Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation

By Amartya Sen | Go to book overview

Chapter 9
Famine in Bangladesh

9.1
FLOODS AND FAMINE

First the floods; then the famine. So runs the capsule story of the Bangladesh famine of 1974. Gilbert Etienne describes the 1974 floods thus:

The floods of 1974 caused severe damage in the Northern districts. In normal years, the Brahmaputra encroaches on its Western bank by 30- 60 m during peak floods. In 1974, over a distance of 100 km, it flooded land on a strip 300 m wide in areas having a density of 800 per sq. km. 24,000 people suffered heavy losses. Moreover alluvial deposits, while fertile in some areas, have such a high sand content in others that they are sterile. Severe floods occurred at the end of June, taking away part of the aus [rice crop harvested in July-August]. A fortnight later the Brahmaputra again crossed the danger level just at the time of aus harvesting. After another fortnight the level of river rose again and seedlings of aman [rice crop transplanted in July-September and harvested in November-January] in their nurseries were in danger. Then, by the middle of August, floods reached their maximum for the year, affecting recently transplanted aman. It was not the end. At the begining 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.1

The price of rice rocketed during and immediately after the floods, as Table 9.1 shows. In some of the most affected districts, the rice price doubled in the three months between July and October. Reports of starvation could be heard immediately following the flood, and grew in severity. The government of Bangladesh officially declared famine in late September. Some langarkhanas, providing modest amounts of free cooked food to destitutes, were opened under private initiative early in September, and government-sponsored langarkhanas went into full operation in early October. At one stage nearly six thousand langarkhanas were providing cooked food relief to 4.35 million people -- more than 6 per cent of the total population of the

____________________
1
Etienne ( 1977a), pp. 113-4.

-131-

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