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From Malthusia to the Bangladesh Paradox

Legacies of Colonial and Neo-colonial Rule

The war of liberation in which Bangladesh won its independence from Pakistan was the second in a two-part struggle against colonial exploitation and neo-colonial underdevelopment. The province of Bengal had historically been the wealthy centre of the East India Company, later of British Imperial rule. In their long rule over Bengal, the British presided over the agricultural settlement of large portions of the East Bengal delta, maximizing revenue without investment in agriculture or the population by concentrating control over land in the hands of non-cultivating zamindars. By the late nineteenth century East Bengal was characterized by increasing population pressures and declining landholding on the one hand, and growing integration into the global capitalist economy on the other. Smallholder farmers across much of East Bengal were more precariously positioned than the medium-sized jotedars (placeholders for revenue-collecting zamindars), largely because of their different histories of land settlement and access to credit. These 'demographic and market pressures intersected most obviously at a microcosmic level on the tiny jute-growing plot of the east Bengal peasant' (Bose 1986, 36). Unable to subsist on the proceeds of rice cultivation on ever tinier plots, peasants shifted into potentially more lucrative jute production, exposing them to the volatilities of global commodity markets and the oppressive dependence on local credit relations. By 1920, there was little unsettled land left on which to expand production, and production yields remained about the same for a quarter of a century. The famine of 1943-4 (whose wider effects pre- and post-dated this period; see Mukherjee 2015) did much to accelerate the process of impoverishment and loss of land in the east of Bengal. By 1960, a conservative estimate was that one-fifth of the rural population of what was by then the east wing of Pakistan had no land of their own (Van Schendel 2009; Abdullah etal. 1976). By the mid-1980s, in the country that was by then Bangladesh, around half the rural population was landless (Turner and Ali

1996; Lewis 2011), signalling that the intervening quarter-century had seen a dramatic increase in landlessness.

Independence from Britain and partition from India in 1947 changed little in these underlying patterns of underdevelopment. Industrial development, in particular processing of jute products, had been concentrated in West Bengal; the eastern part of Bengal remained in the weak position of commodity producer once it was turned into East Pakistan. The disruption to industry and business after independence illustrates the extent to which industry had been neglected in East Pakistan:

Overnight a vacuum was created in large areas of modern industry, banking, insurance, foreign and domestic trade, inland water transport and shipping. At the same time the developed trading and supply relationships which had been built up by this expatriate bourgeoisie to serve the Bangladesh economy were severed. In 1969/70, 35% of Bangladesh's imports and 32% of its exports had been direct to West Pakistan. Again overnight Bangladesh had to find new sources of supply for raw cotton, yarn, cloth, oil seeds, long staple rice, tobacco and variety of manufactures. In the export sector, markets for tea, paper and newsprint, and matches were severely affected whilst markets for jute goods, hides and skins and leather were partially affected. This meant that not only was it necessary to find new sources of supply and markets but new classes, institutions and skills had to be developed to fill the vacuum created by the departing Pakistanis. (Sobhan 1982, 2)

This gap in turn reflected the nature of the landed, business, and industrial elites, who had been predominantly drawn from among non-Bengalis or Bengali Hindus. The new nation faced the uphill challenge of economic development with only an 'intermediate class' of lawyers, academics, and other professionals to play the role of a class of entrepreneurs and industrialists (Kochanek 1994; Sobhan and Ahmad 1980; Bertocci 1982). Indeed, a major motivation for Bengali independence was that the eastern wing of Pakistan had been neglected by development policy and aid expenditure in the two decades since partition. This was partly deliberate, a neo-colonial strategy, and partly de facto, the result of a failure to correct for the unequalizing effects of a drive towards private sector-driven industrial development in which rural livelihoods and human development were of minor relevance (Sobhan 1969). It also reflected the view of the ruling elite that maintaining the political settlement across the bifurcated country meant military power, which meant a viable economy (Khan 2013); investment in growth (rather than subsistence) sectors such as the manufacturing industry meant that the poor, agrarian citizens of East Pakistan were disproportionately neglected compared to their counterparts to the west.

Neo-colonial rule inevitably rested on inequitable distributions of political power that finally proved untenable. Khan (2013) shows how the exclusion of

East Pakistani elites from the benefits of growth destabilized the political settlement in the 1950s. When Ayub Khan seized power in 1958, a combination of authoritarian violence and effective subsidies to industrial investors maintained the settlement through the 1960s, leading to a growing concentration of economic and political power among a small group. Growing inequality between the industrial elite—the 'twenty-two families' said by Pakistani Chief Economist Mahbub ul Haq to control Pakistan's industrial and financial assets in 1965—and the rural masses was sanctioned as part of this development drive. Over the 1960s, and despite praise for Pakistan's apparent economic growth success, class and regional inequalities grew ever more glaring and ever more intolerable for the intermediate classes over in East Bengal:

With the benefit of hindsight, the praetorian LAO (limited access order, or political settlement) failed to allocate sufficient rents to potential organizers of violence and allocated too many rents to client capitalists, a group that included almost none from the eastern wing. An emerging alliance between excluded business interests and excluded political interest in East Pakistan proved to be devastating for the stability of the regime. (Khan 2013, 36)

Most foreign aid was military aid, and this stayed in the west where the military/political leadership were. Foreign exchange earned from the jute exports of Bengali peasants was transformed into industrial investment in the west. As early as 1956, East Pakistani economists highlighted the unevenness of investment and development outcomes, arguing that a 'two economy' approach disadvantaged the East. Between 1959-60 and 1969-70, per capita gross domestic product (GDP) rose by 17 per cent in East Pakistan, but by 42 per cent in the west; per capita income was one-third higher in the west than in the east in 1959-60, and two-thirds higher by 1969-70 (Islam 1972; Van Schendel 2009). By 1970 there was widespread acceptance that West Pakistan had treated its eastern half as a colony: industrial investment was heavily concentrated in the east; foreign exchange earned in the east from jute exports funded development in the west; coveted positions in the state were dominated by West Pakistanis (Khan 1995; Maniruzzaman 1988; Ghosh 1990) and the fruits of development confined to the elites of the west (Khan 1995; Khan 2011); within the army, Bengali officers were frequently passed over for men from the west, and the top brass were rarely from the east. By the time of independence in 1971, the east had built up no modern heavy industry or financial services of its own, and the separation left a large gap in domestic and foreign trade and transport services, among others.1 [1]

Resistance to this uneven distribution inevitably emerged. A key moment was the 1950s' language movement. This student-led struggle succeeded in blocking the imposition of Urdu in public life, a move which would have marginalized Bengali, the language spoken in the east. Responding to widespread popular struggles of the late 1960s in Pakistan (themselves influenced by youth struggles elsewhere during the late 1960s (Raghavan 2013)), democratic elections were called for in late 1970. But with only weeks to go before the polls, one of the worst disasters ever to befall the region, and indeed one of the deadliest cyclones in world history, struck the coast of East Bengal, centring on Bhola. Given the significance of its timing in the independence struggle, and, I argue, the development history, the treatment of Bhola in political history is surprisingly cursory.[2] For this reason, I discuss it in detail.

  • [1] See Nurul Islam's memoir (Islam 2003) and Rehman Sobhan's blistering analysis of the causesand effects of Bangladesh's aid dependence (Sobhan 1982).
  • [2] Apart from Nabil Ahmed's provocative essay 'Entangled Earth' (Ahmed 2013) and HabibulHaque Khondker's work on the politics of disaster (Khondker 1992).
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