Amartya Sen and Famines

Amartya Sen won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1998 for his work in development economics. A part of his work has been devoted to the assertion that famines do not occur in democracies, an assertion that is being tested in India. NYTimes writes:

“No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy,” [Sen] wrote in “Democracy as Freedom” (Anchor, 1999). This, he explained, is because democratic governments “have to win elections and face public criticism, and have strong incentive to undertake measures to avert famines and other catastrophes.”

Now, however, in India, the main focus of Mr. Sen’s research, there are growing reports of starvation…About 350 million of India’s one billion people go to bed hungry every night, and half of all Indian children are malnourished.

Meanwhile, the country is awash in grain, with the government sitting on a surplus of more than 50 million tons. Such want amid such plenty has generated public protests, critical editorials and an appeal to India’s Supreme Court to force the government to use its surpluses to feed the hungry.

To Mr. Sen, though, it is not the thesis that needs revision but the popular understanding of it. Yes, famines do not occur in democracies, he said in a phone interview, but “it would be a misapprehension to believe that democracy solves the problem of hunger.”

In his more recent writings, Mr. Sen has paid more attention to the shortcomings of democracy and how they can be addressed. The key, he said, is not to jettison democracy but to find ways of making it work better for society’s underdogs.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.