Date: Wed, 24 Mar 1999 17:55:20 -0600 (CST)
From: (Rich Winkel)
Organization: PACH
Subject: TWN: Bangladesh: Lessons in survival
Article: 58611
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
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/** twn.features: 303.0 **/
** Topic: Bangladesh: Lessons in survival **
** Written 12:17 PM Mar 24, 1999 by in cdp:twn.features **

Bangladesh: Lessons in survival

By Md Kamal Uddin & Jeremy Seabrook, Third World Network Features, March 1999

Despite all their hardships and deprivation, Bangladeshis manage to survive and still have time to smile at strangers, marvel the writers. Why can't the rich of the earth survive on the excesses which they demand and expect?

Bangladesh appears in the world as a place of doom; a mixture of natural and human-made catastrophes makes it into a dependent country, incapable equally of providing its people with a sufficient living and of rising above the contingencies of geography and climate.

Every year, 21% of the land mass is regularly flooded. In 1998, this rose to 57%. As though this disaster were not enough, opposition parties seek to cripple the work of government: the hartal, used now by the Bangladeshi National Party against the ruling Awami League to bring the country to a standstill, was the weapon of preference of the Awami League when the BNP was in power. Political violence carried out by paid members of the main parties is routine.

So much groundwater has been used by tubewells, that most of the country's water is seriously contaminated with naturally occurring arsenic. Twelve per cent of the population own 60% of the land. More than 15% are completely landless. The garments industry has drawn one and a half million young women into factory work for which they earn less than a dollar a day.

Dhaka is now among the most polluted cities in the world: a deadly metallic fog hangs over the city, choking the lungs of its impoverished slum-dwellers. The shrimp industry is displacing thousands of small farmers and contaminating the coastal zones.

Bangladesh depends upon external aid for more than 10% of its budget, while even more comes in from remittances from Bangladeshis working abroad—a diaspora in the Gulf, Europe, North America, of people humiliated, overworked, victims of racism and discrimination, but who contribute $1.2 billion to the country each year.

There is, of course, some truth in the negative view of Bangladesh. But it all adds up to a harmful and one-sided view of a country which issues plaintive postcards saying ‘Visit Bangladesh Before the Tourists Come’. In reality, Bangladesh is a far softer place than any of this suggests; and its people retain, through all the epic disasters, a stoicism, an innocence and hospitable concern for others that can astonish and delight the cynical Westerner who comes to help, to bring aid and succour, to condescend, to instruct and to inform.

Anyone who comes with an open mind will find that she or he is the one who receives much instruction from the conduct of people whose civility and humanity have been less impaired by their poverty than those who have been the beneficiaries of having grown up in the richest societies in the world. If the people of Bangladesh have been less brutalised by poverty than the people of the West have been brutalised by their form of wealth, this is neither to justify poverty, nor to offer the Western way of wealth as a blueprint for the future of Bangladesh.

Here is a strange paradox. While there is nothing worse than hunger, insufficiency and want, how does it come about that it is the people from the North who are always complaining about the money they don’t have, the things they can’t afford, the amenities they are denied, while the people of Bangladesh, in a desperate struggle to survive, still have time to smile at strangers?

The liberation struggle itself was a war of the largely unarmed against the power of the Pakistani army. The people went out with bamboo staves, poor indigenous weapons, against those they had come to see as an occupying force.

At Independence the economy was shattered—centuries of extraction by the Moguls, by the British Raj, by West Pakistan. The new country was overwhelmed by the drought of 1973, the floods of 1974, the famine in which thousands died; floods again in 1988 and the disaster of 1998.

Yet through the creativity and endurance of the people, they survive; in spite of the fact that many births are not registered, more than 90% of the population have no access to government services, health care, pensions; while education is nominal for half the population, forced out of school to work in fields, factories, domestic service, for the sake of family survival.

There seems to be so little curiosity in a ‘world community’ which has so much time to monitor the affairs of an Iraq or a former Yugoslavia, as to why and how Bangladesh lives. Many Bangladeshi intellectuals ask why no one wonders how the people survive. A hundred and twenty million people on 56,000 square miles of land—it looks like a hopeless situation.

If the people of the Western world were excluded from health care, social and government services, they would either make a revolution or they would perish. Do they not ask themselves why this has not been the fate of Bangladesh?

Of course people have large families. Where there is no security, the only certainty lies in networks of flesh and blood. If parents have six or seven children, they do so in the certainty that at least one or two will perish. The ties of blood remain stronger than any assurance of livelihood. Loyalty to kin helps the helpless.

The pooling of poverty makes it a less cruel visitation. This is not to say that poverty is noble: at 45 people are old. A cycle-rickshaw driver may no longer be able to work after 35.

Indeed, the floods of 1998 presented a characteristic image to the world: people clinging to the exposed rooftops of their broken houses; weeping women and men bereft of everything. Passivity, fatalism, waiting for help from outside.

