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.

https://www.dhakatribune.com/opinion/op-ed/2019/06/07/how-the-landscape-has-changed

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Back to Bangladesh after five years- Part 1

I went to visit Bangladesh from early April to mid-May after more than five years. For five years I have written about Bangladesh from secondary sources and secondary experiences. At long last I can write about my fist-hand experience.

I stayed most of the time in the capital city Dhaka. In recent years South Asian megalopolises like Dhaka, Delhi, Karachi, Mumbai have earned reputations as the cities with worst air pollutions in the world. Living in Dhaka’s unbearable pre-Monsoon heat, humidity, dust and particles thick air, I can well understand what do those pollution measures mean for the people. For the bulk of masses who are not fortunate to live in air-conditioned houses, work in air-conditioned offices and commute in air-conditioned cars, buses, Dhaka is truly an urban hell-scape. There is a popular saying among Dhaka’s suffering commuters stuck for hours in oven hot roads; citizens of Dhaka will be forgiven the dreaded ‘Adhab-al qabr’ or punishment of the grave that is supposed to be fate of all persons from death till Qyiamat, the day of judgement. Dhakaites suffer so much that the Adhab pales in comparison.

Although air pollution has become much worse, city roads and walkways have become cleaner and more well maintained. Parts of the massive revenue collection by both city corporation and government are really being used to maintain the infrastructure. Trash collection has become more organized . Piles of rotting garbage and constant stench are no longer ubiquitous.

Mercifully powercuts in electricity, so common in Bangladesh until 8-10 years ago, seem to be very rare now. Diesel generators reverberating throughout the city, a very common sight and sound of yesteryears, are rarely seen and heard now.  In fact, a recent news report said that Bangladesh installed so much power generation capacity in the recent years that capacity has outstripped demand substantially. Experts are recommending that no new power plants be initiated in the next few years. Uninterrupted power supply has made the industries, particularly Garments industries, very happy.

However, the top 10% Dhakaites are living very differently than the rest. Fantastic high-rise apartments and office buildings have sprouted all over the cities. Glass and steel clad apartments and offices remind people more of the spotless splendor of Singapore than traditional dirt of South Asia. New BMWs, Lexus, Toyota cars and SUVs clog the city streets. However, apart from home, office, cars and eateries, there is very little things to do socially in Dhaka for the upper class. That’s why they escape to foreign spots like Bangkok, Bali, Malayasia, Singapore, Dubai, Sri Lanka, India etc several times a year. Bangladesh is the supplier of highest number of tourists in India. Bangladeshi shoppers are significant boosters of Kolkata economy. Several Bangladeshi tourists were among the dead and wounded in the recent Sri Lanka terrorist attack.

The top businesspeople, professionals and government employees are doing great in Bangladesh. Their income has soared in the last decade. Signs of their affluence is everywhere in the cities. People working in banks and finance, telecommunication sectors are doing OK. The middle class is not doing so great. Shockingly, I found that private sector salaries have barely changed in the last ten years but house rent, essential prices have increased at least 100% in the last ten years. Economists say that a living wage in Dhaka, minimum wage for a two person family to keep their body and soul together under a roof, is 17000 Taka or about 200 dollars per month. Starting salaries for college, university graduates not working in choice sectors like banks or telecom are still below the living wage. Garments workers earn 80 to 150 dollars, from starting to experienced. It’s hard to imagine the life of the lower-middle and working class in Dhaka.

In the second part, I will discuss my very startling experience of change and prosperity in the rural areas. In the third part, I will talk about my impression of the state of economy and politics.

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From basket-case to garment superpower

This article seems to use Bangladesh as a prop to beat Pakistan’s governing class over the head, Beg, borrow, repeat: Pakistan’s IMF addiction continues even as its finance minister leaves. It’s a pretty strange thing in 2019. In the 20th-century Bangladesh was known for the early 1970s famine, as well as periodic catastrophic floods.

A minimal amount of research will show that it’s not all roses in Bangladesh. There are huge governance issues, overreliance on textiles is probably not a good long-term optimum, and human capital accumulation may not keep up with the shifts toward a high-technology 21st-century economy (most of the world’s population will have to face this though).

So here is the weird thing I want to note: this blog gets about 10x more traffic from Pakistan than Bangladesh. And, it gets 100x more traffic from India than Bangladesh. This blog gets more readers from Singapore than Bangladesh!

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Blame Bengal Famine on anyone but the British

I was flirting with a lot of topics on what to write but I’m just going to leave these tweets out here. We continued the exchange but my blood is now boiling; Vidhi always like to say “calm is a super-power” but I dislike the presumptuousness and arrogance when dispensing on the evil doings of colonialism in South Asia.

