The perfect storm and the final famine

By Naomi Hossain

24 January 2017

Natural disasters have shaped political consensus on development in Bangladesh.
Bhola Cyclone, November 11, 1970

Bhola Cyclone, November 11, 1970

About ten years ago, the popular narrative about Bangladesh changed from the world’s ‘basket case’ – a land of harsh Malthusian circumstances – to an awakening Bengal tiger, an exemplary, if cautionary, tale about development in globalising times. It was an unlikely trajectory. The first half of the 1970s had Bangladeshis facing what must have felt like a cosmic effort at annihilation: one of the deadliest tropical cyclones in history and a genocidal war that resulted in mass murders, rapes, and creation of refugees in their uncounted millions, destroying livelihoods, infrastructure, markets and institutions. They also endured floods and a major famine. All of this was before the human tragedy and political crisis of 1975 that gave rise to a decade and a half of military rule.

Yet only a quarter century later Bangladesh was spoken of as a modest success. It got children, particularly girls, into school; brought down fertility rates; invented micro-credit; tackled natural disasters; took effective immunization, diarrhoea and TB programmes ‘to scale’. The landscape was transformed with women going to work in the export garment factories, public service or NGOs, or just going about their business – remarkable in a conservative, agrarian society. Jeffrey D Sachs lauded these achievements in his book The End of Poverty: Economic Possiblities for Our Time, with a foreword by Bono, no less. Special issues of the Lancet dissected these achievements. Bangladeshis won the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to tackle poverty – which has not been without critics and ‘discontents’, as anthropologist Lamia Karim documents in her study of microfinance, the antipoverty technology for which the country is so well known.

We have a good understanding of what made this unexpected success possible, thanks to the work on ‘political settlement’ by Mushtaq Khan at SOAS, London University, and also by Mirza M Hassan at BRAC University in Dhaka. In short, contending elites came to agree on a way of dividing the spoils of power that brought them broadly in line with what the aid world terms a ‘pro-poor agenda’. They agreed – or did not disagree – on the terms of development projects that would bring stability and modest economic growth, while establishing institutions and policies that would protect and support people in their efforts to survive. The politics of this settlement, the question of why the elites came to such an agreement with so few obvious immediate benefits for themselves, requires us to turn away from the nationalist political history of elite bargains in high places. It means turning towards a more ecologically-centred understanding of the visceral politics of disaster and food crisis that dominated this period. In The Bengal Delta: Ecology, State and Social Change, 1980-1943, Iftekhar Iqbal argues that the environment is not “a fixed ecological bow from which the arrows of all kinds of history take flight” – that ecology, politics and society have been mutually formed in this unstable, fecund, hostile, riverine landscape. We are accustomed to thinking about the politics of Southasian nationhood as the politics of communalism and of class, a domain of elite power games and negotiated interests. The ecological drivers of history are lost to view when discourses of political economy are limited to the bargains struck around conference tables. They come into sight only when we consider how a series of disasters – cyclone (1970), war (1971), famine (1974) – shook lives in Bangladesh.

The political ramifications of the Bhola cyclone of 1970, and how these reverberated in the fallout of the 1974 famine, the last in independent Bangladesh, are key to this understanding. At a time when climate change and global economic turmoil highlight the country’s exposure to external shocks, it is important to recognise the origins of Bangladesh’s development success in the painful political lessons of these two historic crises.

It is widely recognised that the aftermath of the Bhola cyclone of 1970 acted as a catalyst to the liberation struggle. But its political effects have rarely been explored in the detail they merit; for the clues they offer about the origins of the political settlement that evolved over the early 1970s, finally emerging after the famine of 1974 – the disaster that should never have happened; the one that took place when nationhood had already been won.

