Bangladesh is hugging the headlines with record economic growth in a region where rates are slowing down.
Bangladesh’s path to self-determination and independence was rough and bloody. And when it first became an independent country in 1971, not many gave it the chance to survive because it was considered extremely poor and unstable. Indeed, even a former US National Security Adviser and later Secretary of State Henry Kissinger dubbed it a “basket case” at its birth, while the United Nations termed it one of the least developed countries in the world.
But less than 50 years since having a country of its own, Bangladesh is changing the story with its economic successes and political stability.
“Bangladesh’s economy is now growing at a phenomenal 8.15%. Ten years ago, 40% of Bangladesh’s population was living below the poverty line. Today it has come down to 20%. This means that the benefits of economic growth are trickling down to the poor,” the Bangladeshi Minister of Information, Dr. Hasan Mahmud said.
He was addressing our team of visiting foreign journalists and diplomats from 20 countries, namely Algeria, Brazil, Czech Republic, Egypt, Germany, India,
Indonesia, Maldives, Nepal, Nigeria, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, South Africa, South Korea, Thailand, Turkey, United Kingdom, United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan. We were in the South Asian country under the “Visit Bangladesh Programme” organized by the government to present the country’s image and potentials before the world.
From 14 to 21, December 2019, we visited the Dhaka University Campus, the Banglashi Secretariat, National Museum at Shahbag, Liberation War Museum at Shar-E-Bangla Nagar, Bangabandhu Memorial Museum at Dhanmondi, National Parliament, and watched a colourful display at the National Parade Ground at Agargaon attended by both the President Abdul Hamid and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. We also visited Khulna (the third largest city in Bangladesh), Bangabandhu Mausoleum at Tungipara, the Sixty Dome Mosque in Bagerhat and finally Sundarbans by cruise liner.
The Sixty Dome Mosque, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was built in the 15th century during the Bengal Sultanate by Ulugh Khan Jahan, the governor of the Sundarbans. The Sundarbans, on the other hand, is a mangrove area in the delta formed by the confluence of Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers in the Bay of Bengal. Four protected areas in the Sundarbans are enlisted as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, viz Sundarbans National Park, Sundarbans West, Sundarbans South and Sundarbans East Wildlife Sanctuaries. We were not lucky enough to spot any Bengal tiger during our visit to the Sundarbans. Perhaps, the closest we came to seeing one was a fresh carcass of a spotted dear ostensibly killed by a tiger which, according to one of our guides, may be lurking nearby.
The visit, we were told, was also to mark the upcoming 100th anniversary of the birth of the Bangladesh’s founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in 1920. Known as the Bangabandhu, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was the first President of Bangladesh and later Prime Minister. Bangabandhu’s vision, as we would see later, remained alive and is being pursued vigorously by his daughter, the current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
Long way to liberation
When in 1947, the British ended their 200-year-long rule in the Indian subcontinent, two separate nations, Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India, emerged. Bangladesh then known as East Bengal and later East-Pakistan, was integrated in Pakistan, even though the two shared no physical border between them. The two are predominantly Muslim – one majority Urdu and the other Bengal –but relations between them turned sour over the lack of official recognition for the Bengali language, among others, by the then Pakistani Central Government.
This inevitably led to agitations for self-determination by Bangladesh which culminated in full independence on March 26, 1971, but not without resistance from Pakistan. War broke out between the two for nine months before Pakistan (then West Pakistan) let go on 16 December 1971 (now celebrated annually as Victory Day in Bangladesh), about two weeks after India had joined the war. Pakistan only formally recognized Bangladesh in 1974.
“The liberation war had claimed three million lives and the modesty of 200,000 women had been violated. In 2008, when Sheikh Hasina won the elections, the per capita income of the country was US$ 600 but ten years down the line it is US$ 2000. The economy is growing at a faster rate than India and Pakistan,” the information minister Hasan Mahmud said.
“After independence there were doubts among many countries, especially the country from which we had been liberated, whether Bangladesh would sustain as an independent country. But today, on all human, social and economic indices we are well ahead of Pakistan,” Mahmud added, noting that Bangladesh had the fastest GDP growth rate in the world last year at 8.15 percent and was projected to grow at 8.20 percent this year.
“At the time of independence, life expectancy was 39 years, today it is 73. In India it is 71, while it is 69 in Pakistan. We are well ahead in human index of many other countries,” he said, adding that the pace of development in the last decade had been really fast.
Bangladesh has also climbed up a spot to 135 among 189 countries in the 2019 human development index, according to a report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). This is compared to the performance of neighbouring countries: India (130) and Bhutan (134), Myanmar (145), Nepal (147), Pakistan (152) and Afghanistan (170) in the region.
According to a World Bank data, in 1960, Bangladesh and Pakistan had the exact same fertility rate of 6.725 children per woman and India had 5.9. In 2017, Bangladesh had a 2.1 fertility rate, while India had 2.2 and Pakistan had 3.6. The drop in the fertility rate was the result of government commitment to family-planning and nationwide campaigns, which is helping an increase in the country’s per capita income. Mahmud said the government wants to make Bangladesh a middle income country by 2021 and a developed country by 2041.
He said 10 years ago, Bangladesh was performing very poorly as per the Transparency International. “It was a champion in corruption. But now the rating has improved. Sheikh Hasina had set up the Anti-Corruption Commission, an independent body which even hauls up people even in the government and files cases,” he said.
