A Bangladeshi state of ambivalence

by Prithvi Purvasha | Published: 00:05, Jun 15,2018 | Updated: 00:38, Jun 15,2018


WELCOME to the age of democracy — a land rift between dysfunctionalities that is advertised proudly as the mean to every end. Monarchies have fallen, communism discredited, theocracies fanaticised. Democracy has emerged through the chaos as the saviour of humanity. But have we been shortsighted in our judgment of this deceptive mechanism? The objective of this article is to analyse the ambiguous consanguinity between democracy and development especially in recent Bangladesh. Furthermore, to understand why endorsing a symbiosis between democracy and development is problematic. The discourse this article should incite is what our expectations of a democracy should be and how it will reflect on development. As a nation, are we even prepared to carry out orthodox democracy?
Despite the constant discourse surrounding democracy, the concept is more misconstrued than ever before. This is a deliberate and successful attempt of changing the rhetoric around democracy conducted by western policy makers, specifically those of United States. Under the global democratisation agenda, USA has invaded over forty sovereign countries. In the name of exporting democracy, it has invaded Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya to name a few. The trend is very telling, overthrow ruling class, and establish new government where electoral liberty and autonomous judiciary are prerequisites. The mass advertisement of this particular brand of democracy conceals the true form. This concept that birthed in a handful of North Atlantic countries in the 1900s is not just an ideology of the state, it’s the ideology of the people and it is a way of life. We are very quick to demand electoral liberty, but the question we need to ask to ourselves — do we have enough personal liberty to be able to exercise one of such brobdingnagian gravity?
The route Bangladesh has chosen to pursue is endorsing economic growth, proposing democracy as a consequence of so called ‘development’. Manifestation of such rhetoric is directly privy to the abridgement of the definition of development and trapping it to serve certain sectors only. Fact of the matter is both democracy and development are multifaceted concepts.
Even a cursory glance over the current socio-political climate of Bangladesh completely nullifies the ‘democracy through development’ hypothesis. Endless evidential arguments can be made through statistical and numeric data proving that the Bangladeshi model of development is not only lacking, but deeply flawed.

