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Volume 3 Issue 3 | March 2008



Original Forum Editorial

Month in Review: Bangladesh
Month in Review: International
Bangladesh's Declaration of Independence-- Mashuqur Rahman and Mahbubur Rahman
Missing the Opportunity to Free the Royal Bengal Tiger--Md. Anisur Rahman
Handle With Care-- Mahmud Farooque
Banker, Trader, Soldier, Spy--Sikder Haseeb Khan and Pervez Shams
Photo Feature -- Living Stone --Khaled Hasan
Countdown to Freedom-- Rehman Sobhan and Hameeda Hossain
The Making of Muktir Gaan-- Catherine Masud
The Basket Case-- Mohammad Rezaul Bari
Science Forum
It's No Joke


Forum Home


Missing the Opportunity to Free the Royal Bengal Tiger

Md. Anisur Rahman cries out for the need for rural reform in Bangladesh

On 1/11, the country was saved from being torn apart by the savage pull of opposing power and wealth-hungry political forces by the calling of emergency and the formation of a new caretaker government (CTG) backed by the armed forces.

The new CTG is trying to install good governance through its bold campaign against some big corrupt politicians and bureaucrats, and is preparing the ground for impartial national elections by overhauling the Election Commission. Among other measures, a great step has been to set free the judicial system as an independent state organ.

If all ends well according to the plans of this government (i.e. if a new elected government comes into power through a decent election and if peace prevails in the country thereafter), the elite of the country whose vocal leadership is being given by the so-called "shushil shamaj" and also, perhaps, the ordinary middle class of the society, may thus enjoy a better life, and a congenial climate for expansion of industry and trade by both national and foreign entrepreneurs may also reign.

But it is uncertain how much these reforms will benefit the downtrodden of the country who are struggling to live with dignity, those whom I shall call "dukhi manush," as per the language of the architect of our national struggle for self-determination, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

If these reforms are successful and if peace reigns in the country for an extended period, some kind of "development" will advance in the country, giving some "trickle-down" benefits to some of the dukhi manush.

But such development will also increase economic and social inequalities -- the kind of development that the nation has experienced since its independence. Such development may also reduce the proportion of people below the poverty line drawn by the dollar-a-day type of count, but a large proportion of such people will remain deprived of the benefits of this kind of development, and many will even roll downwards by the sweep of such development.

The country has actually been experiencing this kind of development at various rates since its independence, at the same time when millions of its dukhi manush are ending their lives remaining dukhis, and when many, many are becoming dukhi anew.

I have been calling these hapless people the "other half of the glass" -- those who are witnessing this development banquet from outside the fence -- some of them silent in despair, some getting engaged in acts of "anti-social" nature, and some enlisting in fundamentalist religious camps in the hope of salvation in the afterworld.

Besides, in the perception of the dukhi manush themselves, their poverty is naturally a relative notion, so even those possessing the "basic needs basket" prescribed for them by the World Bank and our own economists are stabbing passers-by to snatch a mobile set, and the ten year-old daughter of a rickshaw-wallah commits suicide for failing to get a new frock for Eid (as reported in The Daily Star not too long ago).

Such news does not warrant an editorial in any of our dailies on the contents of the "basic needs basket," as if the notion of poverty is a very technical one best left to economists. The development-watchers rejoice if the rate of growth of GDP rises by a percentage point, but the great bulk of dukhi manush themselves are not finding much solace in such glorious achievements.

We have, of course, completely forgotten the promise of our independence struggle given by the "Father of the Nation," "Bangabandhu" himself. The dukhi manush of this country were mobilised for struggle with the promise of an egalitarian and democratic nation. This promise was not honoured after independence.

Today, members and supporters of the two major political parties are endlessly chanting the slogans of "Bangabandhu's adorsho" and "Ziaur Rahman's adorsho." But what were these adorshos?

