Like bones to the human body, the axle to the wheel, the wing to the bird, and the air to the wing, so is liberty the essence of life. Whatever is done without it is imperfect.
— Jose Marti
THE emergence of Bangladesh, through a bloodied war of national liberation, remains the most important ‘Event’ in the history of people of Bangladesh for many reasons particularly including its historic promises to build up a democratic state that ensures ‘equality, justice and human dignity’ in society.
However, people of Bangladesh observes its 47th anniversary of national independence today, indeed, in a painful political, economic and cultural environment, when the country surfaces in the ‘Transformation Index’ of a European watchdog — Bertelsmann Stiftung — to be an ‘autocratic’ state. The report of the organisation, which analyses and monitors the ‘quality of democracy, market economy and governance’ the world over, categorically observes that Bangladesh ‘no longer meet[s] minimum standards for democracy’.
There is no reason to take every observation, good or bad, made by any foreign organisation about any country to be objective, for in many cases the foreign bodies hardly have any ground level data of different countries to come up with right observations. But how would a reasonably thinking Bangladeshi, with the eyes open, would differ with the Germany-based Bertelsmann Foundation’s observations in the present case? No wall in Bangladesh contains any writing critical of the incumbents, no poster announcing any protest is pasted on the walls either, for no opposition party or group is allowed to politically use the walls; they are meant only for the incumbents and that, too, for propagating often baseless ‘achievements’ of the governing coalition, which, in the first place, is not at all representative of people at large, and singing often unfounded glories of the ones running the unrepresentative government. The same is the case with the ‘public spaces’ of the country, where leaders of the ruling coalition are free to hold ‘public meetings’ and speak at their will — beginning from propagating false narratives about national history to presenting unfounded statistics of economic developments to vilifying the opposing political camps, even the critically thinking dissenting individuals. In this whole partisan exercise of power by the incumbents, the law enforcement agencies of the country, the coercive apparatus of the state in other words, are crudely used to oppress the political opponents — left, centrist or rightwing.
That democratic pluralism and egalitarian economic development were a couple of prime aspirations for the people to fight for Bangladesh’s liberation from the neo-colonialist Pakistan is a recorded piece of history. But the section of the partisan intelligentsia having allegiance to the Awami League, which has been in control of the state without any sense of democratic accountability, publicly preaches these days that development is more important than democracy and sings government-prepared statistics of ‘huge’ development everywhere. The partisan intellectuals in question, who often sound like trained parrots, do not clearly say as to ‘whose development’ they are talking about, let alone critically questioning the quality of the government-released statistics of development..
Definitely have taken place some economic developments, but which section of the people has been benefited from the development remains the most important question. That quite a significant number of banks of the country, both state-owned and private, have become almost bankrupt because of the plundering of the public money is now an international scandal. The public-sector Sonali Bank that suffered the single biggest loan scam of Tk 3,500 crore to little-known Hallmark Group in 2012–13 was yet to recover a single penny. The once profit-making BASIC Bank became almost bankrupt after it had lost about Tk 6,000 crore loan extended to fictitious borrowers by the controversial board of directors appointed on political considerations. The latest loan scam shows that a single company has been provided with a loan of Tk 5,500 crore from the state-owned Janata Bank in violation of all rules and regulations of the country’s central bank. Farmers Bank, on the other hand, has reportedly become incapable of returning several hundred crores to private and public depositors. (See New Age, Dhaka, February 13, 2018) Under such a horrible economic circumstance, seven state-owned commercial and specialised banks have recently demanded Tk 20,398 crore in bailouts. Of the amount, three scam-hit state banks — Sonali, Janata and BASIC — sought Tk 11,000 crore or 55 per cent of the overall demand. Besides, the capital shortfall stood at Tk 1,250 crore for the state-owned Rupali Bank. Moreover, specialised state-owned banks — Bangladesh Krishi Bank and Rajshahi Krishi Unnayan Bank — are facing capital shortfall of Tk 7,540 crore and Tk 800 crore respectively. (See New Age, Dhaka, February 15, 2018) The government is ready to recapitalise the banks in question with public money, without, however, taking the politically powerful loan defaulters and morally errant officials concerned to task. Most of the recipients of this huge amount of public money as well as those who played a key role in illegally disbursing the funds are, after all, closely connected to the political incumbents. Indeed, development has taken place in the lives of this section of the people.
However, the kind of economic practices that the government has indulged itself in must have adverse implications on the lives of the ordinary masses, particularly in terms of income distribution among the people, which finds expression even in the reports of the government-conducted surveys. The Household Income and Expenditure Survey conducted in 2016 by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics reveals that ‘income inequality’ between the rich and the poor widened further between 2010 and 2016. The survey says, “The top 10 per cent households of the country held 38.16 per cent of national income in 2016, up from 35.84 per cent in 2010, while 1.01 per cent of the income went to the bottom 10 per cent of household in 2016 against 2 per cent in 2010.”
Not surprisingly, as an academic research, led by economist Professor Abul Barakat, reveals that as many as 10.55 crore people of Bangladesh, which is 66 per cent of the country’s total population of 16 million, still remain poor. Besides, 5.1 crore, which is 31.3 per cent, belong to the middle class while the rest 44 lakh people, which is 2.7 per cent of the population is rich. (Abul Barakat, Bangladesher Daridrya-Baishamya-Asamatar Karan-Parinam O Uttaran Sambhabana: Ekibhuta Rajnaitik Arthanitir Tatver Sandhane, Muktabudhi Prakashana, Dhaka, 2016, pp 46, 52)
Of the said poor, a huge number of the people still do not have the ability to take minimum amount of food that one requires to keep healthy. The findings of an international study conducted over five years since 2010 show that at least one-third of the total population of Bangladesh are deprived of adequate food every day, for a person should have a daily intake of 2,100 to 2,300 kilo-calorie, but one-third of Bangladesh’s people cannot afford to take more than 1,800 kilo-calorie a day. (The study was conducted jointly by the Dhaka-based BRAC University and the Leveraging Agriculture for Nutrition in South Asia between 2010 and 2015 while the findings were released on December 12, 2017. See [Daily] New Age, Dhaka, December 13, 2017.)
Meanwhile, the Labour Force Survey, conducted by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics in late 2017, shows that the number of unemployed people increased by 80,000 to 26.8 lakh in 2016–17 financial year from 26 lakh in 2015–2016. Besides, new job creation dropped by 1 lakh to 13 lakh in 2016–17 from 14 lakh in the 1015–2016 financial year. BBS officials, however, admit that the actual number of unemployed people will be ‘much higher’ in the country, as many jobless people remain out of the calculation because of ‘definition constraints’. (New Age, Dhaka, March 21, 2018)
The nature and state of the country’s economic development that the government statistics and survey reports reveal is not only contradictory to what the political incumbents of the day propagates every day, but also completely inconsistent with a vital promise of national independence — egalitarian economic development.
Under the circumstances, with no political liberty for the political opponents, on the one hand, and unequal development, on the other, the question of social justice or human dignity of the citizens is bound to remain illusive. This is injustice to the thousands of people — men, women and children — who made supreme sacrifices to secure national independence in 1971. Moreover, it is a serious insult to freedom fighters for Bangladesh to have the reputation of an autocratic state 46 years after they had created the country at the cost of sweats and bloods.
To do justice to the martyrs of independence, Bangladesh badly needs to do away with the undemocratic political practices and anti-egalitarian models of economic development. The rest is empty rhetoric, no matter which political leader, organisation or intellectual preaches the rhetoric.
Nurul Kabir is editor of New Age.