Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Silent Famine Hits Bangladesh

Photo: Food queues are lengthening, so is the spiraling food prices


PEOPLE OF Bangladesh are possibly witnessing the come back of horrific days of 1974, when the entire country was affected in a devastating famine killing numerous people. There are numerous reports in the press that during those worst days of the people of the newly born nation (Bangladesh became independent in 1971), even there had been severe shortage in conducting proper religious rituals in burying dead bodies. In many cases, dead bodies were wrapped in Banana Leafs. Hungry faces were seen everywhere in the country. But, that happened when country's population was 75 million. Now, it has doubled. Bangladesh now has more than 150 million people, mostly living under the poverty level.

Bangladeshi economy although witnessed some serious setback right after the independence due to naïve economic policy of the then government led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, since 1978, its economy has started growing towards a positive direction. Mujib's administrative and economic formulas were basically imported from Soviet style, which preached Communism. Even today, Bangladesh Awami League follows socialist structure as its party's principles. Fortunately, in personal lives neither Mujib nor his followers are practicing such failed policy. Most of the Awami League leaders are rich enough to fit the affluent classes. Sheikh Hasina's only son Sajeeb Wajed Joy is one of the richest Bangladeshi youth in United States while her daughter Sayma Wajed Putul is no less rich. Mujib's youngest daughter, Sheikh Rehana lives fabulously wealthy life in United Kingdom. Many of the Awami League leaders are holding accounts with foreign banks, where they have reportedly deposited huge amount of cash, secretly.

Since Mujib's assassination in 1975 (15th August), Bangladesh Awami League went became extremely weak in its political strength as the famine of 1974 and the massive lawlessness and administrative corruption during the entire Mujib era remained as a prominent black dot in the history of Bangladesh as well as in the minds of the suffered people. Although all the members of Mujib's family were killed during the military coup in 1975, Sheikh Hasina and Sheikh Rehana escaped death as both were living outside the country.

Sheikh Hasina was allowed to return to Bangladesh in 1980 during the rule of Ziaur Rahman. Ziaur Rahman is considered to be the only honest ruler in Bangladesh, although there are numerous questions about his political honesty. Press Freedom and basic human rights, which were seized by Mujib regime through Special Powers Act and formation of one-party rule was revoked by Zia with once again establishing multi party politics and giving freedom of press. Although Zia too began his tenure as a Martial Law administrator, he did not have any fascist character in him, which is yet endorsed by many of his arch political rivals.

After the assassination of Ziaur Rahman, military ruler Husain Mohammed Ershad came in power, who also showed numerous charismas to the people of Bangladesh in up building the nation. But his personal character is always extremely nasty especially because of his extreme womanizing. Ershad also stands liable as one of the conspirators of Zia's murder. But, in general, there is a clear perception in the minds of the people of Bangladesh; the two military rules in the country were the best eras for the nation.

Hussein Muhammad Ershad was forced to step back from power in 1990 following combined movements of Awami League, Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Jamaat-e-Islami. Since then, Bangladesh has attained real democratic process. Although many argue that democracy was established in the country following the independence in 1971, a real democratic system was however established only in 1990. And of course, Bangladeshis have witnessed many ups and downs in the country since democracy came into existence.

The latest episode of sending democracy to cold storage and declaration of State of Emergency is no more an unknown fact to the global community. Many knows the fact as to why the Bangladesh army was virtually compelled to help a group of selected people in taking over country's administration, when the entire nation was on the verge of virtual civil war in 2007. But, at the first hour of such massive political shake, Chief Advisor (Chief Executive) to the Caretaker government expressed his willingness of holding a free and fair election within the end of the same year and handover power to people's representatives. But, in reality, that has not happened in 2007, although many predicted the election to take place. Now, the government has a newer agenda of holding the general election by December 2008. According to political pundits, such plan is also not sincere at all. Real intention of the present interim government in Bangladesh is to some how escape date after date and delay the holding of the election in the country, still a 'king's party' comes into prominent position. There are already two such parties already formed, one under a questioned editor-cum-politician named Ferdous Ahmed Qureshi and the other by a former military General. Both the parties seem to have already been failed to convince the people of Bangladesh with their own political agendas. Now possibly it is turn for the Caretaker Government to find one new player for this game.

Everything might have been possible for the present caretaker government, if there won't be acute power (electricity) crisis and massive food crisis, which has already resulted in silent famine in the small South Asian nation. A large section of the poor people in the country is already in full or partial starvation due to exorbitant prices of essentials. There are even reports of death due to food crisis from various rural areas in Bangladesh. The government tried desperately in buying rice from various nations including India, which has some how failed. Indian government increased export price for rice from US$ 350 to US$ 1,000 per ton in last couple of months. Now the Central Government has already banned any export of rice to any nation. Export prices of other edible products from India are also increased several folds. Being failed in collecting rice from international market, Bangladesh government is trying to comfort the people by saying that the coming agro production in mid April will resolve the rice crisis in the country. But, according to experts, such production may really ease the situation for several months; Bangladesh will have to buy rice and other essentials from the international market to save the nation from starvation. But, to really implement such huge purchase plan, the country requires adequate foreign exchange reserve. In a recent report it was said that, Bangladesh government has already borrowed 70 million US dollars from various foreign banks. Such information does not stand positively on the claimed foreign exchange reserve of the nation. And these are no good news for the people of Bangladesh. It is greatly anticipated that, the silent famine, which has already started in the country, may somehow be resolved for some months, the country and the nation is destined towards a very complicated situation in the months to come. International community really needs to look into this issue on companionate ground and help Bangladesh not only in overcoming the crisis but also in saving lives of thousands of people from such potential famine. #

First published in Global Politician, April 3, 2008 Sunita Paul is a writer and specializes on South Asian affairs