President leads from the front

The Guardian (December 31, 1979)

PRESIDENT ZIA faces the task of introducing reforms of land tenure, education, and law in a country that has been busy over the last eighteen months restoring democracy. Over a little canal-digging, he tells Peter Niesewand: “This is our own revolution.”

THE WEATHER pattern seemed to be changing in Bangladesh, as everywhere else in the world. It was December, and it should have been much colder. There had been 12 hours of unseasonal rain overnight, but if ever there was a good time to call on the people to come and dig five miles of canal, mostly for no pay. this was it.

By 8 am, as the clouds cleared, men, women, and children began streaming out of huts and shacks for miles around Manik Ganj, a district 54 miles West of Dacca. Some carried banners, some hoes, and some jute baskets to carry away the soil.

Organisers from President Ziaur Rahman‘s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) had set up a public address system on the banks of the Jamuna River. against a background of small craft with rectangular sails gliding past, and tried to whip up advance enthusiasm.

‘President Zia, President Zia, zindabad, zindabad, (long life),” shrilled the electronic voices at the passive, waiting crowd. Boy Scouts marched towards the digging site, prepared to do their best.

The deputy commissioner in charge of. the project, a young man in brief white shorts and a pink open-neck shirt. looked around the throng and said: “ It is true that a lot of people will come on the opening day, but after that we will see fifteen per cent of those here are on the Food for Work programme, and the rest is voluntary mass participation. We will complete the first portion in 15 days. and the rest after one month, Insh-Allah.

If God wills and the people work. President Zia’s planned agricultural revolution will take place, and the creeping starvation being reflected in the dismal statistics will finally be arrested. Each year there will be the same, if not more, wheat and rice for every mouth, rather than the present slow annual decrease.

“President Zia! President Zia! Zindabad!” blared the cheerleaders. “ Bangladesh Zindabad ” This time a few fists were raised. some voices shouted in reply.

Zia’s motorcade passed the stragglers heading towards the canal site, the lead police jeep flying a large flag. The president himself wore a blue denim jacket and trousers and was ready for action.

Zia’s style is not to appear at these occasions in an immaculate costume-made suit and silk tie, clearly unsuitable for any sort of manual labour. As an army officer, he knows the best way to lead is from the front, particularly in a voluntary campaign such as this, and if the people‘s enthusiasm is to be aroused and sustained, it needs to be done by example, and not merely by issuing orders from some remote and comfortable office.

Zia was there to start the digging. by doing some digging himself. But first, he would wait for everyone to assemble. The President was escorted to an official launch, moored nearby and over a glass of coconut milk he spoke about the Manik Ganj scheme and his plans for Bangladesh.

“This scheme is a very big one,” Zia said. “This is a connecting canal. We will pump the water from the main river, and we’ll be able to block it in at the end of the rainy season so that around the year we can irrigate the land on both sides. About 51,000 acres will benefit from his.”

What about the doubts many people have that a scheme like this can be carried out on a voluntary basis? “When you do a big thing. many people have doubts,” Zia said. “This is nothing new. It is normal for people to be doubtful. But you will see in due course.”

Many of those whose time and energy are being called upon for free labour are the landless peasants and their families – the sharecroppers – each of whom rent several small parcels of land from the powerful owners, in exchange for half their produce. The incentive for them to dig canals which will irrigate crops, when fifty per cent of their labour must benefit the landlords, appears small.

Many people believe land reforms are vital to Bangladesh. but recognise they are unlikely to come soon. Zia’s own ruling party, the BNP has no coherent policy on this – an inevitable result of its basic makeup.


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