Bangladesh, born of one calamity after another—an appalling cyclone and tidal wave, famine, massacre, war—may be heading for yet another, worse still. No country so far, however poor, has reached the point where millions of its citizens actually die because they have nothing to eat. If there is a place on the planet facing that ultimate nightmare, this is it.
The point about Bangladesh is not merely that it is poor. As the most overcrowded and underfed nation on earth, it has given the word “poverty” new dimensions. One might even say that it is too far gone to be listed among the struggling Third World nations; it heads an emerging Fourth World of young and destitute states kept alive only by heavy transfusions of foreign aid. These are the countries that have raced toward statehood in a burst of nationalist euphoria, only to find that they have neither the means to support themselves nor the allure to be supported in the style to which they might like to be accustomed. They are not the lucky ones that happen to be sitting on an underground sea of oil or a strategically interesting spot on the map. Though they would sink like stones without international handouts, they have nothing but the feeblest humanitarian claims on their benefactors. Nobody needs them, or wants them. What is to be done with them?
It is doubtful whether the 70 million Bengalis of East Pakistan gave the matter much thought when they broke away to form a state of their own in December, 1971. By then they could think of nothing but escaping from a trap set a quarter of a century earlier with the separation of India’s Hindus and Moslems by Partition. Under the Moslem state of Pakistan, the soft, poetic Bengalis of the East were left to the mercies of hard-nosed Punjabi warriors a thousand miles to the west across the Indian subcontinent. The festering grievances of that partnership had been unbearably inflamed by West Pakistan’s neglect in 1970, when half a million East Pakistanis lost their lives during the most devastating cyclone and tidal wave in recorded history.
The atrocities that followed, as West Pakistan fought to hold the rebellious East, were enough to bring a shocked and sympathetic world to the Bengalis’ side. Charges of genocide may have been wildly exaggerated. Though Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman claims that the Pakistanis murdered 3 million of his countrymen, the figure probably came to substantially less than a tenth of that. But after nine months of terror and three weeks of war, the Pakistani army certainly left his country in a shambles.
Ten million refugees had fled to neighboring India during those nine months of wholesale killing, burning, looting, and rape, and returned to find what little they owned in ruins. Six million homes were destroyed, and nearly one and a half million farming families lost their livestock and tools. Three quarters of all the country’s vehicles were damaged, wrecked, stolen; railroads were paralyzed, and three hundred bridges were down. Unplanted fields and a severe drought had between them caused a food shortage of at least two and a half million tons. Such industry as the country could boast, mainly the four hundred jute mills earning nine tenths of its foreign currency, had ground to a halt. Among other things, Bangladesh required seven hundred thousand tons of bricks and a hundred thousand tons of steel rods for immediate repairs alone. The estimates were that it would need about $1.5 billion of foreign aid to get back on its feet.
It has had $2 billion worth by now. But far from getting back on its feet, it is staggering under increasingly crushing burdens. While most emergency repairs have been taken care of, industry is still lagging so badly that recovery even to modest pre-war levels is not expected much before 1980, if then. Export earnings are so low that nobody knows where the money is to come from for things that simply have to be imported, such as fuel, fertilizer, cotton cloth, and food grains, all costing three or four times more than they did a year or two ago. Meanwhile, in a country whose people live mainly and often solely on rice, the price of homegrown rice has shot up 300 percent since independence. In spite of a bumper crop this year (the first in many years without some natural or man-made disaster), the price keeps going up anyway, and supplies are still short by well over a million tons. Some of the causes might be brought under control, in theory at any rate: hoarding, smuggling, and corruption, for instance. But almost all can be traced to an underlying cause very nearly out of control, making it likely that Bangladeshis will continue to pay more and more for their rice with every passing year, and have less and less of it to go around.
Nature is by no means as hard on this land as it may seem. The cyclones homing in from the Bay of Bengal can be terrifying—the one in 1970 devastated an area of two thousand square miles and took half a million lives—and the colossal floods reaching this coast every year from the mighty Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers are probably the most awesome in the world. But the same Hoods, bearing their priceless silt, have made the soil of Bangladesh incredibly fertile. It surely ought to be able to feed the Bangladeshis, especially since they are too accustomed to poverty to ask for much. “We don’t suffer from rising expectations,” is how Enayetullah Khan, editor of the lively weekly Holiday, put it. The trouble is that their expectations are falling.
Ten years before the breakaway from Pakistan, there were 55 million people in what is now Bangladesh. When the break came, they had grown to 70 million. In the little more than two years since then, they have swollen to 75 million, the world’s eighth-largest population living on three hundredths of one percent of the world’s land. While their numbers have grown by 38 percent in this period, rice production has gone up barely 10 percent—this in a crop year breaking all records. Most Bangladeshis are eating less than they did before independence (down from an average 15.4 ounces daily to 12.9). Nearly half of them no longer eat the minimum supposedly needed to stay alive. The overwhelming majority are so close to the starvation line that their single, gnawing, imperative concern is to find food for the family from day to day. And eight more babies are born there every minute.
At this rate, there will be 150 million Bangladeshis just twenty-three years from now, and over 200 million by the year 2003, creating what one population expert calls “an unprecedented situation for mankind.” Bangladesh has a territory the size of Iowa, half of it under water during the floods and monsoon rains; and with personal incomes averaging $50 a year, it is so wretchedly poor that aid experts have had to invent a new category for it—a “Relatively Less Developed Country,” they call it. Plainly it doesn’t have the living space for so many people, still less much chance of feeding them. “Even doubling the population on Bangladesh’s limited land space is a disturbing prospect,” says its Planning Commission. “A trebling is frightful to visualize.”
Just how frightful that could be may be judged from the preview offered by Bangladesh as it is already.
From the air it seems a paradise of abundance, with its thickly wooded Hill Tracts in the southeast and the luxuriant jungles of the legendary Bengal tiger in the southwest Sunderbahn, laced with silvery streams and man-made waterways, crisscrossed with brilliant green paddy fields blanketing the vast deltaic plains, dotted with the snug thatched roofs of village baris clustered in the shade of tall coconut palm trees. From the ground, the paddy fields turn out to be incredibly tiny, and the baris— housing perhaps fifty or sixty members of related families—shockingly bare of creature comforts and the smallest scraps of food. Nevertheless, unless you actually visit some baris, as I did around Comilla, you might wander for days through this smiling countryside without suspecting the privation masked by its bright foliage.
In the cities, though, the human landscape is one of unrelieved and unforgettable misery. Even in the Orient there are few national capitals to match Dacca for squalor. Apart from a single modern hotel, the Prime Minister’s palace, and one or two outlying suburbs reserved for government big shots and the diplomatic corps, Dacca is a steamy slum of cracked and grimy office buildings and hovels passing for shops with little if anything to sell. Clotted sewage and garbage crawling with vermin lie in the gutters unnoticed. Lepers, grotesque cripples, and indescribably ragged children swarm to any car stopping at a curb or traffic light to beg for pennies. The great majority of the capital’s 2 million inhabitants are housed in ramshackle tenements or thatched lean-tos called bustees, without running water or sanitation; about one in every ten persons is not housed at all.
Day in, day out, families carrying all their worldly goods in small bundles on their heads wander the streets in search of a place to settle for the night. From Tongi in the north to the Buriganga River embankment in the south, from Basabo in the east to Mohammadpur in the west, beside the railway tracks in the Badamtolly Ghat area, and along the bylanes of downtown Motijheel, some two hundred thousand people sleep in long lines or circles, on footpaths, at bus stops, on staircases and verandas, on railroad platforms, under trees.
Described by one Daccan as “vagabonds, unclaimed children, mini-hawkers, street-magicians, lunatics, dope addicts, and hippies,” they live by begging, pedaling bicycle rickshaws, hawking peanuts, dhal, curry, and ruti (a small unleavened bread baked without oil), shining shoes, taking the place of horses to pull heavy carts, stealing, prostitution, and part-time domestic work such as washing dishes or grinding spices. The men I met among them may earn fifty cents a day if they’re lucky, the women three or four dollars a month.
They are always hungry. Most of those I met seldom ate more than a handful of rice a day with perhaps a single onion or chili, cooked over fires made with old tires and rubbish. Rummaging through dustbins for food and fighting over scraps is commonplace; and no scrap is turned down, however unappetizing. In the Chowdatooly colony of sweepers, former Untouchables from India who have been gatherers of night soil in Dacca for generations, I saw several children standing knee-deep in an open sewer, hacking away at the bloody and maggoty carcass of an old bullock. After a lifetime of drawing the sweepers’ carts, the bullock had been lying around dead for days, while the government inspector waited for his customary bribe to have it hauled away.
