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Sen's Explanation of the Great Bengal Famine - Book Report/Review Example

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Although a celebrity in his native India since winning the 1998 Nobel Prize in economics, Amartya Sen is otherwise little known outside academic circles in Britain and the United States. Yet his ideas have had a global impact. By the reckoning of a fellow economist, Sudhir Anand of Oxford University, Sen "has made fundamental contributions to at least four fields: social choice theory, welfare economics, economic measurement, and development economics." (Pundarik Mukhopadhaya, Srikanta Chatterjee, 2000)
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Sens Explanation of the Great Bengal Famine
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Sen's Explanation of the Great Bengal Famine

Download file to see previous pages... Grappling with Arrow's paradox, Sen "returned to first principles on the nature of choice," explains Desai, who teaches economics at the London School of Economics. A person choosing to buy fish rather than meat may not be asserting a simple preference for fish, Sen pointed out. He may be acting on a whim, or perhaps participating in a meat boycott in support of a meatpackers' strike. "Sen showed that we must take into account notions of sympathy or commitment in order to understand voting behavior, paying for public goods...and so on." In short, he brought economics closer to the real world. Sen's 1970 book, Collective Choice and Social Welfare, marked the end of a decade's work on social choice and "a definitive advance on Arrow's work," Desai says. The next year, Sen left Delhi and joined the London School of Economics. (Alex de Waal, 1989).
In Poverty and Famines (1981), Sen studied the 1943 Bengal famine (and several others). By detailing the weekly arrivals of food grains in Calcutta, he showed that it was not a scarcity of food but the lack of money to buy it that caused the mass starvation. In short, says Desai, "Sen showed that a functioning market economy could leave millions dead."
Events in his youth in Bengal, before he went to Oxford, Harvard and eventually Cambridge to study and teach, affected Sen deeply. In Development as Freedom he describes his awful experience as a 10-year- old child, when a Muslim laborer named Kader Mia staggered into the Sen Family garden and died after Hindu extremists knifed him. Sen has never let his long sojourn in the West or his immersion in his beloved economic equations erases his memory of Kader Mia.
Nothing excites intellectual curiosity more than the overturning of a time-honored belief. This is specially so when that overturning is accomplished by scholarly analysis, as distinct from Messianic rhetoric. So when as highly acclaimed a scholar as Amartya Sen challenged the popular belief that famine means shortage of food, it inevitably caused a stir.
The famine that had killed two to three million people and brought starvation to millions more in Bengal in 1943 was not, he maintained, a result of shortage of food. What's more, he went on to argue, the Bengal famine was by no means unique in this regard. He showed that many contemporary famines in Asia and Africa shared this property of not being caused by reduced availability of food. Famine, he concluded, is a case of people not having enough food to eat, but not necessarily of there not being enough food to go around. From this emerged what has come to be known as the 'entitlement approach' to hunger and famine an approach that focuses attention on people having or not ...Download file to see next pagesRead More
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