Sunday, September 4, 2011

BANGLADESH: Bleak Future

The birth of Bangladesh two months ago sent the hopes of 78 million Bengalis soaring in expectation of a bright future. But now the early rapture of freedom is fading, and the Bengali mood is growing subdued in the face of the new country's enormous problems. TIME Correspondent Dan Coggin covered the nine-month Pakistani civil war last year and was in Dacca in December to witness the triumphant entry of Indian troops. Last week he returned to the new capital to assess the pace of reconstruction. His report:

The nation seems more intent upon recounting past horrors than on reconstruction. Daily newspaper stories of the Pakistani massacre—Prime Minister Sheik Mujibur Rahman estimates it claimed 3,000,000 lives—rate bigger headlines than the problem of rebuilding the 150 factories destroyed or disabled. When Indian forces leave on March 25, violence will threaten the 1,500,000 Biharis who emigrated from India to East Bengal in 1947, many of whom collaborated openly with the Pakistani army. Some bitterness and reliving of the past are understandable at this stage. But time is short if a new disaster is to be prevented.

Uncertain Hope. One senses that most Bengalis do not fully grasp the depth of the country's plight. Less than 25% of Bangladesh's industry is working because of wrecked and looted machinery and lack of raw materials, capital, credit and personnel.

Virtually no foreign exchange has been earned in two months, since the ports of Chittagong and Chalna are almost closed by mines and sunken ships. Food and other shipments into the interior are slow because of hundreds of blown railroad and highway bridges and insufficient river transport.

Hardship pinches all. Peasants and professional workers alike make their way to distribution centers for grain rations or form block-long lines to register for employment. An estimated 20 million Bengalis—more than a quarter of the total population—are believed to be destitute. Half of these are refugees returning from India; the other half are internally displaced and unemployed persons. Most relief is geared toward the returning refugees. The uncertain hope is that revival of the shattered economy will take care of the rest.

In Dinjapur district, in the extreme northwest, two-thirds of the 2,300,000 population are classed as destitute. Government grain rations have been halved to three pounds a week for adults. So have the $18 grants for housing, which many are using to buy food. Some refugees are building houses of bamboo and thatch, dwellings that will be ruined when the rains start in May. Others are camped with friends, seemingly reluctant—or too broke—to start over. In Dacca itself, shantytowns have sprung up as shelter for 120,000 people.

"All disaster relief operations in the past have no comparison with the magnitude of the task in Bangladesh," says Toni Hagen, the Swiss U.N. chief in Dacca. The destruction, he adds, was greater than that suffered by Europe in World War II. The government itself is virtually bankrupt. Mujib has pleaded for massive international aid, a plea echoed last week by U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim. So far, India has supplied $53 million in cash and other aid, and pledged to supply one-quarter of Bangladesh's food needs for the coming year. Other countries have promised aid amounting to $95 million. The U.S. has not yet recognized Bangladesh, or made any commitment of aid.

But U.N. officials estimate that $565 million is the barest minimum needed to get the economy moving again and to rebuild the distribution system sufficiently to prevent starvation. To put Bangladesh well on the road to recovery, Hagen judges, would require $1 billion this year alone. There seems little hope that the new nation will receive anything like that amount.