That Bangabandhu and the Awami League propagated the principle of secularism is a very great thing. But mere secularism does not fill the stomach of the dukhi manush, nor does it protect a mother from the chilling choice between selling her honour and feeding her child. Secularism dissociated from the basic human needs of the dukhi manush is bound to be defeated by religious fundamentalism, insofar as such fundamentalism promises a compensatory other world, and also arranges access to some basic needs for many even in this world, if one joins this camp.

The nation had a taste of Bangabandhu's adorsho after independence when he invited an inequity-loving superpower, which was opposed to its independence war, into the country, and he himself led the country toward a path of inequity contrary to the spirit of the liberation war. He remained indifferent to rampant corruption and the anti-social acts by some members of his family and associates in his party, and subsequently, by forming Baksal, killed democracy altogether.

And Ziaur Rahman, after coming into power as a gift of history, liquidated many of those in the armed forces who had rescued him and put him in power, formed a political party with the comradeship of many anti-liberation elements, altered the country's constitution to embrace anti-secular state ideology, allowed his close associates to engage in corruption as a reward for their loyalty, and took the country further along a path of growth with inequity.

For its part, it seems that the present CTG has also, with its full commitment to giving the nation a fair election and putting it on the track of good governance, even punishing some glaringly corrupt politicians and administrators -- including the two top leaders (if proven guilty) -- set about to return political power to the very people who have been ravaging the lives of the dukhi manush all these years. It seems oblivious to the fact that it is this class which stands in the way of meaningful development in the country for emancipation of the dukhi manush. What is the character of this class?

Development of capitalism in Bangladesh has not matured, and the principal trait of a feudal society, i.e. a patron-client relation between the power-holders and the dukhi manush, still reigns, particularly in the countryside. It is the "maliks" who are ruling in the villages, through control over either land, water, technology, market, or credit, or through a combination of these.

This power of the maliks over the dukhi manush has made the latter dependent upon the former's mercy for their livelihood, and the women among them for their honour. With this patron-client relationship it is not possible for the dukhi manush to put up their own candidates for elections, or to vote with safety for anyone other than their patron's choices.

This is the general character of the voting game in feudal (or, if one prefers, semi-feudal) rural Bangladesh, where the lives of the dukhi manush are mortgaged to the "shamajprodhans." If the head of the CTG and his finance adviser, both brilliant students of economics, are unaware of this fact, then incompetent teachers like myself have no choice other than accepting the responsibility for this before a truth commission and begging the forgiveness of the nation.

It is very clear today that our independence has been hijacked to lift sky-high the living standard of the nation's elite. What does it matter if the daughter of a rickshaw-wallah commits suicide for failing to get a new frock for Eid -- enough cheap child labour will be available to sweep our floors in this country.

Corruption of the ruling class is not the issue for the dukhi manush. They have to choose their loyalties on the basis of who will extend a hand in pity to offer them a minimum of security for their subsistence and honour, and they have to decide whom to vote for with this consideration, irrespective of whether they are corruption champions or not.

Tanvir Ahmed/ DrikNews

With all their corruption, directly or indirectly, Ershad-Hasina-Khaleda-Tareque are today still fully qualified for votes of the people -- such corruption is only natural for kings, queens and princes; and they offer hope that in moments of dire distress, the dukhi manush may get a touch of their kindness to survive. And of course there is none to save them from the wrath of the palace if they show disobedience.

If the dukhi manush cannot be liberated from the stranglehold of the maliks, they will, if they get the opportunity again, vote for the King or Queen or Daughter of the Father of the Nation.

Besides, corruption of the palace does not directly touch the dukhi manush in their bones -- rather, they regard this as a proof of success of the kings and queens and their sons and daughters, and become more convinced that in their hour of direst distress, it is the palace from which they may get the blanket that they need to survive.

It is rather significant that most of the mainstream economists of the country are not asking for elimination of this feudal relationship in the society, and are, instead, giving indirect support in their poverty-alleviation arithmetic. The dollar-a-day calculus counts only the current income of the dukhi manush, ignoring the fall-back savings or other assets they possess to survive the hours of crisis that strike them often. In such hours, of course, the "maliks" are there to save them as a prize for their loyalty -- i.e. it is the "maliks" who are implicitly recognised as their saving/assets.