The Bhola cyclone, 1970
Bhola is still counted among the world’s deadliest tropical storms. The storm struck in the Bay facing south, where the waters from the Himalaya reach the ocean and where cyclones always strike, on 12 November 1970. It was forecasted to be of moderate intensity, and radio messages only started to warn of danger late in the afternoon (not that anyone trusted these messages). Travelling at 150 miles per hour at high tide, it generated a 20 foot tidal wave that swept a quarter of a million people, probably many more, with their animals, crops and houses, into the Bay of Bengal. One man interviewed for the New York Times told of how he and his wife watched helplessly as one by one, each of their five children was torn from the trees they clung to by a howling frenzy of water and wind and flying debris. People spoke of the wave as a bombing raid.

There was nothing to impede the cyclone on its way to its victims. Many of these islands were too new to even have the protection afforded by trees, and the Sundarban forest that once covered that part of the coastline had been cleared over the past century, thanks partly to British colonial policies. New warning systems did not work as they should. There were no evacuation routes and none of those squat cyclone shelters now so characteristic of the rural landscape. But cyclones were no freak occurrence here. On an average, there had been one major storm every five years in the past 250 years. During the 1960s, the rate accelerated to one almost every year, often with deaths reported in the tens of thousands. So the Pakistani state must have been unusually inept not to know about the cyclones, or pointedly careless in their lack of preventive action. As Bangladesh showed in later years, most of the Bhola cyclone deaths were avoidable given early warning, evacuation and emergency relief systems. The more severe Gorky cyclone in 1991 killed, nearly 140,000 people, but cyclone preparedness had improved in the intervening 21 years. Cyclone Sidr of 2007 was as severe in magnitude as the Bhola storm, but the death rate was one-hundredth of that in 1970.

Nobody outside the area devastated by the cyclone knew what was going on in 1970. It was some days before news of its magnitude reached Dacca (as Dhaka was then called), let alone the capital Islamabad, so much further away. But Islamabad did not appear to care, and the relief efforts made a sluggish start. The New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg described the view of the Pakistani government and their failure to tackle the cyclone:

Because natural disasters are so common and so difficult to control in East Pakistan, and because resources are so limited, the central Government pleading helplessness, has tended to ignore the disasters and invest its resources elsewhere.

Whether deliberately callous or not, the Pakistan government’s cyclone relief effort was certainly slow and careless of appearances. There was an effort to imply that the Bengali political leaders were crying wolf and overstating the devastation. In all fairness, limited evidence (including rapid population surveys) suggests that in the end, a reasonable relief effort was mounted. But it was poorly handled by any standards. Declassified US State Department cables show that even Henry Kissinger, no friend to Bangladesh and a good friend to Pakistan’s military ruler General Yahya Khan, found it difficult to excuse this failure to the general’s other champion, President Richard Nixon.

The Pakistani authorities may have been callous, but since they were also staging the first direct elections in this huge country, their inaction defies explanation. Were the authorities truly unable to guess that a few hundred thousand East Pakistanis washed out to sea might cause ructions? That survivors might have a grievance against a state that failed to get its boots muddy? General Yahya passed by en route home from somewhere more gratifying. Two recent books on the birth of Bangladesh linger on the details of  Yahya’s callousness: Srinath Raghavan in 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh depicts the architect of Pakistan’s return to democracy surveying the cyclone damage from the air, nursing a hangover with a few beers; Gary J Bass in The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide depicts him touring with a gold-topped cane.

It was not only at home that the political vibrations of the cyclone were felt. For the first time, the world could see this backwater of the oddly-shaped Pakistan. The distress of the people living  in the east had been ignored before, notably during the famine of 1943. During the Second World War, Allied and imperial propaganda did not advertise the fact that the Raj was starving its subjects on the eastern front. In Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II, Madhusree Mukerjee shows that the British starved the labourers of East Bengal to keep rice out of Burmese/Japanese hands, even while worrying about the effects on British morale of having to eat powdered eggs. Churchill’s callousness in 1943 outdid Yahya’s in 1970, but the political effects of 1970 resembled those of 1943: any lingering legitimacy the Raj may have enjoyed in East Bengal did not last the famine. Pakistani rule following the Bhola cyclone enjoyed a similar fate.

