Tuesday, February 8, 2011

On balanced national development

The Independent, February 5th; 2011
M. Serajul Islam

With February in our midst, the country is now focused on issues of history, language, independence and democracy. There will be excitement in the air and with it, pride at what we have achieved as a nation over the last four decades. Patriotism will be at the core of all the excitement and emotions.

There is no harm for a nation to be set in such a mode. But then like all things of life, there is a flip side of all these emotions, excitement and the rest that we seldom if at all care to look at. It is true that our freedom and independence have opened for us possibilities where the sky is the limit. But in the midst of our excitement and emotions for events and issues that are now mostly history, we fail to look at present and into the future. We fail to consider that the independence that gave the nation such hopes for a great future is not leading us to the heights that we should have reached long ago. There are some serious imbalances in our development efforts.

It was at the time of our independence that Dr. Henry Kissinger had said that Bangladesh would emerge as a “basket case”. That “basket case” today is a nation whose GDP is US$ 104 billion (2010 estimates) that should make the rest of the world take note of us as a country of considerable strength. More than 7 million Bangladeshis now live abroad and collectively they send home over US$ 10 billion annually as remittance to the country. Bangladesh was twice a member of the UN Security Council and has held or holding membership of leading international organizations. Bangladesh is a key nation in UN Peace Keeping operations. In Sierra Leone, Bangladeshi peacekeepers have done so well that in that country that Bangladesh has emerged as a nation held in the highest respect. Our RMG exporters now compete with giants like the China and India and manage to remain competitive in markets in USA and Europe.

Yet in the midst of all these good news and indicators, there are a lot of things that are amiss. A slight digression towards Dhaka University could help us understand what is amiss a bit better. In the 50s and the 60s, Dhaka University was a microcosm of what was happening in the larger canvas of the country. Today, a look at Dhaka University in a different way would also tell us what is wrong with the country. Recently, a friend who was an inter-wing scholar from Punjab to Dhaka University in the 1960s visited Bangladesh. He had gone to SM Hall where he was a resident student. He could not hold his tears at the plight of the Hall. When he entered the Hall Mosque, he was amazed to find mosquito nets, beddings, etc as it has been taken over, or a great part of it by the students! That is the reality in all Dhaka University dormitories.

Recently too, my wife was at the alumni event of a women dormitory of Dhaka University. She and her friends were shocked to see the inside of the rooms in this dormitory that were overcrowded and in run-down condition. The same is the case in most public institutions and buildings where age and lack of maintenance have made such places look dilapidated and not fit for use. If we look beyond Dhaka University and into the city and compare with what Dhaka was before we became independent, the case I am trying to make will be clear. It is accepted that Dhaka has grown many times since 1971 but the city has been allowed to degenerate where living in it is becoming a nightmare. Thus where independence should have made Dhaka University a better and cleaner institution; public buildings look better and Dhaka, the pride of the nation, things are going the wrong way in all these places.

If we look at the vitally important communications sector, we will see in what pathetic condition our railway system is. Most of the trains on the railway track would be sent to dump yard in another country. True, road links have been established between Dhaka and the rest of the country that was not there before independence and big bridges like the Jamuna Bangabandhu Bridge have been constructed. Yet, we still have a single lane track between Dhaka and Chittagong that is literally a death trap. When Japan built its roads infrastructure after the devastation of the Second World War, it was a poor country. Yet, those roads have served Japan over the last 6 decades because when they were built; they were built looking decades into the future. We connected Dhaka to the rest of the country but the roads were built looking into the past and not the future.

There are lots of examples in many key areas of our national life where we have moved in the wrong directions in our efforts to develop as a nation. In education, that is the backbone of any nation, we have divided the country into the rich, powerful and affluent and the poor and disadvantaged. In the name of giving education to all, we have weakened the institutions from where students from the less affluent section not only used to come into national life but in a lot of cases dominate. While a section of the society has become fabulously rich, the rest of the country has not kept pace with them, enhancing the rich-poor divide. It is mainly the US$ 11 billion that comes in remittance and goes to the less affluent section of the country that is keeping the rich-poor contrast from exploding.

The economic stability in Bangladesh comes from its exports where the RMG holds the centre stage and employs a large number of people; foreign remittance that helps the poor from getting poorer; and the agricultural sector. The first two sectors are fragile. The RMG driven export growth is literally perilously placed on the issue of wage where any further demand for wage enhancement would take away a major edge that Bangladesh enjoys in its steep competition with other RMG exporting countries. Manpower export is on the decline. Any major negative impact on either or both that is not very unlikely could bring down Bangladesh’s economy and with it, its politics crumbling down like a pack of cards.

Time is fast running out for the country and its leaders to correct the imbalances and dangers in its development process. The flip side of Bangladesh’s imbalanced development shows the possibility of gaining upper hand. When that happens, the excitement about patriotism, language and history would not help us much. Additionally, our politics is becoming increasingly confrontational that is another danger facing the nation. Thus while we get ready for another season of excitement, emotions and patriotic fervour , let us also spare ourselves a moment and consider the necessity of balanced development and the dangers if we do not.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt and a former Secretary to Government.

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