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Famine in a Democracy?

The 1974 famine tests the Dreze-Sen thesis that famines do not occur in democracies with a free media, and finds it wanting. Some have argued that in the Bangladesh of 1974, 'the institutions were democratic and liberal in name only' (de Waal 2000, 11), so that the thesis holds. But others have defended the state of democracy, arguing:

[T]his was the best year, from a democratic perspective, during the entire period of the Mujib regime (1972-1975), when growing opposition and the press raised their voices against government mismanagement and corruption as well as the impending famine. (Dowlah 2006, 353)

There were few food riots to raise the political temperature, but as we saw, by June 1974 the leftist United Front was demanding universal food rations (Man- iruzzaman 1975b). And it was not until after the peak of the famine that Sheikh Mujib declared a National Emergency, arranging a constitutional amendment to declare himself President under the one-party BAKSAL (Bangladesh Peasant and Workers' League) system. So to all intents, this was box-fresh democracy, led by a party with a massive popular mandate which nevertheless failed to protect the most vulnerable people from catastrophe.

Famines have occurred in democracies and been prevented in authoritarian regimes (Plumper andNeumayer 2009; Rubin 2009). Indeed, democratic practices of political competition may exacerbate failed responses to famine, as happened in Bihar in 1966 (Rubin 2009). Certainly for the 1974 Awami League regime, competing demands on food aid from a non-elite electorate made reallocation to the poorest very difficult. What matters, hypothesize Plumper and Neumayer, is the extent to which a regime's political support depends on it protecting the masses—instead of just the elite—from a food crisis. The presence of a good flow of international food aid influences this calculation because it insulates the government against the need to make zero-sum decisions about the use of public foodstocks (Plumper and Neumayer 2009). In the 1974 famine, the distribution of food aid was already integrated into the political calculus, providing the resources on which the political settlement rested. US political games over PL480 meant food aid provided no additional insulation. The Plumper and Neumayer hypotheses draw attention to the fact that in a relatively ethnically and religiously homogenous, politically engaged nation which had only just won its independence in a hard-fought struggle, the fate of the starving rural masses mattered enough for the government to recognize the political significance of its failure and to try to act. The famine was one of several factors behind the assassination of Sheikh Mujib, but it is a key reason why the great nationalist hero lost his legitimacy. Nevertheless, between the rock of the starving masses and the hard place of the squeezed and politically sensitive urban and middle classes, the short-term calculus was that the ration-wages could not be diverted to the poorest.

In addition to the balance of resources and power within the political settlement in explaining the famine, then, we need also to recognize the technocratic features of the administrative failures of timely knowledge and capacity for rapid response, and the influence of the wider Cold War political settlement, in which Bangladesh was a negligible player. After 1974, the apparatus to plan, detect, and respond to food shocks and natural disasters were gradually improved, and the political elite became acutely sensitive to the food insecurity of the masses.

Much remains to be understood about the famine of 1974; with existing sources it is impossible to reconstruct the logic of the time, to gain a picture of the fire-fighting in an increasingly complex, crisis-prone, and aid-dependent setting. We can end this discussion with a suggestion that there may be a powerful psychological dimension to the 1974 famine. Middle-class Bangladeshis with whom I have spoken recall both the sufferings of the masses of destitute people and, with shame and sometimes horror, their own relative degree of comfort. Ferdous Jahan, my long-time collaborator in research on the politics of food in Bangladesh, with whom many of the ideas in this chapter were formulated, was a small child at the time, but recalled that 'they died because we ate'. Other friends and colleagues have expressed a sense of class guilt, recognition that 'those who ate' bear some collective responsibility for the famine, even though many personally tried to help the poor. We should also acknowledge the state of shock or trauma in which many Bangladeshis probably lived at this time. One colleague reflected that 'we just let it happen', a recognition that middle-class Bangladeshis, including Freedom Fighters, progressive intellectuals, and leftists, were complicit, or compliant, in the famine. I suspect that part of this apparent acceptance relates to the trauma of the war and its aftershocks, which cut across class groupings, and which included disillusionment with the regime in power by early 1974. I have often found there is a momentary blankness in many people's responses to references to the famine. This blankness suggests an effort of the will to dredge these matters up from memory, and some discomfort in having done so. To some extent the forgetting has been successful: the famine has been more or less thoroughly expunged from public discourse. Many of the Midnight's Children generation born in and around 1971 have but the vaguest knowledge of the famine; those that came after, none at all.

 
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