Seeing Bangladesh
Unlike in 1943, after the 1970 cyclone the world came to help, and saw Bangladesh, a green and watery Malthusia, for the first time. The place appeared worryingly perilous and poor, already a candidate for aid dependency. In 1972, in their political assessment of the new nation, a CIA report commented on “the uniqueness of an independent country suddenly facing problems of population and poverty on the scale involved here – a matter previously obscured by the area’s incorporation into a larger entity.”

But while a unique situation, it was not one the US was keen to involve itself in yet. In response to the description of Bangladesh as a basket case, Kissinger said, it did not have to be “our basket case.”

The international organisation Medecins Sans Frontiere (Doctors Without Borders) counts the Bhola cyclone among the events that led to its founding. It was a major event for humanitarian groups worldwide, but, more importantly, also for understanding how natural disasters shaped Bangladesh’s development trajectory. Some of its famed NGOs also trace their roots to 1970. Fazal Hasan Abed was an oil company executive at the time. He loaded up a boat with supplies and went out to see how he could help. “An incident occurred which changed my life in a way,” he told an oral historian. He said:

The scene was just horrendous – bodies strewn everywhere – humans, animals, everything. That shocked me to an extent that I felt that the kind of life I led hardly had any meaning in a kind of context in which these people lived – the fragility of life of poor people.

Abed has reflected on the lessons he learned from Bhola on several occasions. This matters because he went on to found BRAC, the label-defying entity that now includes a major international NGO, a bank, a manufacturing, food processing and retail business, and a university among other institutions. It is credited with supporting Bangladesh’s development with a range of pioneering financial and social services, including many public health and education partnerships with the government, and efforts to support disaster relief. Until recently, successive governments have been accommodating of these large organisations channelling foreign funds to their poorer citizens. While microcredit is now criticised for creating indebtedness and new forms of rural dependency, the financial services of the Grameen Bank, ASA, BRAC and others have gone some way to addressing the “fragility of life of poor people”.

Politics of disaster
The hero of the moment was the fascinating Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, or Red Maulana – a ‘friend of the peasants’, Sufi pir or saint, Islamic preacher and theorist, and leftist firebrand leader of the National Awami Party (Bhashani), an offshoot of the early Awami League. Bhashani was by then already 85, with 70 years of organising peasants and the disenfranchised under his belt, more recently credited with having led the movement that forced General Ayub Khan to resign. Bhashani’s messages of Islamic equality and non-communalism in the struggle against oppression and the precarity of peasant life no longer resonate so well in national political discourse. But at the time they were, like Bhashani’s public meetings, electric. They spoke to the fears and needs of many who subsisted precariously together in this delta.

The Maulana was the first political leader to arrive on the scene of the cyclone. Abid Bahar, a scholar on Bhashani, writes that on hearing the news on the radio by his sickbed, Bhashani sprang up and made the gruelling journey to the cyclone-affected areas. Bahar paints a moving picture of Bhashani, touring the area with great sadness. At Friday prayers in southern Noakhali, he preached that without serving humanity, the worship of God could never be complete; that people should prepare for a jihad, a struggle against injustice. He later told the press what the people told him: “Ora keu ashe ni; none of them came.” He returned to Dhaka and staged a huge event at Paltan where he ironically greeted Pakistan with “Assalam alleikum”, which he followed up with the call, “Independent East Pakistan zindabad!” His anger and clarity struck a chord, though he and his party finally withdrew from the elections, apparently from a combination of respect for the victims and an unwillingness to legitimise the election. Less charitable views suggest political strategy also played a part.

In November 1970, Awami League leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was riding a wave of popularity after his recent release from jail. He followed the Red Maulana three days later with an angry speech about the failings of Pakistan. When asked if this now meant independence, he said, “Not yet.” But, the historian David Ludden has pointed out that Mujib made the crucial point that the failure to effeciently respond to the cyclone was a failure of the Pakistani state, not just of the Yahya regime.

After Bhashani’s exit, the Awami League inherited the mandate to protect the masses of the peasants against such crises – both the outcome of Bhashani’s politicisation of the cyclone, and some of his voters: election analysis from the cyclone-affected areas suggests they enjoyed a bump in support in 1970.

