If Democracies Have No Famines, What About India?

May 28, 2009

[First published July 10, 2005] In response to my empirical claim that democracies have never had a famine, I sometimes get questions about India, particularly about the 1943-1945 Bengal famine when India was under British rule.

First, of the 86,000,000 people who died in famines in the 20th century, not one of them lived in a democracy. Nor has any famine occurred in India while it was a democracy. Consider the work of Amartya Sen, for example, the 1998 Nobel Prize winner in economics from India. He became the youngest chairman of the Department of Economics, Jadavpur University, at the age of 23. He has been the President of the Econometric Society (1984), the International Economic Association (1986-89), the Indian Economic Association (1989), and the American Economic Association (1994). He is now Master of Trinity College Cambridge. So, he should know something about India. Sen says as well that no democracy has had a famine, and as far as India is concerned, its last famine was the 1943 Bengal famine ( Development as Freedom , p. 180) when India was a colony of Britain.

Second, as to the devastating Bengal famine, I’ve put some time into studying the scholarly works on it, including those by Indians. The highest estimate of the famine toll I could find is 4,500,000 dead; the lowest at 1,500,000. After going through these works, I settled on a range of 1,500,000 to 4,500,000 dead, most likely about 3,000,000. I did not mark this famine down as British democide. True, they are partly responsible for it, since it was aggravated by the British taking food supplies for their Burma campaign and to stock up for a possible Japanese invasion.

However, the famine was not intended and once it happened the British took steps to deal with it. This is the same argument I used for not counting the Chinese communist famine of 1959-63 as democide. If the Bengal famine is to be defined as British democide, then the Chinese famine must also so be counted, which would add at least 27,000,000 or more to the Chinese communist of about 35,000,000 murdered.

Link of Note

“Facts About Hunger” From CARE

CARE’s facts:

More than 840 million people in the world are malnourished — 799 million of them live in the developing world.

More than 153 million of the world’s malnourished people are children under the age of 5.

Six million children under the age of 5 die every year as a result of hunger.

Malnutrition can severely affect a child’s intellectual development. Malnourished children often have stunted growth and score significantly lower on math and language achievement tests than do well-nourished children.

Lack of dietary diversity and essential minerals and vitamins also contributes to increased child and adult mortality. Vitamin A deficiency impairs the immune system, increasing the annual death toll from measles and other diseases by an estimated 1.3 million-2.5 million children.

While every country in the world has the potential of growing enough food to feed itself, 54 nations currently do not produce enough food to feed their populations, nor can they afford to import the necessary commodities to make up the gap. Most of these countries are in sub-Saharan Africa.

Most of the widespread hunger in a world of plenty results from grinding, deeply rooted poverty. In any given year, however, between 5 and 10 percent of the total can be traced to specific events: droughts or floods, armed conflict, political, social and economic disruptions.

True, hunger and malnutrition occur even when famines are not present, but famine is the extreme and most deadly case of hunger and is reflected in these “facts.” Then note what is missing. There is no reference to democracy or dictatorships. Yet, the most glaring cause of extreme hunger and poverty is that thugs rule a country. How does one explain this blindness about hunger and poverty? How about ideological blindness and ignorance?
Visualizing democide
Graphical experiments on visualizing democide

No Famine Ever

December 15, 2008

[First published February 24, 2005] There are tons of websites devoted to famine, hunger, and trying to help the starving around the world. Yet, not one of these good people devoted to this great cause realize that there is a solution to famine at hand, which is practical and much desired in itself. What is this miracle? Democracy.

No democracy has ever had a famine.
This, even though democracies have been struck with the awful droughts that would have created millions of deaths under thug regimes, or had famines before they became democratic. I have just put a commentary on this on my web site that goes into more detail than I should here. (link here)

The greatest famines in history have savaged people already suffering under the most repressive regimes, those of the Soviet Union and communist China. Below is a table providing the empirical evidence for this claim.


Why are democracies immune to this greatest of all disasters. Three fundamental reasons. One is that democracieis have a free or semi-free agricultural market that usually produces more than enough food and is resilient in the face of local shortages. Two is that democracies have a free press that almost immediately communicates nationally, and especially to elected legislators and administration leaders, dangerous agricultural conditions in one part of the country or another. And three is that these politicans better do something about it, since their political future depends on the rapidity and success of their response.

There is a saying: “Provide a starving man with fish, and you need to do that everyday; teach him how to fish, and you never have to do it again.” To this we now can add: “Free him, and he soon will provide others with fish.”

Link of Note

Amartya Sen, ”Democracy as a Universal Value” Journal of Democracy 0.3 (1999) 3-17.

Amartya Sen is the winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize for Economics, is Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and Lamont University Professor Emeritus at Harvard University.

“I have discussed elsewhere the remarkable fact that, in the terrible history of famines in the world, no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country with a relatively free press. We cannot find exceptions to this rule, no matter where we look: the recent famines of Ethiopia, Somalia, or other dictatorial regimes; famines in the Soviet Union in the 1930s; China’s 1958-61 famine with the failure of the Great Leap Forward; or earlier still, the famines in Ireland or India under alien rule. China, although it was in many ways doing much better economically than India, still managed (unlike India) to have a famine, indeed the largest recorded famine in world history: Nearly 30 million people died in the famine of 1958-61 . . . .”