1974 famine in Bangladesh: Economic context and myths

Published : 18 June 2013, 03:41 PM
Updated : 18 June 2013, 03:41 PM

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.

(Note 2: Director of the Policy and Planning Division of United Nation's International Fund for Agricultural Development, IFAD)

Uncertainty regarding the number

There is no accurate estimate of the number of deaths. Government figures varied between 26,000 and 37,000 (Sen, 1981, page 134, Mascarenhas, 1986 page 43).

Sen refers to Alamgir (1980) regarding mortality estimates of one and half million. He then adds, "There is little doubt that the mortality figure would have been a great deal higher but for the massive relief operation, inadequate as it was" (Sen, 1981, page 134).

Stephen Devereux in his essay entitled "Famine in the Twentieth Century3" says, among other things "problem in estimating famine mortality arise"… in the absence of comprehensive records of births and deaths in poor countries…" Devereux (2000, page 4). Due to "reservations with respect to over-estimation and under-reporting of famine mortality, the figures presented …should be taken as providing orders of magnitude rather than precise statistics" (Devereux, 2000, page 7).

(Note 3: Institute of Development Studies, IDS, Working Paper 105)

Myth number one: Lack of food production and/or availability in the market caused the famine

Sen (1981, page 137-138) provides few intriguing statistics in regard to rice output and food grain availability (based on data collected by Alamgir). "1974 was the local peak year in terms of both local output and per capita output of rice" as shown in the following tables.

The same is true for the total available food grains for consumption and per capita availability.

In terms of food grain availability "1974 was a local peak". Sen (1981, page 141), therefore, concludes, "Whatever the Bangladesh famine of 1974 might have been, it wasn't a Food Availability Decline (FAD) famine". Osmani (1991, page 327) adds "aggregate food availability has no correlation with the occurrence of famine".

Myth number two: Food (rice) was smuggled out to India leaving nothing for the destitute

The first head of Planning Commission, Nurul Islam, in his book "Bangladesh Making of a Nation: Bangladesh- an Economist's Tale" (2003, page 225), says "During 1973-74 right up to the famine period, there were widespread rumours and reports in the press of smuggling of food grains to India".

According to Australian historian Denis Wright3, India "made it clear that it was prepared to seal the border if that was what the Bangladesh government wanted" which "was not very likely if government officials and politicians were themselves involved in the illicit trade. Unsubstantiated but persistent claims and rumours both in India and Bangladesh pointed to this being the case".

(Note 3: "Bangladesh: Origins and Indian Ocean Relations, 1971-1975", 1988, page 141)

"In response, the government employed the army to guard the borders against smuggling from April 1974 onwards. From the list of goods confiscated by the army at the borders, it appeared that rice was hardly the most important item, but sixth or seventh in importance". Brian Reddaway of Cambridge University, visiting the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies, concluded, "that smuggling was not significant enough so as to run into hundreds of thousands of tons" (Islam, 2003, page 225).

In this regard Sen (1981, page 138) says, "Whatever the truth about these absolute magnitudes, there is no reason to expect that the smuggling of rice out of Bangladesh would have increased in the famine year when the relative price of rice in Bangladesh vis-à-vis that in India rose sharply" (Sen, 1981, page 138).

In the next write-up, we shall discuss different economic theories of famine and politics of violence in the context of this famine.

Rabiul H. Zaki is a BUET and AIT graduate currently working in Australia.

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher