Bangladesh: Is There Anything to Look Forward To?

No other nation in the world is so desperately impoverished and dependent on foreign aid; but under the leadership of its new president, Bangladesh may have its first real chance to begin helping itself.

The village of Shapmari, four hours’ drive to the north of Dacca, is, depending on the season, either an island in a vast lake or a desert oasis. In the weeks before the monsoons the fields around it turn gray-white, dying, one might suppose, like the sluggish and once mighty Brahmaputra. But the farmers know better. From dawn until dark they work under the blazing sun, breaking the concretelike crust of the earth in preparation for the rains that will soon come to flood the land and give new life to the fields and the men and boys who will till them. Only the unemployed landless, the women, and the very young stay at home by day, seeking shelter from the sun under the thin straw roofs of their huts of plaited thatch and palm.

An unsealed road, inches deep in dust in the dry season, a sticky bog in the wet, leads along a levee from the town of Sherpur to Shapmari. Across a ribbon of pounded dirt separating the rice fields is the first house in the village. Its owner is the local barber, who practices his trade in the dry season in whatever shade he can find under the scattered trees. His charges vary from half a taka to one taka, or approximately three cents to six cents. He makes on the average day twelve cents.

At harvest time he can earn the same amount, and two meals a day, by helping in the fields. Apart from the marginal supplement that his elder children may be able to earn tending the animals of the richer farmers, or collecting cow dung and leaves, this is the basic income on which he supports his wife and nine children. His stove is a basin-shaped hole dug in the earth. For fuel he uses leaves and twigs. He has, of course, no lavatory or running water.

It was late in the dry season when I visited the village. One of the barber’s children, his seventh, was lying naked on the floor of pounded earth in the hut, her stomach swollen like a soccer ball, her legs finger-thin and wasted. The mother appeared reluctantly with two other children. Her neck bulged hugely with goiter. Her eyes indicated anemia. The two other children, including the latest arrival at her breast, suffered like the third child from advanced malnutrition.

Walking on with a twenty-four-yearold paramedic named Eva Banergee, who came from a village like this and now heads a small team of barefoot doctors, I saw many children who had never known what it was like to have a satisfactory meal. “They need everything,” said Eva Banergee. “They need more food. They need green vegetables. They need medicines.”

Rural despair

For Shapmari read Bangladesh. For this is a land of farmers and grinding rural poverty. Almost 70 percent of all farmers own only two acres of land or less. Yet the smallest economically viable farm is about three acres. Around 40 to 50 percent of the rural people are landless or semi-landless, owning a third of an acre or less. Another 20 percent have one to two acres and, like the landless and semi-landless, are below the subsistence level. Unless the present trends can be reversed, they have nothing to look forward to but malnutrition, constant hunger, disease, and early death.

“Nowhere in the world is there anything like so much poverty shared by so many squeezed into so little land area,” said a 1976 government report. About 60 million of the 84 million people have a per capita income of less than twentyfive cents a day. Millions live like the barber of Shapmari. Only one person in ten can read and write, and perhaps one in five knows how to write his name. Grandiose plans for education ignore the fact that a family on the starvation line cannot do without the extra hands of the children to pick up sticks and grass and mind the richer neighbor’s cow. Schooling is a luxury the desperately poor cannot afford. A shoeshine boy in Dacca, working part-time, contributes as much to his family income as his landless father living in a village eighty miles away. Seventeen thousand children become blind each year because of a deficiency in vitamin A. One child in every seven dies within the first year of its life. Another 25 percent die before they reach the age of five, and unwanted girl babies die one and a half times more often than boys.

To problems like this there can be no early solution. The Institute of Nutrition at the University of Dacca has estimated that it would cost $21 a month to provide a family of five with a reasonable diet, excluding rent, clothing, and all other expenses. This means that the family would spend one and a half times the average family income on food alone.

If the entire population of the world were crowded into the United States, the population density would be no greater than it is in Bangladesh today. Almost every inch of ground is used for cultivation or housing. There is nothing to spare and nothing in the present structure to care for the unborn millions who may stretch the country to the bursting point before the century is out.

About 45 percent of the population is under the age of fifteen. About half the girls marry at thirteen, and only one percent are unmarried at nineteen. The village religious leaders, or mullahs, have set themselves against birth control. For almost every woman of childbearing age, pregnancy is an annual event. In the forty years from 1911 to 1951, the population rose from 32 million to 42 million. In the next twenty years it jumped to 72 million. If the growth rate continues, the population will double again by the year 2000. Yet Bangladesh does not produce enough food to feed its present population, and a third of the work force is unemployed.

