LOUD and angry, the child’s voice reverberates along the Dhanmondi streets. Unlike the other cries, this one quickly recedes before I can turn on my audio recorder. The incessant pneumatic horns, the screeching of brakes, the dust spewing up from potholed worn tarmac that bedraggled buses bump their way through have gone. With factories and offices closed, load sheddings have also gone down, though the transformer blowing up as the kal boishakhi storm hit, did lead to a power outage. Above the cawing of a crow that has built its nest close to our verandah, we can hear other birds sing. Sounds interspersed with calls of small time vendors, trading what they can, selling what they can. While they can. Despite the other sounds, the child’s cry keeps echoing in my mind.
DURATION: 12 MINUTES
Best known for his work on the causes of famine, his book Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, argued that famine occurs not only from a lack of food, but from inequalities built into mechanisms for distributing food. Sen also helped to create the United Nations Human Development Index which is used to rank countries by standard of living or quality of life.
Now working as Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University, he began at the tender age of twenty-three by setting up a new economics department at Jadavpur University in Calcutta, but he has also held professorships at Delhi University, the London School of Economics and the University of Oxford.
When in 1998 he was appointed Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, he became the first Asian academic to head an Oxbridge college. In the same year he received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his work in welfare economics.
The New Elizabethans have been chosen by a panel of leading historians, chaired by Lord (Tony) Hall, Chief Executive of London’s Royal Opera House. The panellists were Dominic Sandbrook, Bamber Gascoigne, Sally Alexander, Jonathan Agar, Maria Misra and Sir Max Hastings.
They were asked to choose: “Men and women whose actions during the reign of Elizabeth II have had a significant impact on lives in these islands and/or given the age its character, for better or worse.”
Bhat dey haramjada (Give rice, you bastard) — screamed the graffiti on a wall. It had stunned pedestrians in Dhaka. This was 1974.
In early March, six months before the famine had reached its peak, news of starvation deaths could be heard. Two to three months later, they had become common enough. Occassionally, dead bodies could be seen lying on the street. What had caused the famine of 1974? Amartya Sen, a Nobel Laureate, says that it was a reduction in the ability of people to command food through legal means available in society — in their entitlements to food — that led to the famine. Food crisis, says Sen, is caused not by food shortage but by the shortage of income and purchasing power. On a person’s ability to command commodities, particularly food, under entitlement relations. Starvation and famine are not only economic, says Sen. These are multi-dimensional subjects, they include social, political and legal issues. If groups of people lack purchasing power they can starve, even though markets are well stocked. Even though food prices are low.
What had caused the famine of 1974? For Devinder Sharma, it was the US government’s decision to withhold 2.2 million tons of food aid that was at fault. The US government had wanted to ensure that the Mujib regime `abandoned plans to try Pakistani war criminals’. When the Bangladesh Finance Minister had called upon the US Secretary of State, in August 1973, to appeal for food aid, the latter had advised the speedy settlement of disputes with Pakistan. Referring to Bangladesh government’s proposal of “war crimes” trials of the Pakistan army, he had said, it was ?not good to have such trials.? “Humanity” had never learned from war crimes trials, he said. Of course, the Americans had good reasons for saying so. The US ex-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s name had repeatedly come up. War objectors had demanded that he be tried for US massacres in Vietnam, for America’s role in Bangladesh’s liberation war. That humanity never learns is best exemplified by the US and its allies. Pakistan. Israel. Humanity never learns unless, of course, the criminals are Nazis or Serbians.
But that is not the end of `famine is a political weapon’ for the US story. Pressure on the Mujib government returned. In 1974, the US Ambassador said, no food aid would be given to Bangladesh if it exported jute to Cuba. The Mujib government gave in to US pressure. Jute exports to Cuba were stopped, but by the time food shipments reached, it was too late. Most famine victims had succumbed.
Were there other causes? Some researchers say, successive natural disasters, floods and droughts, had prefaced the food crisis. Others mention the Awami League government’s lack of foresight in importing foods. In directing subsidised food to the politically vocal urban population, at horrific costs to far-poorer, rural people. Others stress political and administrative corruption which had encouraged massive hoarding, and the smuggling of foodgrains. Many others say it was the gross mismanagement of the economy.
