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Famine


Famine a state of extreme starvation suffered by the population of an area due to scarce food supply. It appears in times when crops fail or food cannot be supplied where it is required. Crop failures stemming from adverse climatic or topographic imbalances like droughts, floods, tidal surges, excessive rainfall etc as well as animal or plant diseases, plagues of locusts and other insects and rodents normally are responsible for famines. In many instances, famines were caused by poor transport and communication and absence of well established channels of trade system.

Modern achievements in science and technology and their subsequent impact on industry, agriculture, trade and transport brought a radical change both in the meaning and nature of famines. At present, it is accepted that famines originate mainly from 'entitlement failures'. As Nobel laureate Professor A Sen said, 'access to food is not only a function of food supply but it is influenced by a variety of factors that affect the capacity of particular households and social groups to establish entitlement over food'. In a free market economy access to food is subject to direct and indirect entitlements.

Direct entitlement implies access of peasants to the food they produce. Indirect entitlement mainly indicates the trade entitlement generating from the capacity of the households to exchange what they have to sell in the market to buy necessary goods and services. Several non-market factors such as socio-political status, role of the state, the legal system, and the role of media also aid to these indirect entitlements. Famines may visit even when there is no decline in food output and availability per head. Thus, distribution failures, and not production failures, come in the forefront in the causation theory of famines.

The earliest famine in Bengal region is recorded in a stone inscription found at mahasthangarh near bogra in the third century BC, wherein the higher authority instructed subordinate officials to supply paddy to distressed places and to reimburse the same through coins during heydays. But, no further evidence of famines is available for the next few centuries. It may, however, be said that during this time, though the commodities of the country used to be sold at a very cheap rate, ordinary people lived in abject poverty at the subsistence level, almost always facing the threat of famine. A number of intense famines have visited the land now known as Bangladesh in the last three hundred years.

The famine of 1770 occurred in 1769 and 1770. It is popularly known as Chhiyattarer Manvantar (The Great Famine of 1176 Bangla Year). It was the worst famine in Bengal in the 18th century. The excessive rainfall in 1770 did not relieve the people from the sufferings of drought of the year before; on the contrary, it caused overflowing of rivers and damaged standing crops. The existing revenue system of land and activities of middlemen in the foodgrain market further deteriorated the situation.

The East India Company administration put the whole blame for the famine on the vagary of nature. But a quite different picture is also evident from some other facts. The revenue collection in 1768, the year preceding the famine, was Rs 15.21 million and in 1771, immediately after the famine, the east india company did not allow a shortfall in revenue collection. Instead, its revenue collections were higher by about Rs 52,200. Thus, people's suffering was intensified by the company's motive of greater collection of revenue and its indulgence in allowing profiteering in the foodgrain market. The immediate effect of the famine was the depopulation of severely affected areas. About one-third of the population, ie, about 10 million people perished in this famine. Agricultural production and revenue collection declined substantially.

Several famines visited British India during 1783-1886. Fortunately, Bengal was spared in this period. Bombay, Madras, Mysore, Punjab and some other northeastern areas of British India were badly affected by these famines.

The famine of 1866 Although Orissa was the main disaster zone, part of Bengal was also affected. Famine affected areas experienced a sharp decline in real wages of agricultural labourers. For the first time, an official body with extensive power of inquiry named the 'Famine Commission' was formed to investigate the causes of this famine and to suggest remedial measures.

The famine of 1896-98 affected Bengal along with provinces such as Bihar, Bombay, Oudh, Central Provinces and Punjab. In Bengal the failure of rainfall was the triggering factor. Foodgrains were available in market, but these were beyond the reach of the majority who had virtually no purchasing power. No market intervention by the government was in evidence to control prices. A famine commission, headed by Sir J B Lyall, was formed in December 1897. The commission observed that the wages of labourers and artisans had not increased in the last twenty years in proportion to the rise in prices of the daily necessities of life.

The Great Bengal Famine of 1943 was one of the worst famines to have struck this region. A series of crop failures beginning from 1938 and other disruptive events accompanying the Second World War precipitated this famine. Interruption of normal imports of foodgrains from Burma due to its fall to the Japanese, dislocation of trade, irregular movement of foodgrains due to the war in the East, and building up of provincial and district barriers (cordons) against the movement of grains and other essential supplies, increased demand for food to meet the want of the army, and inflow of refugees were some important factors leading to the famine of 1943. And the failure on the part of the administration to foresee these crises at the beginning of the war added further fuel to the fire.

