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close this book Needless hunger: voices from a Bangladesh village
close this folder Hunger in a fertile land
View the document 1. The paradox
View the document 2. Riches to rags

2. Riches to rags

The Colonial Legacy

We in the industrialized nations often view development as a straightforward historical progression: poor countries are simply further behind on the path to development than rich ones. But this view ignores the fact that the destinies of nations have been linked, in ways which have often benefited one nation at the expense of another. In eastern Bengal, as in most of the third world, involvement with the West began with trade, and later gave way to direct political control by a colonial power. The legacy of Bangladesh's colonial history is a variation on a familiar theme: as the region became a supplier of agricultural raw materials to the world market, local industry withered and food production stagnated. The country not only did not develop, it actually underdeveloped.

European traders-first the Portuguese in the 16th century and later the Dutch, French and English-were lured to eastern Bengal by its legendary cotton textile industry, which ranked among the greatest industries in the world. Today, in a Dacca museum, one can see a specimen of the famous Dacca muslin, once prized in the imperial courts of Europe and Asia. A pale turban rests in a glass display case. Thirty feet long and three feet wide, the turban is so fine that it can be folded to fit inside an ordinary match box. The weavers of Dacca once produced this cloth on their handlooms, using thread spun from the cotton which grew along the banks of the nearby Meghna River. Today both the cotton and the weavers have disappeared. The variety of cotton plant adapted to the moist Bengali climate is extinct, and Bangladesh must import virtually all its cotton from abroad.

What happened to Bengal's cotton industry? After the British East India Company wrested control of Bengal from its Muslim rulers in 1757, the line between trade and outright plunder faded. In the words of an English merchant, "Various and innumerable are the methods of oppressing the poor weavers... such as by fines, imprisonments, floggings, forcing bonds from them, etc."1 By means of "every conceivable form of roguery," the Company's merchants acquired the weaver's cloth for a fraction of its value.

Ironically, the profits from the lucrative trade in Bengali textiles helped to finance Britain's industrial revolution. As their own mechanized textile industry developed, the British eliminated competition from Bengali textiles through an elaborate network of restrictions and prohibitive duties. Not only were Indian textiles effectively shut out of the British market, but even within India taxes discriminated against local cloth2 The rapid decimation of local industry brought great hardship to the Bengali people. In 1835 the Governor-General of the East India Company reported to London, "The misery hardly finds a parallel in the history of commerce. The bones of the cotton weavers are bleaching the plains of India."3

The population of eastern Bengal's cities declined as the weavers were thrown back to the land. Sir Charles Trevelyan of the East India Company filed this report in 1840:

The peculiar kind of silky cotton formerly grown in Bengal, from which the fine Dacca muslins used to be made, is hardly ever seen; the population of the town of Dacca has fallen from 150,000, to 30,000 or 40,000, and the jungle and malaria are fast encroaching upon the town Dacca, which used to be the Manchester of India, has fallen off from a flourishing town to a very poor and small one.4

As Britain developed, Bengal underdeveloped.

With the decline of local industry, eastern Bengal assumed a new role as a supplier of agricultural raw materials. At first, using a contract labor system not far from slavery, European planters forced the Bengali peasants to grow indigo, the plant used to make blue dye. But in 1859 a great peasant revolt swept Bengal, and after this "indigo mutiny" the planters moved west to Bihar. Jute, the fiber used to make rope and burlap, soon became the region's main cash crop. By the turn of the century, eastern Bengal produced over half the world's jute, but under British rule not a single mill for its processing was ever built there. Instead, the raw jute was shipped for manufacture to Calcutta, the burgeoning metropolis of west Bengal, or exported to Britain and elsewhere.

The British not only promoted commercial agriculture, they also introduced a new system of land ownership to Bengal. Before their arrival, private ownership of agricultural land did not exist; land could not be bought and sold. Instead, the peasants had the right to till the soil, and zamindars, notables appointed by the Muslim rulers, had the right to collect taxes. Hoping to create a class of loyal supporters as well as to finance their own administration, the British in 1793 vested land ownership in the zamindars, who were henceforth required to pay a yearly tax to the British. In one stroke, land became private property which could be bought and sold. If a zamindar failed to pay his taxes, the state could auction his land.