Corruption and coups

Bangladesh has never really had a chance. Indian independence, which split the subcontinent into Hindu India and Moslem Pakistan, also divided Pakistan into two parts. Furthermore, a thousand miles of hostile Indian territory separated West Pakistan, ethnically and culturally an adjunct of the Middle East, from East Pakistan, with its homogeneous population of Bengalis. To the problems created by geography and the political expediency and bloodshed of Partition were added the frictions of racial stress that began to tear the two wings of the country apart. By the time war began between India and Pakistan in December 1971, 8 million Bengalis had fled from East Pakistan, which for more than nine months had been fighting for its independence. Out of the India-Pakistan war emerged the new state of Bangladesh, bankrupt, stagnating, its internal communications wrecked, its population unfed, and its administration both untrained and corrupt.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the charismatic “father of the nation,” returned from India in January 1972 as a beloved and triumphant national leader. He died in a coup d’etat three and a half years later, overthrown by those whose veneration had turned to hatred and contempt for his dishonest administration, his venal relatives, and his apparent willingness to substitute New Delhi’s hegemony for Islamabad’s.

As is so often the case where force is the instrument of change in governmental power, the coup marked the beginning of Bangladesh’s political instability. Independence had not ended the internal divisions, especially within the army, between those who had returned from Pakistan and those who had fought the Pakistanis in the liberation war. During one week in November 1975, Bangladesh had no less than two coups. The first took place on November 3, when elements of the Dacca Brigade arrested the majors responsible for the coup that overthrew Sheikh Mujib. Four days later, in a swift reversal of fortunes, Major General Ziaur Rahman, the chief of staff, led a successful countercoup.

These were bitter days for unsuccessful political plotters. A former vice president, a former prime minister, and two other ministers were murdered while awaiting trial in Dacca’s central prison. Colonel Abu Taher, leader of the militant left wing of the National Socialist party, and a one-legged hero of the liberation war, who had been one of General Ziaur’s most faithful supporters in the countercoup, was sentenced to death for having incited members of the defense forces to mutiny. Other leaders of the party received long jail sentences.

Power now was in the hands of General Ziaur and a ten-man military council, with the former chief justice, Abu Sadat Sayem, as titular president. A year after the 1975 upheavals, President Sayem announced the indefinite postponement of elections, which were to have been held early in 1977, and appointed General Ziaur his successor as chief martial law administrator. With his now all but absolute powers, General Ziaur ordered the arrest of eleven politicians, including Khandakar Mushtaque Ahmed, a former president. Most of those arrested were members of Sheikh Mujib’s Awami League, which, in the 1973 elections, had won all but seven of the 300 seats in the legislative assembly. In April 1977, President Sayem resigned and nominated General Ziaur to succeed him.

In principle, the army should have been General Ziaur’s power base, but it remained divided. Ziaur’s real strength was that, like Sheikh Mujib, he was a national hero, a sort of co-father of independence, for it was his call to arms, broadcast over the radio on March 26, 1971, that stirred the Bengalis to war with the Pakistanis.

Ziaur, who was only a major at the time and had risen in two years to the rank of major general, sought an immediate popular vote of confidence after taking office as president, and won. When the results were counted on May 30, more than 33 million votes were cast in his favor and only 375,117 against.

Still in his early forties, Ziaur survived what might have turned into a coup d’etat last October, when world attention was riveted on Dacca where the government was negotiating for the release of the Japan Air Lines plane held by Red Army hijackers. Trouble began when some hundreds of soldiers mutinied at a base outside the capital. No sooner had this been quelled than Dacca itself became involved in a military shoot-out, which, with better organization, could easily have resulted in Ziaur’s overthrow.

Until these events, Ziaur had often suggested that his only ambition was to return to the army. Instead, and to the dismay of the old-time politicians, he turned to politics. The Bengalis have a great respect for age, and the idea of this not very well educated young man, with no political background, aspiring to the highest position in the land shocked the conservatives. When Ziaur formed a new political grouping and sent his advisers around the countryside making speeches, it was predicted in Dacca that he was riding for a fall. But Ziaur himself knew he was on firm ground. The professional politicians had discredited themselves by corruption. Though he was not regarded as an intellectual, he was believed to be patriotic, honest, and hardworking.

