Land of silent explosion

The key to village life in Bangladesh, an international aid official said, is finding something for lunch. And the tragedy of this agrarian society is finding land to farm. Though 90 percent of the population lives in the countryside, 50 percent are now landless, and the percentage is increasing all the time.

A population explosion and land divided through inheritance has led to smaller and smaller plots. The fear of a harsh monsoon or natural disaster hangs over the thatched-roof villages as an everyday part of life.

This land, latticed with lakes and ponds, is extraordinarily beautiful, but 75 percent of it will be under water when the summer monsoon comes. There are perennial fights over land ownership, as the rivers move the land.

Bangladesh may lead the world as the country with the most water passing through it: The Teesta and Brahmaputra rivers flow in from Assam, the sacred Ganges skirts across to India. Driving through Bangladesh's heartland, one sees scores and scores of people preoccupied with moving mud.

They carry the earth from ditches in large wicker baskets to rebuild their villages on more elevated land. With proper irrigation, more tube wells and fertilizer, and the right kind of high-yield crops, Bangladesh could triple its foodgrain (mainly rice and wheat) production, which now stands at 15.1 million tons a year.

In the marketplace of old Dacca shortly after dawn, waves of people clog the otherwise rickshaw-dominated lanes. They are here waiting for the contractors, looking for a daily wage. They will earn 15 to 25 takas (60 cents to $1), depending on the area and job.

A truck with a loudspeaker careens through the crowd. It belongs to an American family-planning group - Population Services International - and blurts out its message on the dire need for birth control. The company is marketing condoms. Through a highly successful, saturation news media campaign in the village, the company can ''sell more condoms than the government can give away, '' says one family planning official.

Leaving the port of Dacca behind, one crawls aboard a nouka or traditional country boat, for the trip to Potughar village, nestled in the Ganges plain. A small, smiling Bengali rows and steers at once.

Boats remain the most common form of travel throughout Bangladesh. There are old paddle-wheel steamers, reminiscent of the Mississippi many decades ago. There are hundreds of noukas crowded so close together they are constantly colliding with one another.

Women beat their laundry on stone ebbings along the river's banks. Rice paddies flourish from it. There are fields of cotton, tobacco, and tea. A vast assortment of vegetables fill makeshift stalls along the river's banks.

This is the best time of year nutritionally - the only time that vegetables will grow. Normally, a Bangladeshi subsists on 1,600 calories a day, still below what nutritionists consider an adequate minimum of 2,100 day. For the landless peasants of the delta, survival is based on considerably less.

One leaves the nouka and boards a bicycle rickshaw, to be pedaled through lush countryside - dotted with water lilies, mango and leechi trees, and hyacinths imported decades ago from somewhere in Germany. There is absolutely no pollution, and other than the grinding wheels of the rickshaw there is absolutely no noise.

There is the incongruity of an election poster - ''Cost (sic) your vote for Zainal Khan.'' It is obviously a status symbol. No one speaks English here.

Elevated bamboo poles lead across the swampland to thatched-roof latrines. One knows that Bangladesh is immensely overpopulated, yet there is not a person in sight. Clumps of trees hide the thatched-roof houses of the village - which is more of an extended family unit than a village per se. It is a form of purdah which gives a family a bit of privacy.

The rickshaw stops, and suddenly the trees come to life. Scores of men, old women, and children surround us immediately.

They are the backbone of this country - the farmers or day laborers who work the fields. Here in the village of Potughar they have rice, mustard oil, vegetables, and wheat.

Children insist that we see the village's secondhand clothing bazaar. It consists of a few cardboard boxes - incongrously called ''the Reagan bazaar.''

There is a woolen stocking cap manufactured in the United States. Some synthethic sweaters. A pair of shoes. The clothes are reportedly smuggled into India, then cross the border to Bangladesh. Belying the village's seeming isolation, an old man tells us that the name of the bazaar changes as presidents of the United States change.

We are invited into a typical village house - it is more correctly a typical middle-class house. Its walls are made of corrugated iron. It has two rooms and houses 16 people, with two large charpoy beds. A bamboo curtain is the only decoration. There is no furniture other than the beds.

Outside, there is a primary schoool, a communal kitchen, and a mosque. Life revolves around the highly polluted village pond. The eyes of babies are swathed in charcoal to ward off the popular belief in the ''evil eye.''

One kilo (2.2 pounds) of rice, the basic Bangladeshi staple, costs 7 to 10 takas (29 cents to 40 cents) in the village market stall. A farm worker in Potughar makes only 15 takas (60 cents) a day.

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