Thursday, 9 December, 2021

A Country Destined to Win

Abdul Mannan

At birth as an independent nation in 1971 not many people saw any future of this country, Bangladesh. The only exception was the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who with full confidence said, ‘I have my people and my soil. I will rebuild this country depending on these.’ Unfortunately Bangabandhu did not live long to see the transformation of the country he dreamt of, a country free from hunger, poverty, illiteracy, free from corruption and a country that will be secular in spirit and one day be a model for rest of the underdeveloped countries of the world. Since the assassinationof Bangabandhualong with his entire family on the fateful early morning of August 15, 1975 the country plunged into a dark pit and the assumption of those who saw Bangladesh as a half empty glass seemed to be becoming true. A country with no hope and no future said and believed by many.

Just Faaland and J R Parkinson, two eminent economists, one from Norway and the other from England came to work as consultants with the first Planning Commission of Bangladesh in its initial years. Previously they worked as advisers to the Planning Commission of Pakistan based in Karachi. They were in Bangladesh from 1972 to 1974, leaving Bangladesh just before the killing of Mujib. In 1976 both co-authored a book on their experience in Bangladesh titled ‘Bangladesh-the test case of Development’. In the preface of their book they wrote, ‘We are well aware of the great complexities of the development process and that the transformations neededare even more social and political than economic in their nature. The problem is not so much discerning what needs to be done but knowing how to put things into effect and how to harness the activities of millions of people for their mutual benefit’. Both economists observed,‘By the end of 1973 it could be said that the problems of repair and reconstruction and rehabilitation were over in a considerable measure. The problems of learning to run the economy were beginning to override those stemming from the immediate aftermath of the war.’

Faaland and Parkinson lauded the slow socio-economic progress being made under the leadership of Mujib and his colleagues and wrote, ‘These improvements give reason to hope that at long last the economy may have reached a stage at which real progress can begin. This prospect, however, may be threatened by continued political instability and turmoil following the assassination Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in mid-August (of 1975) and the week of the coups in early November 1975 (Jail Killing)’. Both economists could not be more right as the following the assassination of the Father of the Nation for next twenty one years the country began to walk backward. For everything the Bangladesh War of Liberation was fought the two military rulers Zia and Ershad who ruled the country till 1990 was binned and the country was turned into a model failed state. The irreparabledamage was done by the founder of BNP General Ziaur Rahman when he changed the 1972 Constitution to accommodate the religion based political parties, those who opposed the creation of Bangladesh. He did this in the name of restoring multi-party democracy in Bangladesh and to reinforce his short-sighted steps he even audaciously dropped one of  the most important pillars of the constitution, ‘secularism,’ thus making Bangladesh a semi-communal state whose results are being experienced by the people now when religious bigots strongly demonstrated their intolerance towards the people of other faiths, thus turning Bangladesh into a  state where thugs in the name of  religion destroys the peace and harmony  that existed  amongst the people of the country for centuries.

It is only after the daughter of Sheikh Mujib, Sheikh Hasina who survived the mayhem of 1975, took over the rule of the country in 1996 did things start to change for the better amidst seemingly insurmountable odds. The challenge before her was too heavy and big but her determination, courage, tenacity and farsightedness changed Bangladesh into what it is today, a country that has become a role model of development for the rest of the world. During her rule spread over four terms and eighteen years she has given the country an identity and has transformed it from a least developed country to a developing country. Her achievement inagriculture, development of infrastructure, women empowerment, improving the service sector and moving the countryaway from primarily agriculture dependent to service and medium and small scale industry is difficult to ignore even by her staunch critics. Most of the parameters of the Minimum DevelopmentGoals (MDG) have already been achieved and it is expected that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) will be achieved too within the expected time. In the meantime the government has formulated the ‘Perspective Plan of Bangladesh – 2021-2041, the roadmap that will transform Bangladesh from a developing country to a developed country.