The British set their original tax assessment so high that many estates were soon sold for arrears, and as a result, land rapidly changed hands from the old Muslim aristocracy to a rising class of Hindu merchants. In eastern Bengal, where the majority of peasants were Muslim, Hindu zamindars came to own three-quarters of the land. Conflicts between landlords and tenants began to take on a religious coloring.

The architects of the land settlement expected that the new landlords would devote their energies to improving their estates. But the zamindars found it far easier to collect rent than to invest in farming. Instead of agricultural entrepreneurs they became absentee landlords. Numerous intermediaries (sometimes as many as 50), each of whom subleased the land and took a share of the rent, arose between the zamindars and the actual tillers of the soil.5 This led to exorbitant rents, which had a disastrous effect upon the peasants. Many were forced to borrow from moneylenders whose usurious interest rates further impoverished them. As early as 1832, a British inquiry commission concluded: "The settlement fashioned with great care and deliberation has to our painful knowledge subjected almost the whole of the lower classes to most grievous oppression.6

Little of the wealth extracted from the peasant producers by way of commercial agriculture, rent and land taxation was ever productively invested in Bengal. The budget of the colonial government clearly revealed the colonists' sense of priorities. Resources which could have financed development were instead devoted to subjugating the population. For example, in its 1935-36 budget, the Indian government devoted 703 million rupees to military services and the administration of justice, jails and the police. Another 527 million rupees were paid as interest, largely to British banks. Only 36 million were invested in agriculture and industry.7

Throughout their rule, the British also consciously exploited Hindu-Muslim antagonisms in a divide-and-rule strategy.8 When they finally departed in 1947, Bengal was split along religious lines between the new independent nations of India and Pakistan. West Bengal, which was mainly Hindu and included Calcutta, went to India. Predominantly Muslim East Bengal became East Pakistan joined in an awkward union with West Pakistan, a thousand miles away.

"In one stroke, land became private property which could be bought and sold."

Pakistan and the Birth of Bangladesh

With the creation of Pakistan many Hindu zamindars fled to India. In 1950 the oppressive zamindari system was legally abolished. Control of the land passed into the hands of a predominantly Muslim rural elite. Although the members of this new elite lived in the villages, they were reluctant to invest in agricultural production, preferring the easier profits to be made by moneylending and trade.

As East Pakistan, the east Bengal region did experience a limited amount of industrial development. The first jute mills were finally built in the world's foremost jute-producing region. Growth remained stunted, however, by a new colonial relationship in which the West Pakistanis replaced the British. The majority of Pakistan's people lived in the eastern wing, yet westerners dominated the military and civil service. East Pakistan's jute was the main source of the nation's foreign exchange, but development expenditures were concentrated in West Pakistan. Incomes grew in the west but not in the east, and the widening disparities created political tensions between the two wings.

In 1971 these tensions culminated in civil war. The stage was set by the December 1970 national elections, when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's Awami League won an overwhelming victory in East Pakistan on a platform of regional autonomy. The West Pakistani rulers responded by launching a vicious military crackdown. Bangladesh's bloody birth trauma began. As the Bengalis waged a guerilla struggle and millions of refugees poured across the border into India, Bangladesh was suddenly catapulted from relative obscurity into the headlines of the world press. The Indian government, straining under the refugee burden and worried lest the liberation struggle assume more radical overtones, finally sent its army into Bangladesh in December, and the Pakistanis surrendered two weeks later.

Independence brought hope that the country, freed at last from the shackles of colonial domination, could begin to develop its abundant resources and address the needs of its people. But beneath the euphoria of independence lurked the deeply rooted problems of economic stagnation and impoverishment. When we arrived in Dacca in 1974, the triumphant flush of enthusiasm had faded, giving way to growing anger and despair. Many Bengalis blamed soaring rice prices and the autumn famine on the corruption of Mujib's ruling party, and on the hoarding of grain by merchants. A Dacca rickshaw puller told us, "First the English robbed us. Then the Pakistanis robbed us. Now we are being robbed by our own people."

Since independence Bangladesh has received a massive influx of foreign aid-over $1 billion per year. Yet the country's agriculture and industry continue to stagnate and the living conditions of the poor steadily deteriorate. Bangladesh's colonial legacy cannot be easily erased. The British and Pakistani rulers may be gone, but they left a social order which condemns millions to needless hunger.