I had thought that Chowdatooly was where human beings had hit bottom. But I had not reckoned on the Kazi Quader’s building in Hatkhola Road. Planned as a high-rise hotel in old Dacca and abandoned during the war with construction work half finished, the building has been occupied ever since by close to a thousand squatters. The ground floor, when I came in, was coated in slime. Every inch was occupied by men, women, and children sitting or lying listlessly on filthy rags or straw. The air stank of excrement, urine, rotting garbage, and pus. Within two minutes of entering the premises, I counted fifteen cases of raging smallpox. Cholera was endemic. Almost everybody I questioned suffered from skin or intestinal disease, anemia, life-threatening malnutrition. “You’re asking about our health? We’re all dying, just waiting to die,” one said. Four out of five babies born here die, in fact, before they are a year old.
People like these are drifting into the cities in the thousands: the urban population of Bangladesh is rising by 10 percent a year. It was not long ago that many or most were still working in the countryside, on somebody else’s farm or their own. To this day, some have clung to their last fragmented holding of a few kathas, a katha being a sixteenth of a third of an acre. Like millions of others, they have been driven toward the cities because the land cannot support them anymore. Some have been wiped out by cyclones, tidal waves, floods, erosion. But far more have been squeezed out by relentlessly rising population pressures, causing the size of holdings to keep shrinking as there are more mouths to feed. By now, leftwing terrorists have taken to condemning and executing owners of a mere three acres as “big” landlords. The average farm size is down to 1.7 acres, and half the holdings are less than a single acre.
Since no holding that small can support a pair of bullocks, they are worked by hand with primitive plows and hoes. It is hard to see how, on a farm like that, the most undemanding of Bengali families with seven or eight children can keep body and soul together; and one in every three Bengalis has no land left at all, or any other way to earn a steady living.
Beset by such anguishing problems, the nation’s young and inexperienced government has, if anything, compounded them.
Friend of Bengal
Few other men in history have come to power with the kind of popular mandate Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had. The half-million crying, laughing, shouting, deliriously excited Bengalis who met him at the airport after his release from a Pakistani prison at the war’s end would have done anything for their folk hero and followed him anywhere. Even now, many are reluctant to renounce their faith in the Bangabandhu, the Friend of Bengal, who led them so gloriously to nationhood. But the faith is visibly wearing thin.
It is hard to meet Sheikh Mujib without succumbing at least a little to his charm. In his mid-fifties, he is the quintessence of the romantic Bengali image: passionate, impulsive, courtly, generous, talkative, gay. Unfortunately, he is also remarkably irresolute for a man whose whole life has been spent, in and out of prison, defending the elementary rights of his people. “His decisions, when he makes them at all, are likely to depend on whoever gets to him last,” a close associate remarks. “He is also congenitally unable to say no. And since he seems unwilling or unable either to delegate authority or use it properly himself, he is a really terrible administrator.”
Furthermore, he can hardly be described as much of a political thinker. For all his heroic defense of the Bengalis under Pakistani rule, he never formulated a coherent plan for independence until events positively thrust the independence upon him. Nor has he infused the Awami League, which came to power on his coattails, with a burning interest in ideology of any sort. Its members, mostly ward heelers of classic stamp, seem to care very little about moving to the right, left, or center, or anywhere else save where the pork barrel happens to be.
Such as it is, the ideology guiding them is what Sheikh Mujib calls Mujibism, a confused experiment in secular democratic national socialism which can reasonably be written off as a flop, especially the socialist part. This consists of a blanket nationalization order issued barely three months after independence, covering 85 percent of the nonagricultural economy: all domestically owned banks and insurance companies, most shipping, and all textile, sugar, and jute mills. Every one of these enterprises is now losing money. The banks are so heavily in the red that they are refusing to throw good money after bad in further loans to the public sector industries. The jute mills, Bangladesh’s export lifeline, have slipped from an average pre-war profit of $39 a ton to an average loss of $212 a ton. The Adamjee jute mills, the largest in the world, are losing $30 million a year.
