Gobindalal Das was a young journalist when in 1974 he watched a passenger jump out of a train at the northern Bangladesh town of Gaibandha and vomit on the platform. What he saw next has stayed with him forever: another man ran up to where the passenger stood vomiting and ate it. He was starving. The story Das wrote for his newspaper Dainik Bangla went, we would now say, viral, and the world heard of the famine that killed up to 1.5 million people in the new nation of Bangladesh.
This story is well known in Bangladesh, but I first heard it from the author himself when we met at the Gaibandha Press Club in October. Das compresses decades of reporting on poverty and hunger into insightful commentary on what has changed here. The famine is never far from his mind. Some say it still casts its shadow on policy and its implementation here, and has driven a great deal of positive change. Das still writes on issues of poverty and hunger, but there is much less bad news on that front these days from Gaibandha. Only three years ago, news editors demanded stories of the seasonal famine – the dreaded monga for which the present Bengali month earned the title Morar (Deadly) Kartik. Kartik is no longer deadly. In fact, most of the news from this area seems good, now.
Agricultural development – driver for change
The main driver of change, our journalist friend stressed, is agricultural development. You can actually see this from the road – more diversification and more specialisation, clusters of vegetable and dairy production, modern processing plant, complex distribution and storage systems – all just a couple of km off the main inter-district highway.
The Jamuna Bridge has made a huge difference to the north in the past decade by eliminating the chaotic ferry crossing. Mobile telecoms make markets more accessible and remittances are contributing. The good news extends to the local chars (fertile islands washed up by river erosion, usually occupied by very poor people) which are growing new crops, more productively. The DFID-funded Chars Livelihoods Programme gets a positive name-check from the journalists for its work on dairy farming. A sign of the times is that mega Bangladeshi food corporations like Pran are said to be in supplier contracts with local farmers – a development worth watching, if true.
Famine politics are foundational
The Government has also sharpened up its food distribution mechanisms since the 2008 food price crisis. At the District Food Controller’s office we saw bigger better godowns for storing procured grains. Systems remain in place to know where and when to release staples into the market in order to bring prices down, allay jitters or deter speculators, and to ensure access for the poor. It’s a responsive system – transfers, sales, and procurement are triggered when prices are high or a shock occurs; while by no means perfect, the system is at least quick, and big enough to impact on food markets.
Famine politics are foundational in Bangladesh, which is why each government prioritises food production and distribution, no more so when crisis looms. They do so or else they don’t get a second shot. The targeted food and cash transfer programmes and the Open Market Sales or OMS and the willingness to dig deep in the fiscal pocket to import grains when domestic production falls short – all of these are there for a reason, shared among the Bangladeshi elite. It is fortunate that while Bangladesh’s political classes do not agree on many things, keeping famine at bay is at least one.
Naomi Hossain is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS. She was in Gaibandha doing field research for the DFID-ESRC funded Food Riots and Food Rights project, 2012-14. On the 1974 famine, read R. Sobhan (1979) ‘Politics and Famine in Bangladesh’, Economic and Political Weekly vol. 14 no. 48. If you are interested in how famine has influenced food and food security policy in Bangladesh, see Out of the Shadow of Famine, edited R. Ahmed et al (2000), particularly Chapter 6. Naomi’s book Elite Perceptions of Poverty in Bangladesh was published by University Press Limited in 2005.
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