Poles gaining in coal output, but economy is mainly bleak

In a few areas, the Polish economy is beginning to brighten. But in most others it still looks bleak.

* Coal: This is one of Poland's brighteners. Production is beginning to recover from a dizzying fall. For many years after World War II, Poland was the largest coal supplier to Europe and the world's second-largest exporter. Between 1974 and 1979 exports still reached around 40 million tons annually, more than half of it earning hard currency in the West. But in 1980 -- when the present crisis first started bubbling -- it dropped to 30 million tons. Last year it was a disastrous 15 million.

''Competitors shipping coal from overseas to Europe in bulk replaced us,'' a senior official says.

Now, since the five-day workweek achieved by the August 1980 strikes has been suspended and mines are back on the six-day week, daily output has improved. Current figures show exports for this hard winter quarter will reach 4 to 5 million tons. January production was 15.4 million tons. The production goal for the year is 173 million tons.

* Food and consumer goods: People are waiting less in shorter queues at the shops -- not because of an increase in food supplies but because of the combination of higher prices and more rationing.

According to Poles themselves -- both private and official -- the rationing and higher prices between them have made the chaotic market more orderly. ''The meat ration was reduced,'' an elderly taxi driver says, ''but at least the coupons are met now. Mind you, it's not easy to get the best, but, taking it altogether, I get my ration.''

The chairman of the state price commission, Zdzislaw Krasinski, said Feb. 16, ''We are already pleasantly surprised by the steadying of the food market.'' Mr. Krasinski says forthrightly that last year's slump made economic reform, including price changes, more ''indispensable'' - painful as the operation is at the start.

Self-sufficiency in food is a government aim. But, except for possibly better organization and fairer distribution, no early improvement of the food and general consumer supplies situation can be hoped for.

The shortages of grain, the US sanction that most affects the consumer, must mean a big fall in poultry production -- six chickens fewer in every pot, it is said.

The grain lag is crucial indeed. It has even been reported that a bread rationing plan is in preparation. Bread rationing for a nation of 36 million for whom bread is the major diet basic after meat (and today, for most Poles, must be first) can only cause a new credibility gap for the government. It may also create unrest among the big industrial urban population.

''No one is hungry in Poland, actually hungry,'' officials insist. In broad, relative terms it is probably true. But the borderline between a supportable minimum and something less is a narrow one.

Besides most foodstuffs, almost all the basic needs now are rationed. Twenty million fewer light bulbs than needed will be available. Drastically limited leather imports will mean only a slight increase in footwear for children, virtually none for adults.

* Industry: The industrial picture overall is still exceedingly bleak. It is predicted that total production for the first three months of this year will be down 8 to 10 percent from 1981. January statistics recently issued list nationalized industry sales down more than 13 percent from the same month last year.

The party politicians here tend to focus on Poland's intensive investment credits from the West in the Gierek years as one of the major causes of such economic breakdown.

The new economic guidelines adopted by the Council of Ministers Feb. 5 include an urgent call for expanded ties with Comecon, the trading group for East-bloc allies. The ministers also want to limit ''excessive'' dependence on imports -- a clear implication of reduced economic linkage with the West.

The economists, however, do not see it that way.

''One of the main reasons for our troubles,'' says Zbigniew Karcz, a senior official in the Finance Ministry, ''is the chronic underdevelopment of export production. As a result, our per capita export is below that of Hungary, the GDR (East Germany), and Bulgaria.

''It was not a matter of excessive links (with the West) but of excessive imports not coupled with sufficient export-production potential.''

Sales to Western countries last year fell, in fact, to 73 percent of the already reduced 1980 level. Foreign exchange earnings are down to a trickle, financial credits at least at a temporary standstill, and raw materials shortages abound. The increasing impact of these factors means many facilities developed with Western technologies face grave underuse of their capacity.

The tire industry, for example -- based on hard-currency synthetic rubber and a vital component in the drive to revive agriculture -- can work at only 60 percent of potential. Many other sectors of industry will be fortunate to reach 50 percent capacity.

* Finance: A more cheerful note was sounded in a Feb. 16 review of Poland's Western debts in the newspaper Zycie Warszawy. Many foreign banks concerned are beginning to acknowledge a slight trend toward some restoration of balance in the Polish economy.

A West German report indicates that an agreement planned for March 4 on rescheduling some $2.4 billion in principal that Poland was supposed to repay Western banks last year is ''a near-certainty.''

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