It wasn’t actually like that. People did not wait for others to help them. They mobilised themselves, developed their own strategies for survival, intensified the efforts they make each day to come through.

The waterways of Bangladesh are full of useless water hyacinths, whose momentary lilac-coloured blooming is no consolation to the poor. In 1998, people uprooted them, made rafts on which they could float, to preserve either themselves or their livestock—ducks or chickens. Even when their roofs were under water, they kept afloat on platforms of hyacinths.

At the time, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) forecast that 20 million people would die, that another 50 million would starve. In the end, the death toll was less than a thousand. Doubts that Bangladesh would overcome the disaster, fears that law and order would break down—all the experts and commentators were confounded.

That isn’t to say that there was not an unprecedented disruption. Doctors were displaced, hospitals flooded; some people did die of snakebites, some succumbed to shock and loss of their homes.

After the floods epidemics were widely forecast by the same experts. These didn’t happen either. But the same experts showed no remorse over their false, apocalyptic predictions.

It is some credit to the government that they cooperated with non-governmental organisations to distribute food to vulnerable groups, and a feeding card was given to 4.2 million of the poorest families. The poorest got rice at 13.5 taka a kilo against the 20 taka of the open market.

But it was the people's own ingenuity that saved them. Boats were used instead of rickshaws. People waded up to their chest in water to get to work. Thousands of boats were made overnight, furniture-makers rapidly changed production to make them. Earthenware jars which floated were used to preserve such valuables as the people possessed.

People took loans. The garment workers whose factories were flooded went into debt. Of course private money-lenders made fortunes. People are still paying back loans they took during the floods.

There is a good reason why Bangladesh always appears in the international media as a hopeless case: the real question should be, not Why is Bangladesh so poor, but why is it that if so many can survive here on so little, why can’t the rich of the earth survive on the excesses which they demand and expect? Bangladesh is a reproach to the world. Corruption, violence, incompetence—these must be used as a diversion for the greed of the rich.

And of course, the elite in Bangladesh are part of that global imbalance. The army is heavily subsidised. Government servants get health care, bureaucrats have designated health centres, hospitals, schools, houses, pensions.

To get a position in this sector, you have to pay a very high bribe to officials, even though you may pass the written test. If you have money and are qualified, then you may enter, even though you are not related to some influential personnel in army or government.

The elite grab what they can while they are in office; the long-serving Members of Parliament and bureaucrats can make even more. They take money to set up industry, a college, in their constituency, to secure votes; then these close down two years later. They buy the allegiance of the people with a bridge, a road, a college, a factory.

They use the resources of the land for their own private convenience. A Minister wants to go by car to his home, so he will build a road that goes 50 kilometres out of the way for his convenience.

Bengal used to make unparalleled fabrics; not only Dhaka muslin, but also hosiery products that went all over India—thick cotton for winter, thin cotton for summer. The British banned these products, and there were instances of the thumbs or hands of weavers being amputated so they could not practise their craft—non-tariff barriers to free trade, it might now be called. Bengal was self-sufficient in cotton goods and hence, clothing.

It is this tradition that brought the garments industry here. After Independence in 1971, a government worker initiated a garments factory, Desh Garments.This was the pioneer, who started in the mid-1970s. In the 1980s it took off; and now, making up garments earns 4 billion in foreign exchange.

The garments industry has transformed the country. It has changed the consciousness of women. It releases them from the slavery to the household. The home has been for poor women a kind of jail. For Bangladesh, it is akin to when feudalism broke down in Europe and capitalism arose at the time of the industrial revolution in Britain.

Women are exposed to new technology, they will not want to return to the ancient utensils, the grinding machines and pots of the village. They are now subject to new influences. They see the power of the factory-owners, the cruel living and working conditions. Women meet hostile forces all around them, and must use their inner resources to deal with life. They are helped by the existence of hundreds of other young women in the factory.

No one can calculate the effect this has upon their consciousness. Women now prefer to labour in garment factories than to work as domestic servants. They share their sorrows and little joys in the slums and shanties. There is no going back.

Dhaka itself is both a monstrosity and a miracle. More than 10 million people live within 400 square miles. It is a distortion to insist upon the ’population’ growth of Bangladesh, for that is to turn the people into a problem rather than see them as the immense resource they are. The ‘aid’ that comes to Bangladesh does not tap the potential resourcefulness of people who survive flood, injustice, typhoon and poverty.

Indeed, the people pose the most uncomfortable of questions to the rich world. If so many can survive on so little, why do the rich of the earth declare themselves dissatisfied, complain about the impossibility for them to live on the excesses which they demand for themselves? How can the rich monopolise the wealth of the world, without, for all that, deriving from it any other happiness than the sense of power it gives them over the life or death struggle of the poor?