Bangladesh famine of 1974

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Bangladesh famine of 1974
১৯৭৪ বাংলাদেশে দুর্ভিক্ষ
Rode Kruis hulp in Bangladesj na overstromingen, Bestanddeelnr 927-4183.jpg
Red Cross aid in Bangladesh; after floods, August 29, 1974
LocationRangpur district, Bangladesh
PeriodMarch–December 1974
Total deathsGovernment estimate: 27,000
Unofficial estimate: 1.5 million.
ReliefSoup kitchens[1]
Effect on demographicsPopulation of Bangladesh declined
Preceded byBengal famine of 1943

The Bangladesh famine of 1974 began in March 1974 and ended in about December of the same year. The famine is considered one of the worst in the 20th century; it was characterised by massive flooding along the Brahmaputra River as well as high mortality.


After independence in 1971, Bangladesh's economy faced a crisis. According to Time magazine:[1]

In the aftermath of the Pakistani army's rampage last March, a special team of inspectors from the World Bank observed that some cities looked "like the morning after a nuclear attack." Since then, the destruction has only been magnified. An estimated 6,000,000 homes have been destroyed, and nearly 1,400,000 farm families have been left without tools or animals to work their lands. Transportation and communications systems are totally disrupted. Roads are damaged, bridges out and inland waterways blocked. The rape of the country continued right up until the Pakistani army surrendered a month ago. In the last days of the war, West Pakistani-owned businesses—which included nearly every commercial enterprise in the country—remitted virtually all their funds to the West. Pakistan International Airlines left exactly 117 rupees ($16) in its account at the port city of Chittagong. The army also destroyed bank notes and coins, so that many areas now suffer from a severe shortage of ready cash. Private cars were picked up off the streets or confiscated from auto dealers and shipped to the West before the ports were closed.

— "BANGLADESH: Mujib's Road from Prison to Power", Time, 17 January 1972.

Warnings of famine began in March 1974 when the price of rice rose sharply. In this month "widespread starvation started in Rangpur district",[2] the region which would become one of three most afflicted.[3] 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.[4][5] 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;[6] the ability of the rice crops to survive this was reduced by the growing monoculture of HYV rice. In addition, neighbouring India declined to co-operate 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.[7] 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.[8] However, though warnings of famine began long before the flood (as demonstrated above), it is to the floods which the famine is popularly blamed.[9]

Portrait of mortality[edit]

In terms of total mortality, though figures vary, one scholar estimates 1.5 million deaths as a reasonable estimate.[10] This number includes the post-famine mortality. Starvation was not the only factor; a significant number of deaths are attributable to cholera, malaria and diarrheic diseases. As with most famines, weakened, disease-susceptible conditions resulted in high post-famine mortalities of over 450,000.[11] The poor, labourers and non-landowners were especially susceptible.

Multiple authors agree that "wage labourers suffered the highest mortality for all groups".[12][13] Crude death rate "among landless families was three times higher than that for families with three or more acres".p. 18


As with most famines, the causes of the Bangladesh famine were multiple. These included flooding, rapid population growth, 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]

Government response[edit]

The Government's response to the famine primarily focused on the institution of soup kitchens. By November, 1974, the government claimed it had 6,000 soup kitchens in operation across the country. A government official claimed that this helped save "five million lives". The government soup kitchens provided basic rations consisting of either a single roti, or four ounces of a porridge made of rice and daal. Other facilities provided "survival biscuits" donated by the United States.[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Alamgir, 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. ^ "BANGLADESH: Mujib's Road from Prison to Power". Time. 17 January 1972.
  4. ^ Controverse littéraire au Bangladesh. Ici Radio-Canada (in French). Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. 12 June 2013.
  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. ^ "Famine". Banglapedia: National Encyclopedia of Bangladesh (Second ed.). Asiatic Society of Bangladesh. 2012.
  9. ^ Sharma, D (August 2002), "Famine as commerce", India Together, Oorvani Media Pvt. Ltd.
  1. ^ a b Rangan, Kasturi (13 November 1974). "Bangladesh Fears Thousands May Be Dead as Famine Spreads". The New York Times. Retrieved 28 December 2021.