Utsa Patnaik: On Measuring “Famine” Deaths: Different Criteria for Socialism and Capitalism?

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By Utsa Patnaik

Many developing countries which have a high proportion of poor in their population, are typically characterised by a high death rate as well as a high birth rate, with the birth rate exceeding the death rate. The rate of natural increase is given by the difference between the birth rate and the death rate. The actual increase of population is obtained by subtracting from this the net out-migration from the country, if any. In the course of development as health services reach a larger segment of the population, education levels improve and per head real incomes rise, it is expected that not only will the death rate come down but so will the birth rate. The aim is to obtain an even faster decline in the birth rate than in the death rate, if the rate of natural increase is to come down from initial high levels. China however although starting from a worse situation had lowered both the death rate and the birth rate much faster. 

In a class-divided society, average figures do not give a true picture of how bad the situation is for the most deprived, who owing to endemic lack of adequate nourishment are also more vulnerable to sickness or morbidity. We know that endemic poverty, under-nutrition and lack of access to affordable medical services get reflected in a much higher death rate than the average, for the poor segment of the population. By the same logic, a given decline in the average death rate over time in the overall population, while in itself desirable, may well be very unequally distributed, with a very large decline in the already lower- than- average death rate among the top income groups in urban areas as their access to health services improves further, and a very small or non-existent decline in death rate say among the poorest in rural areas with initial high levels of deaths. A decline in the average death rate may be quite compatible even with a rise in the death rate for some segments of the population. 

The difference between endemic high death rate among the (mainly rural ) poor , and what is identified by most academics as ” famine deaths”, seems to be the fact that the first involves the poor dying at a rate higher than the average for the population, but slowly, unobtrusively and over a longer period of time owing to being chronically under-nourished and therefore being subject to higher morbidity; this higher than average death rate being considered nothing ‘out of the way’ given the existing distribution of incomes. 

The second, which is considered not normal or usual and is termed “famine deaths”, involves a sudden rise in nutrition-deprivation and hence sudden rise in morbidity and death rate, usually among segments of the very same group which is poor as a ‘normal’ state of affairs. In short, a sudden upward deviation from the prevalent death rate is thought of as “famine death”. The cause of a sudden and unpredicted rise may be various – a sudden decline in output, or a sudden rise in the price of the basic food staple. The second cause is not necessarily predicated on the first; a sudden rise in food price may take place , not because output is less than usual, but because government follows policies of suddenly increased expenditures, which rapidly expand incomes in the hands of one segment of the population and hence their demand for food, while leaving untouched the purchasing power of another segment of the population, as happened during the 1943 Bengal famine when deficit-financed defence -related expenditures were suddenly raised. 

While China has performed much better than India, it is widely believed that China had a more severe famine than India ever had, during the “Great Leap” period in which millions died; the figure of 27 to 30 million famine deaths is frequently quoted. The main source of this figure in India is Amartya Sen’s writings and speeches which are more widely known and reported than are the basic sources, the work of Western scholars, which he uses. The argument made by him is that the absence of press freedom in China explains the fact that the world did not have any inkling that such a massive famine had taken place at the time. Similarly, Peter Nolan and others have argued that a massive famine took place during the collectivisation drive in the Soviet Union in the thirties. 

In general, the thrust of the argument is that collectivisation produces famine and the absence of a ‘free’ press as in capitalist countries, prevents anyone outside these countries knowing about it until much later- when Western liberal scholars painstakingly uncover the facts through their research. Since collective ownership and production is the very essence of socialist production relations, this appears to constitute a damning indictment of socialism. The picture is complicated by the fact that in China itself, some of those, earlier termed the ‘capitalist roaders , who were always opposed to egalitarian principles of distribution and wanted to dismantle the rural communes (which were indeed dismantled from 1980 onwards), seized upon the alleged massive “famine ” as one argument for an ex post justification for doing so, regardless of the fact that they themselves despite their active involvement in political life were apparently quite ignorant at that time that such a massive famine with 27 to 30 million deaths, had taken place in their own country. 