Wartime disruption can no longer be blamed for this, foreign aid having more than made up for it. One reason is a perennial and pernicious power shortage, largely the result of administrative inefficiency, with factories hit by power failures ten and twelve times a day. Another reason has been a succession of easy victories for the National Labor League, not only doubling wages in just two years but padding payrolls so thickly with unnecessary and “ghost” workers that the Labor League’s leader has become one of the richest men in Dacca. But the biggest cause is mismanagement.
No sooner did Sheikh Mujib nationalize industry than he fired the top personnel and put in his own political appointees from the ruling Awami League. None were qualified for their new jobs, and many seemed highly unqualified. The one he put in charge of the whole jute industry, for example, had been fired in 1970 by the Pakistanis for corruption. (So had the man who is currently Mujib’s closest governmental adviser.)
By now the nation’s entire political and administrative structure is shot through with such appointees. Not many show much concern about the work at hand. Such is their reluctance to risk the Sheikh’s displeasure that the most trivial matters—issuing a nonpolitical visa, say—end up on his desk. But they have been quick to learn how to take care of themselves. Corruption may be unavoidable in any country, but it has hit Bangladesh faster and harder than most. In a “spoils system gone mad,” as the London Economist calls it, the public official is rare here who doesn’t have his hand in the till. “You have only to offer some functionary a bottle of whiskey and $10,000, and all he’ll ask is ‘Where do I sign?’ ” a prominent editor observed to me bitterly. “They’re bleeding us white.” Not long ago, to cite any of a hundred cases, a ship carrying 18,000 tons of desperately needed cement reached Chittagong Harbor with only 1100 tons; the rest had melted away when the ship “sprang a leak,” the captain said. Shortly afterward, another ship sent by the European Common Market unloaded 14,000 tons of wheat in Chittagong, whereupon 10,000 tons of it promptly vanished.
With happy-go-lucky methods such as these, a new class of millionaires has emerged overnight, getting richer by the minute at their countrymen’s expense. Whether employed directly by the regime or heavily dependent on it for protection, they have a strong vested interest in it. As things are going, they may soon be the only Bangladeshis who do.
Barely a year ago, in Bangladesh’s first national elections, Sheikh Mujib’s Awami League won 90 percent of the popular vote and 307 out of 315 parliamentary seats. While there may have been a little hanky-panky with the ballot boxes at the time, it was nothing like the kind that would be necessary now to get the same results. “For a long while, we refused to believe that Sheikh Mujib was aware of what was going on around him, still less that he had any personal part in it,” a distinguished Bengali intellectual told me. “But he’d have to be deaf, dumb, and blind to be all that innocent all this time. If he is, he shouldn’t be running the country. If he isn’t . . . well, he can’t have it both ways.”
Though almost anybody you come across in Dacca says something of the sort, this is far from meaning that all Bangladesh is up in arms against the Bangabandhu— yet. The opposition, what there is of it, is disorganized and fragmented. There are six distinct Communist parties, a socialist party, and four “mass” parties opposing the Awami League, each with its own peasant, labor, youth, and student wings; and the best-known opposition leader, a fanatical Moslem Maoist known as the Maulana Bashani, is over ninety. Nevertheless, popular disenchantment is unmistakably spreading; the unity and self-imposed discipline of a nation fighting for its freedom have given way to disorder and ugly violence; and the Sheikh’s response, increasingly brutal, reflects his mounting concern.
Nobody knows how many murders are committed daily in Bangladesh; most of them are no longer reported in the press. By last official count about a year ago, they were running to four or five a day. By now, reliable sources think, the daily figure is closer to forty or fifty. Many are the work of dacoits, armed thugs roaming the countryside and city streets to kill for simple plunder. But at least 3000 politicians either representing or opposing the Awami League have been assassinated since independence, and the same sources believe that the 1974 score will be at least as many again.
“Who’s our leader?”
It is hard to draw a clear line between the two kinds of murder. Plenty of dacoits have political sentiments of a sort, often singling out a hated village moneylender or rich landlord and literally tearing him limb from limb; and quite a few politicians here seem to have dacoity instincts. Whatever their motives, the killers have no trouble about laying hands on a gun. Despite the Sheikh’s urgent appeals when the war was over, at least a hundred thousand Bengalis who had picked up weapons during the emergency never did turn them in. This is particularly true among the young freedom fighters in the Mukti Bahini. Demobilized without glory, and passed over with singular lack of foresight when the plummy postwar jobs were handed out to the Sheikh’s Awami Leaguers, they are broke and bitter. “Would you fight again if Sheikh Mujib asks you to?” I asked a group of disabled veterans camping together in a tumbledown Dacca shack. They roared with laughter. “And who’s our bloody leader, boys?” one called out raucously. The laugh was more menacing this time.