In other words, lamentably, it is a feudal concept of poverty that is being propagated by our mainstream economists. Even with this feudal poverty calculus, more than 40 per cent of our people are today living below the poverty line. Of course, in terms of their minimum needs in their own perception, the figure will be much higher.

The "democracy" which we are chasing is a concept we have borrowed from the West, and such democracy arrived in the West following: (a) end of feudalism, and (b) spread of secular education. We, on the other hand, are chasing this democracy keeping the fundamental character of feudalism in full force and also by expanding religious education in the society. Needless to say, this is akin to putting the cart before the horse, and, of course, the cart will tend to crash again and again, even if courageous CTGs come and target for elimination some individual members of the palace by applying "minus-two-three-four" kind of formulae.

The path of needed reform
This state of affairs will continue to rule until an alternative life can be given to the dukhi manush of the country. Over the last few decades the countries of East Asia have shown a path in this direction, freeing their dukhi manush from the shackles of feudal/semi-feudal rule and putting them in the driver's seat of their development efforts along with other development entrepreneurs.

In order to prepare the dukhi manush for this task, they have given high priority to their education and health -- in doing so, they have viewed poverty alleviation not merely as a humanitarian question but also as a strategy for raising the country's growth rate. All these countries have defied the "structural adjustment" prescription of the World Bank by giving protection to selected promising industries in their early stages, helping them develop in experience and strength before setting them free to compete in the world market.

Moving through ups and downs, these countries have experienced growth with considerable equity, as a result of which the achievements of these countries known as "East Asian Tigers", have been evaluated as the "fastest reduction in poverty for the largest number of people ever witnessed in history." (Watkins, endnote 1).

Shafiq Islam/ DrikNews

It is noteworthy in particular that two of these countries -- South Korea and Taiwan -- have experienced radical agrarian reform at the initiative of the government of the world leader in capitalism itself because of their geographical location. Unfortunately, Bangladesh does not have such locational advantage, so the undiplomatic visits of foreign diplomats to the houses of this country's leaders have not extended beyond the concerns of "fair election" and "good governance."

The positive development-with-poverty-alleviation experience of the East Asian countries, and the not so encouraging experience in so many other countries of the South, made the world's development thinkers reject the mantra of GDP growth as the principal index of development quite some time back.

The Nobel laureate in economics from the soil of Bangladesh joined in this rejection almost two-and-a-half decades back. In recent times western textbooks on development have also started dropping this index and embracing reduction in inequity as an indispensable element of development. But development thinking in Bangladesh, alas, is still stuck with the development thinking of the World Bank -- an un-self-respecting submission to a money-lender -- that is best abandoned if we want to stand up with pride as a nation.

There has been lasting rural reform in West Bengal under its left government. This government has given priority to the needs of their rural dukhi manush, and has remained steadfastly by their side, and as a result has been winning with ease every provincial election for nearly three decades.

Their reforms have given security of tenancy to the sharecroppers and transferred rural power from the traditional rural masters to collectives of small farmers and the landless, thereby moving toward genuine democracy. And, by not allowing money-lending business by Grameen Bank and NGO-type agencies as in Bangladesh, they have arranged for loans to the rural underprivileged within the framework of government credit institutions so that they do not have to surrender their land to the money lenders again.

Even a World Bank commissioned study could not resist praising them for such reforms. The reforms that they have done do not quite qualify them to be called (revolutionary) "communists" -- they have merely come to hold the hand of the dukhi manush wearing sandals. Such progress in the condition of the dukhi manush right next door points rather harshly to the sad failure of the promise of independence of Bangladesh.

