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Twentieth Century Famines and Food Availability in South Asia

Tim Dyson, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)

This paper examines data for the famines in Bengal in 1943-44 and Bangladesh in 1974-75. Both crises arose in complex circumstances which, among other things, were influenced by warfare, low agricultural productivity, and unprecedented population growth. Moreover, both famines are often seen as being somewhat archetypal—in that it has been asserted, and is widely believed, that they did not involve a decline in food availability relative to the population. In this context, and drawing from previous research, the paper shows that the basis for the assertion that there was no food availability decline during the 1943-44 Bengal famine is very weak; and a similar conclusion applies for the 1974-75 Bangladesh famine. In both cases, the largely unqualified assertion that there was no food availability decline derives from uncritical and partial interpretation of data—a problem that extends to related demographic analysis. The larger question that arises, however, is just how research on and understanding of the genesis of these two famines could themselves go so awry. The paper suggests some explanations—including the potential link to Malthusian population theory.

Keywords: Historical demography/methods, Economic analysis, Population geography

See paper.

  Presented in Session 108. Keynote: Twentieth Century Famines and Food Availability in South Asia