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    Volume 8 Issue 94 | November 13, 2009 |

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How Has Bangladesh Changed?

A Bangladeshi Foreigner Looks Back……

Julian Francis
Since independence many improvements have been made in health and education.

It is a privilege to have been able to follow Bangladesh since its birth in 1971. I had actually seen how the Pakistani authorities had tried to starve Bengalis to death after the cyclone of November 1970, and in 1971, in the refugee camps in India I assisted the struggle for the refugees to survive in appalling conditions where malnutrition and death was widespread. Later on, in 1974, during the famine conditions of Rowmari, Kurigram, I witnessed, on one occasion, about 6,000 local people waiting all day for the 400 chapatis being made every day at a particular gruel kitchen.

There have been so many changes-many positive- since those very difficult days in the early 1970s. At present, my work often takes me to Rowmari, and though still a poor area, I know that all communities ensure that nobody ever starves to death. Especially during the 'monga' months, many people may not eat 3 times a day, but relatives and neighbours ensure that all eat at least once. Bangladesh may now have more than double the 1971 population of 75 million, but it is now in a position of being self-sufficient in staple food to feed over 150 million people.

I am often asked what has changed the most. Obviously food production, but also the huge contribution that the ready made garment industry is making to the country. Communication too-specially roads and telecommunications-has dramatically changed how the country works. Mobile phones have dramatically changed how people lead their lives, even in remote areas. While road communications to and from Dhaka have transformed the way business is run, it is unfortunate that the mass transit facilities for Dhaka have been completely neglected and the great city seems to be grinding to a halt and this, in turn, will have a great negative effect on businesses and livelihoods all over the country.

However, probably the biggest change I have seen is the position, presence and visibility of women. What struck me when I came to Dhaka in January 1972 was the absence of women in the streets and in most offices I then visited. Though there may still be a long way to go, particularly in the rural areas, this positive change is a huge one.

Change, however, often comes at a great cost. The largely mono-culture agriculture, with hybrid seeds and agro-chemicals has and is taking a toll on the land. Soil fertility is being adversely affected and, as the older generation points out, the diet of most people is less 'balanced' than 40 or 50 years ago. Many local varieties of indigenous rice have been lost, varieties that had over hundreds of years adapted to local soil types and climate. Recently, I went to an area in Tangail that I first visited nearly 25 years ago when I had visited the villages and studied the agriculture and peoples' livelihoods. Talking to the local people, especially farmers, 25 years later was both interesting and depressing. They say that as, no more, are there 'birds of prey', such as kites, hovering up in the sky, it is clear that the 'food chain' has broken and that we are heading for some sort of catastrophe! In the old days, they say, the fishes and frogs in the paddy fields would eat the insects and the kites would eat them, mice and rats. There are no fishes in the paddy fields now and there are far, far less number of frogs. This is all to do, they say, with poisoning the land with fertiliser and insecticide. These farmers may be illiterate, but they are highly knowledgeable experts whose voices fall on deaf ears.

Compared to the early 1970s, Bangladesh is much better organized to react to natural disasters. I have been involved in relief and rehabilitation activities related to the floods of 1987, 1988, 1998 and 2007 as well as the cyclones of 1970 and 1991. Therefore, I have seen how reactions to disasters by Government and NGOs have improved considerably. There is still much more to do, as the effects of 'climate change' are affecting the seasons, the patterns of rainfall and therefore food production.

What about other changes? There have been significant and visible improvements in health and education, not least run by some of the many NGOs that have sprung up since Independence. However, not nearly enough has been accomplished by successive governments and everything has progressed far too slowly. Communities in remote areas such as the island chars, where I currently work, are ill-served and are lacking in most of the basic services. However, even NGOs do not find it cost effective to work in these remote areas and government extension services do not have budgets to move across difficult terrain.

In the 1980s, those of us involved in rural development were very much encouraged with the recommendations of the Land Reform Commission:

* That all khas land (government land to which no one has no title) should be distributed amongst the landless as quickly as possible,

* That sharecroppers should have legal protection and a just share of the crop grown on the land they till

* That the Government should fix a daily minimum wage for agricultural labourers

Another proposal to fix a ceiling of ten acres per family, would have involved land redistribution, but it failed to pass a later committee stage.

In 1984 two laws were enacted. One set the minimum agricultural wage rate at 3.5 kilos of rice or cash equivalent and the other was to release all government land should be released to the landless. However, after the passing of 25 years, it is clear that successive governments do not have the courage or political will to pass further laws to enable that these proposed benefits can reach the very poorest, particularly the extreme poor. Khas lands mostly remain unregistered and are controlled by mastaans and lathiyals supported mostly by strong local political backing.

If governments are serious about assisting the extreme poor to move above the poverty line, they have to become serious and distribute khas land to the landless. The people of Bangladesh have the strength to succeed, but they need the support of a strong and courageous government.

A strong and courageous government is also required to reduce the amount of leakage or corruption which affects all development processes. I remember that even during the Rowmari famine of 1974-75, the chairman of a local co-operative association was systematically smuggling priceless food supplies over the border to India. Sadly, now, a certain amount of leakage is the norm, not the exception. Recently, a PWD

contractor told me that he normally pays out, for bribes, about 30% of each contract's value. Therefore, he explained, most contractors inflate their tender quotations by 30%. To overcome this, we need a 'sea-change' in the way work is done.

These are a few thoughts as I look back over the years and reflect how fortunate I have been to live amongst such warm, committed and passionate people who certainly have the will and strength to succeed.

(Julian Francis, who, since the War of Liberation, has a long association with Bangladesh, is currently working with The Chars Livelihoods Programme, a DFID supported poverty alleviation programme of the Government of Bangladesh)


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