issue 211 - September 1990
Two hundred years ago eastern Bengal (now Bangladesh) was prosperous, producing fine silks and muslins and abundant rice. Lying in the delta of the Ganges. Brabmaputra and Meghna rivers, it has some of the world's richest soil. Yet today Bangladesh is one of the world's poorest countries, receiving thousands of tons of free grain from the United Nations and the West.
Bangladesh's inability to feed itself is partly explained by its climate. A series of cyclones, tidal waves and heavy floods in the 1980s destroyed crops and homes. Since well over 80 per cent of the population live in rural areas and rely on agriculture these blows were devastating.
But political violence has also played a major part in arresting its development. Bangladesh was born out of violence. During the War of Liberation in 1971 over two million people of what was then East Pakistan died fighting for independence. Indian military assistance was required to overcome the Pakistan army which carried out some of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century.
Yet the energy and enthusiasm which characterized the Bangladeshi struggle against Pakistan has been dissipated in a short history of political ineptitude, inefficient administration and corruption. These failings saw two national leaders, Sheikh Mujib and President Ziaur, die at the hands of the military, which has since been demanding a constitutional role in government. The present leader, Lt-Colonel Ershad, came to power in a bloodless military coup in 1982.
All previous administrations - whether those of colonial Britain, autocratic Pakistan or independent Bangladesh - have recognized that land ownership is the key issue. Since the British Partition of India in 1947 all governments have promised to halt the growth in numbers of landless people. Yet today the official statistic is 62 per cent, with many observers claiming it should be nearer 75 per cent.
Absence of alternative work means that ownership of land assumes life-and-death proportions, determining not only whether your children will be educated but how many of them will survive. Landlessness dooms people to poverty.
President Ershad's land-reform policy is radical on paper. It aims to distribute government-held land to the landless; to ensure that sharecroppers who till the land of the rich get a fair share of the profits; and to fix a fair daily minimum wage for agricultural labourers.
If it works without creating a new system of rural patronage to be dispensed by the rich and powerful, the Bangladesh economy will change for the better. But the nagging doubt for Bangladeshis is whether President Ershad has the moral conviction and political strength to carry out these reforms.
Leader President Hussain Mohammad Ershad
Economy GNP per capita US$160 (US $18,530) Between 1986 and 1987 per-capita income tell trom $135 to $128. About 80 per cent of aid projects and 60 per cent of the domestic budget are financed from external sources.
Monetary unit: Taka
Major exports: lute and jute products, shellfish, garments, tea. sugar, cement and leather goods destined for the US, the EC and Japan. Imports are capital and consumer goods, food and oil. Agriculture is based on rice, tea, potatoes. pulses, tobacco and fishing.
People 115 million (UN estimate January 1990)
Health Infant mortality 118 per 1,000 (US 10 per 1.000)
Culture Bengali with some minorities living mainly in the hill areas.
Religion: Islam (87%) with around 10% Hindus and minorities of Buddhists, Christians and Animists.
Language: Bangla (Bengali)
Sources: State of the World's Children 1990; Asia Yearbook 1988 and information supplied by the author.
Last profiled in February 1980
have been held.