Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Political Fallout: Caught on the Back Foot

FARID BAKHT

The caretaker government in Bangladesh has been severely criticised for its incompetence in organising relief after cyclone Sidr devastated large parts of the country. By arranging for movement of people to high ground, the government did see that the casualties were kept relatively low, but it has refused to recognise the enormity of physical damage wrought by the cyclone and has been inept in relief management.

THE reputation of the caretaker government in Bangladesh has touched a new low. The issue is its handling of cyclone Sidr. What started off as a clinically successful operation quickly deteriorated into a management fiasco. The category four cyclone slammed into south-western Bangladesh on November 15. From four days before the storm made landfall, the government began warning people about the seriousness of the situation. The BBC reported how "advertisements in newspapers, megaphone announcements from mosques and (even) internet messages" sent a constant stream of messages.

Winds of speeds of up to 250 km per hour and waves over six metres high made this comparable to the terrible cyclone of November 1970. In 1991, more than 1,40,000 people had died when another cyclone hit Bangladesh. Within the first few days of the current disaster, officials were saying that less than 2,000 deaths had occurred. By November 22 the death toll had climbed to just above 4,000. While still tragic, the death toll seemed miraculously low in comparison to 1991.

One reason initially put forward for the low casualties was that the army was able to mobilise 600,000 people to move to the nearest shelter or at least inland. Less mention is made of the fortuitous factor that as the cyclone struck, the tide in the Bay of Bengal was low. Had it been high tide, many thousands more, caught in the open, might have perished. Nevertheless, the authorities did display efficiency in ensuring massive evacuation and they have been universally commended for their efforts. However, after a good start, things began to go horribly wrong.

The self-styled caretaker government, in charge since January, seemed to loathe making an appeal for assistance. The gaffe-prone law and information advisor (and owner of powerful media interests), Mainul Hossein, said that the government did not want to officially term it a national disaster. He told reporters, "We have discussed the matter several times, but finally did not make the national appeal because many kinds of people, with questionable motives, will become involved, which will create a situation very difficult for the government to control" (New Age, Bangladesh). Five days after the storm, under mounting condemnation, the interim leader, Fakhruddin Ahmed, changed course and described the cyclone as a national calamity. The foreign ministry then declared that, "We will welcome support from the international community…. We are doing as best as we can do ourselves".

The government is out of tune with most other institutions and its figures consistently minimise the tragedy. Even then, its data is appalling enough. The number of families affected is supposedly around 900,000, with nearly 250,000 cattle dead and 23,000 acres of crops totally destroyed. Numbers continue to creep up. It is reported that 360,000 homes are completed shattered, with 1.2 million damaged and more than a million homeless.

Effectively disregarding government dithering, the aid agencies got into gear. Foreign donors have pledged over $ 550 million in assistance. The World Bank accounts for $250 million, though unfortunately this will come mostly as a loan, which means that a few years down the line this will add to the country's increasingly unmanageable debt burden. Japan has offered $ 10 million. Among the neighbouring countries, India is giving $22 million in "operation sahayata". This will include 40,000 tonnes of rice, 10,000 tonnes of wheat, 1,000 tonnes of milk powder, 10,000 blankets, 400 tents and 24,000 kgs of medicines. Pakistan despatched two C-130 airplanes and is setting up a 30-bed mobile hospital.

Too Little, Too Late
Within the first week, the relief operation degenerated into chaos. On November 21, 2007, Associated Press reported fist fights among desperate survivors waiting for rice at a food distribution centre. In line with other media channels, they mentioned that, "food, fresh water and temporary shelter still had not reached many of the exhausted survivors six days after..." Television channels showed many instances of people in tears, pleading for food and drinking water. Aid was not getting through.

Journalists wrote that, "relief efforts … seem to centre in areas that have been widely reported in the media while out-of-the-way places still wait to receive much needed food and medical supplies" (The Daily Star, November 24, 2007). In another report, one individual was asked what he would like most from the relief operation he replied, "I just want someone, the government, NGO, whoever it is… help me rebuild my house". Inadvertently, this points to another aspect of the caretaker government's strategy in the immediate aftermath of the storm. They insisted that all aid be channelled via them and not via non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Similarly, they did not make a move to include local activists of the political parties. While undoubtedly relief materials go missing, as evidenced during the trials of former ministers, much of the supplies do get through. The political parties have a widespread network in place and are a traditional conduit. A week later, the administration belatedly called for their participation. For many thousands, it would have been too late.