The first properly democratic elections produced a landslide victory for Sheikh Mujib’s Awami League that should have made him the prime minister of Pakistan. Instead, it led to cancellation of polls by West Pakistan, a declaration of independence from East Pakistan, a war of genocidal intent and intensity, an Indian army intervention, and finally, a hard-won political victory for Bangladeshi nationalism. That the cyclone mattered is not in doubt.

The rest, as they say, is history. But this is nationalist political history, and not yet the point at which ecological and development history breaks with the colonial past of neglect and ineptitude in the handling of disasters and subsistence crises. The political effects of the Bhola cyclone was to put recognition of the risks faced by peasants firmly on the political agenda for the new nation, and to clarify that failure to protect people against the crises they routinely face would be punished politically. To the outside world, Bhola dramatised the neglect of the people of the delta in all their precariousness. Presumably, for those who survived the ordeal it was an event of unspeakable trauma, never to be repeated.

The one that should not have happened
It took the famine of 1974 to confirm these political lessons and to craft them into a new social contract. By this time, the war that was hastened by Bhola was over, but the wounds were raw. Millions of people were displaced, hungry, sick or traumatised, and despite a massive reconstruction programme, neither the infrastructure nor the administration was capable of much. Already the venality and predation of the political elite and its hangers-on were spreading deep disillusion. Donors were frustrated with corruption and with populist economic policies, and were pushing for liberal reforms that the political elite neither wanted nor had the political mandate to pursue.

Just then, in the fast-waning euphoria of the liberation, another natural disaster struck. Even as the common view of the famine blames either government mismanagement or Cold War food-aid politics, it is important to recognise that the 1974 floods were extremely serious: had the Jamuna (the Bramhaputra) not burst its banks six times between June and August, as many as one and a half million Bangladeshis (two percent of the population) may not have died of starvation and diseases. Soon after, the flood waters swelled higher, causing more destruction than usual. The number of the displaced moving to Dhaka also grew.

There were resonances but also contrasts with the politics of Bhola. This time external aid was uneven and unreliable, charged with Cold War politics and ‘Bangladesh-fatigue’. The scale of this crisis was immense, coming as it did on the heels of other disasters and conflicts. It is plausible that the roots of the impact went even further back, to the displacement and violence of Partition, the disasters and impoverishment of 1943, and a century of colonial under-investment and neglect.

In 1974 there were more proximate triggers: the June floods cut demand for seasonal labour at precisely the moment rice prices rose. The government, technically bankrupt due to the global commodity crisis, could not procure enough rice to bring prices down, even while speculators stockpiled in preparation for higher prices. The government finally declared a famine and managed a vast langarkhana (outdoor relief) programme, but provisions were so meagre, and the scheme so poorly run it may not have helped much. The US delayed food aid at the crucial moment over a shipment of jute sacks from Bangladesh to Cuba. Meanwhile, a generous ration scheme kept the politically important urban and middle classes fed. The story of 1974 is well known from Amartya Sen’s ‘Poverty and Famines: An essay on entitlement and starvation’, and it remains one of the best-documented and most analysed famines in world history.

This is the episode in Bangladeshi history from which we can date the subsistence crisis settlement – a turning point in the history of national development and ecological management. After the famine, the regime changed, and with it, the thrust of the national development project. The emerging agreement within the Bangladeshi elite led to the subsistence crisis settlement.

The subsistence-crisis state
Why did the contending elites come to agree on this moderately pro-poor agenda? This was not just a matter of growth trickling down as and when it may.

What made it possible or necessary for the elite to overcome their divisions to agree to at least minimal protection against these crises – neither a cheap nor a simple task, nor one in which individual elite interests were obviously served? What made such an agreement binding?