The Bangladeshi Model — Source: Freedom House report on Bangladesh

The table is a numerical representation of a collection of data gathered on a number of criteria such as, impartial implementation of electoral laws and framework, realistic opportunities given to the opposition to function properly, economic oligarchy, democratic accountability, equity, corruption, transparency, freedom of press, freedom of religion, academic and organisational freedom, independence of judiciary, crime rates, political legitimacy, personal autonomy to name a few. The simplest example of discrepancy between development and democratic accountability is evidenced by disproportionate growth in infrastructure versus lack of protection or failure of its implementation of traffic laws. As of May 1, 2018 there has been 4000 deaths caused by road accidents in the last 438 days. According to Bangladesh Jatri Kalyan Samity archives, during the first of the 2018, there has been 2123 deaths in 1871 road accidents, where the tally of injured stands at 5558. Furthermore 77 per cent drivers are not licensed. There have not been any legal or executive actions taken against these unfortunate incidents. The government has prioritised infrastructural development to stimulate growth as evidenced in the case of Padma Bridge, Jessore road and investment in other mega projects. Infrastructural investment has gone up from 2 billion in 2011-2012 to 6 billion in 2016-17. However, we speculate that the growth is verbatim to only these material aspects of the national economy not to the visceral aspect related to the cultural and societal impacts of these undertakings.
Our GDP and per capita income have been consistently growing. At the same time, crime rates have been at an all time high. It is peculiar that our growth in domestic product and growth in domestic crime rate is increasing to a proportionate degree where they should have been disproportionate. Modernisation theory argues that with capitalist growth the middle class evolves, they become more enfranchised both economically and politically. If that is the case then Bangladesh has proven to be a complete paradox, the middle class more unsafe than ever before, and political oppression has reached its climax.
For a country praised for championing women’s empowerment and the fact that three of the highest ranked political positions are graced by women, the complete lack of safety for the women is appalling. A survey done by ILO titled ‘World Employment and Social Outlook: Trends 2018’ stipulates that between the years 2008-2017 women’s employment has increased by 35 per cent. While this information is reaffirming, on the other side of the coin, in 2017 there were 818 reported rape cases, where 47 were killed and 11 committed suicide. In 2016 the number of reported rape cases was 659. The increase is alarming. This number is conservative as many women do not file legal cases as rape is a social taboo. The true figures of such crime are definitely higher. The cases of domestic violence, pedophilia, homicide are also on the rise. In 2017, there were as much as 303 reported cases of domestic violence, 270 women murdered by their husband’s family, 34 murdered by their own family, over 32 women were victims of acid attacks, 43 domestic housekeepers tortured, of whom 26 died. These numbers are evidence to the fact that massive economic growth has not contributed in social growth, nor has it endorsed development in judicial framework. The economic growth in Bangladesh is simply numbers on a paper. They don’t account for any social or moral capital. Bangladesh is one of the 20 failing states of the world argued by Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformational Index 2018, and the 36th fragile state in the Fragile State Index 2016. These numbers speak volumes as to how much of ‘Unnoyoner gonotontro, Sheikh Hasinar mulmontro (Democracy for development, Sheikh Hasina’s motto’) is trickling down to grassroot levels of society.
Our observation is that when we talk about anything but the obvious economic growth of our joyously dysfunctional country, we spiral into a negative rant. However, when we try to look at the economic growth — the mega projects, infrastructural development — we cannot but notice the detrimental characteristics of it. There may be a hint of postmodernism in our view but the evidence is undeniable.
The leading development agenda is SDG — seven out of the eighteen goals prioritise ecological sustainability. Bangladesh with a GDP rate of 7.30 per cent (2016), a national budget of 468,000 crore (2018-2019) stood by and watched as Buriganga turned into a corpse, taking no measures to pursue a solution. Every year more than 120,000 people are displaced by river erosion. Around 17,000 houses were completely washed away during last year’s monsoon flood and river erosion. A 16 member ‘SDGs Implementation and Monitoring Committee’ was formed well before these floods occurred. The committee in charge of reviewing and implementing SDG mapping played no role in rehabilitation of the displaced population. The wave of development in our country being washed away by waves of nature is a sure sign that we need to do better.
The mega projects such as Rooppur nuclear power plant, Rampal power station, and rehabilitation and widening of Jessore road by felling of centuries old trees undermine SDG, inclusive development and climate actions. To establish a nuclear power plant certain criteria have to be met, for example, national position and regulatory framework etc. Considering the geographical condition of Bangladesh and the high population density it is very difficult to find a suitable place to set up such a project. Population wise Rooppur is more suitable than most places as the population density is lower there. However, three factors make us skeptical of the merits of this nuclear power plant — 1) the project is located on top of an earthquake fault line; 2) it’s not a completely secluded area so any accidents will affect the small population; and, 3) it is a coastal area so it is prone to cyclone, tornado and other natural disasters. We cannot think of any merit that can outweigh potential health effects from nuclear radiation. The case of Rampal is much more straightforward, the project directly violates the environmental impact assessment guidelines for coal based thermal power plants. In 2016, UNESCO called for shelving of the project all together. Activists are contending that the proposed location for the station will violate provisions of Ramsar Convention — an international environmental treaty for the preservation of wetlands of which Bangladesh is signatory. Most worrisome information is that experts predict that the plant will release toxic gases such as carbon monoxide, oxides of nitrogen, and sulpher dioxide, thereby putting Sundarbans at grave risk. Last but certainly not the least of all, a prospective ‘development project’ is in motion to widen a 30-kilometer segment of the Jessore-Benapole highway. In July 2017, authorities took the decision to chop down 2700 trees on the highway which stand on both sides of this historic road. The fact that cutting down almost three thousand trees all at once is an environmentally bad decision is self-explanatory, but at this point nothing can shock us.
As students of development studies, after the analysis we have given you thus far, this is our question to the state of this republic, if Bangladesh will not prioritise social growth, nor will it prioritise environmental inclusivity and sustainability within growth, what exactly does development mean to our government? Because if it is simply being able to say our GDP growth rate is 7.30 per cent, even the most cavalier western policy makers who want to monetise development will agree, that is a narrow definition. Development cannot be just economy centric, the political oppression model that works in Singapore cannot work in Bangladesh, where the precedence of political freedom was set in 1971. Development needs to be multidimensional and inclusive — growth in one sector stimulates growth in another, economic growth trickles down to endorse growth in social capital. These concepts are not utopian. There are countries that started off much worse than Bangladesh. If we cannot endorse inclusivity now, what are we leaving for our future generations? The answer is simple. We are leaving them historical statistics that GDP boomed during 2008-2018, and a corpse of a nation.

Prithvi Purbasha is a student of development studies at the University of Dhaka.

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