Rise in the prices of foodgrains was a cause as well as an effect of the famine. Speculation, hoarding, and profiteering in grain were the main factors responsible for the spectacular rise in prices. The government not only failed to handle the situation but also contributed to the price rise.

A heavy toll of life was claimed by the famine. The total number of deaths was estimated at 3.5 million. Almost the whole of Bengal was more or less affected by the famine and suffered loss of lives. But it is noteworthy that though a large number of people died from starvation on the pavements of calcutta, not a single person among the dead belonged to the city and its suburbs. People migrated to the city from outside in search of food, which most of them often did not find, and many among them died implying that people from rural areas were more vulnerable to the disaster.

A victim of famine [Courtesy: Amanul Huq

The famine of 1974 There was a shortage of food in 1974 throughout the world. However, unlike some other countries that suffered from food scarcity, the situation in Bangladesh was rooted in the historic evolution of the society and others germinated from poor management of the food distribution system in the face of severe floods. After 1971, the majority of the Bangladesh population experienced a drastic drop in their standard of living mainly due to major disruptions in economy and society caused by the war of liberation. The damage caused by the war was colossal. According to the United Nations, the material damage amounted to about $1.2 billion, consisting of loss of fixed physical assets (particularly in the transportation system), damage to agricultural potential, and rehabilitation requirements. The task of rehabilitating returning refugees and other floating population was accomplished early but general economic activities could not be restored to a normal level even two years after independence. Consequently, economic activity lagged behind the levels achieved in prewar years. The downward spiral of real income and unemployment continued. The worst victims of this process were industrial workers, small peasants, agricultural labourers and low paid fixed-income earning groups.

The index of per capita real income stood at 87 in 1972-73 (base year 1969-70). Over the same period, the index of agricultural and industrial production declined to 84 and 66 respectively. There was also an unprecedented expansion of the money supply around this time. Shortfall in production combined with increased money supply created tremendous inflationary pressures on the economy. The nominal cost of living for industrial workers increased by more than 100 percent during the same period. For agricultural laborers, the increase was about 150 percent. Real wages of agricultural and industrial labourers went down by 24 percent and 48 percent respectively between 1970 and 1973. Indeed, the living standard of the majority of the population in Bangladesh reached crisis levels by the end of 1973.

During the early 1970s, Bangladesh experienced successive natural disasters (cyclones, droughts, floods), war, poor administrative and economic management, international inflation, and global food, fertiliser and oil crises. These factors, combined with the existing inequalities of socioeconomic relations, culminated in the 1974 famine.

The floods that occurred during the monsoon of 1974 also accelerated a process of rural-urban migration. Occasional deaths due to starvation were reported as early as January 1974.

There were a few initiatives to open langarkhanas (kitchengruels) to feed the starved people during the middle of the year, but political and administrative authorities did not encourage these initiatives until the end of September when the famine firmly gripped the nation. Three districts (rangpur, mymensingh and sylhet) were affected severely. Ironically, the Great Bengal Famine of 1943 also affected these three districts seriously. The months when the impact of the famine were most severe in 1974 were July through October, largely the same as in the 1770, 1866 and 1943 Bengal Famines.

The 1974 famine was a rural phenomenon and people traveled miles from rural to urban areas in search of food. In this process many families were separated, while many others were totally uprooted. A large number of rural households were compelled to sell their last assets. Distress sale of land became the common practice. According to some estimates, more than one million people died during the period from July 1974 to January 1975. The government estimate of mortality was, not surprisingly, only 26,000.

The response of the government to the crisis was inadequate. The response from international communities also fell far short of the need of the hour. The government's ability to procure foodgrain from abroad was limited by an acute foreign exchange shortage following the 1973 oil crisis, the abnormal high price of rice in the international market, inability to obtain short-term credit, and non-cooperation of the international community. [Atiur Rahman]

Bibliography A Sen and Jean Dreze (ed.), 'The Political Economy of Hunger, Entitlement and Well-being', Vol 1, UPL, Dhaka, 1991; BM Bhatia, 'Famines in India: A Study on Some Aspects of the Economic History of India (1860-1945)', Asia Publishing House, New Delhi, India, 1963; Mohiuddin Alamgir, 'Famine in South Asia, OG and H', Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, 1980.