New Internationalist

Bangladesh

Issue 324

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BANGLADESH

4 December 1990. A little girl with a bouquet smiled as she walked in the street with her dad. She was one of the many celebrating that night. The dictator - General Ershad - had been forced to step down. This was the first time since the 1975 assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of the nation, that the country was free from military rule. The nation was throbbing with expectation.

Through two largely fair elections, there have since been two democratically elected governments, but
genuine democracy is still a long way away for Bangladesh. Despite Bengal's glorious past, nearly 200 years of British colonial rule institutionalized serfdom. Military rule in many of the ensuing years - first as part of Pakistan, then since independence in 1971 - has done little to change things. The superficially democratic process being practised today is still tied to foreign aid and patron-client relationships, and the behaviour of the ruling class is still linked to fiefdom and servitude.

The non-governmental organization (NGO) sector forms a virtual parallel government in Bangladesh. Though sceptics point out the Manhattan-style skyscrapers that house the largest NGOs in the country and rightly criticize the large amounts of donor funds spent on 'administrative costs', NGOs have played a significant role in primary education and have created awareness of some basic health issues. However, UNICEF faces a mass law suit based on the discovery that tubewells sunk by them might be largely to blame for the plight of some 70 million now believed to be afflicted by arsenic poisoning.

Flowers for the fall of a tyrant: Dhaka 1990.
Photo: Shahidul Alam / Drik Picture Library

Lack of development in the villages has led to mass migration to cities, where tall buildings put further pressure on supply of basic amenities. Power cuts are common and water is scarce. Corruption, institutionalized by General Ershad, and rampant during both subsequent governments, is pervasive and armed goons sponsored by all major political parties terrorize ordinary citizens. The Government has introduced the controversial 'Public Safety Act' giving it even more sweeping powers.

Critics fear it will be used to quell opposition. Recent findings of oil and gas promise wealth for the nation but opinion differs as to how these resources should be used. The US is hell-bent on the country exporting gas and oil, and the recent visit by Bill Clinton is linked with US interest in these resources. However, many feel the resources need to be saved for Bangladesh's own use.

Not everything is negative. The Bangabandhu bridge over the River Jamuna offers new opportunities to the formerly isolated northern regions. After decades of persecution of minority nationalities in the Chittagong Hill Tracts the Government recently concluded a peace treaty, even if vested interests in the military have slowed the process. Removal of all taxation on computers has aided growth in the IT sector, and the planned removal of government monopoly on telecommunications will also stimulate the info-economy. The Government is bending over backwards to promote foreign investment but investors still feel that the corruption at all levels is stifling. Many Bangladeshis, on the other hand, feel the perks given to foreigners are too steep a price to pay; they feel these will help investors far more than the economy.

For eight years Abul Hossain and his family had lived by the roadside near the hotel where Clinton was to stay. Without warning, the municipal corporation smashed their makeshift home days before the US President's visit. The corporation came back three days later, to set fire to the remainder of their belongings. Until there is a dramatic shift in power structures and the relationships the élite have with vested interests in the North, the megabucks that Clinton has promised will do little to change Abul Hossain's life.

Shahidul Alam

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At a glance

Leader: Sheikh Hasina.

Economy: GNP per capita $360 (Pakistan $500, Britain $20,870). Moderate economic growth continues despite the recent floods and regular political disruptions.
Monetary unit: Taka.
Main exports: Garments, jute, tea, carpets, bone china; recently data processing and software development too.

People: 128.1 million. Dhaka is one of the most densely populated cities in the world; large homeless population.

Health: Infant mortality 79 per 1,000 births (Pakistan 95, Britain 6).

Environment: Every year 15,000 children die due to lead poisoning in Dhaka. The recent water-sharing treaty with India will help farmers in the north who were facing drought. Shrimp farming, promoted by the World Bank, is damaging mangrove forests. The Bengal Tiger, in the Sunderbans, faces extinction.

Culture: Every other Bangladeshi is said to be a poet. Strong folk culture, particularly bhatiali (boat songs).
Religion: Muslim (88.3%), Hindu (10.5%), Buddhist (0.6%).
Language: The UN has declared 21 February International Mother Tongue Day in respect of the sacrifice Bangladeshis made for their language (1952). But Bangla nationalism ignores minority languages, some of which may soon disappear.

Sources: UNESCO, UNICEF, World Bank, Transparency International, UNDP, US Department of Commerce.

Last profiled September 1990

star ratings

income distribution INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown]
A certain Bangladeshi is said to wear diamonds in his shoes worth $3 million. A day labourer earns less than a dollar a day.
1990 [image, unknown]
self-reliance SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Current-account deficit soared from $520 million in 1998 to $819 million in 1999. Despite highly concessionary terms, external debt is at $15 billion.
1990 [image, unknown]
position of women POSITION
OF WOMEN
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Leaders of both major political parties are women; there are more career women in urban areas. But violence against women is at alarming levels.
1990 [image, unknown]
literacy LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
At 38% still poor but up by 9% in the decade (South Asian average 48%, industrialized average 98%).
1990 [image, unknown]
freedom FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
The press has greater freedom than ever before, though broadcast media are still tightly state owned. Workers in export-processing zones can neither join a union nor take industrial action.
1990 [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
life expectancy LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
58 years (compare Pakistan's 64 and Britain's 77).
1990 [image, unknown] [image, unknown]

POLITICS

NI Assessment [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Frequent hartals (general strikes) are crippling the economy. Unprecedented security measures protect Hasina, who initiated a record number of strikes while in opposition but now wants a 'no-strike policy'. Reports on rape, murder and corruption by police and MPs go unheeded. People want new leadership.


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