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Sens Exchange Entitlements Theory in Relation to the Bengal Famine of 1943-44 and the China Famine of 1958-62

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The theory of Exchange Entitlements is presented by Amartya Sen, a Nobel Prize-winning economist. His theory attempts to explain the causes of famine. According to Sen, famine occurs when a large number of people in a region lose their means (or entitlements) to access commodities. Entitlements include the wages earned from an occupation, crop or livestock raised, gifts, donations, investments and inheritance (Devereux 246). This is an explanation of famine almost completely based on economics. Through his research, he has focused this theory on the Great Bengal famine of 1943-44 as well as partially on the Chinese famine of 1959-62. There are three areas where his theory is correct: first, crop specialization, practiced in both China and Bengal, makes populations prone to famine; second, democracies are less likely to experience famine and third, the media is essential to famine response because lack of reporting keeps governments ignorant and allows famine to worsen. There are also limitations to his theory: the environmental and political causes of famine are not included and the social elements of famine are almost entirely disregarded. One of the ways Sen believes humans become susceptible to famine is through mono-cropping or crop specialization. In both China and Bengal, crop specialization was the norm. Both grew rice as their staple crop for sustenance and wheat as their main crop for export. Bengals economy relied almost entirely on the production of rice for export. China relied on rice to feed its people and it was the main agricultural crop. Therefore, a more complex theory is needed to explain what happens in famine situations of this nature. Amartya Sen would say that in order to alleviate this problem, growing a more diverse selection of crops would be more beneficial than growing only one, leaving less room for possible loss of entitlements. Another aspect of Sens theory is the argument that famine is more likely to occur in a country where free speech, public action and social justice are stifled (Sen 10). Both China under Maos rule and India under the British colonial regime fit this description. Sen claims that the presence of democracy and an uncensored media is very effective in preventing famines because the media will attract attention to any emerging food shortages and the government will have to act quickly to prevent famine if it does not wish to be ousted from power (Sen 30). In countries that lack a free media or a democratic system, the government has no incentive to prevent famines and may attempt to cover them up instead. Such political causes of famine can be seen in the reaction of British authorities in India to the Japanese invasion of Burma in World War II. While Bengal grew rice, it did not keep that rice; instead it was grown for export. The rice imported for consumption was lower-quality rice transported through Burma and other Japanese-occupied areas. At the same time the British troops were stationed defensively on the border of Bengal. To feed the troops, the government bought up a large portion of the rice which would normally have been placed on the market for the people to buy resulting in shortage. Increased demand led to skyrocketing prices. In an effort to stop the steep inflation of prices, the government tried to require vendors to set rice amounts at designated prices, but there was wide-spread refusal out of fear of continued increases in price. Also, there were fewer people selling rice on the market in Bengal. Many turned to hoarding as a coping mechanism (Distant Thunder). The example about Bengal during World War II only partially supports Sens theories. While Sen correctly pointed out that colonial authorities would not take sufficient action to prevent famines, he did not comment on the possibility that government policies such as conflict and war may cause

famine not only by reducing entitlements but also by depleting food supplies. Also, the practice of hoarding goes against Sens theory in that it does not involve a loss of entitlements. If some among the affected population are able to retain food, then this does not equal a complete loss of food for all, since the amount of suffering of each person is different, depending on their entitlements. In the film Distant Thunder the merchants are able to hoard rice because they have access to it as part of their occupation. Then the rest of the population is unable to buy it (Distant Thunder). Sens opinion of hoarding is simply that is signifies a failure in societal cooperation (Devereux 248) and shows the inequalities between people in famine. In the case of China, according to Shujie Yao, four factors have been cited which hampered domestic food production: poor weather conditions and natural disasters, the policies of Maos government and low incentives to produce more rice (Yao 1366). The famine was exacerbated by the lack of reporting (Sen 30). There was no system in place to monitor the progression of the famine, so Mao was unaware of the extent of the food shortage. Before and during the famine political movements arose seriously hampering free speech and public action. First there was the Antirightist movement of 1957 that oppressed free speech and the voice of academics who questioned party ideas. Second was the Commune movement of 1958 that was part of the Great Leap Forward policies and established communal kitchens which were accidentally responsible for quickly depleting food supplies. And the third was the Antireactionary movement of 1960 which arose in response to the severing of ties between the governments of China and the USSR. Even after ending relations with the USSR and significantly isolating itself, China still had to export large quantities of grain to pay back the debts they owed to the USSR this was during the same time when domestic food production was so low that the Chinese people were being hurt (Yao 1368). At the same time, China did not import enough food to feed the masses. This was due to another of the exacerbating factors international isolation (Yao 1366-67). The result of these factors was the death of 30 million Chinese (Field 16; Lin 137). In the Chinese famine of 1958-62 Maos Great Leap Forward ushered in harmful economic policies and practices that called for both increased rice and steel production. The main point of Maos Great Leap Forward was to industrialize as quickly as possible. First, farmers were required to plant rice seeds more densely in an effort to increase the crop yield. Second, farmers were also required to produce steel, almost to the extent of placing small forges in their backyards (Yao 1367). Committing farmers to producing steel actually lessened the possible yield of rice, as did growing the crops more densely. This resulted in low agricultural production. Not only was there low production, but the farmers had to fill rice quotas imposed by the government. The food shortage was greatest among farm workers because the only food they could keep was the rice left over once quotas had been filled (Lin 137). If the harvest was particularly bad, there was not enough food left to feed those who had grown it (Lin 137). Sen does not account for these types of government policies in his theory of entitlements. Sens theory does not address the environmental causes of famine. In the case of the Chinese famine, the environment played a role in the famine. Though this was a small role, some scholars believe the natural disasters in 1959 before the start of the famine acted as a catalyst because as a result grain production dropped by 30% over a two-year period (Yao 1367). During the end of the 1950s as well as the early 60s, bad weather contributed to low crop yields. In the case of the Bengal famine a cyclone in the Gulf of Bengal not only destroyed a portion of the rice crop but also hurt the fishing industry which had been another source of food for the region. A further limitation to Sens theory is that it does not give adequate consideration the distribution of food in society. As seen in the film Distant Thunder, during the early parts of the Bengal Famine, food was denied to the lower castes and some food was still provided to the Brahmins. However, eventually when the food shortage became worse, the Brahmins were denied food also while the rice

merchants hoarded it for themselves. In the social breakdown associated with famine, families, especially extended families, had to make the choice of who in the household would eat. There are three ways this could happen: children and elderly, who may be of the least help in the household but still consume scarce resources, are usually the first to die. The second way is that the men in the family, who may be the wage earners or food producers, are given the greatest access to food while the women sacrifice their share (Devereux 250). The third way is that the parents may sacrifice food to feed their children. Despite the ability of exchange entitlements to explain what happens in famine situations and where famines are likely to occur, the theory still disregards political and environmental causes of famine, which are the most common and distribution of food in society. Sens theory does, however, explain what happens to a country with crop specialization in its agricultural system, lack of democracy and effective reporting of famine by media. The Bengal and China famines are examples that illustrate both the advantages and disadvantages of Sens theory. Works Cited Devereux, Stephen. Sens Entitlement Approach: Critiques and Counter-critiques. Oxford Development Studies 29.3 (2001): 245-263. Distant Thunder Lin, Justin Yifu. Food Availability, Entitlements and the Chinese Famine of 1959-61. The Economic Journal (2000). Sen, Amartya. Public Action to Remedy Hunger. The Hunger Project (1990). Yao, Shujie. A Note on the Causal Factors of Chinas Famine in 1959-1961. The Journal of Political Economy (1999): 1365-1369.