It would be instructive to look at how exactly this estimate of massive “famine deaths ” has been arrived at by the ever busy Western liberal scholars, which estimates have then been assiduously spread by them and by others to discredit socialism and praise the bourgeois press (thereby, incidentally, ensuring a very good press for themselves). 

In China in 1959-61 there was indeed a large shortfall in agricultural output, as much as 15 percent from normal in 1959 and 25 percent from normal in the next two years and this decline did in fact coincide with the “Great Leap” when the transition from advanced co-operatives to the peoples’ communes took place. At that time a number of reasons including drought in parts of the country, floods in others and attacks of pests were put forward for the output fall. No-one, including the foreign diplomatic corps stationed there, or the ideological critics of collectivisation within the Party, at that time suggested there was massive famine. In India too the sixties were difficult years and output shortfall owing to drought in 1964-5 was severe, although less so than in China and was combined with rapid inflation which eroded real wages and raised poverty levels to nearly 60 percent according to the available World Bank estimates. 

To associate China’s economic difficulties with communes formation would be rather like associating Indonesia’s 1997-8 economic crisis and collapse with the widespread forest fires which took place at that time. In short empirical coincidence is not a causal explanation. The same commune system ensured a massive rise in employment, in food security and health security for the rural population in the next two decades. It was not communes which created economic difficulties; rather, it can be argued that without the newly-formed commune’s egalitarian distribution, the exogenous output decline might have had a far more severe impact in and made recovery much slower than it was in fact. 

When we look at the estimates of death rate and birth rate for China made by US scholars during the years 1959 to 1961, we find that the death rate rose sharply in a single year, 1960, by as much as 10.8 per thousand compared to 1959. But because China in the single preceding decade of building socialism, had reduced its death rate at a much faster rate (from 29 to 12 comparing 1949 and 1958) than India had, this sharp rise to 25. 4 in 1960 in China still meant that this “famine” death rate was virtually the same as the prevalent death rate in India which was 24.6 per thousand in 1960, only 0.8 lower. This latter rate being considered quite “normal” for India, has not attracted the slightest criticism. Further, in both the preceding and the suceeding year India’s crude death rate was 8 to 10 per thousand higher than in China. Of course, each economy has to be judged in relation to its own internal performance; and no doubt the rise in the death rate during the worst years of output shortfall is a bad blot for China on its otherwise very impressive record of rapid decline and good food security. But is it correct to say that “famine deaths” totalled as much as 30 million; and is it correct to imply that absence of press freedom meant that China’s then leaders, despite knowing about such massive deaths, were so cynical and depraved that they could mislead the world successfully? 

In a recent article, published in a Bengali-language journal, Badruddin Umar has provided a powerful explicit critique of the widely accepted argument put forward by Sen on large famine deaths (and hence also a critique of others like Nolan). Umar argues that it is inconceivable that such a large number of “famine deaths” should have been wilfully suppressed by a state in China which had demonstrated its commitment to peoples’ welfare by undertaking measures to reach basic food security and health services to the poor, and which had achieved a much faster reduction in infant mortality and the death rate in the very first decade of independence than had India. We propose here to try to provide an explanation which includes a more realistic estimate of mortality, and also of why no-one including the Westerners in China, even noticed that mortality was higher during these years. 

Most people will accept that in order to qualify to “die” in a famine, and become a famine-death victim, it is necessary to be born in the first place. But about 18million of the estimated 30 million “dead’ in China’s famine, were not born at all ! Most of those non-experts, journalists and others who accept and propagate the ‘massive famine deaths’ in China argument put forward by the academic sophists, do not themselves realise that people who were never born at all, and indeed never conceived at all, are being included to arrive at the 27 to 30 million estimate of “famine deaths” in China. The measurement techniques are designed to mislead, to talk about the “death” of people who were never born. How is this absurd procedure possible? It has come about because not only the rise in the death rate, but also the accompanying sharp fall in the birth rate is being taken into account when estimating “famine deaths”. The birth rate in China declined and fell to a low of 18 per thousand in 1961 compared to 29.2 in 1958. (After 1961 it rose faster than it had fallen, to reach a peak of 46 by 1964). 

