Bangladesh stands on the brink of a major social explosion. Huge rises in the price of basic food stuffs means that hunger is stalking the poor – leading to the violent repression of strikes on the one hand, and suicides among those who have lost all hope on the other.
The price of all foods has rocketed by between 50 and 100 percent over the last 12 months. But rice, our main staple, has increased by as much as 150 percent, while cooking oil and wheat have gone up by around 200 percent.
The government claims that it is doing its best. It is subsidising the price of rice and other food items in a system known as Open Market Sale (OMS). Still the prices at OMS are between 50 and 75 percent more than those of last year.
People have to stand in lengthy queues and many go without rice as the daily stock runs out quickly. Police often resort to baton charges of the crowds at OMS to quell protests against shortages.
The country’s garment workers are among the worst hit. They earn some of the lowest wages in the world, with basic pay around 1,629 taka (£12) a month. These workers often run out of money by the middle of the month.
Price rises mean that they and their families are starving. They must wonder how they will manage to keep working without adequate nutrition.
It is obvious to all that the minimum wage will not even cover the food bill for a single person, let alone a family.
The workers’ rightful demands for a living wage and timely payment of wages, along with overtime, are yet to be implemented at all the garment factories – despite many of the owners having agreed to them long ago.
This is leading to a new round of militant strikes and protests.
At the beginning of April 4,000 workers in Chowmohoni – the main business centre of Noakhali, a south eastern coastal district – stopped work to press their demand for a pay rise to take account of the price hike.
As a result of the stoppage, hundreds of delivery trucks arriving from different parts of Bangladesh were stranded.
A few days later 20,000 workers in the Fatulla industrial area of the Narayanganj district (south east of the capital Dhaka) violently demanded pay rises to cope with the soaring food prices.
Several thousand garment workers blocked the roads and at least 50 people, including 27 policemen, were injured. Police indiscriminately clubbed protesters.
At one stage the angry workers managed to turn the tables on their attackers. Though some officers managed to run to safety, others were beaten up, while a few others were seen taking off their uniforms and fleeing to nearby houses and shops.
Workers from two garment factories in Gazipur (a district just north of Dhaka) demonstrated last Sunday for better pay and blocked the Dhaka-Tangail and the Dhaka-Mymensingh highways.
As I write, workers at the large Alpha Tobacco Manufacturing Company in Jessore, in the south west region, are agitating for the payment of wages owed. They have given a seven-day ultimatum to the authorities.
In such a precarious situation, the government has poured fat on the fire by announcing that it is to lease out six state-owned jute mills in Khulna (a district in the south west region) to private owners.
This means hundreds more workers will be thrown out of their jobs, and that their families will face starvation.
While many thousands of organised workers are taking to the streets and responding to the crisis with strike action and protests, others are being driven to despair.
Every day newspapers report the cases of those, like Azizul Huq from Mirsarai Upazila in the south east of the country, who after days of being unable to find work could no longer bear the pangs of hunger.
Unable to support his family, he tried to kill his three small children by burying them alive at night. Luckily their screams drew people to the scene in time for them to be saved.
Hundreds of other families find themselves in the same desperate situation.
As the crisis deepens the response of the government and officials is to refuse to distribute essential commodities through a rationing system at a subsidised rate and instead advise people to eat less food!
The situation in Bangladesh is volatile. Hunger is fuelling massive discontent among the working class and poor peasants and this is resulting in sporadic and sometimes violent outbursts.
The government’s repressive emergency rule and draconian laws may quell the mass protests in the short term, but they will soon fail.
The political stalemate brought on by the state of emergency, combined with the obvious army interference in the governance process, is feeding the sense of crisis.
All the ingredients for a social explosion are present. The crisis may well burst into a mass upheaval in the coming days.
Mushtuq Husain is the president of the Centre for Social Praxis, Bangladesh