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Cyclone relief a test for Bangladesh government

The Baltimore Sun

DHAKA, Bangladesh -- The political storm that preceded nature's latest assault on this country still swirls overhead.

Nearly a year into an army-backed state of emergency, basic freedoms remain suspended, a sweeping anti-corruption drive has stuffed the jails with some of Bangladesh's most influential business leaders and politicians, and a fragile economy is tottering under the pressure of floods at home and rising oil prices abroad.

The soaring cost of food is potentially the most explosive challenge facing the military-backed government that has run this country since Jan. 11, when, after debilitating political protests, scheduled elections were scrapped and emergency law was imposed.

Climbing inflation was compounded by an unusually harsh monsoon, which destroyed crops along the flood plains in July.

Then, the cyclone that hit Nov. 15 destroyed acres of rice paddies, ruined the shrimp farms that dot the southern coast and, according to the World Food Program, left about 2.3 million people in need of urgent food aid.

Cyclone relief is now the government's most pressing test, including averting famine and disease, and ensuring the distribution of aid. The government estimates that 6 million people were affected by the storm.

"This is going to be the real defining challenge for them," Rehman Sobhan, chairman of the Center for Policy Dialogue, an independent research group based in Dhaka, said of the administration. "A huge effort is going to be required."

Bangladesh is among the world's poorest nations, with a Muslim-majority population of more than 140 million and nearly half of its youngest children suffering from malnutrition. Opinion polls indicate that even before the cyclone, confidence in the caretaker government was declining.

The way the ordinary Bangladeshi is being pinched every day was on stark display recently in a working-class quarter of Dhaka called Begunbari, a crowded warren of tenements amid the roar of factories that supply cheap clothes for sale abroad, including in the United States.

Abdul Aziz, 63, a security guard who was buying vegetables at the market, quietly confessed that even with three grown daughters working in the garment industry, his family was finding it harder to put enough food on the table. On this afternoon, he bought half as many winter beans as he had hoped to and one small head of cauliflower instead of two. Those purchases, along with the staple rice and lentils, would have to feed his family of seven.

"We will make do," he said. "Everyone will have a little bit."

A tailor who serves the neighborhood said his business had plummeted from about 50 orders a day to barely a couple. Few can afford new clothes when the basics - onions, oil, cauliflower - have become so much costlier.

Firoza Begum, the wife of a civil servant, said the government had failed to curb food prices, even as she gave it credit for cracking down on graft.

"They have caught some corrupt people - we can see that," she said. "But we also want them to reduce prices of our daily needs, so we can somehow manage our households."

She said that she had all but given up buying milk and meat for her family because they were too expensive.

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