In another province of India, Kerala, a series of land reforms were initiated in the decade 1960-70, as a result of which ownership of land was fully vested in the tillers. This province has shown unprecedented progress in education and health -- today the rate of adult literacy in Kerala is 91 per cent and life expectancy at birth is an amazing 73 years. Behind these achievements lie not only state initiatives, but also contribution of the "science for social revolution" movement of teachers-students-scientists-doctors of the society, i.e. the "shushil shamaj" of the province -- who go yearly on big vacations to people all over the state to have sessions and workshops with them to spread and update mass literacy, health knowledge, technology appropriate for mass-based development, and environment care.

This province lags behind many other provinces of India in terms of per capita income, but it is mocking all talks of high growth rate of GDP by its human development index, which is leading in India by an index of "comprehensive living standard" close to that of the US.

Amartya Sen is also giving due importance to education and health as a pre-condition of development. He is also well-known for his advocacy of democracy over totalitarianism, but has not to my knowledge given due importance to the end of feudal/semi-feudal socio-political relations as a pre-condition of genuine state interest in raising the levels of popular education and health and, for that matter for genuine democracy.

The interest of the feudal masters of society is in keeping their "subjects" engaged loyally in serving them, a loyalty that remains firm in the absence of the light of education, and in a sick body when the beacon of light and the strength to advance toward it remains dim and feeble in such an existence. This is why under feudal/semi-feudal rule in Bangladesh, the standards of education and health of the ordinary people are both sliding downwards, and the rate of functional literacy for the youth is floating at the level of 20 per cent or so, mocking their and the country's future, while glittering institutions for education and healthcare for the un-ordinary are growing rapidly.

Very sadly, even though the "revolution" of January 11 declared jihad against the illegal occupation of land mainly in urban areas, with some inquiry into the landed wealth all over the country of a few specially targeted personalities, no campaign has been launched against the appropriation of land of the dukhi manush by rural power-holders in the countryside through many kinds of treachery, corruption and by the savagest of violent means.

The illegal occupation by these elements of khas land in rural areas earmarked for the rural landless is also well known. It is rather significant that campaigns against illegally erected urban structures have been launched to create space for constructing highways for the plying of cars of the elite, but no bulldozer is being aimed against illegal residential structures that have mushroomed on arable land in the countryside, despite the growing shortage of such land in relation to the country's population.

Reports also abound of illegal, often forceful, occupation of land of religious minorities, of "untouchable" communities in many parts of rural Bangladesh, and of indigenous communities in the hill tracts. The two years that the CTG has, according to its professed time-table, could well be invested to launch a campaign against such atrocities upon the rural dukhi manush.

But it seems that the moment is disappearing, and such a moment may not come soon again in the future. If nothing at all is done in this respect, will this not be worth recording in history as a big minus along with some of the plusses that the CTG has done and is trying to do with the strength of its emergency powers?

On the other hand, the nation is also being assured that genuine representatives of the people will be elected merely because of the electoral reforms that are being undertaken. The claim makes one utterly incredulous!

One may perhaps end family rules by the "minus-two" kind of formula, if such formula can be implemented -- but genuine representatives of the people cannot be elected by such formulae alone in a feudal/semi-feudal society.

How will the dukhi manush muster the courage to elect their true representatives -- won't those amongst them who will give leadership with such disobedience have to suffer the same kind of fate that their leaders have always suffered, or even worse, in today's much more violent culture?

The moment that had come in the country's history on January 11 to move toward freeing the dukhi manush of the country from feudal/semi-feudal clutches, and toward freeing our Royal Bengal Tiger to join the race for growth with equity is slipping away. Some proposals towards this had been tabled in the media, and had been sent to the policy makers as well, but their fate has been like crying in the wilderness of the Sunderban. No editorial in the media on this has come to my notice either -- it seems our patriotic media is also looking for guidance on such questions from our foreign friends whose uncalled-for dictates they are publishing with major headlines.

It is nevertheless important that the question of rural socio-economic reform be discussed widely in the country, if for no other reason than to build social and popular awareness on this. If the country's "shushil shamaj" or its media are not interested in this question, will some other quarter -- maybe some elements of the country's youth -- take up this issue for a continuing search for a positive direction for the society?

