Supply and demand, and famine

The following is an excerpt from the book “Stuffed and Starved” by Raj Patel, p139-140.

The Public Distribution System was expanded in the wake of the 1943 Bengal famine, in which over 3 million people died. The paradox is that, at the same time as people died of hunger, there was enough food in Bengal to be able to feed them. In his path-breaking research, economist Amartya Sen observed that modern famines weren’t related so much to the absence of food as to the inability to buy it. Looking at the 1943 famine, Sen found not that food had been lacking in Bengal. In fact, there was plenty of it around. It’s just that those who owned it had hoarded it, knowing that less food means higher prices. Those who died in the street died because they simply weren’t able to pay for the food locked up in the granaries. This is a hugely important finding, because it breaks the link between the simple availability of food in the market and the question of whether the poor get to eat it. Merely having the food around doesn’t guarantee that the poor will eat. In fact, if the only way that the poor can get food is through the market – as the British believed when they administered Bengal – then at times when food is perceived to be scarce, the hourglass shape of the food system [with many producers and many consumers but just a few companies acting in between] is almost certain to deliver not food, but hunger. Those who are in a position to control the distribution of grain will only do so if they’re able to command a sufficiently high price. The only way that famine can be overcome is to guarantee rights to people that trump the grain-hoarders at the waist of the food system hourglass. And the only way that Sen sees this as possible is through, at a bare minimum, a functioning democracy.

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