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The Political Economy of Famine Relief

If adequate relief had been available, one and a half million Bangladeshis may not have died in 1974-5. But relief was not provided until it was too late, or it was inadequate to avert large-scale disaster. It is because of its failure to provide adequate relief that the Awami League government of the time is so widely blamed for the famine.

What was the source of this failure? The task was not impossible: both before and after 1974, major food crises were averted. In 1972 and 1973, despite harvest failures, the aftermath of war, the displacement of at least ten million people, and sharply rising food prices, mass starvation was avoided chiefly because relief was distributed to those who needed it, with the support of foreign food aid and non-governmental agencies. However, if, as some argue, famine was 'exported' to India in 1971-72 and not averted at all (Bose 1972; Chen and Rohde 1973), this helps to put the 1974 famine into perspective: barring a miraculous upgrade of administrative capacity, unprecedented donor generosity, and reliable weather, a food crisis was inevitable in those early years. As Khondker notes, '[t]he famine which was feared in 1971 arrived in 1974' (1985, 87). In 1979 and 1984, serious floods meant food shortages threatened again, but in those years mass starvation was avoided by managing public food stocks to keep prices steady and reaching those in need (Ahmed,

Haggblade, and Chowdhury 2000; E. Clay 1985; Crow 1984; Cutler 1985; Del Ninno, Dorosh, and Smith 2003; Osmani 1991).

The Langarkhanas

The government must have been aware the rural masses were starving before they announced their relief programme, because people were dying in the Dhaka streets by August:

By the end of August, the whole of Bangladesh turned into an agonizing spectacle of confusion and human suffering. With the addition of the flood, it was 1943 re-enacted. Streams of hungry people (men, women and children), who were nothing but skeletons, trekked into towns in search of food. Most of them were half-naked. Events such as husbands deserting wives and children, or wives doing the same, parents trying to sell children, mothers killing babies out of frustration and anguish, man and dog fighting for a piece of bone, women and young girls turning to prostitution became very commonplace. (Alamgir 1980, 128-9)

By September the situation was worse: Anjuman Mufidul Islam recorded a fourteen-fold increase in the numbers of unclaimed bodies on the streets of Dhaka, to 700 each month till the end of 1974 (cited in Currey 1978). But it was a full month after Alamgir reported the spectacle of famine in plain view that 'near famine' conditions were officially declared, and that only after an attempt to conceal the situation by pushing beggars into camps on the city outskirts (US Embassy Dacca 1974a).

The immediate action by the government was to set up 4,300 langarkhanas or feeding camps, one in each union of the country. Alamgir's (1980) extensive work gives vital insights into the government relief programme. Most langarkhanas operated from early October to the end of November, and at their peak some 5,792 camps gave food to 4.35 million people, 6 per cent of the total population—a remarkable feat by any reckoning (Alamgir 1980).

'Indoor relief', as feeding camps are known, is acknowledged to be far less effective than other forms of relief, but in this instance the shortcomings of the relief programme were serious enough to undermine the assistance being provided. First, although the government declared it would aim to provide wheat flour of around 113 grams (a cup in US cooking measures) per head per day,[1] [2] the allocations were meagre and variable. Langarkhanas were put in every union,11 even though hunger was concentrated in some districts, and—unbelievable though this seems—corruption was reported to be a major problem. Observers tell grim stories. In Dewanganj, wheat of the value of 414 to 640 calories was given to two or three thousand people each day. In Mymensingh, the langarkhana operated for only one month, and between two and three people got food worth between 212 and 324 calories. In Sunamganj, only 37 grams of wheat flour was allocated each day to the 500 inmates, so that ‘langarkhana assistance by itself could not possibly have saved many lives during the 1974 Bangladesh famine' (Alamgir 1980, 174). The economist Anisur Rahman reported that:

The typical picture of a langarkhana is one where utterly inadequate quantities of eatables or semi-eatables are distributed to hundreds of men, women and children by persons with lathis (sticks) in their hands. The city langarkhanas have relatively more to give than the country ones for various reasons: the former got priority in the distribution of official supplies because of nearness to headquarters, and also because foreign visitors, journalists and television photographers are taken to these centers for overseas publicity, private contributions are also greater in the city centers than in the country ones. In the unions of Rangpur,

I have seen langarkhanas where hundreds of starving people came from four, five, six miles afar and wait all day, finally to get only one chapatti (hand made bread) the weight of which varies according to daily relative supply of Ata (wheat flour). These are not residential kitchens, and the journey to and from the langarkhanas back to the village may cost more calories than the langarkhana supplies. The starving people naturally expect and want more. Indiscipline results, and I have seen the management literally beating them until these once-human beings sob and weep into submission and discipline is restored.

