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close this bookNeedless Hunger - Voices from a Bangladesh Village (FF, 1982, 74 p.)
close this folderHunger in a fertile land
View the document1. The paradox
View the document2. Riches to rags

1. The paradox

In U.S. news media Bangladesh is usually portrayed as an "international basketcase," a bleak, desolate scene of hunger and despair. But when we arrived in Bangladesh in August 1974 we found a lush, green, fertile land. From the windows of buses and the decks of ferry boats, we looked over a landscape of natural abundance, everywhere shaped by the hands of men. Rice paddies carpeted the earth, and gigantic squash vines climbed over the roofs of the bamboo village houses. The rich soil, plentiful water and hot, humid climate made us feel as if we had entered a natural greenhouse.

As the autumn days grew clear and cool and the rice ripened in the fields, we saw why the Bengalis in song and verse call their land "golden Bengal." But that autumn we also came face to face with the extreme poverty for which Bangladesh has become so famous. When the price of rice soared in the lean season before the harvest, we witnessed the terrible spectacle of people dying in the streets of Dacca, the capital. Famine claimed thousands of lives throughout the country. The victims were Bangladesh's poorest people who could not afford to buy rice and had nothing left to sell.

As we tried to comprehend the contrast between the lush beauty of the land and the destitution of so many people, we sensed that we had entered a strange battleground. All around us silent struggles were being waged, struggles in which the losers met slow, bloodless deaths. In 1975 we spent nine months in the village of Katni, collecting material for a book on life in the Third World. There we learned more about the quiet violence which rages in Bangladesh.

Katni is a typical village. The majority of its 350 people are poor: most families own less than two acres of land, and a quarter of the households are completely landless. The poorest often work for landlords in neighboring villages who own over 40 acres apiece. Four-fifths of the villagers are Muslims and one-fifth are Hindus. Except for two rickshaw pullers, all make their livings from agriculture.

“Bangladesh is rich enough in fertile land, water and natural gas for fertilizer not only to be self-sufficient in food, but a food exporter, even with its rapidly increasing population size.”

To minimize the differences between ourselves and the villagers, we lived in a small bamboo house, spoke Bengali and wore local clothing. By approaching the villagers as equals we were eventually able to win their trust. Jim spent most of his time talking with the men as they worked in the fields or went to the market, while Betsy spent most of her time talking with the women as they worked in and around their houses. The villagers taught us what it means to be hungry in a fertile land.

Golden Bengal

Bangladesh lies in the delta of three great rivers-the Brahmaputra, the Ganges and Meghna-which flow through it to empty into the Bay of Bengal (see map). The rivers and their countless tributaries meander over the flat land, constantly changing course, since most of the country lies less than 100 feet above sea level. The waters not only wash the land, they create it; their sediments have built the delta over the centuries. The alluvial soil deposited by the rivers is among the most fertile in the world.

Abundant rainfall and warm temperatures give Bangladesh an ideal climate for agriculture. Crops can be grown 12 months a year. The surface waters and vast underground aquifers give the country a tremendous potential for irrigation in the dry winter season. The rivers, ponds and rice paddies are alive with fish; according to a report of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), "Bangladesh is possibly the richest country in the world as far as inland fishery resources are concerned."1

The country's dense human population bears testament to the land's fertility; historically the thick settlement of the delta, like that along the Nile River, was made possible by agricultural abundance. Today, with more than 80 million people, Bangladesh is the world's eighth most populous nation. Its population density is the highest of any country in the world except for Singapore and Hong Kong,2 a fact which is all the more remarkable in light of the country's low level of urbanization. Nine out of 10 Bangladeshis live in villages, where most make their living from the land.

