11 August 2007
(c) The Economist Newspaper Limited, London 2007. All rights reserved
Bangladesh under water
Worse-than-usual monsoon havoc challenges the government's reputation
"I EXPECT to stay here for two to three weeks," says Mahmuda Khatun, a young, destitute mother of four, sitting on a narrow embankment in Sirajganj district, jam-packed with thousands of people, taking refuge from the rising waters of the Brahmaputra. A few kilometres upstream, the district town may disappear in the 12km-wide (7.5 miles) river. When Mahmuda was born, she says, the river flowed 15km east of the town.
By the middle of this week, some 40% of Bangladesh—a river delta the size of England with a population of 150m—was under water. Floods have also wreaked havoc in northern India and Nepal (see map on next page), as well as in Pakistan.
But it is in Bangladesh, as ever, that things seem bleakest. With weeks of the monsoon season still ahead, hundreds of people dead, about 10m stranded, and the relief operation still patchy, many believe that this year could be as bad as the devastating floods in 1998 and 2004.
For Bangladesh's unelected civilian government and the generals who installed it in January, the floods are a tough test of their popularity, which, in the absence of an electoral mandate, rests on their competence. Besides the humanitarian disaster, the government will also face economic difficulties. Food prices, already at a ten-year high, will inevitably rise further. Shortages of power and fertiliser will add to the woes. The government is under pressure to raise interest rates and (highly subsidised) energy prices.
Critics say economic management under the military-backed regime, with little taste for subtleties, has made things worse. A demolition drive directed at long-established markets at the beginning of the year hurt the informal economy and the poor. The main justification for its rule is a campaign against corruption. In the short term, however, that has crowded out investment in an economy built on illegal money and crimped the entrepreneurial spirit of those not yet in the clink. This week the government requested banks to submit to it account details of 198 "corrupt people"—mostly politicians and businessmen who thrived under the kleptocracies that have succeeded each other since 1991.
Meanwhile, the fates of the country's former leaders, Sheikh Hasina Wajed of the Awami League, prime minister between 1996 and 2001, and her nemesis, Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, appear to have been sealed. But few people seem to care any longer—at least for now. Sheikh Hasina, accused of extortion and complicity in murder, is locked up in the parliament complex. Khaleda Zia, prime minister until last October, is under house arrest. Many believe that it is only a matter of time before she joins the beneficiaries of her rule, who worked furiously to push the country to the top of international corruption rankings, in jail.
Two weeks into the flooding and seven months after declaring a war on corruption, Hasan Mashud Chowdhury, a former army chief and head of the powerful Anti-Corruption Commission, admits that his campaign is more "sticky" than expected. On August 7th the government said it would not distinguish between legal and illegal money for flood relief. It also asked for help from the political parties, which have been important contributors to past flood-relief efforts.
Yet the state of emergency remains in place and a military takeover, in slow motion, continues. The telecoms regulator, the public-service commission and the Bangladesh Cricket Board are the latest in a long list of institutions now run by the army. Safeguards on individual liberties are non-existent. Human Rights Watch, a monitoring outfit, this week accused the government's military-intelligence arm of routinely abusing its citizens' rights.
There seem only bad choices left. The sad reality is that Bangladesh is a place where all governments, including military ones, fail—so daunting are the challenges. The best that can be hoped for is that this one does not collapse before the generals manage some sort of orderly transition.