There is little doubt that a number of these youths have fallen in with the dacoits. As a high police officer confirms, however, there isn’t much doubt either that many are falling in with those whose interest in arms is political. On the pretext of “crushing miscreants”—common criminals, that is—the regime is going after such opponents, active or potential, real or imagined, with sledgehammer tactics. The regular police are too poorly trained and equipped for this work. Instead, Sheikh Mujib relies heavily on two paramilitary formations: his nephew Sheikh Fazlul Haque Moni’s Youth League, whose one hundred thousand armed toughs are engaged in a national “purification drive”; and his personal security force, the Rokhi Bahini. Deliberately trained to be ruthless, it is the Rokhi Bahini that terrorizes the populace. They break into factories, holding workers at gunpoint when a slowdown occurs and putting labor leaders under surveillance; they impose sudden curfews in villages to make houseto-house searches for hidden weapons (and, incidentally, collect overdue gas and light bills and taxes); they arrest people without warrants, questioning them under a torture so relentless that several are known to have died.
By now, the regime no longer bothers to keep up the fiction that this is a virtuous law-and-order campaign. Its purpose was stated bluntly by the Awami League’s General Secretary not long ago: “The government will annihilate elements threatening to overthrow it by armed struggle,” he said, shortly after the Rokhi Bahini had fired on a crowd of demonstrators, killing three and wounding seven. “Unwanted people engaged in destructive activities will be exterminated.”
This may hardly be what the Bangabandhu’s devoted followers had expected from a folk hero fond of telling reporters, “My strength is that I love my people, my weakness that I love them too much.” But it is the classic reaction of a politician coming to power after a lifetime in the opposition, only to be faced with all the lacerating problems he used to blame on the other fellow.
The problems are not necessarily beyond solution. As Prime Minister Mujib points out himself, “Bangladesh is a wonderful land. I have jute, rice, tea, fish, forests, tobacco, cotton. I have fruit, mangoes, lychees, oranges, pineapples, bananas, betel nuts . . .” At present, though, this wonderful land is cultivated in such primitive fashion that rice yields here are among the lowest in the world. While food production could be boosted enormously, it would take generous supplies of fertilizer and fuel for irrigation pumps, a competent agricultural extension service, modernized social services, farmers’ cooperatives, a purposeful government, and a lot of money.
Even supposing the government could take care of everything else provided it gets money enough—a very large supposition—the money is a formidable problem. Experts estimate that Bangladesh would need $16 billion of foreign aid to become self-supporting by the turn of the century, and this only if it can get the birthrate down from over 3 percent yearly to around 2 percent. If the birthrate does not come down, it will “need more aid than is plausible,” according to a World Bank report. How much more that could run to may be judged from the fact that Bangladesh will have to spend an extra $87 million in hard currency this year just to import food for the extra 2 million people born here in 1974. Presumably, next year’s batch of babies will double this extra bill to a stunning $174 million—nearly half the country’s present export earnings—with the figure rising inexorably thereafter.
Obviously Bangladesh is going to have to do something about its birthrate, and fast, before the horrors of widespread death by starvation are upon it. The authors of its first Five-Year Plan, published last autumn, fully realized how urgent this is “for the sheer ecological viability of the nation.” In proposing a $90 million five-year family-planning campaign, they warned that even this might not be enough. “We must consider the imposition of progressively increasing punitive measures” especially after the birth of a family’s second child, they wrote. Among the measures they mentioned explicitly were restricted ration cards and access to statecontrolled fair-price food shops, legalized and free abortion, a steep rise in the legal marriage age (women usually marry here at thirteen), the emancipation of women generally, and even compulsory sterilization. Yet it is with less than unbounded optimism that international agencies and local authorities alike are approaching the nation’s new family-planning program. It is not easy to sell the notion of birth control to people who have no old-age insurance, no money to save against a rainy day, no tractors to work their land, almost no joys in life except sex and their children, and, in some remote rural areas, not even a very clear idea of where babies come from. A good many also seem to think that they ought to have religious scruples in such matters, though neither their majority Moslem nor minority Hindu religion says so.