Early this year, when he initiated the moves that led to the presidential election on June 3, it was obvious that he would win easily. The six-party United Democratic Front, his principal opponents, did their best to rally the conservative forces under General (Retired) Osmany, who had been commander-in-chief of the Bangladesh liberation forces. Predictably, the opposition parties cried foul when President Ziaur got 77 percent of the vote and General Osmany only about 21 percent. Lacking any popular image of his own, Osmany had tried to recapture the spirit of Sheikh Mujib, whose pictures were often prominently displayed at his meetings. Instead, it seems, the electorate recalled the nepotism, corruption, and chaos of Mujib’s rule. Ziaur, with his promise of food for work, won the always hungry voter. His problem will be to keep him.

Self-reliance movement

Bangladesh’s assets are its people (who are too numerous, unhealthy, uneducated, and untrained), its waters (which are too little tapped and harnessed ), its alluvial soil (which is grossly underfertilized), and its deposits of natural gas (which are far from fully exploited). President Ziaur has plans to control the size of the population and to improve its well-being, but unless the land and its water can be fully used to complement the population control, all schemes to raise Bangladesh to or above the subsistence level seem bound to fail. The World Bank, in a long and gloomy report in 1974, concluded: “It is depressing to have to report that with the likely levels of aid, the most that a very efficient conduct of policy in Bangladesh will possibly be able to achieve is to substitute stagnation for decline.”

Some people believe that even stagnation is unattainable, that sufficient aid and the capacity to use it adequately will never be available, that the population explosion and the food shortage will continue. Others look to China to provide a model and think in terms of the collectivization of agriculture as a means of using the land and water resources to their maximum effect. A third group has sponsored the Shawnirvar (self-reliance) movement. This began years ago when a district agricultural officer, Mumtazuddin Khan, and his wife decided that initiative had to replace orthodoxy in the villages if there was ever to be progress. Fertilizers were almost unknown to the farmers. “I used to put a sack of fertilizer on the back of my bike and distribute it on the fields without telling the farmers,” he told me. “I would put it on one patch of rice and not on another and then show the farmers the results.”

When a plague of caterpillars appeared in his district, Mumtazuddin Khan wanted to use pesticides. The mullah objected. He wanted to put religious symbols on the fields to drive the caterpillars away. So secretly at night Mumtazuddin Khan sprayed all the fields except the mullah’s. The sprayed fields survived; the mullah lost his crop.

With lessons such as this the villagers learned the value of fertilizers and pesticides and eventually of the need to organize. “Instead of putting all the land together we ought to put all the brains together,” Mumtazuddin Khan told them. In 1973 he set out to organize villages on a much larger scale. In the first year twenty-one villages agreed to accept his advice, and at the end of two years eighty-one villages had joined. In the famine of 1974, when at least 100,000 died, no one died in the Shawnirvar villages. Everyone found employment. The landless and unemployed dug wells and canals. They cleaned the villages, cleared the drains and ponds, and repaired the roads. Everyone had to contribute an hour’s work each week to the village. The landless got a chance as sharecroppers to grow their own crops. The illiterate learned to write their names and to identify the symbols for farm and household implements. Although Mumtazuddin Khan concedes that it proved impossible to maintain the initial enthusiasm and drive, the movement has come to be symbolized by Ulashi, a small village in the district of Jessore, where villagers and others are said to have voluntarily excavated a deep canal nearly three miles long that resulted in the speedy drainage of 18,000 acres of waterlogged land.

Schoolboys and schoolgirls and most other sections of the regional community took part, and a tablet at Ulashi proudly proclaims that the work resulted in “turning a beggar’s hands into those of a worker,” the slogan of the self-reliance movement.

At the canal I found some villagers who said that they had worked on the canal but had not volunteered. Others, at higher levels, questioned whether the effort was a waste of time and labor. “I don’t want to see us building pyramids or Chinese walls,” said a senior official.

The Shawnirvar movement is nevertheless being actively pushed by Mahub Alam Chashi, another senior official, who sees Bangladesh accurately enough as a series of villages. “If we can create a number of good villages,” he said, “they will create other good villages.” He says that so far 100 villages have been created that are excellent, and about 1000 that are good. Twenty percent are fair and 20 percent have failed.

His aim is to match Thailand’s production in rice per acre. “If we can achieve this,” he says, “we will get a crop of 20 to 24 million tons, whereas our own requirement is only 15 million tons.”