The road for Bangladesh to the club of developed countries in most of cases will not be the same as other developed countries of Europe, North America, China, Japan or even Singapore in the East. Every developed country has some unique characteristics and history or even a political system of its own. In the East the countries like Singapore or even Malaysia have their own experiences of development. These countries did not have much of natural resources for creating its development story. Both countries virtually had a one party system where in the development strategies were easily implementable as there wascontinuous political stability. Singapore is run like a modern day corporation, the President is like the CEO.He selects his council of ministers and they discharge their duties like corporate directors. It they fail in their duties they are promptly replaced. It is more of a police state and virtually the media cannot criticize any policy of the government. Recently a TV station’s licence was cancelled because it was critical of certain policies of the government. Since Malaysia gained dependence from Britain in 1957 Mahathir Muhammad ruled his country for twenty four years as the Prime Minster. He even dreamed to make a comeback at this age (96). Countries like China and former USSR had political systems which were completely regimented, i.e., the lives of the people of these countries were controlled by the state. The common people usually did not have much of personal freedom relating to choice of profession, property and personal movement. If not all, the most of the European countries developed through plundering their colonies in Asia, Africa and Latin America over the centuries. In addition the English, the Portuguese or the Dutch made billions of dollars through slave trade, in the present day context is simplyhuman trafficking. When Europe and Japan were devastated during the Second World War, America came forward for rebuilding the devastated countries. Ironically these countries were primarily destroyed by US. They destroyed and they rebuilt while the contracts for rebuilding these devastated countries were all taken by American contractors.What was spent for rebuilding the countries went back to their own countryin different forms. America (US) once a colony of England was also subject to plundering by the English till the middle of 18thcentury. The Industrial Revolution of England was fuelled by the wealth plundered by the English from their colonies, especially India and America. US became a developed country as in its first hundred year or moreit was lucky to have political leaders like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D Roosevelt. They could identify the priorities well in advance that would transform a former colony into a modern developed state. They invested heavily in developing infrastructure. The 19th century saw US graduate from dependence on primary economic activities (mining, agriculture etc.,) into an industrially developed nation. Heavy investment wasmade in human resource development and initiates the establishment of modern need based education institutions.

The perspective twenty year plan of Bangladesh (2021-2041) is full of hope and details out things to be done in the next twenty years to take the country to a new destination, to be bracketed as a developed country. Bangladesh has already completed its fifty years of independence. 2041 will be its seventieth year. The last fifty yearsof Bangladesh were full of events which affected the normal transformation and journey of the country. It all began with assassination of the Father of the Nation in 1975. He was one man who understood what Bangladesh meant for its common people. His death was followed by approximately twenty one years of military and pseudo military or autocratic self-seeking elected or unelected governments. All of them paid less attention to the development of the people and the country. They were more concerned about retaining their power than taking the country to next stages to development.

After twenty-one years in wilderness,the general election of 1996 brought Bangladesh Awami League to power under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina the eldest surviving daughterof the slain Father of the Nation. Sheikh Hasina perhaps never in her wildest dream ever thought that someday she will be entrusted with the responsibility of completing the unfinished task of her illustrious father. But fate rules destiny. She formed a government with the help of few other like-minded political parties. But her first five year rule was never smooth. Begum Zia, her opponent in the election would not take her party’s defeat with good grace. She hatched conspiracy and for the first and half year continuously kept on harassing the public life and the rule of Sheikh Hasina in the name of mass movement. To make things worse the administration seldom collaborated with Sheikh Hasina as most of those who joined the service were recruited during the Zia and General Ershad’s unconstitutional military rule. Few joined during the previous five year rule of Begum Zia. Most of these recruitments were political rather than based on merit. Under all pressing circumstances Sheikh Hasina did everything possible to salvage what was left of the country her father dreamt of. She managed to repeal the Indemnity clause from the constitution. The clause indemnified all the killers of her family and those involved in the jail killing of 3rd. November 1975. The killers of August and November were put on trial.