(Anisur Rahman, cited in Alamgir 1980, 176)

The official relief response may have actually been counter-productive: the feeding centres drew the hungry in, yet failed to nourish or to protect them against disease. Beyond its poor design, the relief effort simply did not distribute enough grains. Deterioriating terms of trade and rising food prices on the international market had left the government short of foreign exchange and scheduled imports of foodgrains were cancelled because US commercial exporters refused the government credit: public food stocks were known to be low, and speculators took advantage of the knowledge that public intervention was unlikely to hoard and push prices up further. Donors delayed sending food aid and efforts at domestic procurement had been counterproductive (Ahmed, Haggblade, and Chowdhury 2000; Clay 1979; Dowlah 2006; McHenry and Bird 1977; Sen 1981; Sobhan 1979).

For all of these reasons, public food stocks were low in 1974. But they were almost twice the levels the year before or after the peak of the famine (Alamgir 1980, 198). Through this period, the government continued with its Public Food Distribution System (PFDS). Despite its name, this was probably the single greatest obstacle to an effective emergency relief programme. The massive PFDS, which by 1977 covered twenty million Bangladeshis (World Bank 1977), originated in the aftermath of the 1943 famine, and grew after independence from Pakistan (Chowdhury 1986). At the time of the famine, the main channels for public food distribution were the Statutory (SR) and Modified Rationing (MR) channels. SR chiefly benefited better-off urban people, in particular public sector workers and 'priority groups' like industrial workers, while MR theoretically catered to the needs of the rural poor—but only after other needs had been met.[3] Sobhan argues that a key factor in the famine was that the floods, low imports and lack of food aid meant there were not enough grains to supply through the Modified Rationing channel, never entertaining the possibility that Statutory Rationing could have been cut or diverted towards relief (Sobhan 1979). Urban bias, distorted incentives in the administration, massive corruption, and leakage meant that only a small proportion of the rural poor ever benefited from Modified Rationing anyway (Chowdhury 1988).

Whether or not the government could have channelled food to the rural masses, in 1974 it chose to protect Statutory Rationing and other 'priority' groups while directing what was left to MR and relief (see Figure 5.3). Nearly 60 per cent of government rationing went to urban people in 1974-5, although less than 9 per cent of the population was urban (Muqtada 1981).[4] All of the urban population was officially covered during 1973-5, compared to around 6 per cent of rural people (Chowdhury 1986). The subsidy was so generous that ration cardholders paid only one-quarter of the market price for medium-quality rice (Chowdhury 1986).

Why were such meagre efforts made to reallocate foodgrains towards relief? By September of 1974 the rural poor were visibly facing starvation en masse, and the political leadership knew this. Sheikh Mujib's speech at the United Nations acknowledged the situation to the world:

Lately, in the face of this economic crisis that has hit the entire world, we need to take immediate initiatives in order to create a just international financial system ... I am speaking on behalf of a country that tops the list of countries affected by this economic meltdown. I would like to talk a little bit about how severe this loss is. Bangladesh was born in the rubble of war. Ever since we encountered a number of natural disasters in sequence. The last one is this unprecedented flood ... Natural disaster has not only prevented the economy from growing but also

Share of PFDS schemes 1973-8

Figure 5.3. Share of PFDS schemes 1973-8

Notes: 'Other' includes FM (allocations to selected flour mills) and OM (open market sales);FFW & VGF were started after 1975/6 so before then this figure represents Gratuitous Relief and related channels.

Source: Chowdhury (1986), based on Food Directorate data.

created almost a famine situation. At the same time a country like ours has been facing a million dollar deficit in terms of paying debt due to the global inflation. People's living standards have gone down even below living conditions. Those who have a per capita income of less than 100 dollars, their condition is more miserable. According to the World Health Organization, people who are having less food than the minimum requirement of food intake to survive are now starving. The future forecast about countries that are poorer is very disappointing. Continuous price hike takes food price beyond the purchase capacity of poor countries...