All in all, family planning is no vote-getter in this country or any like it. The late President Mohammad Ayub Khan of Pakistan, who pushed hard for it anyway, fell from power in good part because he did. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India, too shrewd a politician to make such a mistake, has never committed herself personally to a campaign on which her own government is spending upwards of $100 million a year. Sheikh Mujib, no slouch himself as a politician, has yet to utter a word on the subject. Since nothing of consequence gets done in Bangladesh without the Bangabandhu (or with him, some say), family planning here can scarcely be said to have gotten off to a flying start.
Meanwhile, the chances of speeding up economically to keep abreast of the growing population get bleaker by the day. Two thirds of Bangladesh’s first Five-Year Plan was supposed to be financed by foreign aid, including $700 million for 1974 alone. But it will be lucky to get half that much. By the time the plan was published, foreign-aid sources were already drying up fast, largely because of the worldwide energy crisis. By now, the same crisis has backed this luckless nation into such a corner that the whole plan has gone right out the window.
At prevailing international prices, Bangladesh will have to pay $125 million in 1974 for oil supplies that had cost $25 million in 1973, while another $250 million, at rock-bottom reckoning, will have to go for imported food grains. These two items alone will exhaust its export earnings. Not a penny will be left over for imported fertilizer, without which the nation will go still hungrier next year, not to speak of spare parts, irrigation pumps, and other indispensable machinery, and enough cotton cloth for the world’s least exigent people to buy perhaps a single cheap cotton lungi or sari.
This staggering new blow has come at just about the time when the aid-giving states were preparing to phase out disaster relief and shift to development assistance. Inasmuch as the one appeals far more to our heartstrings—and therefore to our purse strings—than the other, the transition was going to mean deep cuts in aid allocations. The United States, for instance, is expected to contribute only about $25 million this year for development, whereas it has contributed $443 million in the two previous years for food relief. But in a country whose past and future appear to consist of one long disaster, it is no simple matter for aid-givers to get out from under.
So far the burden has been carried mostly by India, the United States, and the Soviet Union. None of the three has found the going easy, India least of all. Not exactly flush itself, the Indian government very nearly went bankrupt by taking in 10 million Bengali refugees during the nine months’ terror and sending its own army to throw the Pakistanis out of East Bengal in the end. The net cost of these efforts, allowing for foreign contributions, doubled India’s deficit in 1971 from an anticipated $300 million to $600 million, and it has chipped in another quarter of a billion dollars since then. Predictably (all donor states learn it the hard way) the Indians are getting little thanks for their pains. Whatever troubles the Bangladeshis can no longer blame on Pakistan now tend to be laid at India’s door: a multimillion-dollar contraband trade in rice and jute, smuggled over unguardable borders to Calcutta; a thriving black market in Indian rupees, considered a hard currency compared to the Bangladesh taka; “organized looting” by the Indian army of electric motors, spare parts, jute machines, trucks, typewriters, telephones. Meanwhile, the country’s overwhelmingly Moslem population is tending to take its frustrations out on the 10 million Hindus who were stranded here when the partition lines were drawn a quarter of a century ago. The Hindus are regarded as being “more Indian” than the Moslem Bengalis (who were Indians too, before Partition); the Hindus are therefore living on increasingly uncomfortable terms with their neighbors.
The United States, having taken Pakistan’s side openly during the war, seemed unlikely to fare much better than India has in relations with Bangladesh. Despite the 550,000 tons of American food sent as a gift, students passing the USIS library in Dacca usually stop to heave a brick at the windows—sixty - nine panes were broken on one unusually busy day. The New York Times reported in 1972 that “the U.S. has given more food aid and received less public credit for it than any other nation.” Yet, by thoughtfully keeping their heads down and aid levels up, American diplomats here have become surprisingly popular. How long that will last if their heads come up while the aid goes down is another question.