Otherwise, what is to be the future for them, except for those among them who may be especially fortunate by birth or circumstances? How can this nation snatch its independence from the World Bank, IMF and the ADB to become a "development tiger" and race toward growth with equity?

I dare say that this country will not attain social stability until the fruits of development are shared with the country's dukhi manush -- not as attempts at some development deliveries of government and NGO programs, but by making them equal partners in development entrepreneurship -- to directly benefit from the country's development effort.

This is true not only of Bangladesh, but of all countries. The advance of terrorism and religious fundamentalism worldwide has only one lasting answer, i.e. removal of the fundamental cause of such advance, which is the inability of human civilisation to share its fruits and its creative joy with the bulk of the human populace.

For this, in Bangladesh, the task of the hour is to initiate major reform in our rural economy and its society as in the countries of East Asia. Such reform has to return to the dukhi manush the resources and assets that have been taken away from them by cunning devices and by force.

Along with this, they need to be helped to mature as production entrepreneurs, not by micro-credit with stringent conditions that allows them only to go for quick-yielding activities like petty trade, livestock, rickshaw-pulling or van-driving, but by bringing to them relevant education and technical knowledge where necessary and ensuring them sound, low-cost healthcare to keep them fit and able as agents of production.

At the same time, they should have access to credit for their entrepreneurial activities, not from profit-seeking NGOs who are creating their respective colonies and developing patron-client relations with the dukhi manush to whom they are not accountable for their conduct, but from public credit-giving structures offering them easy and corruption-free credit. It does not make any sense as a development strategy to make credit available to the dukhi manush only at stiff terms or not at all, while the elite of the society can run away with cheap credit worth crores of takas, subject to endless rescheduling, so that they may in effect not have to be repaid at all, and so that they can merrily invest them in un-entrepreneurial activities including rent-seeking residential housing or in capital-flight operations. Some even invest a part of such stolen money in charitable or cultural "foundations" to build up their image and popularity in society.

Like the efforts of that great leader of Bengal, A.K. Fazlul Huq, a major target in the campaign against corruption should have been the usury-seeking money lenders who are directly taking advantage of the hapless plight of the dukhi manush and thereby throwing them into further misery.

The boundless corruption of Tareque Rahmans, (if proven) is certainly worth the severest axe of law and justice, but this nevertheless does not directly affect the lives of the dukhi manush like the money-lending business of rural mahajans and many of the NGOs.

At the same time, in order that at times of dire distress or need they do not have to permanently lose whatever assets they have as mortgage for loans, they need to be encouraged and assisted if necessary to form self-help type of savings-and-loan societies of their own, whose members will get loans from such societies at easy terms and receive collective assistance from their societies if necessary.

It is also important to spread many other types of group/co-operative based socio-economic activities among the dukhi manush to reduce their dependence upon the rural overlords, in particular to enable them to avoid dependence on middlemen for marketing their products so that they can keep the bulk of the fruits of their labour and enterprises -- the kind of activities that are already taking in some places, called "rakhi" businesses ("keep it ourselves" businesses).

They also need co-operative paddy banks as well as co-operative consumer stores of their own -- poverty alleviation can be achieved not only by raising incomes but also by reducing consumption expenses. There are many examples of such co-operative self-managed initiatives including self-help-based group savings-and-loan programmes of the dukhi manush themselves spread out in various parts of the country.

In recent years, such initiatives are spreading further through "gonogobeshona" (people's research) work in projects of RIB (Research Initiatives, Bangladesh) and The Hunger Project, working to promote gonogobeshona in collaboration with RIB. Any patriotic government should pick this up as one of its prime responsibilities, spread the experience of such initiatives nationwide, and inspire and assist dukhi manush in other areas to launch such initiatives themselves.

Munir Uz Zaman/ DrikNews

It does not look like the present CTG is moving toward any such reform, notwithstanding the great opportunity history has given it. Perhaps our foreign friends, including the World Bank, whose diplomats have been trespassing before and after January 11, disregarding all diplomatic decorum, will also not like such reforms for fear that this may not keep our cheap labour so cheap.