Sheikh Hasina’s first master stroke was to reduce the price of fertilizers by approximately 50% and give various incentives to the farmers. Like her father she realized that the heart of Bangladesh’s economy including employment still was the agriculture sector and the development of agriculture meant development of the country. Her government focused on the development of infrastructure including increasing the capacity of power generation. She realized that for the economic development of any country the effective and efficient development of infrastructure was inevitable. The country entered the digital era. Bangladesh began a new era of development and would have gone much further had she won the election of 2001. It was again Begum Zia, this time with the help of Jamaat and other parties that worked with the Pakistan Army against the Bangladesh whom Begum Zia picked her fellow mates in the government. She ever made two Jamaat stalwarts ministers and gave them important portfolios. Her five year rule saw Bangladesh become a safe playground for the Pakistan’s infamous military intelligence ISI and a safe route for illegal arms destined for the insurgents operating inthe North East India. Her son Tarique Rahman ran a parallel government with all political goons and his name became synonymous with corruption, sponsoring militancy and gun running.

The election of 2008 again brought Sheikh Hasina back to power with a thumping majority and under her leadership Bangladesh today has a different identity, an identity that can make its people proud of. Her father lifted Bangladesh from an underdeveloped to a least developing country status. She in lastone decade gave the country a developing countryidentity. Today Bangladesh in most of the social indicators leads all countries of South Asia, economy has flourished andit may soon become a US$ 500 billion economy by 2026 according to Standard Chartered Bank global research team which was supported by IMF, WB and ADB.Bangladesh is expected to surpass Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Denmark and Norway provided it can keep up the pace of development. 

Sheikh Hasina perhaps is the only politician this country ever had besides her father who has a vision where she wants to see her country to be in certain point of time, this time 2041. This has resulted in drafting the 2021-2041 perspective plan by the Planning Commission of Bangladesh which includes ensuring macroeconomic stability and maintaining a stable economic growth as shown by Bangladesh during this pandemic period. The plan envisages a country with zero poverty, human development, and sustainable agriculture for food security. The plan acknowledged that the land has a capacity how much it can produce and placed due importance on export oriented industrialization and continued political stability. Being one of the countries highly vulnerable to global warming and climate change, by 2041 the country will face a major climate refugee problem and approximately 10 million people of the country may face displacement by next fifty years. This is a major problem that the country needs to face if it wantsto see itself in the developed country league. This can only be done with the help of carbon emitting countries of the west. In addition Bangladesh needs to take up a dredging scheme of all major rivers, including Teesta and Padma. As of now Bangladesh’s export basket primarily consists of readymade garments, pharmaceutical products, frozen marine  products, fresh vegetable, limited quantity of human hair, animal bone, fruits, iron billets (to China). Bangladesh has a reasonable vibrant service sector but it needs to be further improved and its export basked made bigger.

After solving the maritime boundary issues with India and Myanmar a new world of economic potential has opened up before Bangladesh-harnessing the resources that lies beneath the water of the Bay of Bengal, known more as getting the benefit out of blue economy.

Vision 2041 or the perspective plan of Bangladesh 2021-2041 is a roadmap but simply a roadmap will not take Bangladesh to its dream destination if it is unable to fulfil certain pre-conditions. These pre-conditions include converting a huge pool of young population to human resource giving them appropriate need based education combined with skills needed for handling the emerging sectors or making the existing sectors more efficient, effective and competitive. Bangladesh’s immediate competitors in this region are Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and India. In size these countries are bigger but that should not deter Bangladesh from attaining its vision-2041. The country needs visionary leadership and absolute political stability. The current Bangladesh’s achievements are usually credited to the leadership of Sheikh Hasina. But leaving the emotion aside one must realize that Sheikh Hasina has aged.  Unfortunately the political system has not been able to find a replacement of Sheikh Hasina. This is unfortunately a collective failure of our political system. Another thing that needs to be done with top most priority is to place in right places the right people who will be able to deliver what is needed to transform Vision 2041 into a reality. There is also no alternative to good governance and corruption free administration, both in the public and private sector. Many of our generation who were witness to ups and downs of Bangladesh over the last fifty years, the graduation of Bangladesh from a least developed country  to a developing country may not live long to see Bangladesh become a member of developed country club. But we wish and pray braving all odds and obstacles Bangladesh reach its desired destination. Good Luck Bangladesh.


The writer is a former Chairman, Bangladesh University Grants Commission and former Vice-chancellor, University of Chittagong.