Bangladesh, once described by Henry Kissinger as an international basket case, celebrated its 10th anniversary yesterday with its cheerleader president proclaiming that his poor and densely populated land will produce enough food to meet its needs by 1987.
"We've got to do it. It's our survival," said President Ziuar Rahman, 45, who sometimes appears to be trying to raise his country up by the sheer force of his persuasion. The anniversary marked the declaration of independence from Pakistan by East Bengal, which is now Bangladesh.
Surprisingly, many international experts here also believe Bangladesh can achieve self-suffenciency in food -- if not by Zia's optimistic timetable, then soon after.
Yet in many ways Bangladesh, as hard as it is trying with a massive worldwide aid program that has poured in more than $10 billion in assistance since 1971, remains a basket case of sorts.
It remains one of the world's poorest nations, with an average annual per capita income of less than $100. Anyone who makes more than $1,000 a year is considered middle class. With 90 million people closely packed on 55,598 square miles, an area the size of Illinois, it is one of the most densely populated nations in the world.
Even if Zia's most optimistic projections for food productions and population control come true, Bangladesh's millions would get on more than an extra half ounce of grain each day. The increase would provide only 70 percent of what international experts believe is the minimum daily food requirement.
There are few fat people in Bangladesh.
"What we are talking about is less than a handful of grain a day per person.
That's what we are worrying about," said an international aid expert.
Nonetheless there is a feeling among many experts here that Bangladesh may turn the corner. It has the reputation of trying harder than almost any other poor nation to break out of the poverty cycle.
"Lots of things don't go well but lots of things succeed, particularly those that Zia focuses attention on," said one experienced diplomatic observer here. "I think they are moving," he said, "because of development imput."
The changes are noticed by businessmen, diplomats and international aid workers who have been coming to this country for years. One businessman said conditions appear to have improved since his last visit six months ago.
"People who come back after five or six years don't believe it," said one aid official. "It's come from a point where people were starving in the ; streets and they were doing body counts in Dacca to where people don't starve to death, even there is a drought as in 1979."
"Aid," a diplomat said, "has changed from relief to development."
Moreover, in its 10 years as a nation, Bangladesh seem to have developed a real sense of unity -- more so, one area specialist said, than Pakistan has had during almost 34 years of independence.This is largely because Bangladesh has one culture and language -- Bengali -- an contrast to Pakistan, the product of three or four melded together because of a common Islamic faith.
The new feeling of guarded optimism about Bangladesh's future stems almost entirely from the leadership of Zia, a retired army general who took over a military government in 1976 and transformed it into civilian rule.
He ended martial law in 1979 -- one of the few military rulers in the world to do so -- and is viewed here as a contrast to Pakistani President Mohammad Zia-ul Hag, who has postponed elections twice and continually tightened martial law since he took over an Army-run government there in 1977.
Bangladesh's Zia restored fundamental rights, freed political prisoners and in 1978 won by a whopping 77 percent margin in a presidential election that outside observers said was generally free and fair.
Zia runs a one man show, concentrating his government on rural development aimed at helping the 90 percent of the population who live in villages. His program appears to have strengthened his political base among the villagers, while the increasing inflation has hurt his popularity among the small but influential urban middle class.
His goals for the country are basic:
Decrease illiteracy, which stands at more than 80 percent;
Gain self-sufficiency in food by increasing production from the present 13.1 million tons of grain a year to 20 tons by 1985, with a guaranteed production of 18 million tons a year with bad weather and a doubling of the crop in seven or eight years;
Control Bangladesh's burgeoning birth rate, which threatens to overwhelm all its recent advances in development.
Zia is considered the most forceful Third World head of state in pushing population control and this month he set a goal of no more than one child a family. The average family here now has four.
Bangladesh registers 23,000 sterilizations a month, nearly all on women, and Zia would like to step that up to what most experts consider an impossible goal of 100,000 a month.
The acceptance is here, partially due to Zia's campaigning in favor of birth control during his frequent trips to villages.
Nonetheless, in an interview Tuesday, over dinner in the presidential palace after he welcomed Guinean President Ahmed Sekou Toure on a state visit, Zia appeared optimistic that Bangladesh could weather the population crisis thorugh increased food production and sharp cuts in the birth rate.
"We will hold the population at 100 million and then fall back," he said confidently.
His planning minister, Fasihuddin Mahtab, sounded more realistic when he said: "The economy is in such a state that unless we make a major breakthrough in the next five years, we are finished. With 80 percent of the people below the poverty line, we are barely floating. It is survival. The alternative is yearly famine."
Politically, analysts here believe Zia genuinely wants to set up institutions of government -- national as well as a strengthened local system -- that will outlast him. He has formed a political organization, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which won a majority of the seats in parliamentary elections in 1979. But the splintered opposition holds a third of the seats.
A major opposition force is the Awami League of slain former president Mujibur Rahman, the hero of independence whose reputation was tarnished by his authoritarian, do-nothing rule later.
Mujibur's daughter, Hasina Sheikh Wazed, who has been in exile in New Delhi, was elected president of the party last month. But her failure to return here immediately is believed to have weakened the Awami League by making it appear to be under India's control.
One of Zia's major problems is vast government corruption, widely believed to reach from villages to high level of government. c
There is no hint of scandal about Zia, who leads a simple life, but the one question he refused to answer during the interview was about corruption. When it was asked at the end of the meal, he got up from the table and walked away.