Poor But Hopeful: Bangladesh has not collapsed, after all

Kevin Rafferty, The New York Times (February 29, 1976)

Bangladesh is not merely poor, it is the poorest of developing countries, but for the first time in its five years of independence, there is hope for a better future.

The change has come unexpectedly because, following the assassination last August of Sheik Mujibur Rahman, the one man revered throughout the nation, there was a general expectation of chaos, of squabbles for power, of political disaster piled on the tap of natural disaster.

Bangladesh is still poor. Eighty million people – a number expected to grow to 150 million by the turn of the century—are crowded into a Wisconsinsized land, a third of which is flooded every year.

It has few natural resources and practically no source of export earnings apart from jute, which is losing its world market. Per capita income is $55 a year compared with $70 to $80 in 1970 when Bangladesh was East Pakistan. Every year there is the promise of natural disaster, if not flood, then drought or cyclone.

The chances for turmoil were increased after the assassination of Sheik Mujib because there was no one of national rank, no other politician who matched his prestige. The majors who carried out the coup belonged to just one of many factions in the army.

But two things have prevented the predicted political disasters.

One was a bumper harvest. The storage depots of Bangladesh are overflowing and grain is being stored in the open. The price of rice has slumped from 25.5 cents a pound last year to an average price of 7 cents this year.

Equally important has been the rise to power of Maj. Gen. Ziaur Rahman, the army chief of staff, who is the strong man of the martial law government. He has managed to discipline an army which threatened to split into fragments after the murder of Sheik Mujib and the coup and the countercoup of November. He has tried to restore law and order which had deteriorated through the rule of Sheik Mujib. He is trying to end corruption. He is reforming the administration and exerting a much more decisive influence in the manner of the crisp military man he is He is urging new family planning and rural development programs. General Ziaur dislikes sloppiness and is said to have been disappointed by the standards of the British Army on a visit to Germany.

The effect of the new regime is visible in both big and little things. The fall in the rice price has been helped by the crackdown on the smuggling trade with India. It is now safe to go out after dark on the streets. It is easier to drive a car in Dacca because the pedicabs which used to struggle all over the place are being confined to special narrow tracks.

How long this hope will last is another matter. At the moment the Government is still committed to elections 12 months hence. Most people, both Bangalee and foreign, are upset by the prospect of the corrupt politicians coming back. But if he stays on, General Ziaur and Bangladesh could follow the pattern toward dictatorial government now so prevalent in Asia and worldwide. It is not clear that the general, essentially middle-class and army educated, understands the plight of the rural masses, though at the moment he is making more efforts to help them than most military regimes have done.

External matters can also affect the country’s progress toward stability, particularly relations with India, with which there has been a resurgence of border trouble. Bangladesh has accused its former ally and liberator of supporting a group of several hundred rebels in northern Bangladesh, India has denied the allegations. At any rate, quietly and hampered by its lack of resources, Bangladesh is looking for new arms.

But for the moment there is relative happiness In the villages. Even in the really poor and hopeless urban areas where some Bangalees have only the scratch of ground they occupy, plus a big pot for cooking and washing, there is food to cook for the night. With a full belly, it Is possible to forget the wretched past and the uncertain future.


%d bloggers like this: