Bangladesh’s forgotten famine

Aaqib Md Shatil

The independence day of 2023 turned unexpectedly dramatic thanks to an honest mistake by Prothom Alo. The newspaper published a photo card on its social media handles with the quote, ‘We want freedom of rice, fish and meat,’ from a day labourer. The problem was, the designer of the card used a photograph that showed a child looking at the National Martyrs’ Memorial through the gates, a representation of Bangladesh’s economic and social challenges. And within hours, Bangladesh’s press freedom was exposed to the world as the reporter of news was picked up from his home. Two weeks later, the Prime Minister of the country declared the newspaper the “Enemy of the People” in the parliament.

Photograph of Ms Basanti wearing a fishing net was published on the Daily Ittefaq during 1974 famine.

The photo card and the report particularly triggered the regime as they reminded many of the famous story of Basanti from Kurigram whose photograph wearing a fishing net rocked the nation during the 1974 famine. Many Awami League supporters love to dismiss the story as staged and blame the famine on the U.S. for holding the food supplies during a crucial moment. 

Nevertheless, researchers, most notably Amartya Sen, showed, despite higher food availability than that of the previous years, the people of Bangladesh died starving.

This article takes attempts to look back at what happened in 1974 and explore the learning from that.

The flood

Bangladesh has numerous floodplains and the countrymen are familiar with floods. But the 1974 flood was severe and damaged the summer crops in the villages.

The flood hit the nation by June, as soon as the monsoon began. A report by The Guardian claimed around 50% of the country went under water and at least 2000 people died in the deadly flood, on August 12. Sewers of Dhaka city were flooded by the river water and properties of around 800 million pounds were devastated by the flood.

With the flood, came hunger. Prices of goods skyrocketed. A New York Times report read: “The price of coarse rice has increased by 240 per cent in the last year […] Thousands of farmers have sold their pots and pans, their bullocks, even their land to buy food, and are now forlorn squatters in the villages.”

The days turned grimmer as time passed.

The Days of the Deaths

“A sobbing Bengali mother watches helplessly as her emaciated baby, in the grip of death spasms, involuntarily rolls his eyes upwards. Shaking his head to emphasise his incredulity, a Westerner tells how, as he went to work one morning, he was approached by a beggar holding a dead child in her arms.”

Jacques Leslie of The Guardian started his report “A Day in the Death of Bangladesh,” with poignant examples of what he saw and heard during his stay in Dhaka in late September of 1974.

Dhaka, the capital, became a city of death and despair with thousands of destitute on the streets begging for food to survive. A Dhaka resident told the reporter that he had to deal with up to 100 beggars a day. As the situation worsened, Police were asked to clear the streets.

Kasturi Rangan of The New York Times wrote about his experience in feeding centres in Dhaka where he saw at least a thousand people waiting for just one piece of bread. The Red Cross donated some milk and protein biscuits to save their lives. Yet, people were dying of starvation, and three burial grounds in Dhaka were full of bodies, the report claimed, as on average municipal authority and social organizations were picking up 25 dead bodies a day from the streets.

The situation outside Dhaka was worse. In one place of Munshiganj, eighty people died in two weeks due to starvation as only one of the two gruel kitchens was functioning with limited supplies. Mohammad Jehuruddin, the supervisor of the feeding centre told The New York Times that there were 25,000 people in this place, of whom at least 5,000 would die of starvation in the coming weeks.

Fazle Hasan Abed, the founder of Brac, was trying to save lives in a northern district. In an interview with Radio Netherlands, he said, “We wanted to save as many lives as possible. We were seeing children dying like flies. So we wanted to feed them back to health. We were feeding around 20,000 children twice a day to try and keep them alive.”

There was no official effort to count the deaths resulting from the famine. Estimates vary from a hundred thousand to a million. Amartya Sen in his book Poverty and Famines wrote, in Rangpur district alone ’80 to 100 thousand persons died of starvation and malnutrition in 2-3 months.’ Dr Mohiuddin Alamgir of Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies estimated around one million people died between August 1974 and January 1975, and a further half a million in the year following.

The starvation was initiated by regional unemployment caused by floods, which affected food output many months later when the reduced crop was harvested, but the famine occurred earlier than that and was before the affected crop matured.

Dr Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom

Inflationary forces

Bangladesh’s officials found comfort in blaming the famine on the flood. Experts, most notably Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, do not however see the flood as the sole reason.

Dr Amartya Sen explained in his book Development as Freedom that the famine of 1974 happened ‘despite peak food availability.’ He wrote: “The starvation was initiated by regional unemployment caused by floods, which affected food output many months later when the reduced crop was harvested, but the famine occurred earlier than that and was before the affected crop matured.”

Though the flood caused unemployment and income deprivation, the rise in food prices that caused starvation was the ‘result of the exaggerated expectation of future food shortage’ which was overestimated and manipulated to some extent, claimed Amartya Sen in the same book.

Dr Mushtaq Khan in his analysis opined, “In 1974 Bangladesh suffered from a serious famine that took place without any significant decline in aggregate food availability. The causes were largely state failure in managing distribution and ensuring purchasing power in a context of hoarding and smuggling.”

Amartya Sen in his article Ingredients of Famine Analysis wrote: “But inflationary forces operating on the rice market had started pushing rice prices up very sharply much before the floods hit.” Indeed, there was about a 50 percent rise in rice prices between January and April in 1974.”

“In this inflationary development the floods that came in June and later could hardly have played a role,” Dr Sen commented.

To identify the inflationary forces, readers can look into the works of Dr Rounaq Jahan in the early 1970s.

In her article, Bangladesh in 1973: Management of Factional Politics, she wrote: “The regime’s failure on the economic front- its mismanagement of the economy and the continuing high prices of essential commodities-resulted in tremendous economic hardship for the masses of the people. But when the masses felt the economic squeeze, a small minority gained.” 

She identified this small minority in the footnote as “a small group of new rich-usually Awami League supporters who made quick money as recipients of the regime’s patronage.” 

Before that, in her article Bangladesh in 1972: Nation Building in a New State, she pointed out how the distribution of crucial permits and licenses was used by the ruling party as the tool of political patronage and the prices skyrocketed due to selling and reselling of the permits and licenses.

On the U.S. food aid

The ‘sudden’ cancellation of food aid for Bangladesh in 1974 for exporting jute to Cuba was blamed by some quarters as one of the causes of the famine. However, when the U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger visited Bangladesh on September 30, 1974, the prime minister of Bangladesh was found expressing satisfaction with the U.S. aid.

“I am grateful for what you are doing today and for the massive food help you have provided,” said Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to Henry Kissinger. 

Indeed, after the meeting between prime minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Secretary of State Kissinger, in a press conference, when Kissinger was questioned about the Washington Post story that morning on the relationship between Bangladesh’s sale of jute bags to Cuba and the signing of a PL 480 agreement, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman brushed it aside, and the Secretary said the subject did not come up in their discussion, according to the Memorandum of Conversation produced by the U.S. Department of State. 

In January 1975, when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman spoke in the parliament, he blamed the famine on the ‘corrupt people’ of the country and thanked international friends for their support during the crisis. His speech can be found in the book edited by his daughter.

As it appears, Awami League’s supreme leader knew well who was to blame for the distress caused by the famine. Many of his followers would refuse to accept that, however.

Instead, they opted for muzzling the press, which according to Dr Sen, “contributes greatly to bringing out the information that can have an enormous impact on policies for famine prevention.”


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