Why do I rehearse these instances from history? Because there are lessons to be learnt. Because it is not enough for either the Chief Adviser, his advisers, or the Army Chief to repeatedly say, there is no shortage of rice, the markets are well-stocked, more rice is being imported, it will reach soon. Simplistic reasoning, simplistic assertions are not enough. There have been too many famines, too many deaths. Each death was one too many. We must learn from history. That lessons are not being learnt is obvious from what is being said. From the little that is being done. The rice queues keep getting longer.
In 1974 too, world food prices had risen. But the situation is far more grave now. Hard-hit consumers across the globe are protesting. Mexicans rioted in December 2007. Tortilla prices had jumped up; in some parts of Mexico, it was four times higher. In Indonesia, people have protested against the rise in soybean prices. In Burkina Faso, protestors attacked government offices and shops. Demonstrations have also taken place in Guinea, Mauritania, Morocco, Senegal, Uzbekistan, Yemen. Severe weather, rising population, rapid increases in demand for foodgrain (China, India), speculation in commodity markets, are listed as reasons. Also, a growing trend to turn food into fuel. Four hundred and fifty pounds of maize can be converted into enough ethanol to fill the 25 gallon tank of an SUV with pure ethanol at one time. Or it can be used to provide enough calories to feed one person for a year. The competition between food and fuel is encouraged by governmental subsidies given to biofuel in western countries. In non-western nations, that those hardest hit, should be provided with income support to help them purchase food is something all concerned agree upon. Simultaneously, it is agreed that governments should increase their investments in agriculture in order to improve agricultural productivity.
The situation in Bangladesh is made peculiar because of its rule by a caretaker government. Because of the fifteen month-long state of emergency. Recently, the Chief Adviser, in the light of accusations of poor food distribution said, shortages occur even in countries which have elected governments. Of course they do. That is not the point. The new system of corruption is individualistic, sector-oriented, and technocrat-elitist. It is not tied to constituencies and vote banks which have a nationwide spread, albeit with party lines of exclusion and inclusion. The new system is an introverted one. When it comes to food and other resources, the distribution is random. It is queue-oriented, linear. It does not encompass. Its reach is limited. Most are left out.
The army chief’s versatile kitchen
The army chief General Moeen U Ahmed had said on a visit to Chelopara in Bogra, Bangladeshis should increase the intake of potato in their daily diet. `We should not depend only on rice. Of course, we will eat rice but we must increase the intake of potato.’ That will reduce the food crisis, specially the pressure on rice. Potato yields this year have been very high.
A few days later, General Moeen invited the country’s leading editors to the army headquarters. The meeting was followed by a lunch where nine potato dishes were served with plain rice, fresh salad, fried ruhi fish. The potato-based dishes were: potato country curry, potato malai curry, potato noborotno curry, potato pudina curry, potato roller gravy, potato kofta curry, potato pulse curry, potato shak (spinach) curry. (Jaijaidin, 9 April 2008).
The list only proves that the Army Chief has versatile cooks, a versatile kitchen. But that was never in doubt. Just as his promotion, or his extension was never in doubt.
The language of the streets is different from the language of those who rule the land. Emergency restrictions, and the intolerable food crisis has generated jokes that comprise a secret language of sorts between common people. Food jokes, queue jokes have been common elsewhere too. Such as this one. A man is queuing for food in Moscow. Finally he’s had enough. He turns round to his friend and says “That’s it. I’m going to kill that Gorbachev,” and marches off. Two hours later he comes back. “Well,” says the friend, “did you do it?” “No,” replies the other, “there was an even longer queue over there.”
A more recent one, overheard by a friend in Muktagaccha, between two rickshawallas:
So, shorkar says, we have to eat more potatos. What do you say?
Well, get those high-talking advisors over, have rice, chaff, flour, and potatos in charis (cattle troughs), let’s see what they eat. I’ll eat what they eat.
Nine types of any food would fill a rickshawalla’s stomach.
First published in New Age on 14th April 2008