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The Political Costs of Famine

Bangladeshi governments do their damnedest to prevent famine because there is an established 'anti-famine contract' (de Waal 1996; 1997; 2000), an agreement forged through 'a popular movement successfully articulating a new right, and forcing a reluctant government to comply with its claims' (de Waal 1997, 11).[1] I prefer to think of the Bangladesh version as a 'subsistence crisis contract' because that better expresses the scope of what successive governments have sought to protect against, and what the people of Bangladesh expect of their government: a meaningful effort to prevent and relieve death and destruction from natural disasters and other external shocks.

De Waal's anti-famine contract is a codified right to subsistence. It is an explicitly politicized version of the 'moral economy', the customary political culture around subsistence rights that provided the theory for food rioters in modern Western Europe. The moral economy—or the idea that people have a right to subsistence that supersedes that of profit in times of dearth—was the ideological counterbalance to the political economy of Smith and Malthus, which informed a 'politics of provisions' through which the masses negotiated entitlements in the crisis-studded transition to capitalism.[2] In functioning contracts, wrote de Waal, 'famine is a political scandal. Famine is deterred. The contract is enforced by throwing out a government that allows it to happen or otherwise punishing those in power' (1997, 5). In Bangladesh, that 'popular movement' for subsistence rights occurred before the famine, when liberation struggle established protection against life-threatening crisis as within the mandate of the Bangladesh state. The year 1974 was a crucial moment in the negotiation of the politics of provisions because the contract was broken.

Although political sociologists such as Hossain Zillur Rahman and Habibul Hoque Khondker have recognized the significance of this event for politics, public policy, and elite-mass relations, it has generally been downplayed or neglected in political science and political history. Most political histories of the country discuss 1943, but few discuss the 1974 famine (see, for instance, Sen 1986). In her evaluation of the early years of independent Bangladesh, for instance, Jahan notes in passing that a famine occurred, but this is chiefly in reference to 'the USA delaying US grain shipment which resulted in a sharp decline in food stock pile with disastrous consequences for the regime's ability to tackle the famine in 1974' (2005, 276). In her earlier essay on the background to the assassination of Mujib (written in November 1975), she does not refer to 'famine' at all, writing instead of inflationary prices which 'hit not merely the urban middle class [but also] the bottom 30 to 40 per cent of the population who were the worst sufferers' (Jahan 2005, 167). Although the magnitude of the calamity was not then widely known, this still remains a notable understatement (see also Rashiduzzaman 1977). Mookherjee notes that 'historians skim over the controversial period of Sheikh Mujib's rule from 1972 to 1975' (2015, 46). In China, similarly, while the Cultural Revolution has been much documented and analysed, the Great Leap Famine has been of less interest to an intellectual elite who were only indirectly affected by the disaster, or were themselves implicated in it (Yang 1996).

Whether such exclusions or neglect from the political historical record are due to the complexity of the matter or to disciplinary-methodological, class, or party political biases is unclear. Once the gravity of an episode that killed 2 per cent[3] of the citizens of this brand new nation is recognized, there is the risk of detecting its influence everywhere. I intend a more limited analysis here. By treating the famine as the critical juncture in Bangladesh's development pathway I aim to show the following. First, that the famine was an important part of the broader context of economic crisis and social and political chaos; this included popular disillusionment with the regime and its loss of legitimacy, as well as a mass dislocation and decline in law and order against which political authoritarianism was established, liberal economic reform initiated, and targeted social programmes introduced. However, other forces and events were also crucial, and it was partly in interaction with these that the effects of the famine were so potent. Second, the famine was followed by significant changes, and in some cases abrupt volte-face in domains relevant to food security, which reduced the likelihood of its recurrence; these suggested that institutional learning and cognitive change among the elite had taken place, from which reckoning it is unlikely (although possible) that the famine was absent. This learning included the hard recognition that Bangladesh was dependent on food and other aid for the immediate future. These changes are unlikely to have happened, or to have happened so early, had the famine not prompted rethinking about the priorities and means of public policy. Third, key members of the political and social elite have invoked their witnessing of the famine as an influence on their worldviews, personal ideologies, and careers, so that there are good reasons to believe it triggered and directed individual, political, and organizational trajectories of wider national importance. The international community also came to be part of this contract. The problems of Bangladesh soon became archetypal of the problems of extremely poor and dependent nations facing disaster and overpopulation, the live example of neoMalthusian fantasy. The horrors of the famine were being broadcast along with the World Food Conference of 1974, which set the stage for wider changes in global food markets (Gerlach 2015).

  • [1] A recent PhD thesis at the University of New South Wales argues that the 1974 famine hasfeatured prominently in the politics of food security (Islam 2012).
  • [2] The seminal accounts of the moral economy are Thompson (1971);Thompson (1991). SeeBohstedt (2010) on the emergence of the 'politics of provisions'.
  • [3] There is no debate about the famine figures, but neither are they agreed. I follow Alamgir's(1980) mortality estimates on the grounds that (a) they are derived using standard definitions andmethodologies for estimating famine mortality;(b) they are accepted by famine scholars such asStephen Devereux and widely cited in the scholarly literature;and (c) the 'official' figures ofstarvation deaths in the thousands are not based on any recorded evidence. Nevertheless, severalscholars cite the 27,000 figure, possibly on the grounds that these were the only recorded deathsfrom starvation (as distinct from other famine syndrome deaths); for instance, Khondker (1985).
 
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