WILLIAM BORDERS, The New York Times (June 7, 1981)
If the population of the entire world were squeezed into the continental United States, that land would be about as densely populated as Bangladesh is now.
That is the kind of illustration prized by the legions of aid and development experts who for years have been drawn to this country because its demographic statistics are so appalling.
The life expectancy at birth is 47 years. Eighty percent of children below the age of five are undernourished. Seventy percent of the entire population is anemic. Only one person in five can read. And, despite improvements in agricultural efficiency and the enormous quantities of foreign aid, the average per capita consumption of rice, the dietary staple, is less today than it was 20 years ago.
It is easy to feel hopeless about Bangladesh, and many people do. But in the past few years there have been some small signs that things were getting a bit better and hopes that they would get better still.
Last weekend, when President Ziaur Rahman was killed in a hail of bullets during an attempted army coup d’etat, a good many of those hopes died with him. There were are least two reasons why. His death at the age of 45 plunged the nation into a crisis that no one could quite see the end of, and political instability can scarcely be good for development efforts. Moreover, since he seized power in 1975, President Zia had become one of Asia’s most effective heads of government. His regime was beginning to make progress, though it was very much a one-man show and much of what he did went against the traditions of this ancient land. Whoever eventually succeeds him, whether a general or civilian politician, seems unlikely to follow the same course.
Birth control is clearly the country’s most important need, since by the year 2,000 Bangladesh will have half the population of the United States living in a land smaller than Wisconsin. Sheik Mujibur Rahman, the founder of the country (who also died by assassination nearly six years ago), used to say, when pressed on the subject, ”We Moslems love our children. If there are many of them, Allah will provide.” That is the traditional view.
By contrast, President Zia, a tough and often ruthless former general who took power a few months after Sheik Mujib was killed, repeatedly referred to the population explosion as ”our number one national problem.” He gave a military-style impetus to the drive to solve it, cutting through Government inertia in providing birth control means to the villages where most of the people live. There were signs that the approach was beginning to work. ”This is the first time that the leader of a developing country and an Islamic country has put himself totally behind population control programs,” Health Minister M. A. Matin said optimistically a year ago.
President Zia’s commitment to birth control was part of what he called a ”peaceful revolution” for Bangladesh. Other points included a literacy campaign and an almost certainly overly optimistic plan to double food production over five years with expanded irrigation of the land and the introduction of higher-yield seed varieties.
Tirelessly hopping around this green marshy country in a helicopter, and spending as much as 20 days a month outside Dacca, he sold the message personally and it had some effect. ”I remember Zia came here one day last year and he talked about irrigation canals,” a farmer in Julal, a village 30 miles north of the capital, recalled last week. ”But it wasn’t just talk. A canal actually got built, and now it irrigates that plot of land right there and we can have an extra crop in the dry season. No leader ever did that before. Zia will be missed very much in Julal. We are very sad.”
In a part of the world where political leaders are often venal or lethargic, there are not many figures like President Zia. In the period of electioneering that is about to begin leading up to a presidential election that under the Constitution is supposed to be held within the next six months, some new national saviour may emerge. But it is far easier to imagine a return to the slippery political intrigues which center on the capital or to a new round of murderous army plots and takeovers.
At the center of the Government now is a vacuum, and no one can say who will come along to fill it. On the civilian side, neither President Zia’s Bangladesh National Party nor the opposition Awami League (Sheik Mujib’s party) has an obvious presidential candidate, and both are badly factionalized. As for the 65,000-man army, it too is beset by bitterness and rivalry that date back to the war of 1971 in which Bangladesh, backed by India, won its independence from western Pakistan. In the long round of eulogies last week, much was made of what former Chief Justice Abdus Sattar, the ailing, 75-year old Acting President, called ”the democratic heritage left to us by our beloved martyred leader.” Critics said that President Zia’s was a flawed democracy, and the Government was certainly autocratic. But the orderliness of the transition last week may have been an indication that the political institutions he built over recent years had more solidity than the pessimists thought.
Still, a period of serious instability with a deadening effect on development activities seems inevitable. It had already started last week with late night meetings, hints, posturing and horsetrading in the Parliament, the ministries and the officers’ quarters of military garrisons all over the country.
”Will Bangladesh make it?” people in the West sometimes ask, as if it were a patient hovering between life and death in some intensive care ward. The answer is, of course. The country is not going to disappear and 92 million Bangladeshis, soon to be 100 million, will still be here, whenever anyone cares to look, and still hungry. At times, the signs for them will be a bit better. At other times, they will be a bit worse. Last week they seemed very much worse indeed.