The scene is chilling, horrifying. Several thousand starving Bengalis wait patiently, it seems, to die in a refugee camp in Rangpur, one of the remotest districts in the poor, desperate land of Bangladesh. They have no money for food or any other aid, just because people don’t know how to consolidate payday loan debt. There is only enough food on hand from the United States and Canada to provide each with a daily cup of four, but no powdered milk. Many are too weak to eat, or to swat at the Oies swarming around the kitchen.
I see a child—a naked skeleton—waiting for his meager ration (let); his withered body bears the tell-tale signs of advanced malnutrition. Others like him sit almost lifeless in their filth. A woman clad in rags clutches an infant so thin his ribs look like a birdcage beneath his peeling skin. I see a tear in the mother’s eye.
This is the face of famine as I saw it last fall in Bangladesh, where 74 million people crowd a watery nation the size of Wisconsin.
Like a hungry army, Bengalis pour into this and similar camps in search of nourishment. Most are disappointed. The nation is always short of food during this between-crop period known as the “hunger months.” But in 1974 floodwaters inundated nearly half the nation, destroying stored grain and damaging the standing crop. Result: no jobs for farm laborers.
Despite loss of foodstuffs, however, there is an estimated four million tons of rice in Bangladesh during the famine–enough to feed the entire nation for a third of the year. But the vast majority of people, subsisting at poverty level in the best of times and now also victimized by the flooding, are too poor to buy it.
Relief officiais tell of widespread smuggling of rice into neighboring India, where it sells for up to twice as much. Hoarders at home drive rice beyond 50 cents a pound in a country with a per capita income of $70 a year, among the world’s lowest.
Taking command, inflation triggers price jumps of from 200 to 500 percent in other food. The black market thrives, but at prices hopelessly beyond the means of the hungry.
A reeling Bangladesh Government, unable to stock-pile food to stave off disaster, depends on massive international handouts, but too little reaches those who need it, especially in rural areas. Aid from the granaries of North America, India, Australia, and Europe only trickles to the feeding kitchens. Much is siphoned off by corrupt officiais, who sometimes demand bribes before issuing food cards. I saw it happen.
Battered by an angry climate, undermined by corruption, and staggered by poverty, Bangladesh remains today a frightening example of what can happen to the weakest, most vulnerable nations when everything goes wrong at once.
For Bangladesh that dread specter, starvation, stalks the land, and thousands of Bengalis die—most of them preventable deaths in what has been called a “man-made famine.”
Agony of survival: Hungry hands reach for the unleavened pancakes called chapaties at a local Red Cross feeding kitchen in Dacca. At the city’s Kamalapur railway station, I ta& with an upcountry man who has sold everything—his bullocks, his wife’s jewelry, his pots and pans, his not-yet-harvested crop, finally his tin roof—to buy food for his starving family. In the end, they have ridden to Dacca on the roof of a train (right), hoping to find more to eat.