Bangladesh's shaky government faces food shortage

By , Special correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

After Bangladesh's fragile democracy showed signs of taking root following the assassination of its president last May, a new food shortage and a struggle for national leadership has precipitated a crisis in President Abdus Sattar's now shaky government.

Acknowledging public doubts about the honesty of his ministers, President Sattar dissolved his 42-member cabinet last week and named a leaner 18-member ministerial council to guide the country through what he calls ''a grave national crisis.''

Economic setbacks, political dissension within Sattar's ruling party, and pressure from the armed forces for a say in running the country, have cast doubts on the survival of the three-month-old government.

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The elderly, infirm successor to assassinated President Ziaur Rahman is also faced with the challenge of finding 500,000 to 700,000 tons of foodgrains to meet an impending shortage over the summer months.

Emergency appeals for grain have gone out to Bangladesh's traditional aid donors, and the World Bank has added its voice in urging extra or accelerated shipments of foodgrains within the next few weeks.

Sattar and his ministers have been blitzing the public with assurances that the government will receive enough food from overseas to push down prices and feed the neediest in areas hit hardest by crop failures.

But Bangladeshis are not sure Sattar's government can succeed. Their doubts are displayed in panic buying and hoarding. In one week alone the price of rice -- the mainstay of the diet -- soared by 25 percent in the capital city of Dacca.

The price rise added to the sense of crisis in Bangladesh, one of the two poorest countries in the world. Even in normal times, four-fifths of its 92 million people cannot afford minimum daily food requirements. As one international aid expert put it, ''the price of life in Bangladesh is tied to the price of rice.''

As food shortages go in a land prone to famine and natural disasters, the current crisis appears manageable by most accounts. The country has a foodgrain reserve of 900,000 tons. The largest of the three seasonal rice crops was down eight percent due to drought, but the country will end its current fiscal year in June with only four percent less domestic grain than last year.

But to a country living on the margin of survival, a four percent shortfall could be damaging -- especially when its population is burgeoning at a rate of 2 .3 percent per year.

The government's immediate problem is the public granary system, which will hit a dangerously low level this summer. Without the 500,000 to 700,000 tons of overseas grain it is now seeking, it won't be able to keep its reserves at what it and aid consultants call the minimum level of 1.2 million tons.

The Zia government faced a food crisis in 1979 - and in the opinion of many aid consultants, came out with flying colors. It made emergency aid appeals, bought food on the world market, and astonished skeptics by unloading and moving grain to hard-hit areas in time to avert disaster.

Now, the Sattar government is aiming to do the same -- amid open doubts it can succeed. ''The 1979 crop was almost a total loss,'' recalls a Dacca resident. ''The foodgrain stock was very low, not even half of what we have now. Now there's some shortfall and a much better stock, yet the scare and commotion are much more than in 1979.''

Political observers ticno match in dynamism to the 45-year-old Zia, who saw himself as the key mover behind the country's development efforts. While the ruling Bangladesh National Party that Zia founded was at his command, it has split into quarreling factions under Sattar.

The move to reduce the cabinet last week was an attempt to rid the administration of corruption and ineptitude, President Sattar said in a nationally broadcast speach.''Most of those who sit at the helm of state affairs have failed to fulfill the hope and aspirations of the people and I admit that consequently the country and the nation face a serious crisis,'' he said. ''The overall situation in the country has deteriorated.''

The economy is foundering under the burden of heavy oil import bills and falling export revenues. An International Monetary Fund loan, suspended to check the country of its spending habits, has yet to be restored.

''The country is in the doldrums, development-wise and politically,'' says an international aid representative. Many Bangladeshis believe it is only a matter of time until the military stages a takeover.

Lieutenant General H. M. Ershad, the Army commander, was the key player in the orderly transfer of power after Zia was gunned down by Army mutineers last May. Denying any personal ambitions, General Ershad is insisting on a military role in the government -- without spelling out what he has in mind.

The developing crisis centers on the military's power-sharing demand, first voiced a month before the November presidential election in an interview with a British journalist. General Ershad called for constitutional changes to give the military an active involvement in the country's administration. It needed a sense of participation, he said, to keep it from being frustrated - and to prevent a possible coup attempt.

Sattar's answer in his first post-election statement was a flat ''no.'' The army's job is to defend the borders, he said, and has no other function in a democratic country.

But Ershad kept up the pressure. In November, he reiterated demands for a special military role in government through press interviews and in a lengthy public statement released to local newspapers.

The passionate, rambling statement reiterated the military's commitment to democracy and constitutional processes. But it made no specific suggestions, leaving political observers puzzled.

Sattar's response, early in January, was an offer of seats for the Army, Navy , and Air Force service chiefs on a ten-member national security council, whose powers, he specified, would be strictly advisory. Ershad pronounced the offer ''unacceptable,'' because civilian members on the council would outnumber the military.

Informed sources said both sides are trying to cool down their conflict and are examining the possibility of a smaller council that would exclude four or five of the civilians.

With Bangladesh entering a period of intense economic difficulty, the question now is how long a compromise would work. There is one thing few doubt: that the Sattar government will fall if it fails to bring in and distribute enough donated or purchased grain from overseas to meet the shortage.

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