The Russians are not doing as well. With a couple of thousand advisers and a $200 million program, their aid mission here is one of the biggest they have in the developing world. But if several Soviet projects may be considerably more useful in the long run than our own food shipments, long since eaten, they are causing more controversy. Among the Soviet projects are a large thermal power station, two radio stations, an electrical equipment plant, ten modern deep-sea fishing trawlers with a training program for local crews, and a dredging fleet to clear the Chittagong port of ships sunk during the war. This last is an especially “noisy” one, I was told by the head of their aid mission, Anatoli Zverev, with something close to a wink, referring to scurrilous rumors here that the Russians are dawdling on the job in Chittagong until they get a chance to set up a naval base there. An even noisier one, which Mr. Zverev didn’t happen to mention, is the squadron of MIG-27’s which the Russians have sent, only to keep the planes so jealously guarded by Soviet military advisers that local pilots can’t get near them. Apart from complaining loudly about this, the Bangladeshis keep picking on the Russians for everything else from tacky equipment, poor business practices, and sharp barter deals to exploitation of national resources (mostly having to do with shrimps from the Bay of Bengal, hauled in by Soviet trainers on these trawlers and sold to the United States at a nice little profit).
All the same, it seems evident that Sheikh Mujib is getting in pretty deep with the Russians. He has even brought members of two small and apparently tame Communist parties into his government, though he took the precaution of giving them no ministerial posts. How much deeper in he gets will probably depend on whether or not he can find anybody else more willing and able to prop up his country. It was doubtless with this in mind that he agreed to restore diplomatic ties with Pakistan at the Moslem summit last March. While a lot of his fellow Moslems from the Arab oil states were there, they have yet to offer him even pin money.
Though patrons for the nonce, none of these donor states actually takes the consuming interest in Bangladesh that had seemed in the offing at its birth. The Indians are by no means as sure as they once were that an independent Bangladesh would leave their arch-enemy, Pakistan, hopelessly crippled. Not only has Pakistan survived the amputation very well, but after the reconciliation at the Moslem summit meeting, it appears to be appreciably closer than India is to a special relationship with Bangladesh in trade and diplomacy. The United States, all too familiar with this biting-the-hand-that-feeds-you syndrome, has refrained nobly from saying “I told you so.” On the whole, though, American diplomats here show surprisingly little concern about whether the Bangladeshis latch on to India or Pakistan in the end. Naturally, they are rather more concerned about whether, or to what extent, Sheikh Mujib may latch on to the Russians. But even this depends on how the Russians may feel about throwing good rubles after bad once Communist China gets into the act here—as it is evidently preparing to do—ruling out any remote chance of making this a Russian province.
The sad truth is that Bangladesh lacks the charms that might bring in a handsome income from competing powers on the international stage. Geographically, geologically, politically, it has nothing much to offer a foreign patron. All it has is people: half starved, dirt-poor, and multiplying at a terrifying rate. Left to themselves, they could be heading for a tragedy unparalleled for the human race. “This population with its reserve base cannot grow indefinitely,” says a distinguished population analyst for the Ford Foundation, Lionel Chen. “Either the birthrate must go down, or the death rate must go up.” There is no mistaking what would force the death rate up: mass starvation.
There is no dodging the fact, either, that Bangladesh’s dilemma is our own. It may be impractical to go on propping up a country like this with billions of dollars that might as well be thrown to the winds. But it is plainly unthinkable to let a nation of 75 million human beings—doomed to become twice as many or more within a single generation-sink like a stone.
Since there are no spectacular solutions, the only acceptable ones are the unspectacular kind: projects to improve agricultural yields with small pumps, better seeds, modest irrigation; more efficient marketing and food distribution; a crackdown on smugglers and black marketeers; mass elementary education; a crash program for family planning; better use of meager local resources to save foreign currency; employment for Bangladesh’s immense reservoir of idle labor, a third of its working force, by providing food in exchange for work.
These are not quite the dashing propositions Sheikh Mujib had in mind when, with a compassionate world at his feet, he dreamed of an independent Bangladesh throbbing with steel mills, hydroelectric power stations, colossal petrochemical plants. Not only is there no money for that sort of thing nowadays, however, but experience suggests that more humdrum (and less expensive) projects can do a lot more people more good.
What all this comes to is a need for the world’s richest nations to figure out not whether but how to keep the world’s poorest nations afloat. Nobody who has walked through the sweepers’ colony of Chowdatooly, or the Kazi Quader’s building in old Dacca, would use the word “whether” instead.