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Outlook Money

From The Indian Express

A bubble bursts

By V. Venkatesan

FOR THREE days last week, the Algerian capital witnessed what the government called "grave developments", prompting imposition of a state of emergency. Demonstrators, most of them hardly out of their teens, rioted on the streets of Algiers and battled with police -- for which strenuous efforts they found themselves at the receiving end of some well-aimed firepower. There were an unspecified number of deaths, but by week's end, the government appeared to have momentarilly quelled the unrest -- but not before it spread to other cities.

The rioters in the North West African state of some 23 million people were protesting against a curse common to all Third World countries -- rising prices. The Algerian government had hiked prices of essential commodities (bread included) and imposed severe austerity measures in a desperate bid to get the economy back on the rails. Realistic economics, doubtless, but poor politics, as President Chadi Bendjedid, who would have liked to seek re-election in January, would have realised by now. Even he could hardly have hoped that the masses would tolerate the hikes, drawing inspiration from his slogan: "sacrifice and work to guarantee the future." As it is, his action evoked precisely the same indignation that another, more infamous allusion to bread and pastries did.

The latest episode is but a symptom of the countless diseases that plague Third World economies in general and Algeria's in particular. That the present regime is directly responsible for only a part of the mess will offer it no consolation. For instance, the recent ceasefire in the Gulf and consequent overproduction of oil has had the effect of triggering a price war within OPEC. For the first time in years, oil prices appear sure to slip below the psychologically important $10-per-barrel barrier. More than others, Algeria has been hit hard by the dispute on OPEC quotas.

A high birth rate and a peculiar demographic imbalance and its social fallout have done nothing to improve the economy. Algeria's population has more than doubled in the 25 years since independence. Which means that over 55 per cent of the population is under 25 years of age. And since development has been unable to keep pace with this runaway birth rate, these youngsters have no proper education facilities and even less prospects for jobs. Empty minds lend themselves for mischief and mayhem, and present-day Algiers provides enough opportunities for exercise of both.

Algiers is a city of two tales -- one sordid, the other unreal. Perhaps nowhere else is economic disparity so blatantly manifest as in the capital city. Downtown, the poor huddle together in shanties, impervious to clogged drains which are only the least of their worries. And across the city, palatial houses with neatly mown lawns (and, one might add, drains free of any impediments) complete the contrast. And given the corruption that Bendjedid's attempts at privatisation fuelled, it only needed a spark to set off the inferno of a "class struggle". The frequent prices werved this purpose admirably.

Anti-price rise riots are nothing new to the region. Tunisia and Morocco, to name but two countries, have suffered similar convulsions. They will therefore be watching the situation in Algeria with anxiety. So should every developing country wishing to avoid such traumatic afflictions which come from failing to account for the future. n

(Published in Indian Express, October 10, 1988.)

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