It seems that in the wake of the dramatic sequence of political and natural disasters, the elite learned three political lessons, out of which a subsistence crisis settlement – an agreement between the elites, the masses, and their donors to at least ensure protection against the crises of bare survival – was crafted. The first political lesson was that the Bangladeshi masses faced an unusual degree of exposure to the elements and the volatilities of global markets, compounding the precariousness of their lives. Natural disasters and food crises were endemic because of the ecology of the place – the same reason for the fertility of the delta that attracted settlers in such concentrations in the first place. No development project could proceed unless people were protected against these subsistence shocks. Second, an elite consensus emerged that their own survival depended on tackling at least the worst effects of these disasters and crises, because this, above all, legitimated their rule. Successive rulers had failed to do this and it had not been forgotten. And third, pro-market, pro-poor, economic and human development strategies would need to be pursued both to maximise the chances of survival (in contemporary jargon, to boost ‘resilience’), and in return for recognition and resources from the international community. Pride in national self-determination and resisting global economic integration became an unaffordable luxury in this view. This led to an acceptance of pro-market aid conditionalities and created space for the non-governmental actions for which Bangladesh is now so feted. The crucial point is that by accepting the market directions required by donors, the Bangladeshi state was able to access aid to deal with the worst impact on the poor and vulnerable.

We can see this subsistence-crisis state emerging as a kind of negative: the most significant achievement of the Bangladesh state is the dog that didn’t bark – the disasters that never struck. From the mid-1970s onwards, the Bangladeshi state (and its civil society, in the broader sense) became adept at protecting its people against the worst of rapid-onset natural disasters and food price crises. The state’s presence was most palpable in its effective disaster response machinery, alert to the threat of disasters and quick to reach out when they struck. It also gradually reoriented its food policies away from protecting the politically important middle class from inflation and towards staving off hunger among the vulnerable. It built the warehouses needed to stabilise staple prices and the administration to distribute food to remote places; it taught itself to listen to the grumbles in the marketplace. Informed observers typically agree the machinery of food security and disaster management were important achievements. But this understates the matter. Without such protection against the crises that ravaged the country in the early 1970s, economic and human development were surely impossible. Not only that. A state that failed to provide such cover could not have attracted the aid it needed for its own survival.

This subsistence-crisis settlement should be seen as the core of Bangladesh’s development successes. The state acknowledges this as among its most significant achievements, even though donors prefer to look to growth-enhancing policies for the answers to Bangladesh’s paradoxical success. The settlement has endured over the decades. In a research undertaken by this writer and Dhaka University’s Ferdous Jahan on the 2008 global food crisis, it was found that this agreement remained in place, guiding the public policy well into the 21st century. In our study of why Bangladesh saw no food riots during the price spikes of 2008 and 2011-12, policy elites explained that public policy had been geared up to prevent food crises because of the 1974 famine. (Despite reports to the contrary in the international media, our research revealed no evidence of riots.) To many, it was a priority that did not need articulation or examination. Protection against crises is the foundation of the Bangladeshi state.

The unexpected success
The ‘pro-poor agenda’ that informed the development project after the mid-1970s meant several things. The agreed view is that, first and foremost, it meant a pro-market orientation. This was a sharp shift away from the dirigisme of the early 1970s, when growing economic control by a weak state in effect left the newly-empowered political elite to indulge in an orgy of corruption, looting nationalised industries and misappropriating relief and reconstruction funds. The political chaos left by what Ferdous Khan termed an initial phase of ‘failed populist authoritarianism’ set the stage for the ruling elite to accept the institutions and incentives that made labour-based economic growth possible. Economic collapse and the bankruptcy of the Bangladeshi state during the oil price crisis of the early-mid 1970s gave Western donors the leverage to impose market-oriented reforms. Dependent on aid for the everyday running of the state, aware of the country’s vulnerability to natural disasters and global economic shocks, and desperate for external and internal legitimacy, the military rulers in power from 1975 till the return to democracy in 1991 increasingly opened the country up to global export markets and privatisation of state-owned enterprises. There was not much political opposition, and what remained of the Left was violently suppressed.

The economic growth rates after 1991 stayed close to five percent, and fiscal prudence and macroeconomic stability – ‘good’ policies by Bretton Woods’ standards – have since dominated. The results of this growth have included a poverty headcount rate dropping from 80 percent at the nation’s birth, to less than a third of the population 40 years later. The export market-oriented model of development notoriously has many faults, and many millions remain excluded from its unevenly-distributed benefits. Its conditions of governance remain legendarily weak and a good human-rights record remains a distant dream. But viewed from the starting point of the disastrous 1970s, its human development achievements are almost miraculous.

