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Accounting for 1974

Naturally, the government of the day bore the greatest responsibility as famine always brings discredit to any government. It is considered a mark of a government's failure that in its watch people died for want of food i.e. the most basic necessity of life. (Islam 2003, 221)

Famines occur because they are not prevented; they are allowed to happen.

Most food crises have a long gestation period—not days or weeks, but months or years—so failures of public action must be incorporated into the causal analysis of all famines. (Devereux 2000, 27)

The conditions in which the famine unfolded were exceptionally difficult. The room for manoeuvre by the government of the time was constrained by financial, practical, and domestic and international political factors, and the removal of the crutch of the post-war relief operation revealed that Bangladesh could not yet stand on its own (Maniruzzaman 1975a, 117). Unique though the circumstances were, the Bangladesh experience had much in common with other famines in this era, a time when technical problems of food production and supply had been solved yet post-colonial conflict and geopolitics were turning food into the ultimate weapon of war (Devereux 2000). All famines are a one-off concatenation of circumstances, but the Bangladesh famine could only have happened because of processes of socioeconomic and political rupture and adjustment that were also at work in Ethiopia, India, the Sahel, and Biafra.

There are four main explanations of the famine, and we look at each in turn.

'Natural Calamities'

In some places this happens, but we have our open free kitchen everywhere, people are welcome to come there. And they have come. We have camps, still we have not closed all our camps... people have started working in the fields now. But of course, this trouble is there. Such a serious flood, serious famine. We have not... we have not suppressed the news.

We have already declared in the Parliament that about, round about

  • 27,000 people have died by starvation. And of, by disease. We have not hide anything from anybody. It is a fact, natural calamities.
  • (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, interview with John Pilger in 'An Unfashionable Tragedy', 1974: Pilger 1975 6:23-7:06)

First the floods, then the famine. So runs the capsule story of the Bangladesh famine of 1974. (Sen 1981, 131)

The floods were severe in 1974, and had the Jamuna River not burst its banks six times between June and August, 1.5 million Bangladeshis may not have starved and sickened to death. But natural calamities are never purely ecological: there is a politics to who is afflicted, and a politics to how they are managed. As the common views blame either government mismanagement or Cold War politics, it is important to recognize that the 1974 floods were extremely serious. One observer noted that although lower than the devastating floods of 1955, the 1974 floods were more destructive: the Jamuna was above danger levels for longer, and the Teesta, the main tributary to join the Jamuna from the Himalayas, was above the danger level for twenty-nine days in 1974, whereas in 1955 it never reached that peak. The erosion rate along river banks with population densities of 2,000 per square mile 'would have suddenly imposed 24,000 people without homes or lands on the already run-down rural infrastructure between June and October 1974' (Currey 1978, 90-1).

Natural disasters are frequent in the region, and mass starvation has also happened episodically. But these had rarely come at once (Alamgir 1980). The cyclone of 1970, the war and displacement, and inflation meant most people living in poverty had already been under-nourished for five or more years, so that millions of Bangladeshis were already physically weakened by the time food prices spiked in August. A 1975-6 nutrition survey found that dietary intake and calorie intake levels had worsened in the previous twelve years— fully 59 per cent of the rural population were now eating below the 2,122 recommended minimum calories—and that every member of every family with less than three acres of land was found to be deficient in calories, vitamins, and minerals (Franda 1981b). Many people are extremely poor and undernourished in present-day Bangladesh, but the severity and scale of the problem in the 1970s are hard to imagine, even with the benefit of contemporary accounts (some of which will be included below).

In such a setting it may be correct to view famine as the logical conclusion of impoverishment, triggered by specific events, but not in itself a discrete occurrence (Currey 1992). But even if the famine was a low point in a cumulative process of shocks and decline, the floods marked the point of no return. In the most authoritative account of 1974, a study based on survey work and personal observation, floods were assigned a causal role:

It would be premature to attribute the 1974 Bangladesh famine entirely to the flood, but there is no denying that the flood accentuated human suffering that was already in evidence, and all those families who were living well below poverty level, finally succumbed to the pressure. By the end of July, the scenario in all flood-affected regions of the country, was flood leading to loss of human and cattle life, loss of agricultural land and crops, loss of homestead, and loss of employment, all of which combined to lead to starvation and outbreak of epidemic diseases (particularly cholera), the situation being further compounded by shortage of fresh drinking water and prevalence of high prices of all essentials... By the beginning of August reports of excess deaths poured in from all over the country, particularly from the areas severely hit by the flood, such as Rangpur district. Our field investigator in that area learned that by the middle of July, the death began to rise sharply. (Alamgir 1980, 126-7)