I notice many Indian commentators decry UP/Bihar backwardness but it has to do with British policy of bleeding India through her port cities.

British Development in the Subcontinent wasn’t centred in the most populous areas but rather the most productive. Say what you will about the Mughals (and John makes an uncharitable dig at them in a following tweet) but their development focus remained the UP-Bihar.

They may have been a rentier state par excellence but at the very least at least their wealth flowed back into the geographical territories that comprises modern day India

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Bangladesh, economy and politics in imbalance

[During the month of December I wrote several articles in Bangladeshi newspaper about the runup to the election in 30th December. I am going to post some of these here so that BP readers may get a native perspective on what’s going on.]

As Bangladesh heads to parliamentary elections to be held on 30th December, only a risk-loving gambler would bet against the governing party returning to power. In its latest country report, Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) expressed the conventional assessment that the Sheikh Hasina’s government will retain power easily. The analysis powerhouse based this expectation mostly on the strong economic performance of Bangladesh in the last decade under the current regime. Over the last ten years, GDP growth in Bangladesh averaged well over six percent and is projected to be even higher in the next few years. Foreign exchange reserve has increased more than fourfold, and the currency has remained steadfast against hard currencies. During the last ten years the Bangladeshi currency has lost only twenty percent of its value against US Dollar while the Indian Rupee lost thirty-one percent and Pakistani Rupee forty-one percent.

Not just in economy, Bangladesh has made great strides in social development. By World Bank estimates, national poverty rate dropped from forty percent to twenty-four percent in the ten years preceding 2017. By Bangladesh government estimates, by 2015 the country has already achieved many of the Millennium Development Goals, for example in nutrition, primary education, child mortality, maternal health etc., far ahead of most of the LDCs. These growth and developments were not urban-centric either, rural household income increased by forty percent from 2010 to 2016.

However, the ongoing pre-election period may baffle an outside observer because, despite strong economic growth and widespread expectations of a win, the regime is carrying out an unprecedented campaign of repression of political opponents. Not only the ruling party is visibly controlling every facet of the administration, including the election commission, but the party is using these state organs to directly thwart, attack, arrest, harass opposing candidates countrywide. This would not surprise regular observers of Bangladesh affairs because, along with the remarkable economic growth, the last ten years were also marked by clear democratic backsliding and authoritarianism. German research group Bertelsmann have been keeping tabs on democratic development in the world since 2005. Its indexes show that status of democracy in Bangladesh has been rapidly deteriorating since the non-competitive election of 2014 and in 2018 Bangladesh was downgraded from a highly defective democracy to a moderate autocracy.

The level of repression before the election suggests that the rosy economic and development numbers may not be providing a faithful representation of the economic well-being of the general people. A recent report by International Labor Organization (ILO) said that youth unemployment in Bangladesh grew by seven percent from 2010 to 2017, one of the worst unemployment growths in developing countries. In a pre-election assessment of the economy of last ten years, CPD, the venerable Bangladeshi thinktank, put forward the calculation that one-third of the educated youth are unemployed. In the recent years, the country has been rocked by several urban youth movements demanding more access to government jobs, for many the only avenue for upward mobility.

At the same time, several estimates from Bangladeshi sources say that as many as half million foreign nationals, mostly Indians, work in Bangladesh in skilled/white collar jobs. This lack of Bangladeshi educated and skilled workers is greatly explained by the dismal state of higher education in the country. Times Higher Education produces annual world university rankings with one of the largest coverage of universities. In the latest 2017 rankings, there are more than thirty Indian universities and five Pakistani universities among the top one thousand universities of the world. Bangladesh has zero. World Bank data shows that during the last ten years, Bangladesh annually spent only about two percent of its GDP in education while Pakistan spent near about three percent and India three and half percent.

Economists studying development argue that a country’s long-term economic growth comes mainly from two sources, investing in human capital and investing in physical capital.  From previous discussion, we have seen that human capital development in Bangladesh has been significantly below par to its neighbors. In investment, the picture is not much better either. The previously mentioned CPD report showed that in the last ten years both private investment and foreign direct investment growth in Bangladesh were anemic. Rather than investments, much of the ‘miraculous’ economic growth of Bangladesh have come from exports, consumption and government spending.

Export growth, in particular, has been spectacular; more than doubling from seventeen billion USD in 2009 to thirty-seven billion in 2017. For comparison purposes, Pakistan’s total export in 2017 was less than twenty-five billion USD. However, if we look at the composition of export, a stark imbalance appears like the elephant in the room. More than eighty-five percent of the total exports of Bangladesh is just from one product category, ready-made garments (RMG) and textiles. Any development economist would say that such high level export dependence on just one product is alarming for any country and any product. RMG may be an especially bad basket to put in all the eggs.

