Vol. 4 Num 320 Fri. April 23, 2004  

Looking to the future with hope

When Bangladesh established itself as an independent country, at the beginning of 1972 the predominant opinion in the western world was that this country, if left to itself, would not survive long. That because of its high density of population and insufficient natural resources, it had little basis for survival. Former US Secretary of State Dr. Henry Kissinger reportedly described Bangladesh as a basket case while the World Bank, which is usually restrained in this, respect also spoke in its first report about Bangladesh as a hopeless case. Certainly, Bangladesh could not have survived well the first years of its independence without massive help from the international donor community.

However, this country, in spite of all certainly legitimate criticism about its early political conditions and inefficient public administration, has, over the years, brought about developments in social, economic and political arena, and in some sectors has achieved significant successes, which have made it a respected development partner not only in the third world, but also in the international comity of nations. What could be mentioned here is its political role in the conflict region, its role in the establishment of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and as a member of the Commonwealth. Apart from these, Bangladesh has made some such achievements in its 32 years history, which no one had dreamed of earlier.

These achievements, which the country had made, are:

First of all, there is almost total (more than 90%) self-sufficiency in food for its population of 130 million. Secondly, reduction in the growth of population, from more than 3 percent in 70's to now 1.7 percent, due to a successful population control programme. Thirdly, self-employment and poverty reduction through microcredit, mainly of the rural population by non-government institutions, such as Grameen Bank, which in now being replicated by more than 50 countries in the world. The former President of the United States of America, Bill Clinton spoke highly of this achievement. NGOs like BRAC, which has been active in recent years particularly in the general education sector, and also others such as, Proshika and GSS are doing very well in rural development, basic education, health care etc. Finally, the introduction of compulsory school attendance in 1991 and free education for girls up to twelve grade in 2001 and a large-scale general education programme, are contributing towards rise in literacy rate.

These developments and experiences are positive indications for the future development of this country, but present chaotic conditions in the country do not speak well for the future. An indispensable prerequisite for its further development and independence is internal political stability, strengthening of its democratic parliamentary structures.

Bangladesh had the experience of the first general election under the new concept of neutral caretaker government in 1991.Through a free and fair election BNP came to power, but a period of great political instability marked by increasing number of hartals (strikes) and violent political clashes led to the dissolution of Parliament on 24 November 1995. The following election on 12 June,1996 under similar neutral caretaker interim government, brought the Awami League in power for five years. Then the BNP won the general elections in 2001 defeating Awami League.

Unfortunately, both the parties did not accept their defeat with good grace. The people expected that when a process of democratisation has begun in the country it must evolve to their benefit. The existing political situation in the country manifests to a different story now. Boycotting of the session of the parliament and corruption by politicians and bureaucrats overshadowed the development in other sectors. Berlin based Transparency International gave Bangladesh the title of number one corrupt country in the world in its reports of 2001 and 2002.

Both Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia should have considered each other as fair political opponent, who have in common, anyway, the traumatic experience of the assassination of their close members of family, but their personal ego stands in the way of political understanding. As of now, their politics did not bring any significant development in the country. They are just following the legacy of their father and husband, respectively.

The human rights situation in Bangladesh cannot be considered satisfactory. Bangladesh in fact has a constitutional law, which is based on separation of powers. The reality, however, looks a bit different. The judiciary has not yet been separated from the executive. That remains a big problem.

A special problem is presented by the situation of the tribal people in Chittagong Hill Tracts. They were suppressed especially at the time of military rule and often made to flee to India due to the forced settlement of Bengalee peasants. However, the government of Awami League had succeeded in signing peace accord with tribal groups towards peaceful solution of the conflict. A peaceful solution and a balance between the Bengalee settlers and the traditional indigenous people should be arrived at in the interest of the country.

The economic situation in Bangladesh an LDC, with 130 million people (at time of independence 1971-1972 about 80-90 million, with a gross domestic product in 1975 of about $ 28billion dollars and a per capita income of approximately $224), can be considered as moderately satisfactory. Until the end of 1995, the macro economic data showed some stability and, if only modest, a real growth (4.7%). The exports and export profits especially are showing considerable rate of growth and also the currency reserve of Bangladesh (sufficient for a 6-month import volume) is satisfactory. The growth has steadily arrived at 5.5 percent in fiscal 2003-2004 while there is a forecast for further increase by one percent in the next fiscal year. This growth is attributable to the very positive development in the garment industry, apart from successful bumper crop harvesting.

After the discovery of extensive natural resource base, specially gas, foreign investors are showing increasing interest for investment in Bangladesh. Export base could be expanded by exporting gas, which could generate foreign exchange earning .On the other hand, the government should devise proper plan for best utilisation of gas domestically. In the absence of meter system a considerable amount of gas is being misused. In the meantime, Bangladesh government finances about 45 percent of its annual development budget from its own resources. That is good news.

Bangladesh is known in the media of all the western countries as a country of catastrophe, hunger and poverty, of overpopulation and of constant aid from abroad. But in the 32 years of its independence, Bangladesh has proved that it can tackle its own problems to an increasing extent, only the politicians have proved otherwise. By their imprudent actions, they make the people of this country ludicrous and laughing-stock in the comity of nations. Even the present government has miserably failed to properly govern the country. Unbridled corruption and total lawlessness have caused concern among the saner sections in the country and that is why they are looking for a third force in politics to save the country from any abysmal crisis.

Mohammad Amjad Hossain is a former Bangladeshi diplomat, presently residing in Virginia, USA