Bangladesh's soil may be rich, but its people are poor. The average annual income is less than $100 per person, the life expectancy only 47 years, and like all averages these overstate the wellbeing of the poorest.3 A quarter of Bangladesh's children die before reaching the age of five4 .Malnutrition claims many. Over half of Bangladesh's families consume less than the minimal calorie requirement, and 60 percent suffer from protein deficiencies.5 Health care is poorly developed and concentrated in the urban areas. Less than a quarter of the population is literate.6

A United States Senate study notes that Bangladesh "is rich enough in fertile land, water, manpower and natural gas for fertilizer not only to be self-sufficient in food, but a food exporter, even with rapidly increasing population size."7 But despite rich soil, ideal growing conditions and an abundant supply of labor, Bangladesh's agricultural yields are today among the lowest in the world. According to a World Bank document, "Present average yields of rice are about 1.2 metric tons per hectare, compared with 2.5 tons in Sri Lanka or 2.7 in Malaysia, which are climatically similar, or over 4 tons in Taiwan where labor inputs are greater."8 Production has stagnated; today's yields are similar to those recorded 50 years ago.9

Why is a country with some of the world's most fertile land also the home of some of the world's hungriest people? A look at Bangladesh's history sheds some light on this paradox. The first Europeans to visit eastern Bengal, the region which is now Bangladesh, found a thriving industry and a prosperous agriculture. It was, in the optimistic words of one Englishman, "a wonderful land, whose richness and abundance neither war, pestilence nor oppression could destroy."10 But by 1947, when the sun finally set on the British Empire in India, eastern Bengal had been reduced to an impoverished agricultural hinterland.

Many who read Food First: ; Beyond the Myth of Scarcity find among its most shocking revelations the fact that Bangladesh isn't a hopeless basketcase: there are indeed enough resources in that country to provide for all. The media-generated image of an entire people condemned to perpetual hunger is now being challenged. The truth is more hopeful, if paradoxical: despite its current low productivity, Bangladesh may already produce enough grain for all its people. Moreover, it has barely tapped its agricultural potential-among the greatest in the world.

Many people want to learn more about Bangladesh, for they sense, as we do, that Bangladesh provides lessons with implications well beyond its national scope. If hunger is needless in this foremost "basketcase," it is indeed needless in every other country in the world.

Here in Needless Hunger, Betsy Hartmann and James Boyce share their own direct experiences and lessons drawn from the villages of Bangladesh. Hartmann and Boyce, Bengali-speaking Americans and Fellows of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, spent two years (1974-1976) living in Bangladesh and nine months in one typical rural village. Their growing familiarity with the daily struggles and conflicts within the village allowed them to cut through the seeming irrationality of hunger to find its political and economic roots. The authors describe how the few have gained effective control over productive resources, leading to both the underuse and misuse of these resources. We learn of the perceptions, fears and frustrations of those who strain to survive in rural Bangladesh against the weight of unjust social and economic structure.

But the authors do not only present us with a microscopic view of Bangladesh society. They describe in concise terms how the local hierarchy is supported at the national level. Indeed, Hartmann and Boyce demonstrate how we in the West are directly linked to the very forces that generate hunger in Bangladesh. The United States, Canada, Great Britain, Norway, Sweden, Holland, Saudi Arabia, Japan, France, Germany, etc., all have large "development assistance" programs in Bangladesh. These programs-together with those of the multilateral agencies like the U. N.'s World Food Program and the World Bank-now total well over $1 billion a year. Hartmann and Boyce show from their own on-site investigations that such aid often undermines the very people with whom we would most wish to ally ourselves - the hungry and impoverished. Similarly, the authors help us understand that no matter how good our government's intentions, the massive food aid we are told is for the hungry in fact ends up feeding and enriching a privileged minority.

But Needless Hunger is not a story without hope. Hartmann and Boyce reveal the strength and potential of the Bangladesh people. They argue that social reconstruction could bring genuine economic progress for all. And they show that there is a way that we in the West can help: we can work to remove the obstacles to social change being built by forces of intervention which shore up the hunger status-quo.

The global analysis of our book Food First is vividly captured here in a single country-in a single village.

Frances Moore LappR>Joseph Collins

2. Riches to rags

The Colonial Legacy

We in the industrialized nations often view development as a straightforward historical progression: poor countries are simply further behind on the path to development than rich ones. But this view ignores the fact that the destinies of nations have been linked, in ways which have often benefited one nation at the expense of another. In eastern Bengal, as in most of the third world, involvement with the West began with trade, and later gave way to direct political control by a colonial power. The legacy of Bangladesh's colonial history is a variation on a familiar theme: as the region became a supplier of agricultural raw materials to the world market, local industry withered and food production stagnated. The country not only did not develop, it actually underdeveloped.

