In Bangladesh the land is rich, Labor and water are abundant, and the growing season lasts all year long. Farmers are bringing in bumper crops, and a development-minded government is pushing ahead with agricultural projects promising the potential of millions more tons of food grains.
But Bangladesh still cannot feed itself, and Bangladeshis now have actually less to eat per head than they did 20 years ago. After a decade of independence marked by intensive development efforts and massive infusions of foreign aid, the government acknowledges that mass poverty is both deeper and more widespread. Four-fifths of Bangladesh's 90.25 million people live below the poverty line, subsisting on less than what are considered minimum daily calorie requirements.
The essential problem is too many people. Already packed 1,672 to the square mile in one of the highest population densities in the world, Bangladeshis are reproducing themselves faster than their lushly fertile land can feed them -- a Malthusian nightmare in danger of coming true.
Each year 3.9 million babies are born, but thanks to modest advances in health care only 1.5 million BAngladeshis die. The net result: 2.4 million more mouths to feed every year. At the current population growth rate of 2.7 percent a year, 160 million Bangladeshis will jam the country at the turn of the century --nearly a quadrupling of the 1951 population of 42 million.
"Population growth is not a problem," says Dr. M. A. Matin, Bangladesh's health and population control minister. "It is a crisis."
But if Bangladesh does not check the runaway population that is negating its development at every turn, it will not be for lack of trying. The government is solidly backing family planning programs, and has fielded a virtual army of 60, 000 family planning workers in cities, towns, and the rural areas where 90 percent of Bangladeshis live to spread the message that two children are enough.
President Ziaur Rahman, who constantly stumps the country to promote bootstrap efforts to grow more food, raise the 20 percent literacy rate, and build up village-level government, wastes no opportunity to exhort his people to practice family planning. "Nowhere else in the developing world, let alone the Islamic world, has there been a president so forceful in promoting family planning," says a representative of one of the numerous international aid agencies working in Bangladesh.
The government has set an ambitious family planning target which has raised eyebrows among international aid experts: use of birth control methods, including sterilization, by a full 38 percent of reproductive-age couples by 1985, entirely on a voluntary basis. Some aid officials question even the govenment's current 17 percent contraceptive usage figures as too high, and wonder if and how massive obstacles can be overcome.
Among them are inadequate clinic facilities and equipment, poor supervision and training of field workers, and centuries-old traditions of early marriage abd big families. Right now, girls marry at an average age of 15, and the average family has 5.4 children. Staggering infant and child mortality rates goad parents to produce more children so that at least some will survive to support them in their old age.
"We think the 38 percent target is quite achievable," says Dr. Martin, an ophthalmologist who directs the population control program. "The first few years are definitely more difficult, but once it catches up it starts happening.
"The family planning message has gone across the land. We think 38 to 40 percent of the people are ready to accept family planning. There's a large unmet demand waiting. If we can provide the facilities for the next three years , there will be no dearth of clients,"the minister insists. An aid agency official agrees: "There's overwhelming demand. More people are asking for services than they can give."
There are encouraging signs. Sterilizations, the method of choice for 19 percent of couples practicing birth control, rose from 106,424 in 1978-79 to 198 ,782 in 1979-80. This year the target is 407,000. STerilization clinics, whose patients are predominantly female, are seeing more and more mothers under 30 years of age with three children. Earlier, most sterilization seekers were older women with six or seven children.
"Even if we are short of the target a little bit, we will achieve miracles," Dr. Matin predicts. More grimly, he notes, "It's no use doing anything if we cannot do this thing."
At the same time the government is doggedly pushing for food-grain self-sufficiency by 1985 -- a goal believed within its grasp unless natural disasters intervene. But even if Bangladesh reaches both its food and family planning targets by 1985, the outcome will be barely a dent in mass destitution.
Even at target levels; more people will be eating the additional grain. Available food grains -- Bangladeshis eat little else -- will increase exactly one half ounce per person a day, to 15.5 ounces, according to official estimates. "That's it -- after a decade of development, just half an ounce more a day," says an incredulous diplomat.
"It's not going to work," a Western aid official says bleakly. "If the demographic truth were not so dismall in this country it would have a chance. Bangladesh doesn't have time. The numbers are against it."
He shakes his head and adds, "As Westerners, we continue to underestimate the ability of human beings to suffer."