Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Bengal famine caused by a fungus.

'S.Y. Padmanabhan shows that the Bengal famine of 1943 was caused by a
helminthosporium fungus epidemic on the rice crop (which confirms the view of the
Famine Inquiry Commission, but directly opposes all Sen's explanations). "Nothing as
devastating as the Bengal epiphototic of 1942 has been recorded in plant pathological
literature. The only other instance that bears comparison in loss sustained by a food
crop and the human calamity that followed in its wake is the Irish potato famine of
1845". He gives evidence that the losses for some varieties of rice were 90%. He was
there. This is the only evidence based on what was harvested. The statistics everyone
else uses are based on highly suspect crop forecasts, mostly made before the cyclone
and the fungus epidemic. S.Y. Padmanabhan, "The Great Bengal Famine", Annual
Review of Phytopathology vol II 1973 p11-24. (Professor Mark Tauger found this
paper and recognized its importance. Mark Tauger, Entitlement, Shortage, and
the 1943 Bengal Famine: Another Look, Journal of Peasant Studies, vol. 31, no.
1, Octobor 2003, 45-72.)'
Dr. Peter Bowbrick


FredR said...

I remember that Mark Tauger made a similar argument about the Ukrainian Famine (there it was wheat rust or something). The whole debate is too complicated for me to follow, but I'd be interested in whether you think it was or was not a similar case.

windwheel said...

@FredR, I think you've hit the nail on the head; the armchair economist's narrative of cruel Capitalists or Commissars- preferably foreigners- grabbing the peasant's food and exporting it, desperately needed sexing up. Thus, this availability cascade has to develop along the lines of proving that 'genocidal' starvation ONLY OCCURS during years of bumper harvest. Please don't mention rust, or smut, or, blight or drought or cyclones because that's the sort of unsexy stuff boring old Agronomists and Meterologists and other such decidedly 'below the salt' Technocrats busy themselves with. Those bastards can actually fix the problems they uncover. This IS A CRIME AGAINST SUSTAINABILITY! It is a type of INTELLECTUAL GENOCIDE! It prevents ageing, publicity hungry, Professors from garnering more and more praise for their courage and compassion and commitment to some quivering mass of suffering subaltern alterity by just recycling their original piece of fraud or malfeasance.

I guess the problem with rust or smut is that an eye-ball check makes it appear that the crops are growing well. The strange thing is that traditional grain traders- at least in India- seem to be able to sense upcoming shortages even better than the peasants themselves. My guess is that there is a sort of stock of expert knowledge amongst a class of autistic savants which the traders can identify and access in a Darwinian manner, but not the peasant nor the Govt official because they need a different type of rationality to do their job. In other words, there is a sort of behavioural econ type reason for a specific Information asymmetry such that those evil 'speculators' turn out to be vital to avert catastrophe.

The fact that humans have evolved to consume a range of foods shows that the evolutionary stable strategy for the race will be reflected in
1) diversity in the market for food obtaining at any point. I think Ukraine and Bengal are examples of that market artificially
2) diversity of hedges against starvation. These hedges take in everything and so an entitlements approach is useless because it can never catch up with the greater plasticity of its object of study.
3) diversity of group selective rationing regimes- i.e. distributional impact- such that the outcome at the macro-level is relatively opaque rather than a window to how genders or classes of people are affected. In other words, Famine is probably not a good policy instrument to target a specific group for decimation.

I recall Sen giving Tauger a savage beating in the correspondence column of some magazine a few years ago. So the guy must be on the right track.