  • (Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman at United Nations,
  • 25th September, 1974, 2013)

Also in 1974, Sheikh Mujib acknowledged that 27,000 people had starved to death in an interview with John Pilger, a figure from which the government appears to have taken comfort:

Sheikh Mujib: We have already declared in the Parliament that round about

27.000 people have died by starvation. And by disease. We have not hide [sic] anything from anybody. It is a fact. Natural calamities.

John Pilger: It seemed when—it seemed much worse than I had expected in August. I have seen outside relief camps, people being turned away because the camps are full. Granted that you have set up these gruel kitchens, but it seems that many many people, or perhaps tens of thousands of people are simply not getting food in this country.

Sheikh Mujib: It is not correct. Then 27,000 people would not have died. People expected that few millions people would die, but we have fought it. Everybody expected that few millions will die by starvation, after the flood and after the inflation. Because we had not the foodgrains in our godown at the time. We have tried to collect from all over the world. And that time some people should come forward to help us. But we in our humble way, we have tried. And round about

27.000 people have died by starvation. Which is a fact. We have tried our best, consciously we have tried our best. ('An Unfashionable Tragedy' 1975)

Any government recently elected by massive popular mandate would have 'consciously tried their best' to prevent a catastrophe of this kind. Sheikh Mujib and his government would have known that the 1943 famine had been the nail in the coffin of the British Raj and a factor in the politics of partition (Bose 1990; Mukerjee 2010), as well as that the callous neglect of the Bhola cyclone victims similarly killed the fantasy of Pakistani integration. They had the grains to feed more of the rural poor, but they were going to the urban middle class. So why did they not 'consciously try their best' to reallocate foodgrains from the urban middle classes and formal sector workers? One possibility is that re-orienting food supplies towards relief from Statutory Rationing was administratively and logistically infeasible.[5] The flood relief effort earlier in the year had been token, under-resourced, corrupt, and mismanaged (Schwartz 1974). The lack of administrative capacity was compounded by demoralization, lack of authority, and politicization and 'by the end of 1974, there was not any civilian institutional group in Bangladesh to implement Mujib's program of national reconstruction' (Maniruzzaman 1975b, 125), let alone famine relief. This is no doubt part of the reason why the official response was too little and too late. By September, it was too late to stabilize prices or to increase relief through the rationing channels. The administrative challenge was already to feed hundreds of thousands of people who had left their homes in search of relief, so that feeding camps were by then the only option. The numbers fleeing hunger in their villages were likely swelled by those of the ten million Bangladeshis displaced by the war who had not yet re-settled. The civil administration was not up to such a task. The postwar reconstruction and relief programme was led by the United Nations Relief Operation in Dacca (UNROD) with collaboration from UN agencies and NGOs, but the government appears to have been largely on its own in 1974. Despite being demoralized by the political wranglings of the post-war period (Mascarenhas 1986; Khan 2013), the army was the most likely agency to manage the logistical demands of a flood and famine relief programme. It was already handling the anti-smuggling effort, but without success. It is possible that Sheikh Mujib's fear of the army, well-founded as it turned out to be, influenced the decision not to involve the military more centrally in the relief programme.

Whether or not the administrative capacity could have been stepped up, there was no political will to re-allocate foodgrains away from the urban and middle classes. As Sobhan put it, the PFDS had 'its own politically determined rigidities' which made reallocation of grains away from the (themselves tightly stretched) politically important urban and middle-class groups 'too politically hazardous for a regime already under severe political attack for the sharp escalation in prices' (Sobhan 1991, 101). A US official in Dhaka said that the problem was that the food went to 'the wrong people' (McHenry and Bird 1977, 75). As the major food aid donor and a staunch critic of the ration system, the Americans saw the failure to reallocate foodgrains as a simple political calculus about which groups were most dangerous for the government to neglect:


(US Embassy Dacca 1974a, 3-5).