The rise in the death rate during 1959-61 compared to the bench-mark year 1958 implies that there was indeed a total excess mortality of 10.5 million persons over the three-year period 1959-61 in China, excess in the sense that if the death rate had remained the same, then the population would have been larger by that many more people. This is the correct estimate of excess deaths, but this order of “famine deaths” is not quite spectacular enough for the liberal scholars. Therefore, the decline in the birth rate which was very steep during these three years, is taken into account and the children who would have been born if the decline in birth rate had not taken place, are added on by them to the estimate, to arrive at a three times higher estimate which is then called the “missing millions” and identified with “famine deaths”. The fact that at least 18 million of the alleged famine victims were never conceived or born, is a minor point for those who want to talk tendentiously about massive “famine deaths” totalling 30 million in China and thereby discredit collectivisation. 

That periods of food shortage do lead to decline in fertility is a fairly well established proposition. Periods of mass mobilisation of males, for military service for example, also get reflected in a decline in the birth rate. There was no military conscription at this date in peacetime China, but there was massive mobilisation of both male and female workers for a stupendous construction effort during this period of early commune formation. The established peasant family living and work patterns were radically re-organised with the formation of the communes: 

* large bands of and men and women set out in teams and brigades for constructing water management systems, cleaning up the environment and eradicating disease-carrying organisms, afforesting hills, terracing and bunding and so on. 

* They spent weeks on the work-sites, and there were communal kitchens and creches to look after children in these years. It is not surprising if this disruption of normal family life in the interests of construction, also contributed greatly to the observed decline in the birth rate as birth decisions were postponed. 

* With stabilisation of the new system, dismantling of communal kitchens and reversion to family life the birth rate again surged to unprecedented heights, peaking at 37.9 in 1964. 

As regards the genuine excess mortality during China’s difficult years, while shortage and difficulties were very real and visible, famine was near invisible to all including the Westerners at that time in China, because China by then was an egalitarian society, not a class society. The undoubtedly severe food shortage was not concentrated in a sharp drop in consumption by the members of a particular deprived class like poor peasants who then died in the sight of all , while others had more than enough to eat, as typically happens with famine in class societies. Food shortage while it was severe, was spread out over the rural consuming population much more evenly and therefore must have led mostly to higher rates, but not immediately or obviously visible higher rates of mortality in the particularly vulnerable segments in an otherwise equal society – parturient mothers, infants and the very old. It is a mistake to think that all real trends are visible to the individuals at the time. 

Thus even though we ourselves in this country have lived through the period when the infant mortality has fallen greatly, it is a matter we are convinced of not from our direct experience of it, but after the numbers have been counted and presented to us. China’s leaders were not guilty of wilful suppression of knowledge of the higher mortality; the knowledge itself was built up much later than the events, and the correct estimate as we have seen is just over one-third of the wrong and sensationalised estimates which are still being circulated. 

On a visit to China in the eighties, at the time the inflated “famine deaths” were being talked about in the West, this author mentioned these estimates and asked some very senior Chinese economists about their own experience of this period. They were extremely surprised and said that while there were cases of more deficiency diseases than usual they were not aware of widespread famine deaths. 

It should be noted that those sophists who designed the above mentioned unique measure of “famine deaths” are very reluctant to apply it to non-socialist countries and have never done so. Their method if impartially and honestly applied would produce more than one episode of large “famine deaths” – on their own definition – in the West European countries, which saw not only a rise in civilian mortality but also a decline in the birth rate during the time of wartime shortages. Even the accurate definition in terms of rise in the death rate, is never applied by them to talk about famine in countries which are not socialist. 

Thus in Russia comparing 1994 with 1990 from the data given by an US academic, we find that the death rate rose from 48.8 to 84.1 per thousand able-bodied persons, as that country plunged into “shock therapy” to usher in a capitalist paradise, and succeeded in halving its national income. No one can say that the press is under censorship in Russia today or that the estimates are not known. But not one of those eminent economists who have deafened us with their estimates of “famine deaths ” during Soviet or Chinese collectivisation, have bothered to apply the same method to current Russian or East European data, nor will they ever do so; for their interest lies not in objectivity, but in a sophisticated vilification of socialism. 

(Courtesy: People’s Democracy, September 26, 1999)

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