Back to Bangladesh after five years- Part 2

In this part I write about some of the interesting changes I saw in the villages of Bangladesh during my stay there. I wrote this as an op-ed in a local daily.

[I am very interested to know from Brown Pundit readers of other South Asian countries about changes in rural society and economy from direct experiences. Particularly interesting would be to know if there are variations among countries]


Earlier this year, I came back to Bangladesh after an absence of more than five years, and stayed for more than a month.

During the stay, I had the opportunity to visit rural and small-town parts of the country in two forays out of Dhaka. A visit to my ancestral home in the northern parts and another to the southwestern parts. These visits were my first into rural Bangladesh after more than a decade. Therefore, they provided very stark experiences of the rapid but gradual change that has been occurring for several decades.

The first thing that caught my eye was how drastically the utilization of resources has increased over the last decade. A decade or so ago, in Northern parts, you would mostly see cultivated fields expanding miles to the distant horizon. Now, people have planted so many trees everywhere that it almost gave me a claustrophobic feel.

Every pond is utilized for fish production and every square metre of the land is cultivated for year-round value addition. Bangladesh is, reputedly, among the leading developing countries with the fastest agricultural productivity growth in the last two decades. The dramatic physical transformation of the village landscape is clearly strong evidence of that growth.

I saw yet another striking change in the transportation scene. A decade ago, manually driven rickshaws and rickshaw-vans were ubiquitous. Now I could mostly see electric and mechanized transports. It seemed to me that people in the village were now looking down upon manual transports as archaic. Also, I rarely saw buffaloes and oxen traditionally used for plowing the fields — tractors and power-tillers had taken over that role.

What are the reasons for such remarkable growth in rural productivity and economy? Undoubtedly government policies and infrastructure development played important roles, but I believe that one of the biggest drivers of this change is unappreciated but right before our eyes. In the villages, I saw everybody with mobile phones and phone-related service shops everywhere.

Economists in the last decade have begun to appreciate the transformative role mobile phones and the internet have been playing in the developing world. Unlike previous models, where heavy government investment in communications infrastructure was critical in economic development, mobile infrastructures grew almost entirely because of the private sector, and brought far greater connectivity with far fewer costs.

Developing countries went from less than 1-2 landlines per hundred people to 70-80 mobile connections per hundred in just 20 years. The poorest people in villages are now able to talk with anybody in the country, but also send and receive payments and access the internet and government services through mobile phones.

People in villages are using phones to be constantly updated about prices of agricultural inputs and outputs and get the best deals possible in the market. The increased competition and undercutting of middlemen have increased efficiency greatly. Coordinating all kinds of complex tasks, like contracting day labourers for planting or harvesting, have become much easier.

But there is a flip side to agricultural productivity growth that has taken place all over the world. Prices of easily tradable products like grains, consumer oil, milk products have been low for more than a decade and that low price has hit small farmers the hardest.

Like everywhere in the world, small farmers of bulk products like rice in Bangladesh can only be economically sustainable by massive government support. However, unlike India and other developing democracies, farmers in Bangladesh have little political power, as there are no competitive elections. I do not think the government in Bangladesh is as sensitive about rural unrest as it is about urban discontent.

Paradoxically, in spite of the economic and productive growth, I found the villages to be much less populated than they were 10 years ago. Like everywhere in the world, I think Bangladesh also is experiencing rural depopulation, and this will only accelerate in the future. I think the main reason is that people are reluctant to live in actual villages. Like everywhere, people aspire to live in more complex societies with more modern services.

Those who are able, move to upazilla towns where there are schools, banks, hospitals, police stations. More better-offs move to zilla cities, and the most propertied go to Dhaka and Chittagong. Village girls probably also think that working in a mind-numbing factory job for subsistence wage in a big city is preferable to the daily monotony of a village household.

Finally, one of the most inspiring sights I saw in villages was young girls riding huge motorbikes as part of their daily commute to work or study, a sight you rarely see even in America. I think that the prospect of Islamization of Bangladesh society is exaggerated. People of Bangladesh are very religious, and religious identity is very important for them. However, they are also very aware that religious and secular activities belong to different spheres, and they are not letting religion dictate their economic life.

The pragmatic and opportunistic nature of Bangladeshi people has been the saving grace of a country facing immense structural hurdles right from its birth. Nowhere is this more evident than its rapidly changing villages.

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Razib Khan
5 years ago

Paradoxically, in spite of the economic and productive growth, I found the villages to be much less populated than they were 10 years ago.

but isn’t this common with gains to productivity in ag sector? rural america is emptying out, and the EU has to pump LOTS of $ into rural france to keep it going.

Razib Khan
5 years ago

That’s why lot of people who inherited land but aren’t good at farming are leasing it to people who can work the land better.

yeah. my family did this a few generations ago (i descend from the ppl who migrated to urban areas and entered professions).

presumably, i have distant cousins who are still farmers.

Xerxes the Magian
5 years ago
Reply to  Shafiq R

The article is excellent

Jolly Malik
Jolly Malik
5 years ago

congrats to Bangladeshis for this positive atmosphere, i hope its replicated all over South Asia.