Even if the challenge some time back to the IMF by our CTG deserves to be praised, it appears that this government is giving first priority to the interests of the elite in the country with which the interest of the world masters also overlap. Obviously, apart from giving a fair election, the "revolution" of January 11 is interested mainly in giving some kind of bureaucratic "good governance," which, if it can be given, will make life of the "shushil shamaj" more convenient and will also be conducive to the expansion of national and foreign investment in the country.

Notwithstanding some daring moves against graft, the coming national election, if it is held peacefully and without problem, is expected to install in power the same old "masters" who have so far reigned over the people and have been parties in the unspeakable corruption, and even in the savage barbarism of their respective camps to fulfill their lust for power and wealth.

In other words, the rural class-base of the CTG, if not directly but at least in the default sense, remains the same old rural rogues (perhaps not directly, in view of its action to make the judiciary independent, which the rogues could not have wanted). Along with them, religious fundamentalists, if they are permitted to contest the elections, are also likely to get some seats by promising fulfillment of the unfulfilled dreams of the dukhi manush in the afterworld.

And we are getting ample evidence in the character of regrouping efforts of some of the political forces that just with some electoral reforms it is not possible to change the rogue character of those who have so far ravaged the dukhi manush of the country and its resources. Facing this kind of rogue conduct, any expectation that even politically-neutral quarters in the governance of the country (such as the bureaucracy and the judiciary) will not compromise with principles for the sheer safety of themselves and their families may also be a bit unrealistic.

Tanvir Ahmed/ Driknews

Notwithstanding such a sad state of affairs, if some pro-people political quarters include rural reforms of the kind outlined above in their election manifesto it might be of some value. No such party has been able to establish such relation with the dukhi manush as to be able to form the next government. But if at least a few seats could be won by them attempt might be made in the national parliament to raise the nation's awareness on the need for rural reform, provided of course that the culture of discourse in the parliament will improve.

Finally, without expecting too much, let me invite the able economists of the country who have remained imprisoned in the "feudal economics" that serves only the feudal masters, to search for ways of liberating our Royal Bengal Tiger to throw its gauntlet in the ring of the World Cup of Tiger Economics in which East Asia is reigning at the moment.

End Notes:
1. There have been innumerable studies on this subject, of which notable are Rehman Sobhan. Agrarian Reform and Social Transformation, Preconditions of Development. UPL. Dhaka. 1993, and Kelvin Watkins. Economic Growth and Equity, Lessons from East Asia.,Oxfam Publications. 1998.
2. Amartya Sen's article in the Economic Journal 1983: "Development: Which Way Now?"
3. Alastair Greig, David Hulme & Mark Turner (2007). Challenging Global Inequality. Development Theory and Practice in the 21st Century. Palgrave. Macmillan.
4. Ajitava Raychowdhury. Lessons from the Land Reform Movement in West Bengal, India. The World Bank. 2004. Dhaka. 2007.
5. A. Baez and Mahboob Hossain. Gramer Manush o Gramer Arthoniti. Writers' Foundation Bangladesh & Shwaraj Prokashona. Dhaka. 2007.
6. My writings on the subject in The Daily Star have been reproduced in the postscript of my autobiography Through Moments in History. Pathak Samabesh. Dhaka. Nov 2007.
7. RIB has a series of publications on such research, including presentation of such experiences in its quarterly bulletin, Bangladeshey Gonogobeshona.
8. A noteworthy example is the account of villagers in Harimondir para of Lakkhichap union of Nilfamari district freeing themselves from the ravage of monga by adopting lakkha and BRRI-33 rice cultivation (The Daily Star 28.10.07; and Md. Motiur Rahman. Daridryo Bimochaney Lakkha Chasher Bhumika o Prekkhit: Ekti Gonogobeshona. Research Initiatives Bangladesh. Sept 2007).

Prof. Md. Anisur Rahman was a Member, First Planning Commission.

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