The elite did not just abandon the project of looting the country’s wealth – they also recognised that there being so little to extract in the first place, wealth would need to be created, and the only resources available with which to do so was human labour. By the late 1970s, the development model to emulate was the ‘Asian Tigers’ – Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. In Bangladesh, the elite and their donors took inspiration from the economic development of these societies, where homogenous, dense populations had been transformed into human resources through public investments in education and health. Bangladesh’s military rulers started to work on improving the conditions of rural women, curbing their fertility, sending their children to school, and protecting them and their families against common public health threats. Compared to many of its Southasian neighbours, Bangladesh made quick progress on immunisation, reproductive health and school enrollment, particularly among girls.

Reaching the rural poor, particularly women and children, meant being open to new ways of doing development, and new actors for delivering it. Under the long period of military rule, civil society, NGOs and activist groups emerged to fill the space left by the lack of progressive politics. Some pushed for the rights of women and the marginalised, others for attention to rural poverty and different forms of oppression. Donors began to channel funding through these fast-growing organisations, which quickly gained a reputation for delivering services cheaply and effectively. As part of its settlement with aid donors, the government gave these Western-backed organisations space and licence to operate. It balanced this liberalism with latitude towards Islamic education and welfare organisations from the West Asian states.

Historical forgetting
The conventional explanation of the overthrow of the first Awami League regime is an elite-centred story of personal betrayals, political ambitions and nefarious plots. It reflects little on how the persistence of subsistence crises into independent nationhood lost the hapless first regime its popular legitimacy. It was a military coup d’etat – by no means a popular revolution – but the lessons of Bhola (and of 1943) had been learned. The famine made the regime look vulnerable to ambitious plotters and illegitimate to those who went hungry. The heavy silence that met the brutal assassination of Mujib and his family in August 1975 must be interpreted in this light, as must the apparent acquiescence with which a nation that had so recently sacrificed so much for popular sovereignty accepted military rule.

It is not only the sequence of events – the fact that the famine was the last disaster to trigger a subsistence crisis because public policy later prevented this – that tells us that this was the turning point. The perfect storm and the final famine bracketed that war, providing a rationale for a nationhood forged in a people’s vulnerability to their environment and adverse incorporation within the global economy.

The famine was the disaster that should have been prevented, because Bangladesh was already an independent nation, led by a political elite with good reasons to care. It does not seem that the ruling elite of newly independent Bangladesh were (on the whole) callous in the way that General Yahya and his men had been in Bhola. But they failed, nonetheless, to prevent the crisis.

The 1974 famine remains a sensitive and painful topic, generally avoided in public debate. The 40th anniversary of the famine went unmarked. The silence extends even into art and culture: the acclaimed painter Zainul Abedin is known for his extensive 1944 series on the famine, but his few works on 1974 go unremembered. The Black Coat by Neamat Imam fictionalised the period in a well-received book published in 2013. The novel was largely ignored not only by reviewers in Bangladesh but even by the Hay Festival of Literature in Dhaka. Privately, people talk of their personal sense of guilt that “they [the poor] died because we [the middle classes] ate.” It does not seem that the middle class’ silence about 1974 is due to mere disregard, but rather shame and remorse. It is nevertheless, an episode in Bangladeshi history that is in danger of being forgotten.

In a memoir of his days leading the first Planning Commission of Bangladesh, Nurul Islam asks, “What was it about the famine of 1974?” reflecting mournfully on the great and numerous failures of public policy, foresight, leadership, authority and moral standing that contributed to the tragedy. For many of Professor Islam’s generation and since, the famine confirmed the public mandate, sealing the elite commitment to the promise of 1970, to protect the masses against the crises of bare life. This was “the one we should have prevented” – the disaster that took place on our watch. It was the least they could do.

~ Naomi Hossain works at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, where she researches the politics of food and hunger.

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