Saturday, March 19, 2011

Wars and Famines of Bangladesh

A Dead in the Famine of 1943. See more images here.
(Real Time Bangladesh, March 2011)
The earthquake in Japan has once again brought attention to natural disasters. In recent time we heard much about earthquake, tsunami, flood, cyclone etc. However, the most devastating of the disasters to hit Bangladesh are none of the above but famine.  The word ‘independence’ in the region has a strange connection with famines. Here are glimpses from our history.

Bangladesh competes with China in natural disaster but bits china in semi-natural disasters. Their death tools are much larger and a mega one is happening every major war Bangladesh faced.

#1 One of the most devastating one is the Great Bengal Famine of 1769 and 1773 (1176 to 1180 in the Bengali calendar). It killed 15 million people and wiped out 1/3rd of the Bengali! 

This happened few years after the British East India Company took the rein of Bengal after the defeat of last Bengal sovereign in Pallasi. After the takeover- as expected the company turned into a monster. Out of mad greed it increased land tax from 10% to up to 50% of the value of the agricultural produce, destroyed food crop to make way for profitable opium poppy and its agents secured monopolies over all food trade. Once, the 2 years draught begun in 1969- that was catastrophic. 15 million people perished in hunger around Bengal. In the same time period the company recorded profit increase from fifteen million rupees in 1765 to thirty million in 1777!

#2 The next major Famine to hit Bangladesh is the Bengal Famine of 1943 and took away 2-4 million lives. This was caused from a complex of event that involved the use of bicycle by the Japanese! 

In Second World War the British Army suffered their worst ever defeat in British history in the hands of the Japanese military at Singapore in 1942. Japan then proceeded to invade Burma. At that time, Burma was the world's largest exporter of rice. 15% of India's rice came from Burma. British feared a Japanese invasion, and closed the roads. The Japanese attack in Singapore was based on speed, ruthless ferocity and surprise. One of those surprises was that the Japanese used bicycles as one means of transport to attack Singapore from back. So, panicked British forces deployed a scorched earth policy in Bangladesh especially in Chittagong area. From the ‘bicycle’ phobia- it confiscated all autos, boats, ox driven carts and even elephants. It was afraid that the Japanese may commandeer them to speed their advance in India. But, they did not care about the impact of their defense strategy on the local population who lost both supply and a means for local livelihood. To make the matter worse, on 16 October 1942 the whole east coast of Bengal and Orissa was hit by a cyclone. The famine killed more Indians than the two world wars, the entire Indian freedom movement, and the massive death toll that followed Partition of India combined.

#3 The third largest famine in Bangladesh is the Famine of 1974- that came following 1971 war of independence. 1- 1.5 million people of got independence just to die in famine. This was famine made of paradoxes.

1974 was also the year when average food grain production in Bangladesh reached a 'local' peak! Not the shortage of food but a colossal “distribution failure” caused the famine. This had both internal and international making. The newly independent Bangladesh was besieged by the challenge of rebuilding and was in the hands of an inexperienced government. While his country remained mortally dependent on US aid for food, yet firebrand Bongubundhu was taunting the US.

In 1973, the US withheld 2.2 million tons of food aid to 'ensure that it abandoned plans to try Pakistani war criminals'. In 1974 Bangladesh was faced with severe monsoons and imminent floods. To teach a lesson, US suspended that year’s food aid too, on the ground that tiny Bangladesh had exported jute to Castro’s Cuba- while it has no problem in sending grain to USSR! Soon Mujib succumbed to the ‘aid diplomacy’ and stopped the exports. The food supply in route to USSR was rerouted to Bangladesh. But it was too late for famine victims. It killed another 1- 1.5 million- double the death of Bhola cyclone of 1970, and half of the death in 1971 war.

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