European traders-first the Portuguese in the 16th century and later the Dutch, French and English-were lured to eastern Bengal by its legendary cotton textile industry, which ranked among the greatest industries in the world. Today, in a Dacca museum, one can see a specimen of the famous Dacca muslin, once prized in the imperial courts of Europe and Asia. A pale turban rests in a glass display case. Thirty feet long and three feet wide, the turban is so fine that it can be folded to fit inside an ordinary match box. The weavers of Dacca once produced this cloth on their handlooms, using thread spun from the cotton which grew along the banks of the nearby Meghna River. Today both the cotton and the weavers have disappeared. The variety of cotton plant adapted to the moist Bengali climate is extinct, and Bangladesh must import virtually all its cotton from abroad.

What happened to Bengal's cotton industry? After the British East India Company wrested control of Bengal from its Muslim rulers in 1757, the line between trade and outright plunder faded. In the words of an English merchant, "Various and innumerable are the methods of oppressing the poor weavers... such as by fines, imprisonments, floggings, forcing bonds from them, etc."1 By means of "every conceivable form of roguery," the Company's merchants acquired the weaver's cloth for a fraction of its value.

Ironically, the profits from the lucrative trade in Bengali textiles helped to finance Britain's industrial revolution. As their own mechanized textile industry developed, the British eliminated competition from Bengali textiles through an elaborate network of restrictions and prohibitive duties. Not only were Indian textiles effectively shut out of the British market, but even within India taxes discriminated against local cloth2 The rapid decimation of local industry brought great hardship to the Bengali people. In 1835 the Governor-General of the East India Company reported to London, "The misery hardly finds a parallel in the history of commerce. The bones of the cotton weavers are bleaching the plains of India."3

The population of eastern Bengal's cities declined as the weavers were thrown back to the land. Sir Charles Trevelyan of the East India Company filed this report in 1840:

The peculiar kind of silky cotton formerly grown in Bengal, from which the fine Dacca muslins used to be made, is hardly ever seen; the population of the town of Dacca has fallen from 150,000, to 30,000 or 40,000, and the jungle and malaria are fast encroaching upon the town Dacca, which used to be the Manchester of India, has fallen off from a flourishing town to a very poor and small one.4

As Britain developed, Bengal underdeveloped.

With the decline of local industry, eastern Bengal assumed a new role as a supplier of agricultural raw materials. At first, using a contract labor system not far from slavery, European planters forced the Bengali peasants to grow indigo, the plant used to make blue dye. But in 1859 a great peasant revolt swept Bengal, and after this "indigo mutiny" the planters moved west to Bihar. Jute, the fiber used to make rope and burlap, soon became the region's main cash crop. By the turn of the century, eastern Bengal produced over half the world's jute, but under British rule not a single mill for its processing was ever built there. Instead, the raw jute was shipped for manufacture to Calcutta, the burgeoning metropolis of west Bengal, or exported to Britain and elsewhere.

The British not only promoted commercial agriculture, they also introduced a new system of land ownership to Bengal. Before their arrival, private ownership of agricultural land did not exist; land could not be bought and sold. Instead, the peasants had the right to till the soil, and zamindars, notables appointed by the Muslim rulers, had the right to collect taxes. Hoping to create a class of loyal supporters as well as to finance their own administration, the British in 1793 vested land ownership in the zamindars, who were henceforth required to pay a yearly tax to the British. In one stroke, land became private property which could be bought and sold. If a zamindar failed to pay his taxes, the state could auction his land.

The British set their original tax assessment so high that many estates were soon sold for arrears, and as a result, land rapidly changed hands from the old Muslim aristocracy to a rising class of Hindu merchants. In eastern Bengal, where the majority of peasants were Muslim, Hindu zamindars came to own three-quarters of the land. Conflicts between landlords and tenants began to take on a religious coloring.

