Bangladesh famine of 1974

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Bangladesh famine of 1974
Country Bangladesh
Total deaths 1 million
Observations War
Relief None provided
Impact on demographics Population of Bengal declined

The Bangladesh famine of 1974 refers to a period of mass starvation beginning in March 1974 and ending in about December of the same year. The famine is considered the worst in recent years; it was characterised by massive flooding along the Brahmaputra river as well as high mortality.


Warnings of famine began in March, 1974 when the price of rice rose sharply. In this month “widespread starvation started in Rangpur district”,[1] the region which would become one of three most afflicted.[2] It had only been two years and three months since the end of the war for Bangladeshi independence (December 1971) and the country's formal creation. In many ways, Bangladesh's new state and devastated infrastructure and markets were wholly unprepared to deal with the situation.[3][4] Corruption among the newly appointed officials was rampant and widespread. In April, though government officials reiterated that the crisis would be temporary, rice prices continued to rise sharply and reports of starvation became more widespread. From April to July, Bangladesh was hit by heavy rainfall and a series of devastating floods along the Brahmaputra river, with notably destructive incidents in May, July [5] In addition, neighboring India declined to cooperate with the government of Bangladesh. Rice crops were devastated and prices rocketed. In October rice prices peaked and conditions eased by November 1974 as foreign aid and the winter crop arrived.[6] The famine was officially over by December, though "excess" mortality (e.g. by disease) continued well into the following year, as is the case with most famines. More people suffered in the rural areas due to starvation. Generally, regional famine intensity was correlated to flood exposure and no doubt the floods exacerbated the famine.[7] However, though warnings of famine began long before the flood (as demonstrated above), it is to the floods which the famine is popularly blamed.[8]

Portrait of mortality[edit]

In terms of total mortality, though figures vary, one scholar estimates 1.5 million deaths as a reasonable estimate.[9] This number includes the post-famine mortality. Starvation was not the only factor; a significant number of deaths are attributable to diseases, cholera, malaria and diarrheic diseases. As with most famines, weakened, disease-susceptible conditions resulted in high post-famine mortalities of over 450,000.[10] The poor, labourers and non-landowners were especially susceptible.

Multiple authors agree that “wage labourers suffered the highest mortality for all groups”.[11][12] Crude death rate "among landless families was three times higher than that for families with three or more acres”.p. 18 Amartya Sen's micro-level entitlement analysis explains this trend. Sen's theory, looks at individual "entitlements", or direct access, to food resources. Individuals who have a direct claim to food (e.g. landowning farmers), will fare better than those who rely on markets to purchase food(e.g. artisans, or those in service sectors). For example, while a landowning farmer claims her product, her labourer is paid a wage and must buy food from the market. Thus, non-crop-owners are exposed to fluctuations in food prices, employment opportunities, wage and demand for products and services. In a time of food insecurity, these conditions deteriorate, leaving non-crop-owners susceptible to famine.[13]


As with most famines, the causes of the Bangladesh famine were multiple. These included flooding, government mismanagement of foodgrain stocks, legislation restricting movement of foodgrains between districts, foodgrain smuggling to neighbouring countries and so called distributional failures. The famine did not occur among all areas and populations but was concentrated in specific areas; particularly those hit by flooding.[14]

In their studies of the 1974 famine, various scholars find that 1974 average foodgrain production was a 'local' peak.[15][16] For this reason, scholars argue that, “food availability approach offers very little in the way of explanation of the Bangladesh famine of 1974”.p. 141 Rather, they argue that the Bangladesh famine was not caused by a failure in availability of food but in distribution (or entitlement), where one group gained “market command over food”.p. 162

Two distributional failures stand out. The first failure was internal: the specific configuration of the state rationing system and the market resulted in speculative hoarding by farmers and traders and a consequent rise in prices.[17] The second failure was external: the US had withheld 2.2 million tonnes of food aid, as the then US Ambassador to Bangladesh made it abundantly clear that the US probably could not commit food aid because of Bangladesh's policy of exporting jute to Cuba. And by the time Bangladesh succumbed to the American pressure, and stopped jute exports to Cuba, the food aid in transit was "too late for famine victims".[18]

In popular culture[edit]

  • The Black Coat, a historical novel written by Neamat Imam and published by Penguin Books India in 2013, is based on the devastation of the 1974 famine and presents the most scathing criticism of Sheikh Mujib's rule in decades. Radio Canada commented that: The Black Coat is 'a novel that slays Sheikh Mujib,'[19] and the Daily Star remarked: '…a poignant political tale… Imam has shown a lot of courage in dealing with one of the most tumultuous and controversial phases of independent Bangladesh’s history.'[20] The novel attacks Sheikh Mujib's introduction of one party rule, the ruthlessness of the Jatiyo Rakkhi Bahini and Mujib's suppression of his political opposition and claims that Sheikh Mujib was Bangladesh's first and deadliest dictator. In this novel, journalist Khaleque Biswas is seen to use his protege Nur Hussain to cash in on the nationalist fervour of Bengali nationalists and the publicity-hungry Awami League which was losing its popularity as a result of the famine.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Alagmir, M. (1980). Famine in South Asia: Political economy of mass starvation. Massachusetts: Oelgeschlager, Gunn & Hain
  2. ^ Sen, A. (1982). Poverty and famines: An essay and entitlement and deprivation. Oxford: Clarendon.
  3. ^ From Euphoria to Disillusion
  4. ^ Controverse littéraire au Bangladesh
  5. ^ Baro, M. & Duebel F.T. (2006). Perspectives on vulnerability, famine and food security in sub-Saharan Africa. Annual Review of Anthropology, 35, p. 521-38.
  6. ^ Hugo, G. (1984) In Currey B. & Hugo, G. (Eds.), Famine as a geographical phenomenon (pp. 7–31). Boston: Reidel.
  7. ^ Sobhan, R. (1979). Politics of Food and Famine in Bangladesh. Economic and Political Weekly, 14(48)
  8. ^
  9. ^ Famine as Commerce, by Devinder Sharma