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Bangladesh's shaky government faces food shortage

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After Bangladesh's fragile democracy showed signs of taking root following the assassination of its president last May, a new food shortage and a struggle for national leadership has precipitated a crisis in President Abdus Sattar's now shaky government.

Acknowledging public doubts about the honesty of his ministers, President Sattar dissolved his 42-member cabinet last week and named a leaner 18-member ministerial council to guide the country through what he calls ''a grave national crisis.''

Economic setbacks, political dissension within Sattar's ruling party, and pressure from the armed forces for a say in running the country, have cast doubts on the survival of the three-month-old government.

The elderly, infirm successor to assassinated President Ziaur Rahman is also faced with the challenge of finding 500,000 to 700,000 tons of foodgrains to meet an impending shortage over the summer months.

Emergency appeals for grain have gone out to Bangladesh's traditional aid donors, and the World Bank has added its voice in urging extra or accelerated shipments of foodgrains within the next few weeks.

Sattar and his ministers have been blitzing the public with assurances that the government will receive enough food from overseas to push down prices and feed the neediest in areas hit hardest by crop failures.

But Bangladeshis are not sure Sattar's government can succeed. Their doubts are displayed in panic buying and hoarding. In one week alone the price of rice -- the mainstay of the diet -- soared by 25 percent in the capital city of Dacca.

The price rise added to the sense of crisis in Bangladesh, one of the two poorest countries in the world. Even in normal times, four-fifths of its 92 million people cannot afford minimum daily food requirements. As one international aid expert put it, ''the price of life in Bangladesh is tied to the price of rice.''

As food shortages go in a land prone to famine and natural disasters, the current crisis appears manageable by most accounts. The country has a foodgrain reserve of 900,000 tons. The largest of the three seasonal rice crops was down eight percent due to drought, but the country will end its current fiscal year in June with only four percent less domestic grain than last year.

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