In 1983 the Indian scholar Amartya Sen published Poverty and Famines, a book that was about
to change our understanding of the root causes of hunger and starvation. In 1993 Sen was
awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for ‘his contributions to welfare economics.’
Sen grew up in West Bengal, a region that experienced a devastating famine in 1943, when
millions died due to hunger and starvation. He personally experienced this famine as a child
– an experience that certainly shaped his academic interests.

Colonial rule, one could say, not only ended with a terrible famine, but it also started with one: the famine of 1769–70, also of Bengal, which killed an estimated third of this province’s total population. And there were of course numerous other severe famines throughout the duration of British rule. Since independence in 1947, however, there has been no famine in India. Furthermore, there is little archival evidence for large-scale famines in pre-colonial India. This suggests that famine was not simply a ‘naturally’ recurring event on the subcontinent, as some colonial administrators suggested, but closely related to colonialism and its impact on South Asia’s economy and society.

The first major aim of this course is to familiarize students with famine analysis, using India’s past as a laboratory to test hypotheses of relevance to the present. Historical records enable us to reconstruct the long-term social and economic effects of famines. We discuss ecological triggers, e.g. extreme weather events, and other factors that have the potential to turn a food crisis into a famine, including failing markets or erroneous public responses. We pay special attention to the pre-existing societal vulnerability which explains why in one case a severe drought lead to the loss of human life and in the other case it did not.

The second major aim is to use past famines as a window into the economic and social history of India. Crises like famines often reveal features of a society that are difficult to see in ‘normal’ times. ‘An episode such as a famine’, writes David Arnold in his seminal monograph of 1988, ‘can provide a rare glimpse of the lives of the “common people”, shed a light on matters of everyday significance about which historical source materials are all too often silent.’