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1974 famine in Bangladesh: Economic context and myths
1974 famine in Bangladesh: Economic context and myths

1974 famine in Bangladesh: Economic context and myths

A lot of people in Bangladesh still vividly recall the 1974 famine with great sadness and often with despair. It brought untold miseries to millions and resulted in deaths of many. It left a deep scar in our collective psyche and established the notion of “poor Bangladesh ravaged by floods” in the mind of international communities. Much has been written in the media about the causes and consequences of this famine; almost after 40 years, it is still a point scoring issue in Bangladesh’s politics. Like many other issues, it divides the public opinion. So let us look at what local and overseas economists, political scientists, and technocrats have said about this famine, its causes and consequences.

Economic context

Pakistani journalist Anthony Mascarenhas in his book “Bangladesh: A Legacy of Blood” (1986) notes “By the summer of 1972 everything was going wrong for Sheikh Mujibur Rahman”. By June 1972, the price of paddy “was well above the crisis level of Bangladesh”. “… other essentials such as paraffin, cooking oil, salt and soap were also difficult to come by because of the outrageous market manipulation. The country was in the grip of a severe money famine since unemployment…showed no signs of declining…”. “And, adding to the overall distress there was a pervasive lawlessness and violence” (Mascarenhas, 1986, page 22).

Dr. S. R. Osmani, Professor of Development Economics at the University of Ulster, in his article entitled “The food problem of Bangladesh1” provides some important economic data and information that were available for the period 1976-1984 i.e. post Mujib era but they show how weak and vulnerable Bangladesh’s economy and population were in early period of Bangladesh. Economic condition of the people in 1974 can be easily understood in the context of such data/information, flood in 1974 and the ensuing famine.

“Rural population constitute over 90% of the total population; (page 308)
76% of the rural populations of Bangladesh are unable to consume enough calories, 1981/82; (page 308)
Urban informal sector, which constitutes 60% of urban population, has a per capita calorie intake 15% below the FAO norm, 1976/77; (page 308)
The average calorie intake of industrial workers, who constitute a sizeable part of urban formal sector, was only 74% of requirement, 1981/82; (page 308)
An average rural household spends around 80% of its budget on food alone, 1984; (page 316)
Trading is the most popular non-farm activity among the poor and loans in trading in crops and vegetables account for nearly half the loans taken for trading purpose, 1984; (page 316)
The most vulnerable groups are those who sell their labour for wages and buy food from the market, (1980-1981) ” (page 328)
(Note 1: “The Political Economy of Hunger” (volume 3, 1991) edited by Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen)

At the international level, China continued to veto Bangladesh’s application for UN membership. Eventually, Bangladesh received its UN membership on 18 September 1974. Bangladesh was not also recognized by most of the Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia, therefore, there was hardly any flow of petro-dollar from the Middle East. (It may be added here that the first hajj flight from Bangladesh was allowed on 25 November 1974). East Asian (e.g. Malaysia, Japan and Korea) labour market for Bangladeshis did not exist at all. There was no large Bangladeshi Diaspora community in the USA, Canada, EU countries to beef up its foreign currency reserve.

Repeated and severe flood

Bangladesh experienced an unprecedented flood event in 1974. Vivid descriptions of the 1974 flood can be found in Gilbert Étienne’s “Bangladesh: Development in Perspective” (1977, page 113-114) and also in M. A. Wazed Miah’s “Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib-ke Ghire Kichhu Ghatana O Bangladesh” (1993, page 203-204)

Severe flood occurred at the end of June taking away part of aus (rice crop harvested in July-August);
On 17 July all major rivers of Bangladesh crossed danger levels… just at the time of aus harvesting (i.e. mid July) ;
After another fortnight the level of river rose again and seedling of aman (rice crop transplanted in July-September and harvested in November- January) in their nurseries were in danger (i.e. late July-early August);
On 1 August Dhaka’s road and rail communications with Chittagong and Sylhet broke down;
By 11 August Dhaka’s road and rail link with north Bengal were snapped;
Then, by the middle of August, floods reached its maximum for the year, affecting recently planted aman;
At the beginning of September the Brahmaputra again crossed the danger line. Hitting once more what was left of paddy, which has been transplanted after the previous floods;
Media reported that 36 million people were affected by the flood.
“The government of Bangladesh officially declared famine in late September”. Langarkhanas numbered “nearly six thousands” provided free “cooked food relief to 4.35 million people – more than 6% of the total population of the country” according to Amartya Sen in his book “Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation” (1981, page 131).

“There is little doubt that the government of Bangladesh found itself severely constrained by the lack of an adequate food stock and that this prevented running a larger operation at the height of the famine” (Sen 1981, page 134). Food grain in the hand of government was only 1.38% of the total food grain available in the country, and the rest was in the hand of private sector (i.e. farmers, wholesalers and retailers). However, Mohiuddin Alamgir2, in his treatise named “Famine in South Asia: political economy of mass starvation” (1980), considered government response as inadequate.

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