Subsistence crises as economic history: some interpretative possibilities from eighteenth century Bengal

Prof. Rajat Datta, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi


Subsistence crises—dearth and famines—are seen as exceptional occurrences, as severe dislocations in the ‘normal’ run of things; or as best as aberrations. As far as their economic consequences are concerned these are considered economic ‘excess’ points—excess starvation, excess mortality, and excess misery, without often being clear about the normal beyond which such excesses can be measured . An influential point of view stresses ‘entitlement’ failures to explain these regressive departures from the normal, but that still does not provide a satisfactory economic explanation of these occurrences. On the other hand, the prelude to starvation has been seen as an outcome of food availability decline, which is a materially a more verifiable feature than ‘entitlement’. The latter’s lack of empirical clarity becomes more accentuated in past (i.e., pre-colonial) contexts where social categories and their economic constituents are not adequately documented. Also there is an implicit assumption in this, and some other related theories, to see subsistence crises in the pre-colonial periods (broadly speaking) as failures engendered by the collapse of ‘cultural’ norms of reciprocity or as non-market phenomena in order the accentuate the economic aspect of entitlement failures in more contemporary contexts. While some of these features may have prevailed in societies in the hoary past, this would be an unsustainable proposition in later, particularly the early modern period from the 14th to the 19th centuries. Nor can one agree with the proposition, also of a long duration in economic history that an economic content was infused into subsistence crises by the colonial intervention through devices as regressive taxation or distorted commercialization. Pre-colonial formations had all these features and more.

More methodologically limiting is treating such subsistence-crises situations as epiphenomena of mainstream economic history. Do subsistence crises have an economic history (like for instance the economic history of commodities or money)? Can they open up self-explanatory vistas for the economic historian? In other words, can a food shortage be economic history sui generis? The argument I would sympathise with is that a serious scarcity (even if doesn’t translate itself into a full blown famine) unpacks the economic structure in some fundamental ways These episodes are entry points into the innards of the economy primarily because of the information that is thrown up on the economic fundamentals of the society in the grip of such a crisis. This information base then tells us about the economic structures of subsistence—production (because it has for some reason failed), circulation (because food hasn’t reached the circulatory stage) and consumption (because not much is available). The three combined reveal the interstices of the economy from the consumption side—one of the only possible and sustainable ways of doing so, particularly in pre-colonial systems where consumption data are meagre. In other words, subsistence crises provide information on the economic history of subsistence which have the following variables: market networks, money, and exchange mechanisms (together constituting the commercial dimension) and price oscillations (determining purchasing power in real terms).

My presentation will be an attempt to construct this economic history from the data on such subsistence crises in 18th century Bengal.