Climate Change Link
Given the frequency of cyclones in this region, there has not been much comment about its connection to climate change. However, it should be noted that the storm intensified as the water in the Bay of Bengal was abnormally warm, reaching 26 degrees celsius. The realistic reaction would be to say that rising temperatures would make cyclones of this magnitude a much more common occurrence, rather than a once in a generation event. This will require more planning to prepare for the worst.

For example, it has been clear that there has been a shortage of boats and helicopters. There are still not enough cyclone shelters. Experts suggest that the ideal number would be 3,500. Cyclone shelters can house anything from 200 to 800 people. After the 1991 disaster, nearly 4,000 shelters were constructed. Unfortunately, 1,576 were damaged by river erosion or were abandoned due to their dilapidated condition, according to sources at the food and disaster management ministry (Daily Star, November 23, 2007). Similarly, 700 shelters built in the 1960s and 1970s were not maintained properly and thus useless.

In all likelihood, there will be another round of building construction over the next few years. The authorities would be wise to plan for proper maintenance to prevent the criminally high level of deterioration of the shelters.

Economic Impact
The National Board of Revenue (NBR) chairman Abdul Mazid claimed, "the current financial year looks very critical for the national economy", when addressing businessmen of the Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce (New Age, November 22, 2007). Cyclone Sidr will now fuel more inflation, having already hit 10 per cent in July.

None of this seems to perturb the finance adviser, A B Mirza Azizul Islam. In a public discussion with some of the top economists of the country, he brushed aside their advice and warnings. He insisted that the loss of one million tonnes of the "aman" crop would not have a severe impact on the national economy (New Age, November 20, 2007). He explained that, "since agriculture contributes only 22 per cent to the gross domestic product, damage to the aman crop will not have a significant effect on our economy".

The president of the Bangladesh Economic Association retorted, "If someone says it will not have a significant effect on food security, I will say he does not know the reality of either the country or the national economy. After all, agriculture is the mainstay of our economy and aman, too, is a major crop."

Initial assessments suggest that one million tonnes of the aman season crop have been lost, out of a national target of 12.4 million. To put this into perspective, the government has only 0.73 million tonnes in its buffer stock (way short of its minimum requirement of one million tonnes). When a poor and vulnerable country loses more than what it has in its entire food reserves, it beggars belief that the highest finance official in the land can be so blasé.

The economists continued to advise that the critical challenge is to generate purchasing power among the affected people and get money to circulate immediately. That means providing jobs, writing off farmers' debt, and rebuilding basic infrastructure. Given budget pressures, this will be difficult. It is not clear if senior functionaries have the will to implement such a programme, once the media has moved on.

A primary estimate is that the loss to property alone will be taka 6,500 crore, loss of aman paddy of taka 3,500 crore, roads and bridges of taka 1,100 crore, houses at taka 750 crore and trees of the Sundarban mangrove forest of taka 500 crore.

Political Fallout?
The US administration failed miserably after hurricane Katrina and that may be offered as a defence of the poor relief programme so far. It has to be said however that Bangladesh, along with its permanent aid partners, has decades of unparalleled experience in coping with natural disasters. At present, 10,000 troops are engaged in international operations worldwide, with over 40,000 having served abroad at some time. Lacking the sheer weight of resources, it does have the knowledge and familiarity of dealing with these types of occurrences. Even within an increasingly self-censoring environment, there has been a barrage of criticism from all sides within the country. This will become another nail in the coffin of incompetence displayed by the caretaker administration.

First published in Economic & Political Weekly, Mumbai, India on December 1, 2007
http://www.epw.org.in/uploads/articles/11267.pdf

Farid Bakht ( faridbakht@yahoo.com) is a commentator on south Asian affairs. He is the author of “Arrival or Departure: Bangladesh in Dangerous Times” and spends his time between London and Dhaka