5 years ago

What a lovely article on a country many Indians don’t care to know enough about. I wish I could be there right now feeling ‘claustrophobic’ amongst the trees rather than the interiors of Karnataka where I’m traveling currently. Folks here seem to be happy to cut trees down without a care and with no plans to replant in the future!
On another note my superficial observations- even the youngest Muslim girls as young as five in hijab with the older ones in Niqab. Don’t ever recall this on my travels thru here(humbling, dharwad, shimoga, mysore) 15 years ago. The sari pallu covering head for Muslim women has completely disappeared. The Hijab looks very pretty esp. when it’s in color.

**pls. excuse my English, it is my third language.

5 years ago
Reply to  Deepa

\even the youngest Muslim girls as young as five in hijab with the older ones in Niqab. Don’t ever recall this on my travels thru here(humbling, dharwad, shimoga, mysore) 15 years ago. The sari pallu covering head for Muslim women has completely disappeared.\
True. Salafism and SA money has made deep inroads in Indian society.

5 years ago
Reply to  VijayVan


“even the youngest Muslim girls as young as five in hijab with the older ones in Niqab. Don’t ever recall this on my travels thru here(humbling, dharwad, shimoga, mysore) 15 years ago. The sari pallu covering head for Muslim women has completely disappeared. The Hijab looks very pretty esp. when it’s in color.”

In what districts did you notice this? India has perhaps 230 million muslims. Many young muslim females dress like non muslim females. Could it be that you are only noticing the covered ones–which you correctly point out are growing in number?

Many young muslim females wear fashion hijab [or as some call it “sexy” hijab now]. No conservative muslim female would wear this. This is a new fashion statement by young hip liberal muslim females. These young female muslims are our allies against the Islamists and those slightly sympathetic to the Islamists. I see “NOTHING” to worry about in this. Young female muslims are likely to change with the fashions–and soon start dressing like nonmuslims again.

In my recent travels around India I saw a lot of fashion hijab. Especially among Hindu tilted muslims, Sufis, Shia, liberal Sunnis. Ajmer is full of them. I think many muslim females dressed like non muslim females too. Hard to break it down since so many nonmuslims pray in and are connected with Ajmer.

To a lesser degree the Hindu muslim sufi corridor around Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia Dargah (including the Shirdi Sai Baba Mandir, Dargah Hazrat Khwaja Sheikh Imaduddin Firdausi etc.). But here too it is hard to measure this since so many non muslims pray here.

There is a contrast with areas near Jama Masjid. {The only attraction near there is Sarmad Kashani’s tomb.}

And an even bigger contrast with some pockets in the South, North East and East.

Having said this you have a point. Some young muslim females who come and pray in Hindu (Buddhist, Sikh, Jain) and Christian places are now dressed conservatively. Some even in full body veils. This appears to be new. {To disagree with myself we also need to account for the possibility that more muslim females are praying at and interacting with nonmuslim spiritual centers.}

Deepa, many liberal, Sufi, Shia Indian muslims also worry about the rise in conservative Arabic style dress among some (a minority) of young Indian muslim females. Again, there is nothing wrong with young woman dressing conservatively. It is the fact that they are dressing “Arabic” conservative versus Indian/Hindustani/Bharatiya/Swadeshi/Hindu conservative that causes concern for Indian muslims and Indian nonmuslims alike.

5 years ago

Good blog. Would be interesting to compare rural Bangladesh with West Bengal. Any insights?

5 years ago
Reply to  JT

JT, different West Bengal districts are very different from each other. Same is true in Bangladesh.

Until 1947, Bangladesh and West Bengal were very similar. Even now probably most Indian Bengalis have ancestral villages (within their family) in Bangladesh. Visa versa might also be true.

If an Indian Bengali went to Bangladesh they would only see a snapshot . . . where they are doing business, where they are visiting (their ancestral village, spiritual tirtha). These anecdotes would probably not be representative.

Many parts of West Bengal have large concentrations of Bangladeshis.

In general West Bengal and Bangladesh are green wonders. Never in the world have I seen places so green and with as many varieties of green vegetables/leaves to eat. [Not even Kerala.]

Many places that were rural farmlands even a few years ago in West Bengal are now de facto urban cities {with farms inside the cities if that makes any sense}. West Bengal has gone through an economic miracle [With new large highways, roads, rails, overpasses, airports, ports, visible infrastructure, lights, excellent wireless broadband, and new housing everywhere . Most shocking is the sharp increase in the sophistication and education of poor and lower middle class kids.] But West Bengal is still not as economically developed as the rest of India.

In general West Bengal and Bangladesh are interested in and interact with each other. The rest of India neither knows about Bangladesh nor is interested.

Sorry about so much texts that does not answer your question.

Feisal Alykhan
Feisal Alykhan
5 years ago

Excellent POV, Shafiq R. It is good to see that Bangladesh is in motion. It is apparent that the separation from Pakistan has been a very good thing.

Brown Pundits