availability and entitlements,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 96, 3 (1981): 437.

[32] Sen, “The Great Bengal Famine,” 70.

[33] Ibid., 56.

[34] Ibid., 77.

[35] Paul Greenough, “Conclusion,” in Prosperity and Misery in Modern Bengal: the famine of 1943-1944 (New York: OUP, 1982), 263.

[36] Jean Drèze, “Famine Prevention in India,” In The Political Economy of Hunger: Volume 2: Famine Prevention, ed. by Jean Drèze (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 69.

[37] Ibid., 70.

[38] Ibid., 89.

[39] Ibid., 93.

[40] Ibid., 99-100.

[41] Ibid., 101.

[42] Ibid., 102. This provides food without leading to an institution of apathy and a loss of incentive.

[43] Ibid., 102.

[44] Ibid., 132.

[45] Ibid., 145. The majority of food was actually purchased on the illegal open market. It was the states tolerance of this illegal institution that allowed many not to starve. This predicament would probably have been improved if the state just legalised the open market in food.

[46] Narasimhan Ram, “An Independent Press and Anti-Hunger Strategies: The Indian Experience,” In The Political Economy of Hunger: Volume 2: Famine Prevention, ed. by Jean Drèze (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 186.

[47] Drèze and Sen, “China and India,” 212.