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Food Costs Push Bangladesh to Brink of Unrest

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 24, 2008

DHAKA, Bangladesh -- As a seamstress, Abida Dulalmia makes $1.25 a day embroidering cartoon characters on Disney T-shirts and stitching pockets on jeans for Target. In this jumbled, hazy metropolis, her salary was once coveted. Now it hardly seems enough.

With inflation starting to climb into the double digits in Bangladesh and food prices soaring around the world, Dulalmia spends as much as 80 percent of what she makes solely to put food on the dinner table.

"We work really hard," the 25-year-old mother of two said on a recent day, wiping perspiration from her daughter's forehead in the muggy heat of their airless, one-room home. "Why can't we afford to eat?"

Frustrations over inflation have become increasingly common here, particularly among garment workers such as Dulalmia who, while never well off, had at least managed to feed themselves. Many now fear, however, that those frustrations could ultimately undermine the stability of the entire country, one of the world's poorest.

Last month, about 20,000 garment workers defied a government ban on demonstrations to demand higher wages and protest skyrocketing food prices, especially on such staples as rice, which have doubled in price since last year. Some of the workers, mostly women, hurled rocks and bricks at police and vandalized factories in what the local media dubbed the start of the "Rice Revolution."

Troops from the Bangladesh Rifles, a paramilitary force that normally patrols the country's borders, now operate and guard the crowded government-subsidized rice shops. Dressed in fatigues, they send the stern message that the government wants to ensure stability.

Bangladesh is among at least 33 countries, many with shaky governments and destitute populations, that are at risk of serious political unrest if food prices keep rising, according to a recent World Bank study. In some countries, the consequences of the food crisis are already playing out. Haiti's prime minister, for example, was forced to step down last month after riots in Port-au-Prince.

In this country, the crisis is compounded by natural disasters that have destroyed wide swaths of farmland. Many Bangladeshis have migrated from rural areas to the capital as "climate refugees," driven out by floods and cyclones that some scientists believe have intensified because of rising global temperatures. Now, in the relative safety of Dhaka, illiterate, often unskilled laborers are being hit by economic calamity as high inflation and surging food prices make their lives more difficult.

Although poverty had started to slowly recede over the past decade in this nation of 150 million, there are renewed fears that inflation could undo its decades of progress and once again make it the "basket case" of the world, as it was once dubbed by U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

"It was hopeful in Bangladesh. Positive changes were actually happening," said Ayesha Khanam, president of the Bangladesh Women's Council, a civil society group. "But if the price hikes keep going on, I am honestly scared. When you combine both problems -- climate change and the food prices -- well, it's very serious. There could be grave political and human costs."

Along the smog-filled streets of Dhaka, the impoverished can be seen tapping on car windows for spare change and waiting in long lines outside garment factories for day jobs as toilet cleaners, buttonmakers or sweepers.

Bib Norjaham, 40, and her three children said they thought they had already been through the worst of it when their rice and lentil farm was washed away during floods four years ago. The family moved to Dhaka, tried to adjust to urban life. Her husband got a job pedaling a bicycle rickshaw. But he was killed in a car accident while he was driving in the city's brutal traffic.

"We were farm people," Norjaham said, as she cradled her ashen-looking child. "We never wanted to be here in the first place. But the waters came over us like an ocean and took away our house."

Although destitute by any standard, they were managing to feed themselves with the money her daughter Joshna, 20, was earning as a maid. But she recently lost the job and now with the food price increases, they are barely surviving on salad leaves and small amounts of rice. They recently accepted a loan from a relative to be able to eat.

"We haven't had a full stomach in months, and work is very hard to find," said Joshna, who said she is on a waiting list for a job as a sewing-machine operator. "There isn't much we can do. The prices are just too high. We can't go back to the village. The land has eroded."

In some parts of the north, where harvests have been low, Bangladeshis are suffering from what is called monga, a near faminelike condition whereby villagers often skip meals and eat only tiny amounts of food. The country's food and disaster management minister, A.M.M. Shawkat Ali, said rising global food prices have created a "hidden hunger" among poor Bangladeshis.

"It has intensified," he said. "And the government will continue to offer food at reduced costs for as long as we need to. We simply have to."

Some, however, see use of the military to guard rice shops as an ominous sign.

"How long can the government possibly keep things stable?" said Sajjad Zohir, head of the Dhaka Economic Research Group. "There's a real danger, particularly if political stability doesn't return and prices for food keep going up. Things will only get worse."

Bangladesh has a history of political turmoil. There have been 22 coup attempts -- some successful -- since its independence from Pakistan in 1971. The country has been under emergency rule and run by a military-backed caretaker government since disputed elections were called off in January 2007.

The government has been tough on the country's infamous corruption and has garnered public support for its crackdown on graft. Still, many Bangladeshis say the government was too slow in addressing rising food costs. Their anger has been kept in check by the ban on public demonstrations, activists say, but the recent protests by garment workers -- which the government permitted -- may set a precedent for flouting the rules.

"If it weren't for emergency rule, there would be revolution right now. Things that would be happening in this country would be unbelievable," said Nazima Akter, 33, president of the United Garment Workers Federation, which has 20,000 members. "People are already really fed up when they are working hard -- sometimes 12 hours a day -- and they still can't afford basics."

Fearing growing unrest, the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association recently started selling rice to workers at subsidized prices. The group represents 1,500 outlets, which contract with American companies. It has contacted the U.S. companies about raising prices for garments -- "even a little bit," said Fazlul Haq, president of the organization.

That money would give workers a temporary food allowance, Haq said. "The workers' demands are not unreasonable," he said. "We do feel for them. And we are in discussions with the buyers abroad. The worry is that costs of fabrics are also rising. It's a bad circle."

Target, the company that buys the jeans Dulalmia produces, said in a statement that it requires vendors to pay at least minimum wage and that the company "works directly with our vendors to address any issues identified."

Meanwhile, there is fear here that the food crisis in Bangladesh will get worse if buyers from the United States and Europe reduce their orders and prices because of a slowdown in their own economies.

For now, at least, selling rice at discounted prices has brought some goodwill.

"Our main concern as human beings is that we need to stand beside our workers," said Haq, the knitwear association leader, as he looked out over the crowded city from his high-rise offices. "This is a very serious moment in history."

Researcher Robert E. Thomason in Washington contributed to this report.

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