The architects of the land settlement expected that the new landlords would devote their energies to improving their estates. But the zamindars found it far easier to collect rent than to invest in farming. Instead of agricultural entrepreneurs they became absentee landlords. Numerous intermediaries (sometimes as many as 50), each of whom subleased the land and took a share of the rent, arose between the zamindars and the actual tillers of the soil.5 This led to exorbitant rents, which had a disastrous effect upon the peasants. Many were forced to borrow from moneylenders whose usurious interest rates further impoverished them. As early as 1832, a British inquiry commission concluded: "The settlement fashioned with great care and deliberation has to our painful knowledge subjected almost the whole of the lower classes to most grievous oppression.6

Little of the wealth extracted from the peasant producers by way of commercial agriculture, rent and land taxation was ever productively invested in Bengal. The budget of the colonial government clearly revealed the colonists' sense of priorities. Resources which could have financed development were instead devoted to subjugating the population. For example, in its 1935-36 budget, the Indian government devoted 703 million rupees to military services and the administration of justice, jails and the police. Another 527 million rupees were paid as interest, largely to British banks. Only 36 million were invested in agriculture and industry.7

Throughout their rule, the British also consciously exploited Hindu-Muslim antagonisms in a divide-and-rule strategy.8 When they finally departed in 1947, Bengal was split along religious lines between the new independent nations of India and Pakistan. West Bengal, which was mainly Hindu and included Calcutta, went to India. Predominantly Muslim East Bengal became East Pakistan joined in an awkward union with West Pakistan, a thousand miles away.

“In one stroke, land became private property which could be bought and sold.”

Pakistan and the Birth of Bangladesh

With the creation of Pakistan many Hindu zamindars fled to India. In 1950 the oppressive zamindari system was legally abolished. Control of the land passed into the hands of a predominantly Muslim rural elite. Although the members of this new elite lived in the villages, they were reluctant to invest in agricultural production, preferring the easier profits to be made by moneylending and trade.

As East Pakistan, the east Bengal region did experience a limited amount of industrial development. The first jute mills were finally built in the world's foremost jute-producing region. Growth remained stunted, however, by a new colonial relationship in which the West Pakistanis replaced the British. The majority of Pakistan's people lived in the eastern wing, yet westerners dominated the military and civil service. East Pakistan's jute was the main source of the nation's foreign exchange, but development expenditures were concentrated in West Pakistan. Incomes grew in the west but not in the east, and the widening disparities created political tensions between the two wings.

In 1971 these tensions culminated in civil war. The stage was set by the December 1970 national elections, when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's Awami League won an overwhelming victory in East Pakistan on a platform of regional autonomy. The West Pakistani rulers responded by launching a vicious military crackdown. Bangladesh's bloody birth trauma began. As the Bengalis waged a guerilla struggle and millions of refugees poured across the border into India, Bangladesh was suddenly catapulted from relative obscurity into the headlines of the world press. The Indian government, straining under the refugee burden and worried lest the liberation struggle assume more radical overtones, finally sent its army into Bangladesh in December, and the Pakistanis surrendered two weeks later.

Independence brought hope that the country, freed at last from the shackles of colonial domination, could begin to develop its abundant resources and address the needs of its people. But beneath the euphoria of independence lurked the deeply rooted problems of economic stagnation and impoverishment. When we arrived in Dacca in 1974, the triumphant flush of enthusiasm had faded, giving way to growing anger and despair. Many Bengalis blamed soaring rice prices and the autumn famine on the corruption of Mujib's ruling party, and on the hoarding of grain by merchants. A Dacca rickshaw puller told us, "First the English robbed us. Then the Pakistanis robbed us. Now we are being robbed by our own people."

Since independence Bangladesh has received a massive influx of foreign aid-over $1 billion per year. Yet the country's agriculture and industry continue to stagnate and the living conditions of the poor steadily deteriorate. Bangladesh's colonial legacy cannot be easily erased. The British and Pakistani rulers may be gone, but they left a social order which condemns millions to needless hunger.