A much more hardheaded approach is taken by Obaidullah Khan, the top technician in the agricultural ministry, who believes that with proper management, the extensive use of fertilizers, improved strains of seeds, and irrigation, it is technically feasible to double or even treble production. But he is well aware of the difficulties, some of them political, that stand in the way of quick success. He thinks ultimately in terms of small cooperatives, four or five families getting together to pool their resources; nothing, certainly, like the communal system in China, which would be alien to the Moslem culture. He is heartened by the increasing use of fertilizers, but wonders how sharecroppers can be encouraged to spend money in this way when they have no tenure. He has begun an intensive training scheme for agricultural extension officers, but thousands will need to be trained before their expertise begins to have any significant impact.

In the northwestern dry areas 8500 deep tube wells for irrigation have been installed and that number will be increased to 18,000 in the next five years. Shallow tube wells and pumps are also rapidly increasing in number. But of the 9 million acres that could be irrigated, at best only 4 million will be under irrigation by 1983.

There are other problems. The conservatism of Islam stands as a formidable barrier to progress. When girls trained as paramedics began to take simple medical help to villages that had never seen a doctor, religious leaders raised angry protests. The girls used bicycles to move about. This, the mullahs said, was immoral, and in violation of the teachings of the Koran. Family planning, they said, was no less a violation of Islamic teaching. Men spat at the girls, insulted and humiliated them. “The greatest single cause of the tragedy of Bangladesh is the place that has been allotted in history, society, and life itself to woman in the nation,” says Dr. Zafrullah Chowdhury, the youthful foster father of the barefoot doctors. “Chained by culture, ignorance, fear, and poverty, she is not a wife or a woman but a slave.” A pregnant woman may not appear in public. During her periods, a woman must also remain at home. Breaking down attitudes like this will take years; meanwhile the population is increasing more rapidly than the rate of food production.

For many years to come, Bangladesh will be dependent on international handouts just to survive. It is the largest recipient of U.S. development assistance and PL-480 (Food for Peace) commodity aid. As an additional help, the United States takes more of its exports, mostly jute, than any other country. In logical self-interest, nothing about Bangladesh’s foreign relations should be allowed to upset that relationship, but some neat footwork has been necessary to maintain the balance.

The initial survival of Bangladesh was almost wholly dependent on India, which played a major role in the independence struggle. Under Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh was openly pro-India and indirectly pro-Soviet. After Mujib’s downfall, many of the political elite felt that Bangladesh’s policy had become too tied to India. Insurgent operations against Bangladesh from Indian territory and the revived dispute over New Delhi’s proposal to build a barrage across the Ganges River eleven miles from the Bangladesh border—thus diverting water from a feeder canal into a lesser arm of the Ganges, the River Hooghly, on which Calcutta is built— caused bitter differences. The river, formerly the principal channel of the Ganges to the sea, has been steadily silting up since the eighteenth century, when the main volume of the Ganges began to flow through Padma in what is now Bangladesh.

Relations with India have improved again with the changes in leadership of both countries. Talks have been held on the border problems, and on the sharing of the Ganges flow. The old relationship is unlikely to be re-established, however. General Ziaur’s description of Bangladesh’s relations with foreign countries, including India, is based on what he calls a policy of “equidistance.”

Relations with the Soviet Union have deteriorated to the point where the Russians are privately accused by Bangladeshis of selling liquor on the black market in Dacca. Relations with China, on the other hand, have improved notably, and China has been supplying military support in the form of equipment and training.

Despite the temptation to borrow some of China’s authoritarian techniques to cope with his overwhelming rural problems, however, President Ziaur is conscious that he cannot go too far without offending conservative Moslem countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, both of which contribute heavily to Bangladesh’s balance-ofpayments support.

Ziaur could not do without this and American help. At least 70 percent of the budget comes from foreign aid, and the need is for more, not less. Even if the birth control program works out moderately well, there will be 160 million Bangladeshis by the end of the century. As the World Bank put it, “It is impossible to think that this population level would be compatible with anything other than the merest survival on the international dole.”

If there is any cause for optimism, it is that Bangladesh does seem to have its first real chance to help itself. President Ziaur’s attempt to find a democratic way of perpetuating his rule has been successful, and there is no leader in the armed forces with the ambition, or the means, to mount a successful coup d’etat. His promise to provide food for work will not be easy to fulfill, however, and Bengali volatility will surely weigh against him if he fails to deliver.