The implication is that the government protected the urban and middle classes out of the more proximate fear of political unrest. Certainly the regime's credibility with the politically engaged urban middle classes was already under threat. Mainstream and radical leftist opposition groups were successfully challenging the Awami League's leadership. In April 1974, a United Front of opposition parties came together under NAP (B)'s Maulana Bhashani, who was arrested before a planned rally in June. The challenge from the left was even more threatening, as the Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal or JSD, a front for the Bangladesh Communist League, was among the radical organizations that considered the Bangladesh revolution incomplete, and was mobilizing youth and in rural areas (Maniruzzaman 1975a). The Supreme Court had declared government actions to clamp down on opposition groups through its Special Powers Act of February 1974 illegal, and the JSD responded with strikes and rallies, signalling its growing support. Meanwhile the Awami League itself was fragmenting, with its student wing attempting to lead a breakaway faction. The year ended with a State of Emergency, highlighting the fragility of the government's authority (Maniruzzaman 1975b).

Few opposition groups had mass membership, but many had made food security for the masses an explicit concern. The United Front's four-point charter included the introduction of nationwide rationing and control of profiteering. The JSD was mobilizing around the rising costs of essentials and had its cadres take direct action to release stored foodgrains in the rural areas, both to distribute among the hungry and to prevent hoarding and speculation.[6] It was clear that it was not only the poorest rural people who were affected by the famine: urban recipients of Statutory Rationing such as the industrial workforce and low-paid public sector workers, and even the middle classes, struggled to meet rising living costs in the early 1970s (Sobhan 1979). So this politicization of food security may have inadvertently drawn political attention away from the masses, fixing it on the politically engaged urban groups.

The failure to reallocate food aid to the starving poor has been depicted as a simple choice to sacrifice the poor 'to feed the better-off urban middle class population and prevent any urban unrest which might undermine the Dacca government' (McHenry and Bird 1977, 74). But there is one final reason why this was never a realistic choice. During this short-lived political settlement, rationing had come to form part of the overall package of public service benefits service, 'the means by which subsistence wage goods were guaranteed to politically essential elements of society and government, through a period of increasing instability of supply and rapid price inflation' (Clay 1979, 130).

In other words, rations comprised part of wages. There was never any question of re-allocating urban rationing to relief: that would have been literally taking away wages—and a portion of their wages which inflation was making increasingly valuable—from the urban and middle classes (see also Rashiduzzaman 1977, 795). From a political economy perspective, the protection of Statutory Rationing through the famine period was part of a structural class bias that had been relatively newly operationalized in the form of rations for the urban and middle classes since independence (Chowdhury 1988; Chowdhury 1986; Franda 1981b). That the Awami League government, an 'intermediate regime' if ever there was one, put in place structures to prioritize the middle classes was entirely consistent with who it was and how it came to power (Bertocci 1982). Food aid provided the resources on which this short-lived political settlement rested, financing a significant portion of the public sector benefit package at the time. Food aid made it possible for the Dhaka government to keep the politically important urban and middle-class groups appeased. It is no surprise, then, that the food aid that had been implicated in the creation and maintenance of political authority and support was not reallocated to protecting the politically unorganized rural masses from starvation.

  • [1] Calculated from information in the US embassy's cable on the subject, the day after theannouncement was made.
  • [2] The union is the lowest level of the rural political and administrative system; there arecurrently 4,550 unions.
  • [3] The PFDS has been a large and complex system since before Bangladesh's independence, withnumerous aspects that are beyond our present scope. For detailed historical and political economicanalyses of the PFDS, see Adams Jr (1998);Ahmed, Haggblade, and Chowdhury (2000);Chowdhury (1986);Chowdhury (1988);Franda (1981b).
  • [4] 1974 census figures available from the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics.
  • [5] And possibly illegal, or at least requiring legal changes as Statutory Rationing was a statutoryprovision. But emergency conditions would very likely have made it possible to override thisprovision, so this seems an unlikely barrier.
  • [6] Many Bangladeshis of a certain age have stories about the famine. The founder of an NGOI met in 2014 recalled his student days of forty years past, when he and his JSD comrades 'liberated'grain from his own uncle's storehouse in Gazipur, after warning the local elite that this would bethe result if they failed to feed their local poor. After that, he recalls, they never had a problemgetting grain for the local relief kitchen again.
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