After the independence, the nationalisation of public services promised a lot. With popularisation or liberal and neo-liberal ideas, many of those services have been privatised. But do the consumers get the benefit of such structural change? We need to academically approach what our founding ideals actually were to revitalise the spirit of 1971, writes Anujit Saha
A NATION liberated by the sheer passion and power of the working class and general people had to have a structure that gave back to these people. Our country started with the promises of a socialist state with no disparity in terms of economic and racial foundations. Our constitution pledged that the high ideals of nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism, which inspired our heroic people to dedicate themselves to, and our brave martyrs to sacrifice their lives in, the national liberation struggle, shall be the fundamental principles of the Constitution.
Further pledging is that it shall be a fundamental aim of the state to realise through the democratic process a socialist society, free from exploitation a society in which the rule of law, fundamental human rights and freedom, equality and justice, political, economic and social, will be secured for all citizens.
The inaugural government aimed to nationalise major sectors and put caps on private investments and ownership of wealth. The spirit and success of our liberation hinged on the sacrifices of those who felt they had nothing to lose. Principally, the nation now had to form a support system for the thousands of families left behind with no homes, families, and jobs.
Sadly, the greed of the elitist part and military groups outweighed the efforts of the state to accommodate the most vulnerable people of the society. True, the nationalisation schemes were followed by inefficient running of the economic sectors and a disastrous famine, but it was mainly due to the blows our country had taken both during and before the war of 1971.
Given we lost around 30 lakh people to the war, and that a large part of the country was reduced to debris and heaps of dead bodies, our nation needed time to recover. We had lost a significant portion of our intelligentsia to the killings on the night of December 14 by a vengeful Pakistani regime. Amidst the economic downfalls and famines, proponents of liberalisation pounced on the opportunity to establish the reach of neo-liberalism in this fertile Bengali delta with an ever growing population.
Flash forward to almost half a century, all pro-establishment political parties have accepted privatisation as one of its major policies. Privatisation of education, healthcare and industries are promised by these governments and are used as an indicator to show how conducive our economy is to foreign as well as domestic investments. However, as a consumer, I feel the large gaping holes in the current functioning of all three sectors of our economy.
Take the group of people with largest significance and contribution to our land — the farmers. People dedicated to produce the staple crop of our country earn just enough to survive. The situation was so tragic during this year’s harvest that a field in Tangail was set in fire by a cultivator, who was frustrated by the fact that farming yielded them nothing but loses due to the high prices of production and low prices paid to them by the retailers. Given we are still largely an agrarian economy with the gift of widespread soil fertility, this example of market failure is the biggest indicator of how the economy only seems to favor those who have the capital and influence to set prices and form syndicates.
This brings us to a far greater problem. The highlight of the year was the sudden hike in onion price from about TK 30 per kilogram to as high as TK 300 per kilogram within a few days. With investigations still going on, it is clear that the price hike was stimulated by syndicates who withheld the supply of onion and stimulated an increase in demand. With onions being an important addition to Bengali cuisine and diet, the impoverished were reminded how even the basic goods were now taking the form of luxury goods due to infiltration by illicit parties.
Looking into the services provided by the state, the prospects are not much better. The Water Supply and Sewage System was under the heat when civilians started to voice out against the horrific quality of the water supply. Traces of large amounts of antibiotics made the water unsafe for consumption even after filtration.
Transparency International Bangladesh revealed that USD 3.32 billion worth of gas were being spent by households annually for boiling the water supplied due to the belief that the water was still infested with bacteria and antibiotics. This brought the sophisticated and expensive filtration and processing process of WASA into question and addressed the unsustainability of the current consumptive nature.
Electric supply, however, stands out due to its increase in reach and capacity. Load shedding in both the cities and rural regions has been curtailed. However, this sector is not free of corruption. The nationwide installation of electric meters to digitalise the system of recording the consumption and billing process ended up exploiting consumers. This looked like corruption in the offices in-charge of regulating and collecting bills where they tampered with the meters to present inflated monthly bills, and threatened consumers with legal charges if they did not pay these amounts on time. This problem is more widespread in rural regions.
You would expect that the large brands of great market value and customer base would not use deceit to the consumers. But we were proved wrong after a study ran by University of Dhaka found traces of detergents and antibiotics in the pasteurised milk products of the largest dairy company. The study is facing legal challenges and threats till today, but the study opened up the gateway to further investigation by other research institutes.
This led to a list of 52 processed food items containing harmful elements — ranging from lead to cyanide — in our food items. The study gained little traction and most consumers did not bother to change their habits due negligence of both consumers and sellers. Every day, millions of consumers are buying goods which are causing them sickness rather than providing nourishment or nutrients. Moreover, the traces of antibiotics worsened the already growing antibiotic resistance in the general population. In fact, the current model is catalysing the predicted epidemic of total antibiotic resistance that will take over the whole population — a huge price to pay in exchange for the profits and malpractices of these private organisations.
For all such instances, the economic inequality is on the rise. The people in power promise that the ideals of 1971 are intact and are in practice. The aforementioned exploitation of the people is empirical contradiction to such statements. Our liberation was based on leftist, if not far-left, ideologies where the state was meant to be one where the agricultural sector was meant to prosper. The prospects of industrialisation in our country are limited to garments sector. We see little or no innovation in the sector that was supposed to be the biggest asset of ours — agriculture. Rather, we have reduced these people to the lowest tier of this economic ladder that we have created through our free market practices.
These ideals are not limited to consumers, but have spread to social fabric of the modern society, Take the general election of 2018 for example. Religious and Islamic independent factions garnered more popular votes than the leftist parties that shaped the history and origin of our founding principles. Parties such as the Communist Party of Bangladesh are often the only groups that take a bold stance against such exploitation of consumers. But the consumerist culture has taught the people that any faction that is anti-establishment cannot be trusted. In the process, they relinquish the very quality of our brave leaders such as Maualana Bhashani and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman that gave us our sovereignty in the first place. Interestingly, these leaders shared principles such as Maoism and state-socialism as they knew that they were the ideologies that would be best for a newly independent nation where the biggest asset was the working class.
Every challenge mentioned here so far directly harms and affects the working class and the impoverished most gravely. Owing to the opposition socialist states face worldwide, I do not expect our nation to go through a radical reconstruction. Rather, we need industrialisation where farming and fishing sectors improve the livelihood of those who work in the fields for hours. We need increased regulation of the private sector with an emphasis on the pharmaceutical and the food industry.
But most importantly, we need to academically approach what our founding ideals actually were and how its evolution should look like. Such principles need to be integrated within our education system and the ruling political parties that claim to harbor the ideals of liberation. With the upcoming Mujib Year and growing consumerist anger and frustration, the new decade will be an ideal time for us to tackle these challenges head on.
Every nation experiences a renaissance and it is high time we did too.
Anujit Saha is a person who believes Bangladesh has the potential to be a role model South East Asian state in terms of both economic and democratic prosperity
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