Millions Face Starvation in
Bangladesh Famine

DHAKA, Nov 6 (OneWorld) -

"One of the region's severest droughts coupled with a 400 per cent increase in prices of essentials, has left over two million people in north-western Bangladesh battling for survival: many subsisting on boiled weeds or banana leaves.

While this region is prone to annual famines, the harshness of this year's situation has forced residents of the eight districts to migrate in search of food and employment. According to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and district officials, thousands of jobless people are migrating to the southern and southeastern districts of Sylhet, Moulavibazar, Comilla, Chittagong, Dhaka and other places in search of work.


Thousands of people forced to eat weeds for survival have fallen sick, while the outbreak of waterborne diseases like diarrhea is posing a serious threat to health in the region.

According to a report by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), prices of essentials have spiraled by 400 per cent in October-November this year, as compared to the same period in 2002.

A leftist farmers political front - Bangladesh Khetmajur Union - has urged the government to launch an emergency health program to fight diarrhea. Observes the Union's general secretary, Saiful Huq, "People are too poor to afford even an oral saline to fight diarrhea. Men, women, and children are dying everyday due to lack of treatment and medication at the rural health centers."

In Kurigram district, where villagers are facing acute starvation, and unemployment has triggered a five-fold decrease in labor costs, villagers like Aklima are living on water and arum for the last several weeks.

"My four daughters and I are fasting day and night," cries Aklima, describing her sufferings in the month of Ramadan, when Muslims traditionally fast all day to learn the meaning of sacrifice. "We break our fast with water, eating millets and arum curry at night," reveals Aklima, who sent her husband and only son to look for a job in the capital, Dhaka a week ago. Her neighbor says no relief worker or public representative has recently visited their village.

Nearly skeletal from starvation, Esar Ali, 45, a farm worker of Shatbhita village remains bed-ridden for nearly one month. His wife Yabhan Banu, a mother of seven daughters and three sons, says she sent her sons to Dhaka a month ago, hoping they would earn some money. But they returned empty handed. "I have no money to take my husband to hospital," says a wailing Yabhan.

To tackle the alarming situation, Prime Minister Khaleda Zia Tuesday assigned five additional secretaries to coordinate and supervise relief works in the worst-hit districts of Lalmonirhat, Rangpur, Gaibandha, Nilphamari and Kurigram. "We are disbursing relief through a program called vulnerable group feeding (VGF) in which the poor are given a card to regularly collect rations, till they obtain work in the upcoming harvesting season," says Deputy Minister for Relief, Asadul Habib. The government has sanctioned 4,806 metric tons of rice against their VGF cards, for 480,600 families in the vulnerable areas. Under the program, each family will receive ten kilograms of rice.

"The government also plans to undertake small-scale projects like poultry, cattle farming and and small trading to make the vulnerable communities self-reliant," says Deputy Minister Asadul Habib. "We will also provide cash relief to every starving family," he asserts.

But in reality, the promised relief is not reaching the poor.

"I am starving for the last two days, previously just eating some dried rice, but I have not received any VGF card," says Shatish Chandra Nandi, 99, a former schoolteacher who now begs for a living in Kurigram.

Every year a pre-winter famine-like situation grips Bangladesh's predominantly agricultural northern districts. But this year, the situation is exacerbated by other problems. Explains an official of Rangpur's Agriculture Extension Department, Taiyabur Rahman, "This year the sowing of seeds was delayed due to drought, so the harvesting time is also uncertain. In addition, a massive flood in the region destroyed a large part of the earlier crop, making people impoverished."

And the phenomenal price hike comes as the proverbial last straw.

Leader of Bangladesh's main Opposition party, Awami League, Sheikh Hasina, blames the government for not taking prompt corrective measures. She suggests, "The government should address the situation by opening free kitchens across north Bengal."

For her part, Prime Minister Khaleda Zia claims the situation is nearly under control. "There is no need to panic, as this is not a new phenomenon. We have beefed up relief activities to address the situation," she asserts. But the price rise poses a serious problem for the government, not just affecting its image in the northern region, but in the rest of the country as well. Warns the head of the ADB's economics unit, Purnima Rajapakse, "Inflation is likely to rise further in the coming months. Food prices increased from 1.5 per cent in July 2002 to 5.9 per cent in July 2003."

According to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on the Commerce ministry, the situation was partly created by the government's failure to control crime syndicates. The latter collect money from trucks carrying food supplies."

Sharier Khan
OneWorld South Asia
06 November 2003