Garments is a low-technology, labor intensive industry that mostly depends on ready-to-export, turn-key factory units. Although the industry employs a great number of factory workers, lack of learning and upgrading in jobs mean that workers have short shelf-life and are unceremoniously terminated after the end of productive years. The mature technology of RMG means there is little effort for innovation, R&D in the export industry. Thus, there is a lack of need for skilled and technology workers, which means that the industry provides little demand for development of human capital and technological capabilities in the country.

A particular feature of garments industry is that, unlike chemicals, machinery, IT services etc., it has very little input-output relations with other major export industries. This means that development of garments industry does not spill over to development of other more value-adding industries. Despite frequent boastful proclamations from regimes and entrepreneurs, industries like pharmaceuticals, electronics, IT services, chemicals etc., are prominent in the Bangladeshi export basket by their insignificance and absence.

Some economists argue that “countries become what they make”. The RMG industry, by dominating Bangladeshi economy for long time, has not only dramatically shaped the society but also the politics. This is a strikingly unequal industry with a few dominating large firms and many small firms servicing those large firms; there is a conspicuous lack of mid-sized and diverse firms. The industry creates a narrow business elite that can easily collude with the government for preferential treatment. The regime, in return from this privileged treatment of the industry, obtains assurance of steady and increasing revenue which it invests in building up the bureaucracy and infrastructure. This growing public investment not only help boost the GDP but also provide the political regime with means to buy off loyalty of bureaucracy and civic society. Regimes then use the RMG-fueled state and civic power to suppress political opposition and stage ‘managed’ elections. We have witnessed these intimately related events again and again in recent years, most notably in Cambodia, another RMG-dominated country, where the ruling regime just staged an election in 2018 where it ‘won’ hundred percent of the seats.

Many technology, economics analysts have argued recently recently that Bangladeshi garments industry is a prime candidate for severe incoming disruption from automation. Development of new automation technology, changes that are now within realistic realm, can wipe away advantages of cheap labor at a stroke and render millions of garments workers jobless worldwide. The spectacular growth of garments industry in Bangladesh explains source of the dominating power the ruling regime has over political opponents. At the same time, the uneven economic and social development from this industry and the very precariousness of the industry’s future, help us understand why there is simmering discontent among aspiring citizens. The puzzle of repression during times of plenty, is not so baffling after all.

 

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MP Tulip Siddiq & her aunt Sheikh Hasina

https://www.channel4.com/news/tulip-siddiq-questions-over-links-with-bangladeshi-ruling-party

This is why I dislike the Labour Party; they constantly make Faustian pacts with ethnic minority candidates.

However after seeing the full video I also feel it’s a hit-piece on MP Siddiq. It’s the perils of rising as a high-flying coloured woman; so many British MPS are so morally compromised that they don’t get the same scrutiny.

So it’s a very delicate mix of stubbornness, racism (so invisible as to not be noticed) and the need to “template” Bangladesh in a certain way.

I was speaking to a Bangladeshi friend of mine, who’s an Awami supporter. He would prefer a healthy opposition but Bangladesh’s economy seems to be glowing and people are happy.

He also mentioned that Bangladesh’s exports are higher than Pakistan’s now and that it’s doing better in many metrics; he couldn’t believe it until he heard Imran Khan say so himself.

So in many ways I feel that even though Sheikh Hasina is morally compromising herself, if she is able to rouse a sluggish Bengal tiger into full strengthen well then she mustn’t be so bad. Maybe Pakistan can do with a Sheikh Hasina, which ironically it may have had it the 1970 election had proceeded and her father had won it. We may have had alternating governments between a West & East Pakistan..

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A Historic Picture (and some reminiscences about 1971 BD War)


From Dr Hamid Hussain

IMG_1589 (005)

General Sam Manekshaw speaking to two Pakistani Air Force officers in plane bringing him to Pakistan for negotiations after 1971 Indo-Pakistan war. Gentleman sitting in suit is a public relations officer of Indian Ministry of Defence and gentleman standing in white overall is a sergeant of the Indian Air Force. Photograph courtesy of Brigadier Behram Panthaki.

This picture is dated 29 November 1972, when Indian army Chief General (later Field Marshal) Sam Manekshaw flew to Pakistan for negotiations after 1971 Indo-Pakistan war. The two Pakistani Air Force (PAF) officers were prisoners of war and brought by Sam as a good will gesture. Both officers were shot down in western theatre of war. The one near Sam with handle bar moustache (matching Sam’s own impressive moustache) is then Squadron Leader Amjad Ali Khan. His F-104 was shot down on 05 December 1971 by anti-aircraft fire while attacking Amritsar Radar. He retired as Air Vice Marshal. The other officer is then Flight Lieutenant Wajid Ali Khan. His F-6 was also shot down by anti-air craft fire during a close air support mission over Marala headworks on western border. After repatriation, he left air force and settled in Canada. He became member of Canadian parliament serving from 2004 to 2009.