A visit to the Bangabandhu museum
The Bangabandhu Sheikh Mjibur Rahman Memorial Museum, also known as Bangabandhu Bhaban or simply Dhanmondi 32, was the personal residence of the founding father and President of Bangladesh where he stayed even after independence instead of moving into the official residence. It was in this house also, which had served as a meeting place for people who shared his ideals and common agenda for the liberation of Bangladesh, that Sheikh Mujib was killed along with most of his family members on August 15, 1975.
“The ruthless killers did not spare anyone in the house. His wife Begum Fazilatunnessa, his three sons Sheikh Kamal, Sheikh Jamal, and minor Sheikh Russel, the newly married brides of Kamal and Jamal, Sultana and Rosy, and Bangabandhu’s brother Sheikh Abu Naser were all killed along with household staff and aides in different parts of the house,” one of the curators at the museum told us.
She added that the house was handed over to Sheikh Hasina, the daughter and other surviving family members of Bangabadhu, on June 12, 1981. The house was inaugurated as a museum on August 14, 1994, some 19 years after the assassination of the Bangabandhu. A board of trustees was formed to look after the museum and the house of Tungipara where his mausoleum as well as those of his parents are located.
During our visit, we saw a collection of personal effects and photographs of Bangabandhu’s lifetime from telephones to television sets, beds and other furniture inside the three-storied building. The spot, on the stairway, where he was repeatedly shot and where his lifeless body laid, is now covered in glass in an effort to keep his memory.
The dense city of Dhaka
A walk through the streets of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, easily shows why it is the world’s most densely populated city with a population of over 17 million. There are just too many people on the move, making the traffic situation a nightmare with many mass transit buses, trucks, cars, rickshaws and handcarts all jostling for space on the road along with pedestrians. It is not unusual to see people running after buses. Yet, more and more people get attracted to the city which contributes over 36% to the country’s GDP and creates a significant amount of its total employment.
Man hours are lost to traffic gridlocks despite visible efforts by traffic police to ensure sanity on the roads. To make our movement less stressful, a police vehicle was always on hand to lead us, but still we had to set out early to reach even the closest of places. Indeed, a study conducted by the Copenhagen Consensus Center puts the speed in Dhaka at 6.4km/h, “and that if vehicle growth continues at its current pace, without substantial public transport the average speed may fall to 4.7km/h by 2035.”
“The government is serious about addressing the traffic situation in Dhaka and has since revised the Strategic Transport Plan for 20 years (2015-2035). You can see (pointing at an elevated pillar) the projects being executed. The idea is to have the metro rail running in addition to the transit buses and others currently in use,” an official of the foreign ministry told me as we snaked our way through traffic to attend a function.
He said the metro rail system being developed by the Dhaka Mass Transit Company (DMTC) will go a long way in decongesting the roads. Already, a third of the elevated metro rail project has been completed. The metro project, which has six routes, when completed, is expected to carry 60,000 passengers every hour running through each of the 16 stations once every four minutes. The project is proposed to be combined with the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) projects.
Women and governance
A journalist from South Africa couldn’t understand the presence of more men than women in the streets. I initially thought it had to do with religion, Bangladesh being majority Muslim. While that may be a factor, it turned out that women constitute over 80 percent of workers in the country’s booming garment industry which has helped significantly in lifting many of them out of poverty. However, we didn’t get to visit any garment facility throughout our stay. “The garment sector has proved to be robust and is now competing with China. The US withdrew the GSP concession and it was thought that garment exports to the US will fall. But export went up,” officials said.
There is also a deliberate attempt to make women a part of governance in Bangladesh, and the secular government, headed by a woman prime minister, is doing a lot in that regard. Today, women participation is encouraged through reservation of one-third seats at the Union Parishad (UP) level, which is the smallest rural administrative and local government units in the country. Even in the country’s parliament which we visited, women participation is greatly encouraged.
The parliament, known as Jatiya Sangsad (House of the Nation) has a total of 350 seats, out of which 50 are reserved for women and apportioned based on elected party position in the parliament. Right now, in addition to the Prime Minister being a woman, the Speaker of Parliament Dr. Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury, the deputy leader of the House Syeda Sajeda Chowdhury and leader of the opposition Raushon Ershad are all women. Indeed, the last time Bangladesh had a male prime minister was 1988.
‘Our message to the world’
Speaking at a dinner for us, the Bangladeshi Foreign Minister A. K. Abdul Momen said his country has graduated from being a food importing country to a food exporting country. “It is the fourth in the world in sweet water fish, vegetable and potato production. It exports fish, vegetables and potato,” he said, adding that the government is working to make the country even better for investors.
He said the financial condition of Bangladesh is strong with 92% of the country’s budget being funded internally. “Previously it was 70%. Ten years back it was 50%,” Momen said, even as he pointed out that remittances from the 10 million Bangladeshis working abroad have been of great help. “The country is now globally seen as a case of ‘Development Miracle’.”
Bangladesh is also making significant progress in electricity generation with 94 percent of its citizens having access to electricity, compared to 74 percent in 2016. The country has an installed generation capacity of 22,603 MW. Bangladesh has small reserves of oil and coal, but very large natural gas resources. Commercial energy consumption comes mostly from natural gas (around 66%), followed by oil, hydropower, and coal. It is working to have two large Russian nuclear power reactors. The first contribution from nuclear is expected in 2023. It is also working to reposition itself as a must-visit tourist destination with the Cox’s Bazar beach and the beautiful Sundarbans as key attractions.
“If you want to make money, come to Bangladesh because the return on investments is highest compared with our neighbours. We welcome investments from all countries. Any country wishing to invest in Bangladesh will be welcomed,” he added.