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At least she doesn’t have to wear a fishing net now

  • Published at 04:13 am September 29th, 2017
  • Last updated at 07:08 am October 2nd, 2017
At least she doesn’t have to wear a fishing net now
Even to this day, the image of a desperately emaciated woman clad in a fishing net in rural Bangladesh is as striking as it was 43 years ago. The photo had drawn global attention to the devastating famine that hit Bangladesh barely two years after its bloody birth and killed an estimated 1.5 million people. Those 10 months in 1974 were probably the toughest time Bangladesh has ever had since independence. It was hard on the people, particularly those living in northern districts that are heavily dependent on agriculture. Basanti Bala, now 75, was the woman in the image that jolted the world. The powerful image of the deaf-mute woman became the centre of attention after daily Ittefaq, then the most influential newspaper in Bangladesh, printed it on their front page. Basanti's family survived on one meal every two to three days like many others in Kurigram, one of the worst flood and famine-hit districts. Her family of poor anglers could not afford clothes for her. When the Ittefaq photographer found her, she was wearing a fishing net as her only sari had worn out. That photograph became the face of the 1974 famine, attributed to a combination of failed food supply mechanism, which was yet to recover from the havoc wreaked by the Pakistan army, flooding and hoarding by profit-monger rice traders. Bangladesh has since risen to the status of a lower-middle income country from being an ultra-poor country. The living standard has improved and the nation's per capita income has increased nearly 11 times to $1,600 from $150. But these changes have hardly touched Basanti’s life – the only improvement for her is that she does not have to wear fishing nets anymore. At 75, the childless widow is still fully dependent on her relatives for survival. Her husband, who also had hearing and speech impairment, died several years ago, leaving her with nothing. Now she lives with in a tiny hut on a small piece of land alongside the homestead of a relative, a poor day labourer. “I live from hand to mouth. But still, I try to help her [Basanti] as much as I can,” said Niruu Bala. “If I stop helping her, the poor old woman will surely die.” Asked if she got assistance from the government’s safety net programmes and the NGOs, the relative said: “Yes. But those are inadequate. She does not have any skill or training. So, she cannot even take small loans.” Mutakabbirul, who works at the local office of iNGO Practical Action, said very few people are aware of the jolt Basanti's picture had created in 1974. “I knew very little about the 1974 famine, until I learned about Basanti after coming here for work,” said Mutakabbirul, who introduced this reporter to Basanti.
A local NGO has recently started working with Basanti, training her on growing sweet pumpkins | Abu Siddique In March 1974, agro-based ultra-poor communities were already suffering due to a sharp rise in rice prices, triggered by widespread hoarding. When a severe flood hit some of the northern districts, things got totally out of the government’s hand which was still struggling to rebuild the country. The situation started to ease after international aid and food relief arrived in October. By December 1974, the famine was officially over. And with that, things went back to square one for women like Basanti and she was lost in oblivion. A local NGO has recently started working with Basanti, training her on growing sweet pumpkins. Khalid Hossain, who works for an international donor agency, said there were many organisations that worked with people with disabilities but they never got in touch with women like Basanti who live in remote villages. “Even the government has not done much for them. “So, whatever money they get from NGOs or government’s social safety nets, they spend it on food. If they had some kind of training, they could have the money or taken micro loans to turn their lives around,” he added.
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