The 1974 monsoon floods gave the government a figleaf to cover its failure to protect the most vulnerable, and an excuse to seek help. Foreign aid was crucial at this moment, when a worsening balance of payments and low foreign exchange reserves were more than matched by problems of food supply both domestic and international, as commodity prices shot up with the fuel-price crisis. But the patience of the aid donors was wearing thin after nearly three years of independence, as the government showed willing to settle into a habit of living hand-to-mouth, relying on food aid and relief operations from the international community.[1] The floods—for which no amount of official incompetence or corruption could be blamed—got the government momentarily off the hook, but at a price:

In 1974 the government ignored indications of possible famine early in the year. When severe floods were experienced in July, August and September, however, it was facing pressure from donors and a foreign exchange crisis. The government assisted foreign journalists in their coverage of the floods and they made the most of the crisis to increase foreign aid. Some observers formed the impression that the government was 'crying wolf' and exaggerating the flood damage. As the flood waters receded, foreign interest and the government response waned. Then, through September the first waves of migrants started arriving in the cities and when journalists again visited the countryside in October famine was obvious, severe and unstoppable. The death toll had mounted and stayed high throughout the following year. (Crow 1984, 1757)

Having made capital out of the floods, the government was left to fend for itself when the wolf finally came. Repeated pleas for help and images of destitute and desperate Bangladeshis had 'immunized' the international community by late 1974. We can recover that sense of Bangladesh-fatigue from John Pilger's impassioned introduction to 'An Unfashionable Tragedy', his film about the famine:

I saw four dead children this morning, heaped on a stretcher. One of them was about 18 months old, and I could tell this because his feet were about the same size as my own son's. The rest of him was so thin and tortured that he no longer looked human. I'm told that he died from diarrhoea after eating poisoned leaves, because there was nothing else to eat. In other words, he starved to death. Of course he didn't have to die. But unfortunately the cost of keeping him alive was inflationary. Some milk powder and a handful of grain everyday would have cost at least twenty pence.

I must apologize. This really isn't appropriate New Year television, is it? Especially with all our own problems of inflation in Britain. Indeed, before I came here I was told, many times, don't do Bangladesh, people won't watch it. They'll switch over. And of course, I can sympathize with people who do switch over. Because I realize that I and other reporters have helped to immunize people against Bangladesh, by reporting their horrors, year after year.

('An Unfashionable Tragedy' 1975;transcription by the author)

Popular opinion in the West was ready to 'switch over' and donor officials were increasingly restive. A valid concern was that humanitarian assistance would feed domestic political competition and corruption, and not the starving rural masses. Food and other aid was regularly converted into budget support, a practice which dated back to the cosy relationship between the Pakistan government and the US, the main food donor.[2]

In mid-1974, there were no good reasons to believe that emergency food aid would be used to feed hungry people fleeing floods. Confidential cables from the US Embassy briefing the Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, on what to expect on his visit in October 1974 noted that:



In preparation for Kissinger's one and only visit to Bangladesh, a quick stop- off en route to somewhere more important, the 'basket case' epithet looked increasingly accurate.

In September, another, less serious flood hit six northern districts. Although it quickly receded, disease and hunger were by this time widespread, and official starvation figures showed an upsurge. The government made an emergency appeal for food aid and on 24 September the Prime Minister acknowledged the existence of famine and opened 4,300 langarkhana (or feeding camps) to feed up to three million people per day.

  • [1] For the aid donor perspective, see (McHenry and Bird 1977). For the position from within thegovernment, from the vantage point of the Planning Ministry, see Nurul Islam's account(Chapter 10, 'What was it about the 1974 famine?' in Islam 2003).
  • [2] During the 1970 cyclone, for instance, the US took the 'unusual' (by a USAID staffer'sassessment) step of supplying food aid in the form of Title II; this meant it was possible for thegovernment to sell the aid on the open market, rather than directing it straight to those in need(McHenry and Bird 1977).
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