Indian Air Force (IAF) TU-124 VIP plane brought Sam Manekshaw to Lahore. When plane was taxing to reach the parking bay, it passed the skeleton of the burnt Indian Airlines Fokker Friendship aircraft, ‘Ganga’, that had been hijacked on January 30, 1971 on its flight from Srinagar to Jammu and brought to Lahore. On February 02, the hijackers had set the aircraft on fire. Sam was received by Pakistan Army Chief, General Tikka Khan. Tikka was wearing his famous dark glasses. Continue reading “A Historic Picture (and some reminiscences about 1971 BD War)”

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Bangladesh elections

Update: This win seems too big to be credible. But I don’t really know…. Bangladesh Prime Minister Wins 3rd Term Amid Deadly Violence on Election Day

End Update
Bangladeshis Must Choose ‘Lesser of Two Evils’ in Election:

Per capita income has increased by nearly 150 percent, while the share of the population living in extreme poverty has shrunk to about 9 percent from 19 percent, according to the World Bank.

Electricity generation has also increased drastically under Mrs. Hasina’s rule, helping to boost factory production and spreading out to homes in rural areas. The rates of maternal mortality and illiteracy have also declined.

Sultana Kamal, a Bangladeshi activist who was once close to Mrs. Hasina but has become increasingly wary of her, said a win by the current government would be seen as an indifference by voters to rights concerns.

From what I know most of my family generally supports the Awami League. My parents do, and I have an uncle who is an activist in that party. As an atheist I sympathize more with parties less keen on allying with Muslims who are excited to kill atheists. But….the Awami League seems to have gotten quite a big head, and Sheikh Hasina is becoming Bangladesh’s Indira.

If it’s the choice between economic growth and human rights, I think voters would choose the former. But I suspect that many will bet that economic growth is due to endogenous forces which are not controlled by the government, and will switch parties to rebalance the political system.

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An Interview on Bangladesh Street Protests

I think this short interview about Bangladesh Street protests pretty much sums up what is going on in Bangladesh. The interview led to predictable and dire consequences for the person foolish enough to speak his mind about Bangladesh to the foreign media while living within Bangladesh! I am posting the transcript of the interview and then posting the video.

Q: These protests were sparked by two teens who were killed in a road accident but is this all about road safety or is there something larger going on?

A: Very much larger. This has been going on for a very very long time. It is an unelected government so they do not really have a mandate to rule, But they have been clinging on by brute force. The looting of banks, the gagging of the media. You mentioned just now the mobile internet is currently switched off, the extra-judicial killings, the disappearances, the need to give protection money at all levels, bribery at all levels, corruption in education. It is a never ending list. It has been huge.

So it really it is that pent up energy, emotion, anger, that has been let lose. This particular incident, sad as it is, really is the valve that has allowed things to go through. Very recently there was another very big protest about the quota because the quota system is rigged in such a way that only people close to the party in power get to get government jobs and there is a disproportionate amount of jobs going to them so ordinary people protested. And that was very brutally brought down.

Under pressure the prime minister offered reforms but them reneged on them. So that is also part of the reason. So this time when students did go on protests, again it went to a situation where they could not control it and the Prime minister has promised that she will cede to their demands, but of course people no longer believe. She has no credibility. She has made promises before, it has not been accepted, so now they don’t do it.

But I think what we need is to look at is what is happening in the streets today. The police specifically asked for help from these armed goons to combat unarmed students demanding safe roads. I mean now ridiculous is that. Today I was in the street and there are people with machetes in their hands chasing unarmed students and the police are standing by watching it happen. In some cases they are actually helping it out. I mean …. this morning, there was tear-gassing and I saw the police ganging up trying to catch these un-armed students, whereas these armed goons, are going out, wielding sticks and machetes, are walking past and they [the police] are just standing by.

Q: So where do you think these things are going to go from here? These protests appear to have spread across the country quite spontaneously and without any kind of central leadership here. This is part of the challenge the government is dealing with, in that it is so grass-roots in the way that it has spread.

A: I think the Government has miscalculated. It certainly felt that fear was enough, repression would have been enough, but I think you cannot tame an entire nation in this manner. And of course they are approaching elections, so the nearer it gets to elections, the more sensitive they are. They know that if there is a fair and free election, they will lose. But they haven’t got an exit plan as they have misruled for so long so that if they do lose, they will be torn apart. So they have to hang on by any means, so that is exactly what they are doing. They are clinging on using the entire might of the system plus the armed goons at their disposal.

 

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