Fragile Bangladesh Wobbles As Political Parties Squabble

LOCATED in the heart of Dhaka's business district, The Sonargaon is Bangladesh's most up-market hotel with luxury suites costing a cool $200 a night. But the marble foyer and fairy-tale fountains look out of place in one of the poorest countries in the world.

The price of a bed is almost equivalent to a year's income for the average Bangladeshi. In the squatter settlement behind the hotel, laborers are fortunate if they can earn a dollar a day. Unable to find work in the overcrowded countryside, thousands of destitute people pour into the capital each week hoping to escape from the wretched poverty that besets half the country's population of 120 million.

With per-capita income about $220 a year, Bangladesh ranks an uncomfortably low 146th out of 174 countries listed in the United Nations Human Development Index. Two-thirds of its people cannot read or write. Malnutrition and disease prevent 1 in 10 children from reaching their first birthday.

For a country that has been living on the brink of catastrophe for much of the quarter century since its independence in 1971, Bangladesh is experiencing a political crisis at an inopportune time. Nearly two years of sporadic strikes have had a devastating effect on the economy and investor confidence - just as Bangladesh was beginning to lose its reputation as an economic "basket case."

Last month's general election, boycotted by the opposition and marred by violence, ballot rigging, and low voter turnout, only further polarized the political scene. Prime Minister Khaleda Zia last week agreed to an opposition demand to step down in favor of a neutral administration to oversee fresh elections. Mrs. Zia also called on the president to initiate all-party talks to resolve the crisis. But she refused to resign immediately and annul the polls as demanded by opposition leader Sheikh Hasina Wajed.

The current stalemate has put the country's fragile democracy and its economic survival to its most severe test ever. After 16 years of military rule and no less than 19 attempted coups, Bangladesh's first attempt at a democratic transfer of power could collapse unless the two sides reach a compromise soon.

With the country losing an estimated $80 million a day due to strikes - and aid donors, who supply more than half the country's annual development funds, growing increasingly concerned over the course of events - many here blame the political leadership for prolonging the current crisis.

"If we had good leadership, it would be like the difference between day and night," says Mahfuz Anam, editor of the Daily Star newspaper. "The people are so hard-working, they're satisfied with so little."

Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, limped to independence from Pakistan in 1971 after a nine-month civil war that left about 1 million dead and forced 10 million to seek refuge in India.

With much of its infrastructure destroyed, the country had to rebuild its economy from scratch. Much of East Pakistan's industry had been controlled from West Pakistan, which also reaped the bulk of the East's earning from jute - almost its sole export item.

When the country took a seat at the United Nations in 1974, the US Secretary of State at the time, Henry Kissinger, disparaged it for being a "basket case."

But despite suffering a series of natural disasters whose effect was made all the more devastating by a population density of 803 people per square mile - the highest in the world after Hong Kong - Bangladesh set about proving the pundits wrong.

Highly fertile soils deposited by the distributaries of the great Ganges and Brahmaputra river systems, combined with Green Revolution technology, pushed up rice production by more than 50 percent in two decades, bringing the country close to self sufficiency.

"This land is so fertile that you plant anything, and it grows," Mr. Anam says. "The whole country is a gift of nature. We have some of the richest soils in the world."

In other areas, too, Bangladesh has made significant strides. A concerted family planning program led to a fall in the fertility rate from more than seven births per woman in 1975 to around four in 1994. Over the same period, enrollment in primary education rose from 54 percent to around 73 percent, with the number of girls attending school nearly doubling.

Economic reforms introduced in the late 1980s and a surge in the export of ready-made garments combined to push growth to around 6 percent by late 1994.

The country's low labor costs and its proximity to markets in South and Southeast Asia were beginning to attract interest from foreign investors. To many analysts it looked like Bangladesh's golden age had finally begun.

"We were at the crossroads," says Wahiduddin Mahmud, the president of the Bangladesh Economic Association. "The reforms had succeeded in mobilizing domestic resources for investment, and Bangladesh was benefiting from global trade liberalization. All that was required was the continuity of policy reforms and a stable political environment."

With the country's two-year-long political confrontation looking set to escalate, that political stability looks elusive. "The longer the standoff continues, the more the people will suffer. That is the tragedy of today's Bangladesh," laments the Daily Star's Anam.

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