Hunger and Bureaucracy in Bangladesh


TROPICAL POVERTY is a very deceptive thing, very weird--tuberculosis under a clear blue sky, bodies eating themselves away in the midst of a lush countryside. When you fly over Bangladesh you have to wonder how a land so green could ever have a food problem. This is the richest and most fertile farmland in the world--nothing in Iowa or the Ukraine can compare to it. The whole country is a delta formed by two of the mightiest rivers in the world, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra. Since the Brahmaputra is essentially liquid topsoil and the Ganges flowing shit, the resource base for producing the highest crop yields in the world are there. With their weather which allows a twelve month growing season the Bengalis should be able to produce enough crops to feed 300 million people. That is, not only feed themselves well, but also make up for India's entire food deficit, and still have food left over. They should, but they don't; this is why, if you catch the morning flight to Dacca before the sanitation department gets to work, you can sometimes see bodies stretched out along the highway. A very puzzling country, Bangladesh.

A very hard country to understand. I was there just three weeks before the recent coup, talking with some people who were supposed to know what was going on, and I never suspected anything out of the ordinary was up. Neither, apparently, did the Asian press corps, or even the unfortunate Sheik Mujib, the assassinee, himself. To be fair about it, however, it is rather hard to tell what's out of the ordinary in a nation where political assassinations occur at the rate of one thousand a year. Dozens of natives learn daily, at the cost of their lives, that it is very, very dangerous to assume you know Bangladesh.

For Bangladesh is, quite literally, a nation that no one knows. You can't even find out how many people live there: estimates run from seventy million to eighty five. Likewise, no one knows how fast the population is expanding: some will tell you three million a year, others will say less than two. This discrepancy is more than academic debate over statistics; each one of these chalkmarks in the census book represents a person who needs food, a home, clothes, medicine, schooling, work. If you're off by fifteen million and a human margin of error is increasing by a million a year, a whole lot of people--including, eventually, you--are going to be in serious trouble. In the land of the IRS and thick telephone books it may seem inconceivable that a government couldn't count its people (much less provide them with some basic level of care), but we posit educated, well fed, mobilized populaces, and governments which are in touch with their people. Neither posit holds in Bangladesh.

Like most of the peoples in the new breed of basket case nation-states, Bengalis live close to the soil, love and have many children, suffer hunger and sickness, work hard, and die young. The Bengalis are by one estimate 95 percent illiterate, which puts them in the running for least educated people in the world. Although Central Africa has the distinction of being the world's most unhealthy region, health conditions in Bangladesh are none too good--the delta is the place where cholera and smallpox originated and is regularly stricken with diseases the West forgot about centuries ago, such as bubonic plague. A mother can expect at least two of her children to die (ever wonder why they have so many kids?) and has a pretty good shot at dying in childbirth herself, or from its inevitable complications. This is one reason Bengali men live longer than the women (the other is that Bengalis have a habit of killing female children, on the theory that boys will support them when they are old and weak, whereas girls will cost them a dowry.

VERY FEW BENGALIS eat as much as Westerners--in the whole country, probably less than one hundred thousand--but on the other hand the extent of starvation is almost certainly exaggerated. We get our "facts" on malnutrition from the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), a highly political body which would be out of work if its own figures didn't conclusively prove the world was on the brink of famine. By fooling around with their definitions one can 'prove' that anywhere from sixty all the way down to a mere fifteen percent of the Bengali population is underfed (fifteen per cent is the figure people often quote for malnutrition in the United States). Although things are bad, Bangladesh is not the hell the news has made it out to be; the newsmen who find starving people for you to watch have to work hard for their living.


Although this may be hard to believe, most people in Bangladesh are not starving by the roadside or thinking about how miserable they are; they are working hard or gossipping hard (usually about money and sex) with their friends when there is no work, thinking about what's for dinner, what the boys are up to, whether the wife will be in the mood. People, however, do starve. In Dacca (the poverty of which may be judged by the fact that it has three hotels, two movie theatres, half a dozen restaurants and two million inhabitants), you will only see a few bodies on the street early in the morning should you choose to go slumming, but the only corpses left lying are those of people without families to carry them away. For each dead body in the morning how many were buried overnight? Five? Ten? A hundred? Your guess is as good as mine.

Even today, with agriculture as primitive in Bangladesh as it is, there is no technological reason why people should starve. Enough food to feed the nation is almost certainly being produced; two age old social constraints, however, prevent it from getting into hungry mouths. The first is the income distribution. Rich people always use more food than they have to, especially in places where fat is a status symbol. Every pound of meat an American peace corpsman or Bengali professor buys takes seven pounds of grain off the market. This, of course, pushes the poorest of the poor below subsistence, towards death. With an equal income distribution, Bangladesh's food needs could be thirty per cent less than they are today. Even today, however, everyone might be well fed (or at least fed adequately) if there weren't such appalling corruption. No more than a third of the grain in mercy shipments from the West reach their intended beneficiaries; like a full quarter of all foodstuffs produced in Bangladesh, the grain is secretly shipped out of Bangladesh and sold in India. In this area of the world the rupee is considered very solid currency.

WESTERNERS criticize the Bengali government beauracracy for its slowness, ineptitude, and inefficiency; in themselves, these criticisms are proof Westerners do not understand Bangladesh's government. The point of the government, as has been the point of government in South Asia for at least a thousand years, is to enrich government officials and strengthen the power of the upper castes over the lower, and at this the government is remarkably adroit, efficient, and swift. There are very few construction projects, for example, from which officials fail to achieve their target of bribes, very few internal disturbances from which the peasants gain anything but lip sympathy from the government, very few land reform programs which leave large landowners or bureaucrats (often they are one and the same) poorer than before. Officials of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) have a hard time understanding why the poor won't come to the government for help; they are not used to assuming that in nine cases out of ten a peasant will be better off if the government does not know who he is. These officials are probably like the good-hearted soul who gave money every morning to the pathetic-looking professional beggars, only to discover later that one of his objects of charity was his landlord (this actually happened!).

Although, like most Westerners, I don't understand the Bengalis, I get the sense they are in many ways very much like Americans. They are hard working--in fact, the hardest working people I have ever seen; if they are lazing around it is usually for a good reason (either there is no work or they are conserving their very limited supply of physical energy). There is a side to them, to which I as a visitor was exposed, which is gracious, friendly, energetic, and happy, much as Americans are with foreigners of whom they approve. There is also a twisted side: like Americans, Bengalis are basically a bored and unhappy people, and seek cruel entertainment. When they have nothing else to do, many residents of Dacca sit by the roadside, waiting for accidents. If one occurs and the driver hasn't the quick wits to hit and run, they tear him into several pieces. (Affluent and alienated, we must let other people do this for us on TV).

In light of this most recent Bengali revolution, it is this ugly side of the Bengali nature, this love for firsthand violence, coupled with their feeling toward their government, which makes things look bleak for the future. The only way the nation can feed 300 million people (a population it may well have in a generation or two) is by organizing an effective national development program. But such a program can't be organized because no one trusts the government (with good reason) or wants to work with it. If no one works with it, present inequalities will stay as bad as they are, or maybe intensify, and more people will go hungry. If more people go hungry, more people will be discontent, and if Bengalis take pleasure in ripping people apart in the street when they are discontent, Bangladesh may well drift from revolution to revolution, at the expense of a few unhappy bureaucrats and millions of people who could be fed, but won't.

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